Waiting in rush hour traffic gives me ample time to replay Blondie and Garbage’s new albums: Pollinator (2017) and Strange Little Birds (2016). The former is a series of collaborations between Debbie Harry, Chris Stein and musicians like Sia, Charlie xCx, Nick Valensi (The Strokes), Johnny Marr (Morrisey) and Blood Orange, along with some backing vocals from John Roberts (Bob’s Burgers). The latter seems like Shirley Manson & Co. making their debut sound more sleek and atmospheric, as though tapping the specific veins from which their music’s influence on the new generation of brooding femme vocalists flows.
I really enjoy both albums: My boyfriend singled out the Dave Sitek co-written song “Fun,” which features a video starring Raja Gemini (RuPaul’s Drag Race, America’s Next Top Model), calling it “gay pop music.” From Strange Little Birds, videos for “Empty” and “Magnetized” give us the album’s manifesto by way of Shirley Manson’s fashion moments, goth ’90s home decor fantasies, and the rage and joy in admitting lyrics like, “I am so empty” and “I’m not in love, I’m not in love/I’m magnetized by you/There’s nothing I can do/It’s all a fantasy.”
I realize I’m going to miss John Doe & Exene Cervenka, vocalists for California punk band X. The idea of seeing all of these aging legends together on a McMenamins stage is exciting. I’m not saying “aging” in the sense of generations of A&E writers belittling women: I’m saying it in the sense that 2016 took Prince, Bowie, Vanity, Carrie Fisher/Debbie Reynolds, Christina Grimmie, Alexis Arquette, Chyna, Phife Dawg, Big Ang, Leonard Cohen, George Michael, Zsa Zsa and so many other legends, and it’s definitely not cool to die in 2017 (R.I.P. Chester Bennington and Chris Cornell, et al.). Anyway, where was I?
Oh yes, Blondie, Garbage, Exene Cervenka and John Doe aren’t dead. It’s why Edgefield is packed tonight. I make it to a spot on the back lawn in time for Garbage’s second song, “Queer.” Garbage’s set mostly turns out to be greatest hits with a few new songs thrown in, like “Night Drive Loneliness” and “Even Though Our Love is Doomed.” For some reason, I always forget that Shirley Manson is Scottish, so hearing her speak between songs is always a delight. She thanks the audience for its support throughout the years, in particular a couple of Oregonians who helped Garbage secure the theme to The World is Not Enough (1999) and were in attendance that night.
When Blondie opened their set, I thought they were having technical issues until I realized it was part of a glitch-based sound/visual installation evoking a bee swarm, which looked like static until natural shapes and depth revealed themselves. During songs like “Fun,” “Call Me,” and “Rapture,” the swarm changed from white to red, taking on the shapes of masculine and feminine forms pole-dancing. Blondie also played a few covers: Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 & #35” and the 2011 an Unkindness song “Fragments,” which has nearly half a million YouTube views. Blondie played two more Pollinator songs, “Long Time” and “Too Much,” along with the hits “Atomic” and “Heart of Glass.”
I was never close enough to see the musicians very well: Manson wore a black-and-white striped dress and orange hair, while Debbie Harry wore a black-and-yellow V-striped dress and a gleaming gold headdress that, from where I was sitting, looked like Madonna’s Phillip Treacy headdress from the Super Bowl five years ago, but in press photos released before this show looks like two realistic, larger-than-life honey bees resting upon the queen bee (used with all respect to Lil’ Kim and Beyonce). Behind me, someone was reading a book during both sets, and women discussed being thankful they didn’t have to work while swapping cucumber pizza recipes. (By the way, did you know marinara sauce has fewer calories than pizza sauce?)
The fact of the matter is Debbie Harry, Shirley Manson and their squads of men could, like John Waters, basically choose to do victory laps around the world and rest on their laurels if they wanted to. Instead they choose to keep creating new music and bringing greatest hits to people who have never seen them live: Blondie last played Portland in 1999, and while Garbage has made a Portland stop on every tour of their career, that is hardly a complaint, especially when they play Portland’s biggest and most famous venues. (Can you imagine how expensive an intimate show would be?)
It’s great to see both bands tonight on a stage built by a local franchise that has expanded across the Pacific Northwest during my lifetime, but there was one moment in particular that took me back to a moment when Club Portland was still around and queers and women had to be grateful for any bit part assigned to us by the dominant paradigms: the fury with which Manson screamed the refrain of one of 2017’s most popular raps in Duke Erikson or Eric Avery’s face, a moment that revealed all the hard work that has allowed generations of American women to reach this point in their personal and professional liberation:
Bitch, be humble.
Sit down, little bitch.
Proceeds from Garbage’s new single, “No Horses,” will benefit the American Red Cross through the end of 2018, and is available for purchase on iTunes.