Leader of the Secretarial Pool


Sometime in the mid ’90s, Details ran a feature on Shirley Manson, big pictures plus some frothy print, Shirley’s supposed “Ten Commandments of Love.” In it, she commanded her fans not to wear briefs (or was it boxers?) and said she once walked out of a one-night stand because she pulled down the guy’s pants and saw the wrong underwear. The tone was the usual cheeky Details thing (possibly lifted from a file marked “Interviews”) but—the pictures! She looked like a Nabokovian fantasy, with her child’s body and exquisite hyper-sexual face, all smudged, occluded eyes and a beautiful open wound of a mouth. Except there was something more intense about her; in one shot she nearly cowered against one end of the frame, looking up at an apparently looming figure just outside it with the flirty love-eyes Louise Brooks gives Jack the Ripper in Pandoras Box, like she was asking to be erased: Beauty and Murder Lite. The intensity put together with the silliness and the sweet crudeness (she talked about cunnilingus and honoring your mom and dad) added up to a wonderful character who was both fantastic and totally real. (I say “character” because I’m not sure what any of it had to do with the actual woman.) With her finger-paint makeup and matter-of-fact trash talk, half sugar, half dirt, she somehow came off as an ordinary girl—like this dramatic face, this music, this bright-colored world could be about anybody. At the time, I heard somebody put Shirley down by saying, “Oh, she’s just like a secretary,” and I thought, if that’s true then she really is great. Pop music could use some secretaries right about now.

To explain: A few years ago I saw Patti Smith do an “extra” show, her second of the night. She was very late coming on, and the venue filled the time by running ancient films of ’60s girl groups like the Shirelles, the Shangri-Las, and the Ronettes. This was a mistake. Because the more you looked at those old groups, the more it seemed that for all the bright packaging of the era (the identical dresses and ‘dos, the makeup, the nails, the stagy smiles, the uniform dance moves), the Shangri-Las had something more raw and more female than who we’d come to see (and I’m speaking as someone who loves Patti Smith). They had it in their naive mix of feeling and artifice. If somebody wants to be raw now (and I’m not talking about Smith here), they put their foot up on the amplifier and start bellowing—the Shangri-Las made the feeling strong by holding it in check with conventions of dress and style, generic containers for pure female electricity. They were glittering performers, but they were ordinary too, and they had a physically based, slightly skanky glory that can’t be faked. Shirley Manson doesn’t quite have this because nobody does now. But she comes closer than any other star I can think of, plus she also has something else—an artful intelligence and wit.

The first Garbage album made this clear times a thousand. The songs are on one hand the seemingly simple stuff of sex and love gone bad, personal dramas any high school girl could imagine starring in. At the same time, they are subtle, playful, and full of contradictory energy. The songs understand that sex and love are never simple, in high school or any place else. “Queer,” with its taunting, nyah-nyah musical phrasing, plus Manson’s bratty, sensual drawl, could be a cruel little girl tormenting the class loser, but the cruelty is undercut by the at first indifferent, then increasingly insistent, “You can touch me”—the voice of a tormentor who needs the desire of the tormented, maybe desperately. Then there’s “Only Happy When It Rains,” an ultra-cute mix of comedy and misery that appeared at a moment in time when depression became a personal style. There’s the sparkling artifice—the little refrains, like bits of sitcom theme music popping up everywhere to underscore the song’s adorable pain. There’s the way Manson hits certain words (“You’ll wanna hear about my new obsession”) that subtly torques her meaning, giving it movement and play. The song is given warmth too by a certain tenderness toward misery that shows up in the chorus of loving male voices counterpointing Manson’s plaintive refrain at the end with “Pour your misery down,” a ’90s version of the hornier “Let your love come down” of yore. The song is a spangled pleasure about a woman who can only experience herself in pain, and the contradiction gives the thing its perverse, charismatic charge.

The best songs on the record have this oppositional charge, made sharper and sometimes nastier by the expert control—the artifice—of the surface. The control aspect was probably what made Garbage seem cold to many people, but this music is not hot or cold; it’s an unpredictable mix of temperatures. “As Heaven Is Wide” juxtaposes slick, dark techno and rageful lyrics with impish beeps and bounciness; I can’t hear the last few phrases without picturing a cartoon witch flying through the sky on a broom, riding it with the goofy humpty-hump motion of the sound. The new album, Beautiful Garbage, for the most part, doesn’t work this way. When the lyrics are sad, so is the music (“Cup of Coffee”). Ditto when the lyrics are angry (“Shut Your Mouth”) or insouciant (“Androgyny”) or hurt (“Silence Is Golden”). Some critics have called the album more human than their previous work, i.e., less cold, which I take to mean more emotionally congruent, less tarted up, easier to relate to. That’s true—there’s not as much mixing of tones on this album, not as much oppositional energy. Although it deliberately evokes the sound of the old girl groups, it doesn’t have as much of their playful spirit.

The exception is “Cherry Lips,” and to know just how oppositional it is, it helps to know that Ms. Manson wrote it for and about J.T. LeRoy, author of Sarah and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things. Both of LeRoy’s books are, among other things, about a boy abused by his hooker mom, who becomes a cross-dressing prostitute himself to both efface her and gain her love. The song, sung in a near falsetto, describes the mother as the “sweetest thing you had,” while the music struts like a baby duck wagging its butt. Then it joyfully explodes, like the Shangri-Las covering the Runaways’ “Cherry Bomb,” in a fever of love for the “delicate boy” in his “hot pants and high heels,” making “rainbows appear” with heavenly harps and bells. (Manson’s sense of nuance is on full force here; the way she hits the p in “pants” is almost worth the price of the CD itself.) It’s the lightest, funnest, most ethereal way to describe the deepest, heaviest horror there is, and it has that wildly dynamic mix of artifice and rawness that gives it a slightly freakish energy even if you don’t know what it’s about. You could say it’s false and obscene to write such a song about child abuse, except that, like “Only Happy When It Rains,” there’s that dead-on accuracy in the way it mimics the masks and poses, the little ducky struts that spring from such horror—and which enable people to survive it. In that sense, it’s both more sinister and more true than the “human” wailing of “Silence Is Golden,” which appears to be, with its agonized vocals, a more direct treatment of abuse (“I have been broken/something was stolen.”) Normally, more direct would be better, but the perverse beauty of Garbage is strongest when it’s twisted.

Good for Garbage, though, for trying something new. The ’60s girl groups were great, but they were formula, and Manson’s not. Instead of staying with the perfect fit, she seems to be trying on different styles—looking for one that best suits the person she’s become since the mid ’90s.