"Musicians are treated with absolute contempt in the [music] industry.  But women are disrespected across the board, are not treated seriously in general.  One incident off the top of my head; Record executives asking me when do 'they' think they're going to have the record finished - meaning the three men in Garbage.  'When are they going to finish it for you honey?' It rapes me.  I feel like I'm being raped of something that's precious.  I can't even articulate how deeply it cuts when you're dismissed like that, as if you don't exist."

So says Shirley Manson, lead singer of Garbage, who insists she's not in top form this blustery March afternoon.  She's sipping the broth of her onion soup in a booth at the Plaza Hotel's Oak room in New York City, frustrated beyond measure at the way the antibiotics and steroids she's ingested to whip a cold are instead whipping her.  "I can't articulate today," she sputters, although in the opinion of her interviewer she's acquitting herself nicely.  "I must have mad cow disease."

The topic? Not Garbage, who are in the midst of recording their record album and battling it out with their record label; not her five-year marriage to Eddie Farrel ("I just don't want to talk about my poor husband.") and not, specifically, Shirley Manson herself.

The real topic is Gender Issues And The Modern Pop Star, Or, rather, this women-music-survival-inequality-sex-thugs-and-rock-and-roll thingy upon which Alternative Press has chosen to base its latest issue.  Shirley Manson's the cover star.  And don't think that hasn't made her wonder...

Why are you on the cover?
I have no idea.  I'm very uncomfortable with it, to be honest.   I'm sure it'll offend millions of girls the world over - though somebody's got to be in the front.

Fair enough.  This is the first-ever issue of A.P. fueled by estrogen.  How does that strike you, having an issue specifically devoted to female musicians?
Well, I'm of the school that believes it's still necessary to draw people's attention to the creative output of women in society in general.  I think women are still operating at a mild disadvantage.  I would prefer it wasn't an issue.   But the fact that it is an issue, an opportunity like this is a wonderful thing.   Equality would be nice.  But sometimes it's great to hit people over the head with a hammer. Sometimes, until that happens, they don't get the message.  Even so far back as the suffragette movement; if women hadn't banded together and chained themselves to the Houses of Parliament - in my country, anyway - women probably would not have gotten the right to vote.

Do you find you're often considered just the vapid, pretty front person disguising the real brainy men behind you in Garbage?
In on article, I was described as the "clock face."   I could name a million different instances where that has occurred.  I'll put a call regarding our business to someone, and they'll call Butch [Vig, drummer, programmer, producer] back.  He'll say, "Well, she asked the question; you should speak to her."  I feel diminished before I begin even trying to have a level playing field in which to discuss my business.

Are the others in the band shocked by this treatment?
I have no bones to pick with them. In a way they are, but because it doesn't impact them directly as individuals, a lot of the time they don't see it.   Or, I have to draw their attention to it, or sometimes, to my dismay, they say, "You're being paranoid or crazy."  They're a way more conscious bunch than a lot of men I know.  But you hope they will pick up on certain subtleties of undermining that goes on, and they don't see it because they don't have to.

Men can be a little slow on the uptake sometimes.
That's true.  You have to become aggressive.  You have to act a lot of the time in the business end of it as the patriarchal system dictates.   I'm lucky; if pushed down, I will come back up twofold.  I will rage until I get my point across.  So I don't ever feel I'm disadvantaged in terms of the end result, but it's the exhausting process to get there that I object to.

Would it be different if, say, the music industry was run by women?
Oh, God, yes.

Common parlance has it that women are more difficult to work for because they're backstabbers, whereas men stab you right up front.
See, I hate it when people talk about, "Women - they're worse than men to work for." I don't think the problem is that simple.  THe problem women are faced with is this time it that it is still a very male-dominated system that's in place.  The women who have managed to get in under the radar are women who are willing to fight like dogs to be heard.  And so they are generally very aggressive, and perhaps in comparison with the majority of women, one would describe them as having more masculine traits - in terms of their psyche - than the average woman. These are sweeping statements.  Now, were the system to be switched into a more matriarchal approach and attitude, there would still be problems, but very different problems.   Women are like witches in the workplace; they have all of their great intuitive powers that men don't have, but they've also learned to fight like a man in terms of business.  So they freak people out.  Also, women are way more emotional than men.  So, in business that can be distressing to people, because the system has worked along these lines for so long, and women have come in and king of fucked the lines a bit, and it's all gone a bit freaky.

