Quick(ish) Bits on Youthful Loves #3: Shirley Manson
When I was a child, I had long, long red hair. Elderly women in grocery stores stopped me and fawned over it. I heard “I love your hair,” so often, but I hated it. Hated hated hated it. Who had red hair? I wanted to be blond. Blonde meant sexy and fun and wanted. I knew who Jessica Rabbit was, but that didn’t tell me anything about red hair’s relation to my own head, my own mind; every portrayal of a stereotypically sexy redhead just made me feel uglier. Further away from woman. Further away from worth. Not because I thought worth meant sexy, but because I looked at myself and felt nothing. Nothing but the wish for change.
When I was a teenager, a band came on the scene, perfectly manufactured but I didn’t know that then and it probably wouldn’t have mattered. They were called Garbage — apparently a reclamation of someone’s assertion that they “sounded like Garbage.” Their lead singer was a Scottish woman, whose voice mesmerized me. Fearless and strong, seductive and smoky. Never had a voice taken hold of my internal organs like that, shook them and filled them with something I simultaneously feared and needed more of. Her name was Shirley Manson, and she had red hair.
I wanted her and I wanted not to want her and I wanted to be her and I felt like I already was; a complicated relationship, to be sure. I thought that if I lined my eyes with thick black kohl and cast off my hideous school uniform and dressed the way I wanted to dress and moved the way I wanted to move — without hindrance, without any kind of metal assistance — I would uncover in myself something she had. What that voice did to me when I heard it — well, I didn’t know women could do that to me. She made me feel fierce, like I could be a Dominatrix if I wanted to (at fourteen, surrounded by goth boutiques and gay kink shops in pre-Katrina New Orleans, I was just learning what that word meant, and I liked it). She also made me feel like I could take orders from her, and that that would be amazing, liberating, right somehow. I toyed with these thoughts until they became too vivid, too much. I couldn’t look at them in my own handwriting, the way I’d been unafraid to record Christian Bale fantasies of yore. But she had red hair, and that, I never let myself forget. My room was papered with pictures of her, suddenly, magazine covers triumphantly torn to decorate my walls and remind me what it could mean, what it NOW meant, to be a WOMAN WITH RED HAIR. Someone asked her about it in an interview, and I don’t remember the question, but she answered, without shame, “the pubic hair is really beautiful.” I didn’t even know people were allowed to say that! I didn’t think anyone could think it. At fourteen I had no basis for comparison, but I knew enough to know that it was rare and I was a freak. Beautiful?? Is it that easy? We can just say beautiful and allow it?
It’s taken a lifetime for me to figure out what allowing means. It’s not about someone else granting permission, though, something I had to accept when my ultimate self-acceptance icon did the unthinkable: she dyed her hair blonde. Not only that, but she spoke triumphantly about the bleaching process, just the way I might have if someone offered me the chance when I was a kid. “There will be no more red hairs in Shirley World,” she declared on her blog, and I ripped my posters from the wall, tears of betrayal soaking the paper.
I understand now why people need change. It’s not fair to ask someone else to be something you need, and feel like your world’s been shaken when they take a step in another direction. Shirley never asked me to hate my hair or love my hair, to accept myself or not to. She simply got in the studio and unfurled that stones-wrapped-in-silk voice onto a few records. Whatever other people may inspire in us, they remain people. There are no untouchable symbols, there is no unchanging ideal. We’re all moving and unpredictable. That is, and should ever be, our right.