20 years of Garbage and the unlikely stardom of Shirley Manson

It’s been 20 years since GARBAGE released their genre-bending debut album, an anniversary the band are marking by playing the record in full at a series of US and European shows. Two decades on from its release RICHARD S. HE reflects on the significance of Garbage and the unlikely stardom of Shirley Manson.

Garbage are one of the least timeless bands of the ’90s. Their self-titled 1995 debut album is so 90s it opens with a shameless My Bloody Valentine riff, and closes with a Portishead-like ballad. They may not even have invented their own formula (have you listened to Curve lately?) but great pop music was never about originality. More than any other band of their generation, Garbage mastered the art of pilfering from so many genres that they only ever sounded like themselves. Shoegaze, grunge, trip-hop, electronica – those scenes either peaked or burned out years ago. But two decades on, there’s a reason we’re still talking about Garbage.

“None of it works without Shirley Manson”

In 1994, Shirley Manson was 28, still living in her native Scotland, and fronting Angelfish, a band that was going approximately nowhere. MTV’s 120 Minutes only ever aired their “Suffocate Me“ video once – but Garbage’s Steve Marker just happened to be watching. The most unlikely part of Garbage’s story was that its existing members even found Manson in the first place. The thing is, any major-label band with Butch Vig’s involvement would have found some level of success. You can just imagine the CD sticker: “From the producer of Nevermind!” But none of it works without Shirley Manson. She instantly gave Garbage’s pop ambitions a punk rock credibility. She wasn’t exactly a reluctant popstar; she embraced all the glamour that came with fronting a famous rock band. But she snarled every hook like she was fighting against it. Like all the great ’90s alternative icons – Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love, Fiona Apple – you instantly understood her from the sound of her voice alone. Unlike them, Garbage were more theatrical than confessional. They had just as much in common with that other Manson.

By 1995, grunge had already become a punchline. Kurt Cobain was dead; legions of bands were already watering down post-grunge for a mass audience. But Garbage were unashamedly pop. Whether they were rolling their eyes at Gen-X doom and gloom on ‘Only Happy When It Rains’, or sneaking a song called ‘Queer’ onto MTV, you could never accuse them of selling out.

2015 is an even stranger time for rock music. Today’s indie rock sounds more like Verruca Salt than Garbage. Meanwhile, the few bands that get any pop radio airplay – artists with as little in common as Coldplay, Fall Out Boy, Mumford and Sons, Gotye – barely sound like live rock bands. Lorde’s our most prominent alternative popstar, and there isn’t a single guitar on Pure Heroine.

In a way, it all comes back to Garbage. From Depeche Mode to Nine Inch Nails to the Madchester scene, dance-rock was very much a thing by 1995. Garbage weren’t the first, however they took it to another level. Every song sounded like its own remix – but they were written that way from the ground up. Most bands record songs the way they’re played live, but Butch Vig, Steve Marker and Duke Erikson deconstructed the “rock band” entirely. There was no one guitarist, bassist or drummer. Garbage’s production had more in common with Public Enemy’s dense layers of samples than Vig’s work with Nirvana or the Smashing Pumpkins. Instead of expanding on their influences, Garbage compacted them into tight three-minute pop songs.

As influential as they are, it’s why no one really sounds like Garbage; because you can’t sound like Garbage without sounding exactly like them. One of Shirley Manson’s rare solo efforts was writing Sky Ferreira’s 2012 single “Red Lips“. It could pass for a cover.

Debut albums rarely come as fully formed as Garbage. It’s not the urgency of youth, but the confidence of four professionals who’d spent their entire lives preparing for it. It’s easy to criticise their later albums for merely refining that original formula. But while ’90s bands no-one actually likes are reforming left and right, Garbage never officially broke up. Their forthcoming 2016 album might well be more of the same, but they’ve never given us any reason to be cynical. Garbage’s debut isn’t timeless – it’s entirely of its time. For once, that’s a good thing.

Richard S. He is an award-winning pop culture writer at Junkee and The Essential. People still don’t take him seriously. Tweet your grievances to @Richaod.