But isn't there something to being a good-looking "clock face?"  That is, would Garbage have been as successful as it is today if someone unattractive had been the lead singer?
I don't think Garbage would have been as successful without my personality.  It's all about personality; it has nothing to do really with how I look.  There are a lot prettier girls who could have stepped into my shoes, and I don't think it would have worked.  That sound arrogant, but it is the force of my personality rather than my supposedly being attractive.  Of course, if I had horns coming out of my head and warts all over my face, I don't think we would have gotten very far.

Do you get the sense that in the music industry, what's perceived as important is the record company's ability to turn you into a sex object?
I think a lot of women themselves are directing that path.   There's a lot of girls who want to be seen like that, who deliberately welcome it and encourage that, because they think rightly or wrongly that it's going to give them an advantage.  Our record company have nothing to do with the way I present myself.   In terms of pop marketing - where girls are 14 years old, dressed up like 21-year-olds - that's the record company, and it's obscene and close to pedophilia.   That Pepsi ad with Brittany Spears and Bob Dole?  That makes me physically sick.  And that's sanctioned by the majority and the mainstream taste.

Gender politics aside, there's still the law to deal with.  Garbage have been embroiled in a lawsuit brought against their record company since the start of this year.  It all began with their "key man," Jerry Moss - the man who originally signed them to Almo Sounds, before the company was bought by Universal Music Group.  According to Garbage, Moss left Almo (a statement UMG claims is false), and the band asked to be let out of their contract, since without Moss they might not have a cheerleader in the company.  "We want a contract on our terms," insists Manson.  "We really don't know where we're at.  We object to our career, our band's existence, being tossed around like a beach ball."

UMG objected right back and invoked the name of one of Manson's former bands Angelfish, who had been signed to Radioactive, a label UMG now also owned.    Angelfish disbanded before providing Radioactive (which shared Garbage's profits) with a second album, and UMG insisted that Manson owed it that record before Garbage could pick up and go anywhere.  Garbage don't like that, and they've since sued to be released from their contract.  The litigation is still pending.

"It's all muddled now," scoffs Manson.  "We can't get a straight answer out of anybody who owns my contract.  We signed to a very small record label to have creative control.  And now they're part of a big corporate monster.  You have to make sure you're protected or you're fucked.  We're still fighting like tigers."

Ten years ago, riot grrrl-ism was in full swing; you had the whole notion of women musicians in the alternative-music industry having their own kind of DIY, punk revolution.  Did that affect you?
I always thought of the riot-grrrl movement as American, not British at all.  British girls are much more diverse and isolated in a way; they don't work in a pack.  But is has had an effect, and continues to have an effect.   It's easier for women at the moment - maybe more so than males - to hop from genre to genre convincingly.  Nelly Furtado, for instance, is convincingly a musical mutant in a way that perhaps a man wouldn't be at this juncture.

Why do you suppose that is?
The music industry doesn't really know what to make of their female artists.  It's a great position for women to be in.  They're not quite sure - can we exploit this girl?  Let's give her a deal anyway, and see where she goes.   Men have long been constricted in their role in music, in rock music in particular.   But women have managed to keep themselves out of that, being deliberately omitted from that.  They've been kept out of the boys club, and consequently are at an advantage because they're not boxed in.  My fear is that because women are becoming more prevalent in the airwaves, people are then saying, "We have to rein those gals in."  I can feel the box starting to close.  And that worries me.  We need to be sure women musicians don't allow themselves to be boxed in the way their counterparts have been.

Do you see a second wave of riot grrrls coming down the road anytime soon?
I doubt it.  A lot of women right now want to be pop stars, wear midriff-showing outfits with a little bra top.  They want to be Christina Agulieras; they want to be Brittany.  It doesn't seem to me like there's a lot of women who want to play in a rock band, who want to be Patti Smith.

"I was on tour and I found a lump in my breast," says Manson, explaining how that one discovery came to taint all her on-and-off-the-road experiences in Garbage.  As they kicked off their European tour in Dublin, in support of the Version 2.0 album, Manson had to face something most women have to spend much time worrying about.  Suddenly, there it was.

"The night was wonderful.  I was like a movie of a little Scottish girl who turns into a rock star, and there's hazy lights and a superstar encounter with Bono.  I went back to my great posh hotel, fell asleep, woke up feeling wonderful, and I stretched." In the course of that stretch, Manson discovered a lump.   "I was completely freaked. A doctor said I was going to have to have it checked out, and front Ireland we went [on the tour] to the U.K., and (doctors there) tried to give me a biopsy, and they couldn't get the needle in, and I had to see a specialist."

