Poly Styrene: an appreciation

Various media sources are reporting that singer Marianne Elliot-Said has died of complications of breast cancer at age 53. Elliot-Said was better known under the stage name Poly Styrene, a name she used while singing with X-Ray Spex.

X-Ray Spex had a short career. In 1976, Elliot-Said was taking voice lessons, learning how to sing opera, and recording derivative reggae songs on the side, when she saw the Sex Pistols perform. This exposure to punk rock galvanized her, and she decided to form her own punk band, X-Ray Spex. The band performed together for about three years, recorded a handful of singles and one album, then disbanded in 1979.

Following the demise of X-Ray Spex, Elliot-Said joined the Hare Krishnas — more properly, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, a branch of Hinduism that worships Vishnu, and is devoted to bhakti yoga, or expressions of devotion to God. I had not known that Elliot-Said had joined the Hare Kishnas, but I was not entirely surprised. When she was singing with X-Ray Spex, her voice had a transcendent, joyful quality to it — even when she was singing about the horrors of genetic engineering, or screaming (in late 1970s punk vocal style) “Oh bondage! up yours!” Although the punk rock idiom of the late 1970s was fairly limited, as practiced by someone like Poly Styrene the vocal style could approach a raucous and ecstatic transcendence. There was often a hint of rapture in her voice, even a hint of a connection to something larger than herself.

Elliot-Said has been interpreted as an early exponent of what came to be called third-wave feminism; she had a clear influence on later feminist bands like The Slits, and it’s hard to imagine the riot-grrrl movement without her example. She allied herself with the anti-racist forces within punk rock and was bi-racial — a Somali father and an English mother — and perhaps she will be claimed as an early adopter of multiracial identity. She also had a preference for day-glo colors and wore braces on her teeth, though it’s harder to know what to make of those attributes.

But I prefer to remember her simply for her full-throated, no-holds-barred singing, a kind of punk bhakti devotion that invited us all to transform and transcend. The hell with the anemic pablum of praise bands — if you’re gonna make me have amplified music in a worship service, I won’t settle for anything less the raw full-throated raucous singing of someone like Poly Styrene.

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