Mid-20s Malaise

Struggling against the inevitable since 1986!


Shirley Manson is walking towards me.

Shirley Manson is walking towards me. My brain can barely process this fact. This woman, the striking singer in alt-rock outfit Garbage, adorned my school books, my bedroom walls, my fridge doors since I was 12 years old. I packed all my posters up when I finished university, but Manson and her bandmates – Duke Erikson, Steve Marker, and super-producer Butch Vig, the man behind Nevermind – still have a special place in my heart and record collection.

So when Manson extends her hand and says “Hi, I’m Shirley”, I have to take a deep breath to prevent myself screaming “I KNOW, I LOVE YOU” at her.

After nearly 20 years in a consistently successful group, she could well be a bit of a diva. However, in interviews, she always seems thrilled and privileged to be in her position. After a seven year hiatus, the band released their fifth album, Not Your Kind of People, last year, and the band’s reasonable fears that their audience had forgotten them proved unfounded. In person, Manson is a delight. Sure, it’s her job to be personable in this pre-show meet-and-greet, but she goes beyond being polite and perfunctory. She tells us about the tour (this was their last night in Australia), the band’s upcoming plans, and so on. I wish I’d mentally prepared for it a little more like an interview – now I’m thinking, Guh, I’d love to know what her favourite Garbage b-side is – but I hadn’t wanted to make her feel like she was being grilled by a journalist. (We were ostensibly there as professional guests of the venue – this wasn’t a fan meet-and-greet.)

After five or so minutes of chatting, she signed our records and posed for a few cheeky photos (“You can ask me for more than a photo, baby” she joked, AND I DIED).

With the Queen of the Fucking Universe.

With the Queen of the Fucking Universe.

Not that it matters so much, but she’s also beautiful in person: taller than I expected (even accounting for her heels), great skin, a warm smile. She joked that a lady over 40 always wants the flash on, but she looks much younger than her 46 years. She did the rounds and we went to meet the boys. Duke was much chattier than he usually is, Butch was a mild-mannered but enthusiastic conversationalist, and Steve was very sweet but very shy – he was slowly moving away from us through the entire conversation until he was almost against the wall. Butch was looking for a Sharpie to sign our records with, and I mentioned that Shirley had walked off with mine. She heard from across the room and yelled “HEY!”, stuck her tongue out and pegged it at me, giving a big belly laugh as I flinched. Horsing around with Shirley Manson? How is this even happening?

Conventional wisdom says you should never meet your idols – one way or another, they’ll disappoint you. I’m thrilled I met mine – they couldn’t have been more pleasant. This was actually my third of four encounters with the band over the course of their tour, but it was certainly the most memorable. (An aside on the tour: the band nailed it. Shirley’s energy is incredible and her voice sounds better than ever.) I thought it would be hard to top the previous Wednesday’s experience: it was my birthday, and Garbage were playing in Melbourne, so of course I took myself down there as a birthday treat. By sheer chance, my friend Aaron was sitting next to Butch on the flight from Sydney to Melbourne, and Butch invited him (and, by extension, me) to the band’s soundcheck before the show. We waited outside the venue in the rain before being ushered inside where – holy shit – Garbage were standing on stage. Shirley chatted to us before playing a short set, even taking a few requests: she laughed when I requested Fix Me Now, a track that hasn’t been played live in over a decade, and jokingly told my friend Daniel to fuck off when he requested b-side Deadwood, but when Aaron requested Cup of Coffee, she said “Ooh yeah, I’d forgotten about that one”. They played the song for us in soundcheck, and again in their Melbourne and Sydney shows. After this incredible, intimate performance by my favourite band, they came down to say hello.

When it was my turn for a photo, I was too dumbstruck to speak, but forced my mouth to move. After apologising for gushing, I told them how much I loved their music, that I’d first heard them on my twelfth birthday and, what with that day being my twenty-seventh birthday, how special it was to meet them. (Yes, I was aware when saying all this that I had become a teenage girl.) Lo and fucking behold, Garbage then sang Happy Birthday to me.

