Rewind: Who Is Poly Styrene?


When I learned of the news that Poly Styrene had passed back in 2011, I not only mourned for the lost of a melody-making she-ro, but of a ideal.

When Poly Styrene (birth certificate name: Marianne Joan Elliot-Said) broke the punk scene in the late 1970s as the frontwoman for notable punk outfit, X-Ray Spex, not only was she one of the few women who had a electric presence in the punk movement, but she was also one of the few women of color. Poly being part Somalian gives this excellent 1979 BBC Arena special a distinctive slant. Her being an anomaly in an already polarizing musical movement kneads the documentary's premise to show how conflicting Poly and Marianne are, how they are two conflicting creatures fighting for dominance, somewhat suggesting that someone as cute and cherub as Poly couldn't possibly be a riled-up caustic punk star --- but plot twist! --- she was.

Poly truly wasn't your typical punktress, the glint of her braces and the sweet, soft-spoken demeanor poise her as the girl you could take home to meet mama, but after she grocery shops for Weetabix and detergent, she dons military-styled jackets, goggles, and helmets, and storms the stage with her arsenal of critiques towards the status quo. But this is what I've always liked about Poly, her duality, the switcheroo she pulls on the public. To me, it's a subtle reminder of the role playing, the exhaustive shape-shifting of what a woman, especially a woman of color, has to go through on the day-to-day. Instead of succumbing to the superficiality of trying to live up to Westernized (aka "white only") images, Poly took a subversive approach, poking fun at the lunacy of it.

When Poly flips through a fashion magazine, falling on a pictures of supermodels Janice Dickinson and a nubile Brooke Shields, and then is seen posing for her own photoshoot, it says so much without saying anything. Poly and Marianne may have been two separate entities, this from the theory that this documentary poses, but they are one in the same as non-conformity and self-identification is what they "both" craved.



I would say I'm not much of a punk fan, but that may be a lie considering 'punk' is not so much as a genre, but a state of mind. Anger and confusion, the insatiable attitude of wanting to buck the screwed-up system is something that roils inside of me, and Poly is sort of a hero figure for me as a young black girl for that. Seeing her channel her anger, her confusion, and her desire to be seen as a woman on her own terms through songs like "Identity" and the seminal "Oh Bondage! Up Yours!", and within the cultural milieu of punk, is inspiring. Punk may be as far-left as far-left can get, but it still had an exclusive white male only agenda, Poly's presence smashes the idyllic machismo of the genre, where she was nobody's sexual object, wasn't someone who would accommodate or forsake her femininity just to fit in.



At some points in this doc, Poly doesn't seem comfortable with being ensnared into the narcissistic culture of celebrity. If she could avoid the interviews and the photoshoots, she would. Even her name is a jab at what she doesn't want to be ("I chose the name Poly Styrene because it's a lightweight, disposable product") and with the "see-me-be-me" air of the 1980s on the horizon, she saw the future, and she wanted to climb over "the mounds and mounds of poly styrene foam" before it swamped her. So her pulling out of the spotlight, after the disintegration of X-Ray Spex and a short solo stint that produced in 1981 a quirky, island-jazz dream debut that alienated punk fans, was a bittersweet move for the sake of her sanity.

Poly truly was ahead of her time as she strolled into a world that continues to still not to know what to do when diversity comes barreling through the door. Even though we never said it, Poly Styrene was the ideal all along.

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