“The Queerest of the Queer”: Listening to Garbage in the Nineties
I listened to the lead singer, Shirley Manson, play what I understood as masculine and feminine in the same hand.
That attitude—misogyny masquerading as criticism—was shared by the men I worked with, the ones I had looked to for guidance in regards to my own gender. I remember sitting in the grocery store’s break room, upstairs above the garbage compactor, when “Queer” first came on the radio. The guy who was training me scoffed. “That song is such chick bullshit,” he said, before telling me to finish eating the cheese bun that was my entire lunch—he had to show me how to unclog the garbage compactor when it jammed. “Queer” was chick shit, but shoving garbage around with our bare hands was man stuff. Gender roles never made sense. I just rolled with the punches as they landed.
I first brough “Queer” home on compact disc as part of a series of compilations, released by MuchMusic in Canada, called Big Shiny Tunes. I adored the song but would listen to it in secret, making sure to skip past it when I played it at home and anyone was in earshot.
I was worried about the way I wasn’t a man the way my coworkers at the grocery store were. I understood myself to be different from what the world expected of me, but I didn’t have the proper words to formalize my relationship to myself. Words like queer held a weight I wasn’t sure I could carry without the necessary support, despite how good they felt when I tried them on for myself.
Queer was a loaded word, used in the hallways of my school as a bludegon more than a stepping stool. It was a versatile word, usable by every subsect of high school kid to reduce you to whatever they saw as the lowest common denominator. From the burnouts in the smoke pit to the guys in tear-away Adidas track pants that played intramural volleyball, “queer” was what everyone liked to call awkward loner kids. When I heard Shirley Manson sing “Queer” in her trademark slow, deliberately sexy manner, I wasn’t sure what to believe. When queer was used on me I felt trapped and haunted by it, but in her voice it felt like a field of open possibility.
Critics asked about the nature of the song “Queer” in an almost accusatory manner. Why would you call a song “Queer”? In subsequent interviews, Manson would clarify that when she sang the line “the queerest of the queer,” she was using the word to mean something else—the idea that to be queer is to exist off the main road. Not queer as in gay, but queer as in fuck you. Looking back now, with an understanding of how resistant the ‘90s cultural landscape was to embracing queerness, Manson’s response feels like the safe way through. I don’t deny that Manson meant the word, as she put it “how many nan[s] meant it”, but it was also the acceptable response to that question at the time given the staggering lack of queer acceptance in pop culture.
Critics asked about the nature of the song “Queer” in an almost accusatory manner.
In mainstream pop and rock circles, it was almost unheard of to flirt with LGBT themes. When Garbage’s self-titled record hit radio waves, Ellen hadn’t even posed on the cover of Time magazine yet. We weren’t dealing with queer themes publicly so much as scrambling behind the scenes. When I heard “Queer,” it spoke to a part of me I had yet to fully discover. I waited for someone, anyone, to open the floor to conversation and ask, instead of accuse, about what the deeper meaning of it all was.
I had to wait until the new millennium.
Garbage’s follow-up record, Version 2.0, was released in 1998. It was a stronger record than their self-titled, but it asked fewer questions. Manson commands the room with barely a whisper on every line she sings, bouncing confidently between boisterous and playful. I listened to her play what I understood as masculine and feminine in the same hand. On “Push It,” her voice enraptures you with its seductive playfulness, drawing you in and reassuring you as she sings “don’t worry baby,” until the chorus hits and her voices drops a few octaves as she growls “push it, make the beats go harder.” I wanted to know where she found that kind of strength.
In follow-up single “Cherry Lips (Go Baby Go!)” Manson sings of an otherworldly vixen driving men out of their minds with lust, before the line “because you looked just like a girl” lets you in on the secret. The track is unique in that it’s implicitly about a trans woman. As Manson writes in the Garbage autobiography This Is The Noise That Keeps Me Awake, “I wanted to write an ode to transgender spirit, inspired by my interactions with this peculiar but emotionally generous creature I knew online as JT.” The JT in question is JT LeRoy, literary pseudonym for author Laura Albert, who had crafted the character of JT to say things she claimed she could not herself write.
That same year, I clumsily tried to tell my first serious girlfriend that I thought I was supposed to be a woman. Beautiful Garbage had been one of the CDs we listened to in our little one-bedroom apartment in Red Deer, Alberta as we prepared to go out to any number of cowboy bars where the word queer once again became a weapon. I thought the themes of the record might have seeped into our relationship. She told me it wasn’t fair to pretend to be gay to get someone to break up with you.
In 2016, Manson said she identified with the idea of being nonbinary, which felt like a natural fit for someone who had long moved fluidly through all genders. Going as far back as 1995’s “Queer” and culminating in songs like 2001’s “Androgyny,” Manson and Garbage were trying to push us off the main road.
Garbage, and Shirley Manson, offered me a glimpse into a world where the form I was born with didn’t have to be molded by the environment I had fallen into; that being different and outside was strong, sultry and sexy and resilient. “The queerest of the queer,” Manson sings, not as an insult, not wielding the words as a club, but offering them as a badge of honor.