Back in April, Poly Styrene, best known as the frontperson for the outstanding early punk band X-Ray Spex, passed away at 53 from breast cancer. As the obituaries began popping up, I was kinda shocked by the reactions I saw on the Twitters and the Tumblrs and such. A ridiculous number of people were saying things like “HOW DID I NOT KNOW WHO THIS WOMAN WAS BEFORE NOW?”
At first I felt old -- because how can you be of a certain age and NOT know about X-Ray Spex? -- which is pretty silly, given that the band was formed at least six months prior to my even being born. And then I felt really hip, because pssshhhht, I knew about Poly Styrene before she was dead.
In 1975, on her 18th birthday, Poly (not her real name) saw a wacky new band in a near-empty venue. They called themselves the Sex Pistols. Poly was inspired enough by their antics to take out an ad in a couple UK music papers inquiring after “Young punx who want to stick it together,” and X-Ray Spex came together from there. Poly wrote the songs, most of which dealt with consumerism, synthetic culture, feminism, and body politics.
I first discovered X-Ray Spex’s single album, “Germfree Adolescents,” in high school, during a phase in which it was of the utmost importance to me that ALL the music I listened to be as obscure as humanly possible.
Though X-Ray Spex were hardly obscure in many circles, in my rosy little mid-90s South Florida world, they were practically space aliens. Sure, their music was old, but they were appealingly and righteously angry! And they had a girl singer! Who actually looked and acted like someone I could relate to! I listened to “Identity” continuously as a teen: “Do you see yourself on the TV screen / Do you see yourself in the magazine / When you see yourself / Does it make you scream?”
Nearly everything about Poly confronted the comfortable assumptions about what a lady rock star ought to be like -- in the culture of the time, sure, but Poly would be a pretty radical figure even today. She was mixed-race. She wore big ol’ metal braces on her teeth (something that became enough of a trademark that one particularly doltish interviewer once asked her whether they were “decorative or functional”). She was not about being sexy in the conventional sense -- although I personally think she was sexy as hell -- and she actively rejected feminine beauty standards. She was tough and smart and clever.
Also, she had mad style.
Poly’s take on culture was sharp and unblinking. X-Ray Spex was best known for the anthemic “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!” When asked whether the song was about “women’s liberation” (doesn’t that term sound so quaint now?) Poly said it was about freedom from all kinds of oppression. It’s probably little wonder that I continue to idolize this woman.
Let’s all go make garbage-bag dresses and dance. Who’s with me?