Butch Vig was one of rock’s most in-demand producers having worked on albums like Nirvana’s megahit, Nevermind. By the mid-’90s, Vig was burned out from an exhausting schedule. Working with fellow musicians and producers Steve Marker and Duke Erikson, the trio begin remixing rock songs before hitting on the idea of forming a band to try making similar material of their own. After Vig tried his hand at recording vocals, the group realised they wanted a female vocalist to bring a new sensibility. They stumbled upon Scottish singer Shirley Manson in a video for her band Angelfish and reached out to her. There followed a series of meetings and auditions before Manson was brought into the fold.
At those auditions, rough sketches of Garbage tracks were in the mix, with Manson telling Billboard magazine in 1995, “There were only scratchy lyrics to songs like ‘Queer’ and had to ad-lib”.
The song acquired a new ambiguity with Manson’s lyrics, but she told Rolling Stone in 2015 that Vig had been inspired by a Peter Dexter novel he was reading. “It had something to do with a father taking his son to a prostitute,” she said, noting that she immediately saw the song’s appeal to outsiders. “I latched onto ‘Queer’ as an anthem for the LGBT community. That wasn’t Butch’s intention but that’s what it meant to me: It’s always been an anthem.”
Shirley Manson soon established herself as a beguiling and rebellious front woman. While the male members of the band had wanted a singer with a vocal style in the gritty mould of Patti Smith and Chrissy Hynde, Manson had a personality and outlook that was all her own.
It was on perfect display in the well-received music video which played cleverly off of both Manson’s appeal as a frontwoman and by subverting expectations of what women can do in music videos. The black-and-white clip was helmed by Stephane Sednaoui, the French director whose work with Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bjork and Massive Attack would make him one of the most in-demand directors of the era. In it, Manson flirts with and seduces a young man on the streets of LA, bringing him to a house where the remaining members of the band help her tie him up and shave his head.
Filmed in a first-person perspective with Manson alternating between coquettish and sinister, the clip is a challenging and creative visual that would set up who the band were brilliantly. It ends with the same male protagonist dressed in a skirt and a midriff-baring jumper, joyfully bouncing around a suburban street as the video changes into colour. It reads like a meditation on queerness itself, of shunning one kind of mode of being for something more expressive and transgressive.
“He really defined for us who we were visually,” Manson said of the video in an interview for a documentary on Sednaoui’s work, adding, “I’m really proud of ‘Queer’, think it’s one of our best videos”.
With a slick video of a song with an earworm hook and ambiguous lyrics in high rotation, ‘Queer’, from Garbage’s selftitled debut album, would help to establish the band. The album would go on to be a massive success, selling four million copies worldwide.
In 2015, Garbage undertook the 20 Years Queer tour to celebrate the album’s success, and Queer has remained a song the band remain keen to be attached to.
“Back then, being gay, being a lesbian, being bi, being trans, that was still considered by the mainstream, quite shocking,” Manson noted to Rolling Stone in 2015, adding: “It was still an issue and it was something always felt was so wrong and that it was a civil rights issue.”
Manson told Stereogum in 2015: “I’m so grateful that we have songs like that in our arsenal because they don’t sound overly dramatic; they don’t sound like we’re trying to jump on some kind of bandwagon or anything. They just have a certain weight for me.”
And in a 2017 piece for Billboard, Manson thanked the LGBT+ community that had supported her and the band: “Thank you for everything you have taught me about the human condition. For teaching me that we are all indeed very different yet so very much alike”.
The band continue to release well-received new material including a new album due later this year. Shirley Manson remains outspoken and forthcoming in interviews, refreshingly frank about her experiences with sexual health and mental health while at the same time rallying against ageism, sexism and other prejudices. With this iconic rock act returning to our shores in summer for a gig in Dublin’s Iveagh Gardens on July 18, it’s never been a better time to rediscover an anthem like ‘Queer’.