“Sex is not the enemy” — Shirley McClain


Garbage, Garbage
Garbage, Version 2.0
Garbage, Beautiful Garbage
Garbage, Bleed Like Me
Garbage, Not Your Kind of People

[This column is about lyrics as text, not a history of music column.  We are listening through close readings for the microcosm of the album and the macrocosm of Youth Culture.]

The band Garbage is the rare group that unerringly creates albums with textual unity.  Headed by Shirley Manson, but backed by drummer and groundbreaking producer Butch Vig— responsible for the enormous sound of Nirvana and the Foo Fighters— Garbage not only creates unified albums every time, but has a meta-arc to their career when considering all the albums together.

The eponymous first album creates the structure and vision— explicated below; Version 2.0 continues this, with even broader pop-rock results, and Beautiful Garbage— though decidedly less successful— follows the same formula.  However, when their record label Almo Sounds was overtaken by Universal Music Group, Garbage was assigned to the Geffen label.  David Geffen is infamous as one of the biggest jerks in the music industry, suing Neil Young in the mid-eighties for not sounding enough like himself.

So Mansion and Vig gave him the finger.

2004 Youth Culture was ready for Garbage, again, primed to absorb more hits like Only Happy When it Rains, Stupid Girl, When I Grow Up, and Cherry Lips.  But the forth album abandoned their pop-electronica-rock sound for a grungier drum-kit rock based sound.  The band sued Geffen, and ditched their contract.

The fifth album, released on Vig’s own record label, returns to their successful formula.  Vig left his drum kit for software beats, and Manson suited her lyrics to a younger audience— without softening them one iota.  And they wrote Blood for Poppies, wrote the perfect pop song once more.

The music video for Blood like Poppies is in black in white.  It features nothing but the band wandering a beach, Manson in a long, lacy, black dress.  Now in the nineties, this would have been incredibly cool; but by refusing to play the hot-chick role of some of her other videos, Manson is not merely stuck in ‘90s mode.  In the internet world, where the youth mostly listen to music on youtube, a sexy video is far more important than even good songwriting— as Manson knows well, evidenced by her hot-chick roll in 1996’s When I Grow Up video.  Manson situates the album in the space of the outcast youths, the youths that are not popular or hot, who might spend his or her day on the beach in all black

The structure of the first, second, third and fifth album features a jaunty, beat-driven opening number: Supervixon; Temptation Waits; Shut Your Mouth; and Automatic Systematic Habit.  These are followed in the second and third slots by the super-hits: Queer and Only Happy When it Rains on the first album; I Think I’m Paranoid and When I Grow Up on Version 2.0; Can’t Cry these Tears on Beautiful Garbage; and Big Bright World and Blood for Poppies on the new release.  A further super-hit is positioned further down in the album: Stupid Girl; the Trick is to Keep Breathing; Cherry Lips; and I Hate Love.  All three of these pop albums end with a final, slower track: Milk; You Look so Fine; So Like a Rose; and Show Me.  This is Vig’s strategy.  The construction is like a baseball lineup, with tracks that appeal to both rockers and dancers.

And the lyrical messages are there, as well.  The constant motif on the first four albums encourages sexual activity in Youth Culture, such as when Manson sings, “sex is not the enemy,” and “if we sleep together, would you like me better.”   This message, however, changes on Not Your Kind of People, replaced by a message for the outsider youth.  The title track encourages youths to reject the cliques of popular culture, encourages the “Beloved Freak” to act like him or herself.