In the end, a benign tumor called a nerve fibroma was removed.  She put it out of her mind for the tour, brushing off compliments from her fans that her arm looked "cool" in a sling.  But when the tour ended, everything fell apart.

"I got home from tour, and I'd had no counseling, I'd had a huge lump taken out of my breast, I had a huge keloid scar, and I had to face it then," she recalls.  "And it was really scary.  I was a wreck.  I've signed into therapy, and I'm working on it.  On the road, you become so insular.  I decided I needed to re-learn the skills I'd forgotten after that time on the road.  And it was great.  I love getting my head shrunk."

But her brush with danger didn't entirely miss the mark; Manson's mother was diagnosed with breast cancer earlier this year.  Muses the singer, "It really gives one cause for thought."

When you were a teenager, and music first became important in your life, did you think about particular female artists like Patti Smith as being inspiring specifically because they spoke to you as a woman?
At that time in my life, I had no sense of myself as a woman full stop.  That's one of the great things about teenagers; I don't think that they have figured out that they're going to be separated and put on either side of the lines.   I gravitated to the artists that made sense of the world to me.  I was all women, apart from David Bowie or the Beatles or John Lennon - the feminine men.  I was very much into the women who clarified points for me or articulated the hormonal temperature that was raging within my paltry bosom.

Anyone specifically who represented the voice you wanted to be?
Siouxsie Sioux.  Absolutely. I would listen to her and feel I was channeling her spirit, and therefore became her momentarily and escaped my spotty teenaged self and became this siren who was, in my mind, a really smart, powerful, articulate force.

Were there any records done by men or women from the past year that got you excited like that?
The Eminem record.  I listened to it in my hotel room, and I came into the studio and I was grinning from ear to ear.  I said, "You have to check this out."  I could feel his energy, and it was so pure and strong, it gave me the chills.  It was funny and cheeky and irreverent.

Did all the furor surrounding it strike you as ridiculous?
I can understand how people may be ruffled by it, in the same way they were ruffled by the Sex Pistols.  I've had a lucky life - I'm not a gay male who has been viciously attacked for my sexuality.  Had I been, I might be freaked out by what I heard on that record.  But coming from a lucky female perspective, it didn't threaten me in that way. I saw it as being a reflection of our times.  I can't take into account everybody else's lot in life and their stances.  Bono put it perfectly [when he said] when Johnny Cash sang about shooting a guy in Reno just to watch him die - nobody went out and arrested Johnny Cash.  There are millions of paintings hanging around the galleries of the world that show murdered women or men and raped boys or mutilated animals, and nobody wants to pull those paintings off the walls of the National Gallery just because they portray something people find distasteful.

Clearly, Eminem made an impression on you.   Who else, in the past, has inspired you musically?
The most cherished male artists to me are the one I feel have been able to call up a female sensibility, like David Bowie or Iggy Pop or Jeff Buckley or Kurt Cobain; they're all able to tap into that emotional writing that comes to women very easily.  That's what exalted these men in my eyes, that they have the masculine traits in their music, but a very specific female energy that is lacking in their peers.

And that's also true for women, in reverse?
Of course.  The women I love and admire are able to tap into their masculine traits - it's a counterbalance.  Bjork, Patti Smith - they're absolute powerhouses; you feel they could stand up and fight in your corner.  That's what attracts me to an artist, when the yin and yang are balanced.  That is how I idealize society; I would love it if that's how things were in real life.  When you find that quality in art, it's transcendent.

Is there anyone out there these days who may not exactly be transcendent, but who is trying to keep the walls of the box from pigeonholing women?  Is there hope?
Sure.  Le Tigre, Kathleen Hanna's new band.  They're fairly mouthy, so people talked about the politics of their music; and since they're viewed that way, it stops them from being easily classified  and controlled and pigeonholed.

If that's what you admire, are you ever disappointed that it would be virtually impossible to turn Garbage into a mouthy political band?
No, I personally don't feel that that's what I'd like to do with my life - cloud my politics with music.  Music, to me, is still such a pure experiment that I wouldn't want to bring reality into what I consider to be a liberating escape.   I admire it, but it's not for me.  It brings to much real  life into the magic that is making music.

So, when are "they" going to have the new Garbage record finished?
[chucking] That's very good.