By Jayna Brown
Poly Styrene died Monday night at the age of 53 of what was originally breast cancer. Going to the GP for back pain, she was told to take some painkillers. So she put up with the pain for a few months, as many of us would do, and when she went in again it was cancer that had metastasized to her lungs and spine. Her last tweet reads quite sadly now: “Slowly slowly trying 2 get better miss my walk along the promenade. Would b so nice 2 sing again & play.”
Poly Styrene’s death invites a meditation on mortality, which we all face, even punks like us who swore we were going to die young. Punk flayed mortality, flaunted youth in its face. Yet it’s ephemeral nature also affirmed death’s inevitability. An 18-year-old Polystyrene had the most profound insight into the ephemerality of life itself. “ I do it and that’s it,” she said. “I go on to something else.”
In 1977 the daughter of a Somali father and white English mother from Brixton by way of Bromley gave a high-pitched driving dystopian critique of capitalist consumption and sexist violence. “Some people say little girls should be seen and not heard,” she begins, with a girlish lilt, “but I think,” and her voice rises to a bellowing screech, “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!” In thick braces and stiff plastic dress, Marianne Joan Elliot Said, better known as Poly Styrene, screamed precociously into the face of a mostly boys only club of misfits. Bind me tie me/chain me to the wall/I wanna be a slave for you all/ Oh bondage up yours!”
In this song as in many others Poly Styrene linked pithy critiques of slavery, authoritarianism, patriarchy and plastic, “It was about being in bondage to material life,” she explains about Oh! Bondage! “In other words it was a call for liberation.” Poly Styrene’s keening voice, riding atop the band’s signature saxophone, created a barrage of high-pitched sound. Carrying her consistently articulate, socio culturally astute lyrics, the sound of Poly Styrene and X Ray Spex continues to resonate, weaving its way insistently through the intervening years.
Poly Styrene called out patriarchy from within a counter culture that was supposedly subversive, yet was indeed heavily invested in masculinist performances of power. Poly Styrene’s politically awake compositions disrupt in some very interesting ways the smooth patrilineal narrative constructing what gets remembered as rebel music, and also challenges the calcifying racial orthodoxy of white riot memory.
Poly Styrene’s lyrics politicized the mundane, the prosaic, the quotidian, the everyday. Her prescient visions were of a world turned dayglo. “My thing was more like consumerism, plastic artificial living,” she explains. “The idea was to send it all up. Screaming about it, saying: ‘Look, this is what you have done to me, turned me into a piece of Styrofoam, I am your product. And this is what you have created: do you like her?’” Art-I-fical:
She speaks to the specific ways consumer capitalism targeted women. Her imagery in songs, like Artificial, swirled with the plastic products of a woman’s domestic everyday—nylon curtains, perspex windows, acrylics, latex gloves. “My mind is like a plastic bag,” she sings. Plastic Bag:
After seeing a pink fireball in the sky—a UFO as she called it, though not a machine, and with no aliens—she felt electricity vibrating through her entire body. Her prescient dayglo vision was harbinger to the nuclear nightmares those of us stranded in the 1980’s had. And she told people about it. Her personal experience with mental illness, about which she was very open, also bears traces of the medical profession’s treatment of ‘mad’ and ‘hysterical’ women; she was sectioned, and misdiagnosed with schizophrenia. Poly found a spiritual home in the Hari Krishna movement, and it wasn’t until 1991 that she was properly diagnosed with bipolar, known as the ‘genius condition.’ Whose to say what a vision is? identity
Poly Styrene’s new album, Generation Indigo had just come out, and before I knew how sick she was I was hoping she would grant me an interview. Now, I will just do the best I can to speak of her music for the ways in which it disrupts, interrupts, provokes a history of punk. What is identified as punk, from the fleeting moments of the late 1970’s, is constantly eulogizing itself, writing it’s formative artists, almost always as that of men, with the exceptional, or token, women. Poly, like many other female artists, put up with male jealousy and sabotage from fellow male musicians. But her lyrics, her scream, will not be contained. RIP Poly Styrene, as you move onto something else.
BB documentary, “Who is Poly Styrene?”