This article first appeared at SocialistWorker.org.
By any standard, Poly Styrene was one of punk’s absolute best. Male, female, Black, white—few could match her brash, unapologetic creativity. Word is that even as she approached her death from advanced breast cancer on April 25, she maintained the same vibrant, ineffable, slightly-off-kilter world view that defined her during the heyday of the band X-Ray Spex.
Beth Ditto, front woman for art-punk trio the Gossip, put it simply: "Poly Styrene [was] so ahead of her time. She recreated punk."
Ditto isn’t the only one who took a cue from Poly. Her influence can be heard in countless women singers–from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O to Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna and the entire riot grrl movement.
Not that she set out to accomplish this kind of influence. A few weeks before she passed away, she confessed: "I didn’t really see myself as a role model for feminists, although people thought I was really into women’s liberation. It was just liberating to get up and sing my own songs." Proof that the best rebel art is often made through honest happenstance.
She was born Marianne Elliott-Said in 1957 in Bromley, a suburb of London. Her mother was a Scotch-Irish legal secretary, her father a dispossessed Somali aristocrat who was never around.
In the mid 1970s, Bromley would become forever linked with the British punk explosion; it was the home of the famed "Bromley contingent," including Billy Idol and Siouxsie Sioux. Marianne wasn’t part of this gang. At age 15, she had run away from home and become, by her own admission, a "barefoot hippie." It wasn’t until she was 18 when she saw the Sex Pistols for the first time that she decided to embrace the punk movement and form X-Ray Spex.
It was a jump that lots of young Brits were making back then. The "peace" of hippie-dom didn’t seem to match up with recession and unemployment. And "love" was the last thing that fascist gangs like the National Front were interested in. Even Poly Styrene, the name that Marianne would become be known by, seemed to scream of the alienation and emptiness facing down most young folks at the time.
So did the first album from X-Ray Spex. Germ Free Adolescents, released in 1978, stood apart for the stark juxtaposition between its subject and sound. Sarcastically cheerful lyrics of consumerism and the "easy life" bounce off crude, sharp guitar riffs. Songs like "Identity," "Art-I-Ficial" and "The Day the World Turned Day-Glo" were urbane and witty gems during punk’s first wave.
Then there was Poly herself, who stood apart for some obvious reasons. She was a woman in a scene dominated by men. Though punk was typically awash with pasty white faces, she was half Black. She had braces on her teeth and wore gaudy, neon outfits.
"Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard," she would say in a lobotomized dead pan, "but I think…"–then in her trademark wail: "Oh bondage! Up yours!"
This kind of statement couldn’t be shrugged off. "It’s always hard for women in rock music, but it was particularly hard in the ’70s," says original Pistols bassist Glen Matlock. "I think she cut right through that."