Lately there’s been a lot of talk about Garbage, and with good reason. Last year they celebrated the 20th anniversary of their 1995 debut album, Garbage, with a re-release of the record and a 20 Years Queer tour. Next week, the band will release their sixth studio album, Strange Little Birds. Their new songs “Empty” and “Even Though Our Love Is Doomed” show that Garbage is just as dark and deep as they were when they got started.
But with all the excitement and news surrounding Garbage, one thing keeps coming up, and it irks me. So many articles, interviews, and reviews have described Garbage as a grunge band. But were they ever grunge? They may be from the 1990s, but I would never label them grunge. Quite the contrary, their own frontwoman Shirley Manson has conceded that Garbage is known as the band that “killed grunge.”
Don’t get me wrong; I love grunge. Alice In Chains is one of my favorite bands of all time. Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and the Melvins are all important parts of my music library (even if none of them actually considered themselves grunge). I first got into music listening to the numerous post-grunge acts of the early 2000s. I love Garbage dearly, largely because of their eclecticism and outside-of-the-box style. But they are not grunge.
Garbage got their band name thanks to their distinct musical style: They incorporate elements of everything from indie rock and punk to electronica and trip hop. And yes, there are some distorted guitars, but that doesn’t make them grunge.
So to strip them of all their eclecticism and just label them grunge is a disservice to their music and talent. Moreover, telling younger readers that Garbage is an example of ’90s grunge is also a disservice to the genre, not to mention misleading. Garbage doesn’t capture the full essence of grunge, the sludgey, raw, distorted, vulnerable, punk-meets-metal style of music born out of Seattle. Garbage does embody some of these qualities, but they do not exemplify it, because they are not grunge.
If anything, Garbage was born out of the death of grunge, perhaps even as a reaction to grunge. The band’s drummer, Butch Vig, was an important figure in grunge; after all, he did produce Nirvana’s famous Nevermind. But Garbage as we now know them formed the same week Kurt Cobain died in April 1994. By 1995, grunge had faded a bit from the public eye, with Alice In Chains releasing their last album with original lead singer Layne Staley and Soundgarden moving on to new musical styles before their breakup in 1997.
In a 2012 interview, Garbage’s guitarist Steve Marker talked about when the band formed, saying, “We were all sick of the grunge thing, where it was just guys screaming all the time. I guess other people were too.” Garbage offered a fresh new sound for people to enjoy; they ushered in a new style of alternative rock.
In 2015, Shirley Manson talked to PopMatters more specifically about Garbage being associated with grunge:
PopMatters: That layering is one of the reasons it’s very difficult to categorize Garbage as a grunge band, and also a reason why so few grunge bands survived the ‘90s, whereas you totally survived the ‘90s, because there is less of a flat quality to your music. Layers aside, why do you think so few grunge bands survived the ‘90s?
Shirley Manson: When Kurt Cobain died, the purest, brilliant form of that music went with him. And I think nobody else was able to match his brilliance, so that could be one of the reasons. I also think Garbage was never known as a grunge band; we were sort of known as the band that killed grunge. But Butch’s name was still sort of synonymous with the grunge movement, and when Garbage came out, everyone was really surprised because they expected to hear a grunge record, when in fact what they got was a very eclectic pop record, in a way.
PopMatters: Is it your Scottish sense of humor that prevents your lyrics from becoming the more depressing side of grunge? Or is it your feminism at work, that you’d rather get mad and you just don’t like giving up? Because you do have a more fierce attitude than most grunge bands were able to muster.
Shirley Manson: Again, we weren’t a grunge band and that’s why we don’t sound like any of these bands that maybe you’re referring to. [laughs] I grew up listening to post-punk and David Bowie and the Banshees. I grew up listening to a lot of post-punk and new wave records, you know, that was always what I was attracted to. But also, the band, we just loved pop music. You know, we’ve never shied away or pretended that we don’t love pop music and we don’t love pop melodies. We used a lot of backing vocals and we used a lot of electronica, and there are a lot of elements in our music.
Shirley does not consider Garbage a grunge band, and states that they were never known as such. If anything, they confirmed the end of grunge around 1995 and 1996.
Garbage is an excellent band that started in the mid ’90s. Grunge is an amazing musical genre that defined the early ’90s. But it is important to keep in mind that the two are not synonymous. Grunge should be celebrated with the bands that actually created and embodied it: Alice In Chains, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, and so many more. Likewise, Garbage should be celebrated for the unique way they have blended different styles together into their own, un-replicable sound.
Garbage may be a ’90s band, but they are not – and never were – grunge.