I’ve got to say, I don’t envy the life of a touring rock star. You’ve always got to be prepared: Aaron ran into the band at Sydney airport, while I ran into Butch in Melbourne. Butch was super pleasant when I interrupted his coffee, and Shirley looked incredibly in her picture with Aaron, despite the early morning flight. But it shows, they’ve always got to be ready to run into an enthusiastic fan. The next week, when the band arrived at the after-party, they were swamped. Shirley spent half an hour posing for photos, and was pleasant and smiling the whole time. I was actually the second-last person to have a photo with her (couldn’t resist one more), and she still had the energy to exchange a few words and a smile. However, the entire time, she’d been slowly gravitating towards a roped-off area reserved for the band, and she never reached it. I guess she just decided to go up to bed and order room service before the 33 hour flight back to the States the next day. (They were flying home via Seoul – now that they’re not on a major label, it seems they’re more price-conscious.)

Also of note at the after party: they had deep-fried cheese. It was glorious.

As you may know, I’ve worked as a freelance music journalist for seven years, interviewing several of my musical idols, and even enjoying a casual friendship with some of them. Funnily enough, I just found a draft I wrote after I hung out with one of my favourite Sydney bands, Faker, after a preview of their then-upcoming album. I was a bit starstruck, but I now play Words With Friends with the guitarist, who’s a lovely chap, and sometimes run into the singer at the pub. I’m telling you this not to boast about my glamourous, celebrity-strewn lifestyle, but to demonstrate that I think I’m pretty impervious to the allure of celebrity.

That is demonstrably untrue when it comes to Garbage.

The reason I’m a music writer probably has a lot to do with Garbage. I’d “gotten into” music a few years before I heard them, – Alanis Morissette, No Doubt and, umm, The Corrs – but their music opened my ears to what one could do with a recording studio. I still remember hearing Supervixen for the first time, at a listening booth in HMV. The song opens with four seconds of discordant guitars and clattering drums, before dropping away to complete silence. No residual cymbal clash or feedback: silence. It was unnerving. I thought the playback was faulty until it happened again. Silence as a sound effect: it made a big impression on how my young mind understood music. To this day, I love a lot of music that some critics disparagingly call “over-produced”, who use the studio to really fuck around with sound.

The music aside, Shirley was (and is) a personal hero of mine. In the 90s, she was brash, even filthy in interviews. She said things that often shocked me (it may surprise you to know I was a little prudish when I was younger). She’s less alarming now, but I think that’s more about becoming older and wiser than for any fear of offending. Then and now, she’s owned her femininity and her sexuality; called bullshit on sexism, racism and homophobia; and been honest about her flaws . Growing up, I related to what she said about feeling ugly and weird throughout her youth. The fact that this strong and beautiful woman had doubts about herself made me realise that we all do; there’s no sudden level of beauty or success that will turn us into faultless and fearless individuals.

I related to her lyrics, too. That’s not special – just try and find me a teenager who doesn’t have personally meaningful lyrics scrawled across their pencil case – but that didn’t make them any less profound to me. Whether it was an emotionally-healthy crush (“I would die for you…I’ve been dying just to feel you by my side”, from #1 Crush), generalised angst (“Somebody get me out of here, I’m tearing at myself”, from Medication) or my impending loss of faith (“If God’s my witness, God must be blind”, from As Heaven Is Wide), there was a Garbage lyric for my adolescent self to cling to in any troubling situation.

Even now, when I run into school friends, they ask if I still listen to Garbage. They defined my youth in particular and, I’m surprised to realise, my continuing adulthood. I was so thankful to Shirley and the boys for being so generous with their time and energy when I met them. I’m not interested in meeting celebrities to tick one more famous person off the list, but after these four people made such an impact on my life, I appreciated the opportunity to put my hand in theirs and thank them.

So Garbage: thank you. You changed my life and I’m happier because of it.


