Sad news today, as seminal punk and feminist icon Poly Styrene is dead at age 53, of breast cancer.
“I chose the name Poly Styrene because it’s a lightweight disposable product,” says a young Marianne Elliott-Said in a 1978 BBC documentary about her. “Plastic, disposable… that’s what pop stars are meant to be, and therefore I thought I might as well send it up.” And to push the metaphor past good taste, Styrene’s influence on western society’s last great bohemia is just as enduring and difficult to break down as her namesake.
The daughter of a white British legal secretary mother and a dispossessed Somali aristocrat absent father, Styrene ran away from home as a teenager, bumming through London’s hippie scene until she heard her first Sex Pistols concert on her 18th birthday. She immediately put up flyers to start her own band, X-Ray Spex, and shot to notoriety with the single “Oh Bondage! Up Yours!”
Here’s the thing about the 1970s British and American punk scenes: they were every bit as misogynistic and race-exclusive as the society they claimed to stand counter to. And Styrene didn’t look the part of a punk — at the time, she was a mixed-race not-skinny avowed-feminist teenager with braces and day-glo old lady clothes, who later struggled with mental health issues. But Styrene embraced her role as punk’s conscience, both as critic and role model; she screamed down consumerism and magazine culture both inside and outside the scene, with a bullying shriek still heard in singers like latter-day feminist icon Kathleen Hanna.
The British playwright and self-described “deaf Indian Muslim punk” Sabina England eulogizes Styrene thus:
Rest in Peace, Poly Styrene. U were one of the first and true punk icons who never sold out unlike John Lydon. U were always gutsy and never apologized for being feminist or multiracial in a punk scene overdominated by white English males. The spirit of 77 lives on forever!
P.S if anyone of U call yourself a “punk” but never heard of her until today, you’re a big fraud and a poser. OH BONDAGE UP YOURS!