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I Wanna Be Instamatic: Poly Styrene RIP

April 27, 2011

I was really rather saddened yesterday to learn of the death of Marianne Elliott-Said, also known as Poly Styrene from X Ray Spex. Even though I’d heard she’d recently been diagnosed with cancer, it was a shock that the disease had so quickly taken hold of someone who had developed the public perception of being a kind of spiritual superwoman.
My first memory of Poly’s influence on me, and the first to appear in my head on reading the news, was of listening to a punk compilation cassette repeatedly in my Mum’s car as a kid. Amongst all the nice brash short shouty numbers and the conservative ‘new wave’ driving rock was ‘Germfree Adolescents’, a song that seemed uncharacteristically serene, lullaby-like, and – if viewed without its ironic intent – occasionally even quite tender. As a kid the lyrics about a hygiene freak – “cleans her teeth ten times a day” and so on – were both funny and unusual in a way that didn’t really immediately make sense (as “I hit him back with my pet rat” or “I wanna be a frozen pea” would also have been, if they were on there too). Also, amongst a collection of hits prone to terrace-chant thuggery (Sham 69 et al), Poly’s unique, quivering and heartfelt voice, sincere to the point of occasionally cracking, was a blessed and endlessly charming relief.
Years later, when at art school, Poly’s was one of a handful of voices that would regularly be singing meaningfully somewhere near the back of my conscious mind. Although she is rightly celebrated for (the album) Germfree Adolescents’ fully-formed statement against an overbearing consumerist world, her grasp of the theme of individual personality was to my mind completely unrivalled. For all the visual artwork I ever saw about confronting the public presented image of oneself (regardless of whether it was by my colleagues or in galleries and art books, and despite how good a lot of it was), I cannot recall any of it that betters the direct, no-nonsense, succinct and potent statement made by ‘Identity’. Similarly, when asked to do an artist’s biography, when most people rightly strove to prove how individual and idiosyncratic their practice was, it was a toss-up for me between putting “I’m a cliche, live next door”, or “My mind is like a plastic bag”.
For me, one of the greatest things about Poly’s lyrics – and the reason why her powerfully wailing voice and magnetic presence fit them so well – is their blatantness, their completely straightforward messages impossible to miss even at their most sarcastic. There are still many subtleties – ‘Germfree Adolescents’ as a song, for instance, seems almost passive-aggressive in its deriding of a sterile world’s lack of warmth – but it would be difficult to confuse the relentless intent of X Ray Spex’s sole LP. “We gotta be exploited by someone”; “You’re just another figure for the sales machine”; “Genetic engineering…could create an unknown life force that could us exterminate”. All the obituaries I’ve seen have centred, sometimes exclusively, around ‘Oh Bondage, Up Yours!’ and the much-needed coherent feminist punk rallying call it provided. What I think should also be noted, though, is Poly’s skill as an economical narrative storyteller. ‘The Day The World Turned Dayglo’ is the most obvious example, which in four short verses conveys a nightmarish future consumer world that, despite its cartoonish B-movie horror, is sung with a conviction that makes it seem vaguely plausible.
As far as I’m concerned, punk’s two greatest exponents – Ari Up and Poly Styrene – are now gone. Perhaps now is time to definitely draw a line under the whole thing. RIP.
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