RIP, Poly Styrene
by, 26th April 2011 at 10:55 AM (279 Views)
Poly Styrene, frontwoman of the iconic punk band X-Ray Spex, died yesterday of cancer.
I'm betting most people here haven't heard of her, and that's understandable. X-Ray Spex weren't widely known outside of the UK, and even in this country, they're the sort of band mostly held in high regard by nerdy punk connoisseurs like myself. They released just one album in their 1970s heyday, Germ Feee Adolescents, which appears high up on just about every list of the best punk albums.
Poly was unusual first and foremost for being a woman fronting a band in an era when women were mainly considered accessories; something pretty to look at while the men got on with the business of the actual music. Even the punk scene, for all its revolutionary fervour, was mostly guilty of this.
Additionally, by any conventional measure of women in music at that time, Poly was an oddity. She was a short, plump, half-Somalian girl with braces, most often dressed in dayglo colours. Her vocal style was unpolished and often quite odd. A lot of her material was about defying norms, particularly in terms of appearance. Plenty of female artists have done this since, but Poly was one of the instigators, being a direct influence on the Riot Grrrl scene of the late 1990s and, more recently, a spiritual predecessor to the likes of Beth Ditto and Lady Gaga.
Shortly after her success with X-Ray Spex, Poly was mis-diagnosed with schizophrenia and told that she'd never work again. It was discovered, much later, that she actually had bipolar disorder. She continued to make music, mostly as a solo artist, right up until her death, with her most recent album released just last month.
Old as I am, I was actually born shortly after the era of X-Ray Spex, and I became aware of them as an influence on bands from the mid-1990s that I loved, such as Bis and Sleater-Kinney. Going back and listening to this band from 1978, it was amazing just how contemporary it all seemed, and I think the music still passes this test today. Identity is a particular favourite of mine, and probably sums up the style and spirit of X-Ray Spex better than any other track.
I suppose the most special thing about Poly Styrene, to me, is that she was first. So many great things were inspired by her work and iconic image. I'm quite sure that there are musicians today, perhaps not even aware of her, who nonetheless owe their careers to the trail she blazed.
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