It’s hardly a new thing to suggest that the music industry trades on sex. Rock & roll and sexuality have been inextricably mixed since the birth of the genre. And today’s scene is so full of images of hot, young bodies, especially female ones (and just try to name one, anyone, from the current crop of female singers who isn’t staggeringly attractive), that after a while, one is apt to get a little jaded. Britney’s showing her navel again? Ho hum. Shakira’s wearing leather hot pants? Oh well.
Still, in an industry where sex is everywhere, no one radiates sexuality like Shirley Manson. Her voice is positively dripping with it (and is there anything sexier than a Scottish accent?), and, from previous times I’ve seen Garbage live, she has the stage presence to back it up. And of course, the mastermind behind Garbage, über-producer Butch Vig, has had the business sense to exploit it for everything it’s worth.
Maybe that sounds a little too calculating, though. While Garbage started out as three studio geeks looking for a (female) singer, and rumor is that the band’s early interactions basically consisted of the three of them telling Shirley (headhunted from the underrated band Angelfish) what to do, surely the band has gotten more democratic since then? I really don’t know, but there’s no disputing that Manson gets 99% of the attention focused on the band. And Vig obviously knows enough about the way the market works to have figured out that the more attention Shirley gets, the better the band does.
The more I learn about rock music, the more it becomes apparent that the singer always gets all the attention, while the rest of the band gets the shaft. And the more I see this, the more it annoys me. (For instance, it’s driven countless bands that started out as friends to break up.) Still, if Garbage actively tries to keep the spotlight on Shirley Manson, I’m willing to forgive them, because they honestly rock.
The appeal of Garbage, I think, is that they have all the trappings of driving, industrial rock (as their arrangements get more and more involved with each album), but at their heart, they’re an aggressively power-pop band. So while their songs are catchy a hell, they also generate enough noise to make themselves (and their fans) respectable in heavier circles. The closest analogy I can think of is early Nine Inch Nails, whose songs, for all their grinding, pounding backgrounds, are fundamentally and inescapable pop songs. But while I think Trent Reznor really does spend his days lying on the floor of his apartment, masturbating gloomily, Garbage at most uses darkness as an aesthetic touch (the closest they ever get to depression is “I’m Only Happy When it Rains”). And while some people might think of this as “fake,” I can think of few bands that are more fun to listen to.
And when they came out on stage at the Electric Factory in Philly the other night, their emphasis was clearly on rocking. Starting with “Push It” and going through to “Only Happy when It Rains,” the set was aggressively loud, if stripped down. The latter comes, I think, from the challenge of reproducing elaborate, layered arrangements live, with just guitars and drums. So instead of going the “synthesizer” route (which can make the performance sound canned), they opted to lose some of the accompaniment and play a more traditional rock show. Whenever bands do this, I find I’m always surprised to find out how much of their albums’ sound, which I had thought was produced by electronic gadgets, was really just inventive use of guitars. This show was no exception.
It is true that some parts of the albums were lost in the live set. I particularly missed the way Shirley Manson’s voice can go from full-on singing to an almost feral whisper, and the sense of intimacy that sound can create. However, there was no way this effect was going to work in a large venue like the Electric Factory, so the band made up for the loss be being very loud. And thank God; I mean, who cares about a little hearing loss? I’m sure they’ll have ways to fix that by the time I’m in my 40s.
In case you can’t tell, the show rocked,. The music was almost enough to be overwhelming, and rising above it was Manson’s voice, almost metallic with the amplification, and positively radiating sexuality. Unfortunately, this time her stage antics tended to distract from the overall effect. The stage was mostly open, giving her room to run around, throw punches and kicks at the air, and pull one knee up to her chest, giving the impression, it seemed to me, of doing a Tae-Bo workout. Also, with her spiky blonde ‘do (and why do people ever dye their hair away from red?) and mesh top, she looked a little like, well, Billy Idol.
That said, Garbage still puts on one hell of a show. They split the show about evenly between their three albums. I must say that when I first heard the new album, Beautifulgarbage, I didn’t like it at all and put it on the shelf. But when I dug it out a few days before the show, I found that I liked almost every song. So while I’m still not sure where the new album ranks in comparison to the other two, the new songs sounded great live. I was a little worried they were going to ignore the first album (especially after four of the first five songs were from Version 2.0), the last four songs were all from the first album, “for the die-hards who have been here since the beginning.”
I suppose one could fault the band for revisiting the same territory on each album. (The old catch-22: if your songs sound too much alike, they complain that they’re all the same. If they don’t sound alike, you’re accused of not having “a distinctive sound.”) However, since their “sound” does work so well, I’d tend to advise them not to mess with it.
Returning to the issue of sexuality, though, I’m still not sure what to think. If sex is so much a part of Shirley Manson’s and Garbage’s delivery, and I like the band so much, is that the same as the millions of people who buy posters of Britney or Christina? Does this really happen more with female singers, or am I just naïve in thinking that male singers don’t exploit their sexuality too? Is there anything to the argument of sex as empowerment? These questions make me wish I could go back to the days where I didn’t think of anything more complicated than “wow, she’ pretty. I like her voice,” before I learned about power dynamics and eating disorders. Still, when it comes to selling oneself, as I think all singers and bands have to do, I at least know that Shirley Manson is the genuine article, and in one hell of a band. And I think there’s still a lot of value in that.