On Tuesday night, I stepped into a time machine and traveled back 20 years along with 1,400 of my closest friends and an iconic band led by a sultry singer with pink hair.
Twenty years ago, I was 10 years old, bumbling through that awkward space of not-quite-pre-teen but already boy crazy and very much feeling like the other. In sixth grade, the division begins. Concepts like popularity take shape. Boys start to have opinions about when you should start shaving your legs (true story). The things you love are suddenly categorized into “cool” and “not cool at all.” If you are not among the pretty girls who are up on the latest trends, you start to feel a little…queer.
For us strange girls who didn’t quite fit in, a band like Garbage, fronted by the incomparable Shirley Manson, was a godsend.
Garbage sounded different than anything else on the radio at the time (and intentionally so). Duke Erikson, Steve Marker, and Butch Vig blended trip hop beats with electronica and classic pop (and countless other styles and influences) to create a truly funky backdrop for Shirley Manson’s grungy, moody, resonant vocals. Of course, the combination worked, catapulting singles like “Stupid Girl” and “I’m Only Happy When It Rains” into heavy pop culture rotation.
And Shirley Manson was the complete opposite of popular girl Cher from the cult teen movie Clueless, whom everyone was trying to emulate at the time. Manson was a much-needed counter balance, someone who could advocate for girls who didn’t relate to bubble gum and brands. Quite frankly, she was the bad ass female figure we needed in the media at the time to understand that everyone didn’t need to look like the epitome of popularity.
What I remember most from the early days of listening to Garbage as a kid are the lyrics. Shirley Manson seemed to be saying a lot of the things I was thinking (You pretend you’re high/You pretend you’re bored/You pretend you’re anything/Just to be adored), and I was a little shocked and awed that someone would say those things out loud. Oh, the sweet, innocent thought patterns of a 10-year-old.
And then, of course, Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet came out in 1996, along with a wicked soundtrack that includes the infamous Garbage track “#1 Crush.” Between Leonardo DiCaprio’s adorable mug and that song, so many of my girl friends and I started pining for our first boyfriends and, dare I say it, deep kisses, sweaty bodies, and “die for you” kind of love. I’m pretty sure that moment in time represented a sexual awakening for many of us, which had been started, of course, by David Bowie in Labyrinth years earlier, whether or not we were fully aware of it.
But back to Garbage. That first self-titled album was everywhere, peeking out of backpacks and gifted at birthday parties. You were likely to see pink spinning inside any “queer” guy or girl’s Discman. Kids experimenting with alternative style would offer flashes of Manson’s bad girl flare—dark eyeliner here, short skirts there. And, of course, there were the pink feathers.
And thank God for all of that. Because for me, this band has always represented the other, the outsider, the girl or guy on the fringes—without apology. And that’s pretty fucking special.
Garbage’s tour, which I attended on Tuesday night, is called 20 Years of Queer, and I honestly can’t think of a better name or representation of the experience. San Diego was Garbage’s first tour stop, and they played Humphrey’s by the Bay, a beautiful open-air venue on Shelter Island.
Before the concert began, my boyfriend and I looked around the audience and felt like we were surrounded by “our people,” individuals who clearly remember 1995 and 1996 and who undoubtedly bought this album on CD—or hell, maybe cassette?—and played it ad naseum.
A white cloth hung in front of the stage and before the music began, pop culture images and behind-the-scenes footage of Garbage from the mid-90s were projected on it. A clip of Princess Diana giving an interview. Shirley Manson putting on makeup in a dressing room God knows where. Courtroom footage from the O.J. Simpson trial. The band backstage, flipping off what was probably a gigantic hand-held video camera. Then “Supervixen” began and we watched Garbage traipse about the stage behind the scrim, illuminated by pink light, their shadows teasing us with their almost-presence.
When the white cloth fell, we all screamed, and we were officially back in 1995, reliving a slice of our past with a band who helped us shape it.
It’s been 20 years, but Garbage certainly doesn’t play like it. Manson continues to be a hell of a performer, circling the stage with seemingly pissed off intention, making jokes between songs in her thick, Scottish brogue, belting out the lyrics that need to be belted, working a pink boa, and let’s not forget about the rad pink hair. And it wasn’t just Manson living the rock star life onstage. Her bandmates played with zeal and finesse and such a beautiful level of musicianship. I felt like I was listening to the original record, the music was so precise and amazing.
We all sang along as Garbage performed their entire self-titled album, punctuated with rarities and B-sides like “Driving Lesson,” “Girl Don’t Come,” and “#1 Crush.”
And personally, during the concert, I remembered why I’m so happy to label myself as a girl who’s a lot left of center, a girl on the edge, a girl who relates to Garbage’s music and Shirley Manson’s realness.
Garbage lovers, this concert is more than a concert. It’s a celebration of self-recognition. If you’re like me—regardless of where you were 20 years ago, how old you were, how you were navigating your life in that moment—Garbage helped you realize that you were different—and that that was more than okay.
And wouldn’t you know it, it still is.