Saturday night at the third annual Girlschool festival at L.A.’s Bootleg Theater there was a meeting of the great ’90s minds, as Garbage’s Shirley Manson, performing a solo set backed by the Girlschool Choir and an all-women string section, invited one of her idols — a woman she described as “the greatest white voice of the past 30 years” — onstage for a surprise duet of Lesley Gore’s 1963 proto-feminist classic “You Don’t Own Me.”
“This is almost bordering on a sexual fantasy for me,” Manson joked — completely fangirling in front of a delighted audience (whom she addressed as “you lucky motherf***ers!”) as enigmatic singer-songwriter Fiona Apple took the stage.
“I’m literally giddy like a kid. This is like the kind of thing you dream about when you’re a child. I haven’t even had the chance to tell Fiona this, because most of our hours together have been singing, but I went to Australia for the first time with my own band back in 1996,” Manson recalled fondly. “We were doing an in-store, and the record store said, ‘You can pick up any CDs you want.’ And I found [Apple’s debut album] Tidal; I knew nothing about the artist. … And then I had a CD Discman — because it was that long ago — and I listened to it every night in my bunk for the entire duration of my tour. And I fell madly in love with this extraordinary talent and this godlike, angelic voice.”
Apple, wearing a T-shirt scrawled in Sharpie with the words “Kneel, Portnow” (protesting last weekend’s Grammys, at which Recording Academy president Neil Portnow controversially said female artists need to “step up” if they want to win more awards), seemed equally humbled in Manson’s presence, and the two women locked eyes and grinned adorably throughout their powerful performance in the 700-capacity venue.
While fearless artists like Manson and Apple made major strides in the 1990s toward creating more opportunities for women in music, the fact that an organization like Girlschool is needed more than ever in 2018 proves how little progress has been made since then. Speaking to Yahoo Entertainment ahead of the Girlschool event, Manson said, “I’ve been saying this for years now: I think when Sept. 11 occurred, it not only was a horrendous tragedy, but it affected the culture and it affected American radio programming. All of a sudden, everybody in the world felt really unsafe in ways that we had never ever felt before. As a result, humanity gets conservative. When humanity feels under attack, when it feels threatened, it gets conservative, and nobody wants a woman with opinions, or an aggressive woman, or a powerful woman, at times when white men are feeling under threat. It’s oversimplifying it to put it like that, but I do essentially believe that that is what was at play. Everything was on this amazing trajectory, and then all of a sudden it was like the car turned around and headed back down the road. It’s never changed direction since. It’s really rather frightening and really disheartening because when we emerged in the ’90s, it really felt like women were piercing through the glass ceiling. In some ways we definitely were, but unfortunately that change has not continued.”
The Girlschool artistic collective was founded by Anna Bulbrook of the Airborne Toxic Event (a classically trained violinist who’s also played with Kanye West, Beyoncé, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, and Vampire Weekend) to “celebrate, connect, and lift women-identified artists, leaders, and voices.” Other events of 2018’s Girlschool weekend included Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein in conversation with poet Morgan Parker, Pussy Riot-affiliated rapper Desi Mo, and the Dum Dum Girls’ Kristin Kontrol performing with a children’s choir and two other surprise guests, Best Coast and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O. The Girlschool festival concludes Sunday; see the full lineup here.