Oh Cancer, Up Yours: Appreciating Poly Styrene
A tiny, curly-haired creature pressed into a life-size test tube, smiling just slightly with braces and wrapped in a bright yellow coat with dark tights. Posing on the cover of the landmark X-Ray Spex album, Germ-Free Adolescents, in 1978, Poly Styrene (née Marianne Joan Elliott-Said) looked every bit the punk rock pioneer she was. In a world of high testosterone and rampant sexism, she stood out above the men, with a howling wail, instantly recognizable -- perhaps most of all on her rallying cry, "Oh Bondage, Up Yours."
But Styrene was much more than an icon, a feminist groundbreaker. At 15, the British-Somali teen ran away from home and discovered reggae, which she later incorporated into her own music, helping give X-Ray Spex a sound unlike most other acts out of London's punk scene.
Styrene wasn't just unique for her involvement in punk itself; she was distinctive inside the scene as well. She looked different. She sounded different. When riot grrl rose in the early 1990s, with it came a respect for the punk foremothers -- though in reality, there were few to look to. Kathleen Hanna, Bikini Kill's lead singer and riot grrrl's reluctant spokeswoman, reminded a generation of Styrene's importance. WBEZ Chicago Public Radio quoted Hanna once as saying, "People said, 'Oh, you sing just like Poly Styrene' ... and I was like, 'Yeah, great!' A lot of girls had never heard of Poly Styrene; maybe they'll hear me and then buy an X-Ray Spex record."
As a teenager in the late '90s, struggling with my place in a scene that still reeked of chauvinism, I bought Germ-Free Adolescents on vinyl. In it, I too found strength -- and weirdness. Styrene was weird like I was weird, like we all felt. Styrene stood out even against other females in the early punk scene. She was no Debbie Harry, to whose shiny blond hair, former-Playboy-bunny body, and sweet voice I could not relate. Styrene's style was louder, brighter, less inhibited. She railed against preconceived notions of what a female should be. She sang, "I am a poseur and I don't care." When I sold off most of my record collection to pay bills in my early 20s, hers was the first album I got back. To this day I still spin it for inspiration, for motivation.
In 2011, Styrene was on the verge of again taking the world by storm. Her most recent solo album, Generation Indigo, was released just last month (March 28), NPR profiled the prolific singer the day of her death. But life threw a wrench in her plans. Just months before the album dropped, Styrene was diagnosed with breast cancer. Early this morning it was formally announced (after much online speculation last night) that the singer had passed. She was 53. Oh cancer, up yours.