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Ugens Sang: The Sound of Arrows – Nova

The Sound of Arrows make my heart sing. The Swedish duo are like Pet Shop Boys without the snarkiness. Now, I love me some sarcasm and wit, but The Sound of Arrows simply make joyful, uplifting electropop. Their debut single, M.A.G.I.C., was – if you’ll excuse me going to the most obvious place – magical, all glockenspiels and children’s choirs. Follow-up single Into The Clouds was an absolute corker, a dreamer’s anthem of rising above yourself and your circumstances. I have fond memories of walking through my then-new home of North Kensington in London with this song on repeat – the perfect soundtrack for a boy who felt his life was about to take flight in the most extraordinary way.

(Ha! I’d love to go back in time and mock that boy and his dreams.)

I love the band’s unique visual style: silhouettes and fantasy landscapes, it matches the “epic twee” sound of their music.

Anyway, the band have been silent for close to two years now (excepting a Lady Gaga remix that I prefer to the original) and it’s destroyed me. Finally, this song has been released. It didn’t grab me like their other two songs, but it’s still wonderful: a euphoric track, with the beats pushed up further in the mix and the odd but welcome addition of trance synths.

It’s a stupid and outdated strange way to release a song, though: the video debuted on Popjustice this week (unusual in itself – most bands these days release a song and wait a few weeks to unveil the video) and the single isn’t to be released for more than two months. That’s silly. We live in the information age. The Sound of Arrows can count on me to throw them all my money at the time and place of their choosing, but I imagine most people would take a video rip of the song and forget about it by the time legal purchase came around.

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Månens Sang: Enya – Anywhere Is

I’ve been slack. Again. I really should give up the pretence of blogging, but I keep hoping it will click for me. Work has been really busy for me, and Danish classes have resumed. Not too mention I’m three months into a relationship, and that takes up a lot of time and energy when you’ve spent a quarter of a century being single.

Anyway, this is the song of the month, rather than the song of the week: since the end of January, I’ve been obsessed with Enya. South African hip-hop outfit Die Antwoord recently released a remix cover of Orinoco Flow, arguably Enya’s most famous song. My friend Clem enjoyed it, but commented that it wouldn’t be as great as it was if the original version was so magical.

And so, I asked my mum to bring down her Enya CDs when she next visited me. Mum played a lot of Enya when I was growing up, so I’d subsequently dismissed her music as naff. But do you know what? Clem’s right: this stuff is magical. Nobody else sounds like Enya does. The way she layers her voice and instruments is gorgeous, and surprisingly intricate. A lot of the music brings back memories for me: Mum would always play Watermark and Caribbean Blue at dinner parties, so the songs bring back memories of her 90s perm, her puffy sleeves and the smell of her Opium (the fragrance, not the drug).

I’ve listened to Enya hundreds of times in the last few weeks, but this is the one I love most. I love the cyclical vocal melody and the gently booming percussion. I even love the rather trite lyrics. I really love the hilariously literal video clip: “the moon upon the ocean” = shot of the moon over the ocean; “the shells upon the warm sand” = shot of a girl holding a shell to her ear. Amazingly, it reached the top ten in the UK. (Enya is actually a fascinating commercial force. She has become incredibly wealthy, despite never performing concerts, which is damn near impossible in today’s music industry.)

Anyway, enjoy or scoff.

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Ugens Sang: Juvelen – Don’t Mess

I know I kind of overload this thing with camp Scandinavian pop, but I can’t help it: it’s just too damn good. This Swedish song has been one of my favourites this year. In fact, it’s currently my ringtone. I never want to answer my phone because I’m too busy grooving! I quite like the verses; I appreciate the Prince-style funk thing he’s got going on. But, sweet baby Jesus, it’s that main synth line that does it to me. It’s a thing of wonder. I imagine Juvelen (“the jewel”, or Jonas Pettersson to his mother) leapt up with joy when he wrote as David Bowie surely must have when he stumbled on the riff for Rebel Rebel.


