How often do we choose to pursue what is actually right for us, based on our own unique passions, needs and ambitions? Or, rather, what possible joys lie on the other side of shirking what is expected? If engaging with these ideas is foundational to the concept of “punk,” then punk singer and poet Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex sets herself apart within the legacy of an already fearless subculture. Powered by independence and concerned with topics ranging from genetic engineering to personal identity, the artist born Marianne Joan Elliott-Said brought a unique pensiveness to the punk scene that radiated out from her braces-clad smile.
WORDS BY GABRIELLA LACOMBE
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A quest for individualism, particularly for women, can be a claustrophobic path of avoidance: avoiding being seen as argumentative, angry, or chronically unsatisfied, notwithstanding the possible reasons for having those feelings.
But what do we withhold when we avoid the act of uncompromising criticism? As we do our best within the already-established parameters of a given system or structure, how likely are we to question the suitability of its borders? How often do we choose to pursue what is actually right for us, based on our own unique passions, needs and ambitions?
Or, rather, what possible joys lie on the other side of shirking what is expected?
If engaging with these ideas is foundational to the concept of “punk,” then the late punk singer and poet Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex was a powerhouse in an already fearlessly divergent subculture. Born Marianne Joan Elliott-Said to a Scottish-Irish mother and a Somali father in 1957, Marianne’s mixed-race heritage served as the starting point of what would become a lifetime of dismissing baseless stereotypes.
Raised by her mother, Marianne developed an early passion for music and independence that inspired her to run away from home at the age of 15, forgoing a mundane life to hop between rock festivals throughout the English countryside. Later, after attending an early Sex Pistols concert, she put out an ad calling for "young punx who want to stick it together,” and the band X-Ray Spex was born.
To go with her new trade, Marianne developed the stage character Poly Styrene. “I chose the name Poly Styrene because it’s a lightweight, disposable product,” she told the BBC in 1979. “It sounded alright. I thought it was a send-up of being a pop star. It’s like a little figure, not me...just plastic, disposable, that’s what pop stars are meant to be.”
With brown skin and braces, Poly Styrene’s appearance was made all the more atypical within the predominantly white, male landscape of the late 70s English punk scene thanks to her personal style, born from a past of making and selling clothes on a market stall near the World's End pub (in an interview with The Guardian, Boy George said Marianne’s selection of jelly sandals in particular were “all the rage”). In contrast to the scene’s preference for black and bondage, Poly’s dress was equal parts adorable and commanding in bright colors (or dayglo) and what she casually referred to as “bits of junk.”
“Clothes are never really you,” she said in an interview with the BBC in 1979. “That’s why people wear them, because you can just create an image with clothes. It’s just part of a facade, which is good fun to play with sometimes.”
In her music, Poly displayed an emotional vulnerability rare to punk music, writing deftly about obsession, vanity, environmentalism, genetic engineering, consumerism and mental distress (a topic that would later be said to have some connection to the artist’s manic depression, which was not diagnosed until after the breakup of X-Ray Spex in 1979).
In 2011, Marianne died as a result of metastatic breast cancer at the age of 53. Although the X-Ray Spex only made one album, “Germ Free Adolescents,” the impact of Poly Styrene, her art and her spirit endure as a legacy of female independence.
At John Crancher's Punk Fashion Show
Below, an excerpt from the X-Ray Spex song, “Plastic Bag”
“My mind is like a plastic bag
That corresponds to all those ads
It sucks up all the rubbish
That is fed in through by ear
I eat kleenex for breakfast
And I use soft hygienic Weetabix
To dry my tears”
“My mind is like a switchboard
With crossed and tangled lines
Contented with confusion
That is plugged into my head
I don't know what's going on
It's the operators job, not mine