Weekend Listening: Garbage, self-titled
Album: Garbage by Garbage
Released: 15 August 1995 by Smart Studios
Recommended if you like: Post-grunge soaked feminism
Notable Tracks: “Queer,” “Only Happy if it Rains,” “Stupid Girl,” “Milk”
Lying on the carpet in front of the television one afternoon when it was too hot to move all that much, my older brother and I were watching the pretty terrible movie 9 Months. He was fiddling around with a baseball, I was half-heartedly reading a Babysitters Club book and scratching at a scab on my knee where I’d fallen out of a tree in the days before. Never, even now, have I been one to have a lot of celebrity crushes or fascinations, so Hugh Grant tottering around and Juliane Moore being cool as usual wasn’t really grabbing my attention, but it was on, it was there, and so was the air conditioner, so I stayed. Out of the lackluster film, though, this woman caught my attention, the blonde new girlfriend of Jeff Goldblum’s character. I put the book down, watching her, and by the time Goldblum’s character describes his rebound girl as having “skin like a ribbon of candy, breasts like sponge cake, calves like calzone” I was fully fascinated. I didn’t really have a clue why he was fucking talking about her like a buffet, nor was I old enough yet to know that’s problematic, but I was old enough to know that I was on board.
It’s probably not really a coincidence that I bought, then, as my first CD, Garbage’s self-titled debut album a little later that year after I watched the video for “Only Happy When It Rains” and just, like, wanted to live in Shirley Manson’s pocket.
Musically, this album is kind of all over the place. One of the more noisy pop punk songs on this album, “Only Happy” combines a forceful drumline and fuzzy guitar with Manson’s low, airy voice to create a single that helped propel this album into the acclaimed critical reception it earned. Of the singles released from this album, that mix seems to be key; the post-grunge pop songs on the album where we hear more expected variations and song progressions are those that ended up being the hits, even playing on the radio (I say that with a pretty low opinion of the radio with a shout out to my NPR and indie radio stations). Tracks like “Vow” and “Stupid Girl” rely on that mix, and it fucking works, with the guitar often standing in like a back-up singer to Manson’s smoky thin voice.
At other times on this album, though, we’re hearing shit from trip-hop on “As Heaven Is Wide” to straight, undeniable pop in “Fix Me Now.” That blend is saved from being schizophrenic because of Manson’s voice, which haunts even when growling feminist/depressive shit (gimme one second and I’ll explain that), and because of the band’s ability to create and sustain a mood in each song. Nowhere is this better done than in the surprisingly soft, gentle closing track “Milk.” Dreamy, off-focus, with Manson’s voice at the forefront, the track floats along, alone a beautiful lament of losing someone, but throw it up next to something like “Only Happy” and it sounds like maybe a different era of the band. Listening through this album again, it doesn’t feel particularly cohesive – I’m not getting a full narrative as I do on, like, Sufjan Stevens’s Carrie and Lowell – but inside each track I can live in the little world they make with those drum loops, samples, white noise guitar, and that voice.
Really, though, besides the sound of the album, what draws me back are both the lyrics and Manson herself. Manson is hypnotic as a front woman. Those smoky eyes, matte lipstick, disaffected expression, red hair sometimes messy, sometimes caught up in the unfortunate trappings of 90’s hairstyles we all loved at the time – it’s enough to draw anyone in, and a young, just-starting-to-realize-she’s-confused me was no exception. Watching that piercing stare coated in electric eyeshadow that matches her dress and heavy black eyeliner, I was attracted in the purest sense of the word, for the first time not wishing I was this woman, like I did when I idolized Kelly Kapowski and that chick from Son-in-Law, but wanting her, wanting to slip up to her, put my hands on her hips, lean in to that hair, and…I’m not sure what.
At twelve, in the wide open but narrow-minded woods of the Deep South, I didn’t have the language to say what I was feeling, and I sure as fuck didn’t know anyone else who had felt that way. It’s only in retrospect that I can pinpoint that feeling as a crush, that I was imagining myself in boots like that and lipstick like that beside her in that fucking rad glitter shower because I didn’t know yet it was okay to imagine kicking those boots off on that grungy floor and smearing that lipstick across her lips. My mother, who was pretty conscientious on what media she allowed, was wary of this album, but after I saved up my allowance and begged a little bit, she let it happen. Standing in the aisle of the FYE, I held that album, considering one more time the absolutely exorbitant $14 price tag, and almost put it back. My fingers were still on the plastic when I remembered those boots kicking up all that glitter and took the album up to the register.
Buying that album felt so fucking subversive. Like a teenaged boy hiding a Playboy inside his algebra book, I would listen to this album in headphones or after my parents had gone to bed so they wouldn’t hear it. Surely if they knew there was a song on here called “Queer,” QUEER, they would take this away, I was convinced. Lyrics that shock faintly now were only to be heard and thought about in the darkness of my preteen bedroom, not even for my friends, who were spared listening after their initial wtf kind of girl listens to this reaction.
What the fuck kind of girl listens to this album, at that time and at that age, is one who owes a bit of her journey into feminism to Shirley Manson. Throughout the album, probes into the darker areas of sexuality, depression, spirituality reign over those trip hop and post-grunge pop riffs. Fascinating as that eyeliner is, sexy as that voice is, I was enthralled and kind of scared about the lyrics themselves. It sounds so ridiculous now, but I didn’t know women were allowed to talk like that. Standing in the kitchen at seven years old, I told my father I was depressed. I knew that word because I researched in the elementary school library for books about being really sad, and I found this one about a bear whose mom or dad had to go to the hospital for being sad and the author called it that. When he laughed and said that was stupid, what did I have to be depressed about, I wasn’t able yet to point to any of the bruises he’d left on my legs a few days earlier.
Listening, then, to a woman brazenly talk about depression, about fucking a man and getting paid for it, about the emptiness of aching for someone and being unashamed, about calling out other women who parade around for men, was terrifying and inspiring. Listening to this album didn’t suddenly result in me dying my hair and wearing ripped tights I’d stolen from K-Mart, but it did begin this spiraling journey into the kind of feminist I am now, and the accessibility to this kind of sound, how Garbage was able to create the kind of music they did and get it out even to places that don’t need your fucking progressive bullshit ideas, thanks, is the real strength of this album.