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Ugens Sang: Zola Jesus – Night

It took me a few days to decide on a song for this week. I couldn’t find a good clip of the song I really wanted to use – Destroya, by My Chemical Romance – and have had on repeat all week.

This song – Night, by Zola Jesus – has been in my music library for perhaps a year. It was recommended to me by my friend Koes. Koes is one of the funniest, kindest, most wonderful people on the planet. He lived in Sydney for a few years when he was dating a friend of mine, and now lives in his native Holland. I was lucky enough to visit him a couple of times in Europe. Because Koes and I have similar taste in music, we spent a lot of the time driving around Holland, blasting abrasive industrial, hyperactive electro-pop and overwrought Goth music. It was amazing.

Zola Jesus is one of his favourite artists, but despite falling neatly into the camp of brooding Goth divas that I love (see also: Nico, Siouxsie Sioux and Diamanda Galás), I never really got into her. Today, Trust Me came up on iTunes, and I was struck dumb. This is the lead track from the same EP, Stridulum.

Brace yourself.

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Ugens Sang: Garbage – Push It

Last week, Shirley Manson announced that she her defunct (well, on hiatus) band Garbage were back in the studio, recording their fifth album.

Be still, my beating, teenage heart!

Garbage were my favourite band as a teenager. (And, if you’re going by my Last.FM stats, they still are.) I’ve become less strident in my defense of the band over the years: I do think they’re an important yet underrated band, but I also realise they came along at a point in my life when I was just waiting to discover something. I was a weird, loud kid, from a conservative, religious family: it was only a matter of time before I fell into the wicked clutches of rock and roll. (I still remember my dad standing in the middle of my bedroom and looking lost with Garbage’s Not My Idea playing on the stereo; “When did my little boy start listening to rock and roll?” he wondered aloud.)

Anyway, Garbage blew my little brains out. Noisy debut album opener Supervixen occasionally lapses into silence; the band sampled sheets of corrugated iron; they fused pop, grunge and electronic music in a way that proved to be remarkably prescient (their second album, Version 2.0, was the first major label album recorded entirely on ProTools, which I think demonstrates how forward-thinking they were). But, most importantly, they were fronted by Shirley Manson, a gorgeous and terrifying human being. If you follow the links to the live clips I’ve included in this post, you’ll see why my 12-year-old self might have been entranced.

So, for old time’s sake, this week’s ugens sang is Push It, the lead single from Version 2.0. It was released just as I was getting into the band. I bought the single, and then stayed up late to watch the video clip on Rage.

Not my best idea.

An over-tired pre-teenager, watching creepy shit like this at 1am? Yikes. It’s a fantastic clip that still looks great today, but those plague children haunted my dreams for months.

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Ugens Sang: Magic Kids – Phone

This band is about as twee as you can get. I love twee pop: sunny indie songs with ukuleles and glockenspiels and lyrics about kittens and sunshine. Some people find it disingenuous or irritating, and I don’t begrudge them that opinion: twee pop is certainly an acquired taste. Magic Kids are a bunch of seven friends from suburban America, having a great time writing adorable songs. This song – the lead track from their debut album Memphis – sounds like a gorgeous Beach Boys/Boy Least Likely To mash-up.

If this song doesn’t make you smile, you’re dead inside.

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Wham! Bam! Thank you, ma’am!

The A.V. Club has a comprehensive and readable primer on the music of David Bowie this week. It’s an introduction to his daunting oeuvre for the absolute beginner. I encourage all of you to have a look, whether you’re already a Bowie fan, have been interested in hearing him or have never heard of him. Bowie is inarguably my favourite artist: he’s an absolute genius and, aside from a dodgy decade spanning the late 80s and early 90s, everything he’s created has been damn near perfect. His music is both fun and intelligent, accessible and experimental. He does incredible things with pop songs and the artifice of celebrity. I got into Bowie in my teens, back in the days before the internet. Most pay days (from the job where I was earning $5.something an hour), I’d go to the record store and pick out a new Bowie album. Each one was so different, I was surprised each time I slipped a new one into my CD player. Whatever kind of music you listen to, I guarantee David Bowie had an influence on it. I also guarantee you can sing a few of his songs, even if you don’t know it: so many of his songs have become those songs that everybody knows, even if they can’t name the artist. I remember being surprised when I learned that he was responsible for “that ‘ch-ch-changes’ song“.

