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Why Poly Styrene’s Voice Was Anything But Disposable

Photo: Gus Stewart/Redferns
Poly Styrene performing with X-Ray Spex at England’s Roxy Club in 1977. Photo: Gus Stewart/Redferns

The first eleven seconds of X-Ray Spex’s debut single, from 1977, rank among the most memorable punk intros on record. “Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard,” says their singer, in a flat, pouty tone. “But I think” — and here her voice raises into a jubilant half-scream — “OH BONDAGE UP YOURS!” Then she counts in the band, “one two three four,” only the “four” goes squealing upward, thrillingly. Everything the song has to say is already captured in those eleven seconds, before the music even begins. Sadly enough, the woman who accomplished that, Poly Styrene, died last night, at age 53, of breast cancer. Today, her newest and last album, Generation Indigo, was released in the U.S.

X-Ray Spex was not exactly an ordinary punk band, and most of that had to do with Poly Styrene — an ex-hippie runaway born Marianne Joan Elliot-Said, the daughter of a British secretary and a “dispossessed Somali aristocrat.” She wore bright new-wave colors, instead of punk’s ratty bondage gear, and she had a mouth full of braces, which some seemed to take as a fashion statement. Her only noticeable concession to anyone else’s style was the military cap she wore to cover her curly hair, which was a little too mainstream-seventies to be in fashion for punks. The most striking thing, though, was her voice. She’d been trained for opera, but with X-Ray Spex she used those pipes to thrill and needle you, singing in a flat, keening yelp. It’s bold and commanding, and many female vocalists have come back to it when they’re looking for a way of singing that’s fierce, but fiercely feminine — that sounds like it’s bursting free from expectations. You can hear a profound echo of it in nineties riot grrrls like Kathleen Hanna, or a helping, today, in the Gossip’s Beth Ditto.

Styrene’s themes were remarkably lucid, too. On X-Ray Spex’s first album, Germ-Free Adolescents, her lyrics were a giddy, relentless barrage of questions about plasticity, artificiality, and identity. “The Day the World Turned Day-Glo” has the entire landscape turning into acrylic, latex, and rayon; elsewhere, she’s screaming, “I wanna be a frozen pea! I wanna be dehydrated!” The title track has two teenagers cleaning themselves until they turn sterile, antiseptic, and lifeless. “Do you see yourself in the magazine,” she asks — or maybe something foreign, plastic, and born in a lab? A year later, another of the Great Women of Post-Punk — Ari Up of the Slits — would be singing “Typical Girls,” a song with similar questions about the consumer world: “Typical girls buy magazines, typical girls feel like hell / Typical girls worry about spots, fat, and natural smells.”

One thing that’s always fascinated me about those Great Women of Post-Punk — Ari Up, Poly Styrene, Lora Logic, the Au Pairs, the Delta 5, Siouxsie Sioux — is the way they seemed driven by a lot more than just music. You get the sense that punk was, for them, only a convenient opportunity, a sudden window during which teenage girls could get on stages and yelp about the things they wanted to yelp about. The real point was to keep questing after that kind of liberation, wherever it might be found. That’s what you see, anyway, in the roving, searching lives some of them led. Ari Up — the child of a very wealthy, very bohemian family — married and had children, became a Rastafarian, lived among the indigenous people of Indonesia and Belize, moved to Jamaica, made reggae and dancehall albums, wore baggy men’s overcoats “because their folds deflected the knives of attackers who tried to stab her,” and made music right up until her death, last October, also of cancer. She was 48. Poly Styrene joined the Hare Krishnas, along with bandmate Lora Logic; she raised a daughter, was treated for bipolar disorder, and made a quiet, reflective solo record. X-Ray Spex reunited, here and there, to play shows and record, but as of last month, Poly was still looking forward: “I know I’ll be remembered for ‘Oh Bondage Up Yours!,’” she said. “I’d like to be remembered for something a bit more spiritual.”

This new album, Generation Indigo, isn’t explicitly spiritual, but it’s certainly the work of an artist who never dug into the past — it sounds, quite plausibly, like the music the young Poly Styrene would be making today. The lead track is a buzzy electro ode to someone’s vegan sneakers. It slips straight into “Virtual Boyfriend,” a charming single about — what else? — the weird artificiality of loving something through a computer. (We’ve moved, obviously, from plastics and synthetics to silicon.) The album’s full of sleek and chintzy electro and rock, dub and reggae, and a mellowed but still lovable singer, writing about what she likes; certain tracks sound like an M.I.A. who’s more earnest about ideals than “edge.”

The name Poly Styrene comes from the plastic that sporks and Styrofoam are made from — she chose it because it referred to something “lightweight and disposable.” Here’s the thing about polystyrene, though: It’s one of the least biodegradable things you handle every day. It stays around forever. The name is apt that way: We will most likely continue, for a long while, to hear women pass along bits of the way Poly Styrene sang. It’s a sound that answered an important question: How can a woman get onstage and be commanding without having to imitate masculine versions of “tough”? What’s another way for a woman’s voice to sound fierce — but also find audible, inspiring joy in the fact of speaking up? Her answer is very nearly contagious: There’s such freedom and pleasure there that it’s no surprise singers keep coming back to it.

Why Poly Styrene’s Voice Was Anything But Disposable