R.I.P. Poly Styrene, a Punk Pioneer

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Published April 26, 2011

 

POLY STYRENE IN FEBRUARY 2010. PHOTO COURTESY OF AYAN HUSSAIN

“Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard, but I think, ‘Oh bondage, up yours!'”

Those are the words that most people will associate with feminist punk icon Poly Styrene—and fitting words they are for Styrene, born Marianne Elliott-Said, who passed away yesterday at age 53 after a battle with breast cancer, according to a statement on her website. Musicians ranging from the Beastie Boys to Boy George to feminist rock supergroup Wild Flag have all paid tribute via Twitter, emphasizing Styrene’s influence on punk and her defiant refusal to adhere to society’s standards for women. As the lead singer for British punk group X-Ray Spex, Styrene, a biracial—her father was a dispossessed Somali aristocrat—teenaged girl with braces, was an unlikely candidate for ballsy, screeching frontwoman. But she burst through stereotypes and inspired countless women—riot grrrl probably wouldn’t have happened without her—with her lyrics bemoaning a life defined by consumerism (“Warrior in Woolworth’s” and “Art-I-Ficial”) and sexism (“Age” and “Identity”). Styrene’s work in X-Ray Spex over the course of five singles and one LP, Germ Free Adolescents, was preoccupied with the increasingly claustrophobic and synthetic world around her. Songs like “Genetic Engineering” and “Germ Free Adolescents,” which detail society’s obsession with cleanliness and purity, are equally compelling and true thirty years after the fact. And who could forget singular lines like “I eat Kleenex for breakfast”?

 

 

 

 

After Styrene left X-Ray Spex in 1979, she followed a characteristically unusual path, first with her solo album Translucence, a decidedly less confrontational but moving and ambitious post-punk gem, and then, like her X-Ray Spex comrade Lora Logic, by joining the Hare Krishna movement in 1983. She would appear off and on in the following years, both solo and with a few attempts at an X-Ray Spex reunion in 1991, 1995, and 2008. Recently, she had re-emerged with a dance-influenced new album, Generation Indigo, which is out today in the U.S. on Future Noise Music and features cameos by The Slits’ Viv Albertine and Styrene’s own daughter and sister. Even when Styrene was away from the spotlight due to her illness, her brash howl, piercing lyrics, and feminist message continued to inspire new listeners.