So read the article, and have a look at this live performance of Life On Mars?, one of my favourite Bowie songs. This clip was filmed during 2004’s Reality tour, which I saw in Sydney. It was, of course, spectacular. The original 1973 video clip is worth a look too, an early example of Bowie’s mastery of the visual side of pop music.

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Ugens Sang: Arcade Fire – Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)

I’ve never really liked Arcade Fire.

Wait! Don’t run away! Let me qualify that.

I respect them plenty, and I think some of their songs – Neighbourhood 3 (Power Out), Neon Bible – are amazing and justifiably revered. But I never really got why people loved this band so much. I listened closely to both their albums, and saw their set at the Big Day Out in 2008. They’re talented and interesting artists, but I never really connected with the material. Being the shameless indie hipster that I am, it’s kind of a given that you’re an Arcade Fire fan in the (online and real world) communities I move in.

Their most recent album, The Suburbs, spoke to me on an emotional level, being an album about the relationship 20- and 30-something kids (because don’t we all consider ourselves kids, no matter how far into adulthood we seem to accidentally stumble?) have with their hometowns. Leaving and returning, loving and hating: it’s a struggle I can relate to as I try to figure out my place in the world (quite literally, as I return from a year of globe-trotting). As the unfairly-maligned Pitchfork said, the album

“focuses on this quiet desperation borne of compounding the pain of wasting your time as an adult by romanticizing the wasted time of your youth…it’s a sad reminder that giving up your dreams for a reliable job that pays your way and corrodes your soul isn’t even a reliable option anymore. Soul-sucking work was at least once a dependably secure and profitable enterprise. Now what do we do?”

What do we do, indeed? I don’t know. It’s an album with no answers, only questions, and the penultimate track kicked me in the guts: “we run away / but we don’t know why”. (And speaking of running, I’m sure y’all saw their totally amazing video clip/art project for lead single The Wilderness Downtown.)

But themese, schmemes: this all counts for diddly-squat if the music’s no good. And it’s great. From a band given to grand pronouncements who thinks a church organ is a great addition to an album comes this bubbly little electro-pop number. Like all the best pop songs, there’s a sadness and regret lingering beneath the surface, but goddamn, isn’t that surface lovely?

And like a mirror / the city lights shine / They’re screaming at us “We don’t need your kind” / Sometimes I wonder if the world’s so small / That we can never get away from the sprawl

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Ugens Sang: Diamond Rings – Show Me Your Stuff

Canadian musician John O’Reagan fronts a quite serviceable post-punk outfit called The D’Urbevilles. But his solo work, under the Diamond Rings moniker, is amazing (hence why it’s also posted with the amazing/forbløffende tag): exactly the kind of melancholy, menacing electro-pop I love. Earlier songs like You Oughta Know (not an Alanis Morissette Cover, sadly) had a Gothic undercurrent, but his best song is the over-the-top camp-fest Show Me Your Stuff.

I discovered it just after returning home from Europe, and a lot of the song resonated with me lyrically as I tried to figure out what my next move would be: “either way, I know just what I need and I’ma find it, because all I need is already within me.” Of course, though, what I loved most was its Lady-Gaga-on-a-budget aesthetic, from the skittering synths to the peacock-shaman costume. The most amazing thing about it, though, is the fact that it is not on his debut album, Special Affections, released today. The rest of the album is good, but it ain’t no Show Me Your Stuff. According to my Last.FM profile, I’ve played it more than any other song in the last 18 months. You should play it – loudly and repeatedly – too.

Er det ikke forbløffende? Ja, det er meget forbløffende. Nu, spille det igen!

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