In the summer of 1976, when she was just 19 years old, a biracial British woman named Marianne Joan Elliott-Said caught an early show by The Sex Pistols and decided to form a punk group of her own. By 1977, she’d rechristened herself Poly Styrene, a stage name that was both contemporary and slyly anti-consumerist, and was fronting a band called X-Ray Spex. That group released but one album during its prime: 1978’s acclaimed Germfree Adolescents, featuring the defiant song “Identity.” The group also turned heads with its controversial single, “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” A sporadic solo career followed for Styrene, punctuated by very occasional reunions with her band. The singer died of breast cancer in 2011 at the age of only 53, and today her music is known mainly to punk rock completists and music trivia whizzes. That’s not nearly good enough for writer Ashley Reese, who tries to turn the tide of history with an article for Rookie called “Hero Status: Poly Styrene.”
As the article reveals, Reese feels a deep personal connection to Styrene and X-Ray Spex. As a young, mixed-race woman in a field that remains dominated by white men even today, Styrene was an exception to the rule, an outsider even among outsiders. Reese loved punk but had a difficult time finding a role model in the genre until she discovered X-Ray Spex. Shy and soft-spoken during interviews and mistrustful of media hype and fan adoration, Styrene became a much more outgoing, dynamic person onstage and on record. She cultivated her own, highly quirky personal style, too, complete with signature braces. Styrene was not interested in becoming a sex symbol, a la The Runaways. Given the rampant sexism of the era in which she worked, “it’s easy to see why Poly wanted to avoid becoming a play thing for the male gaze.”
Unfortunately, the singer’s career was derailed for years by mental illness and misdiagnoses. Today, X-Ray Spex is largely relegated to footnote status in punk history. But Reese writes with great passion about Styrene because she’s on a mission, a one-woman crusade to rescue this woman’s legacy from obscurity. As she explains:
I don’t want people to stumble on Poly Styrene or X-Ray Spex as a happy accident anymore. I want Poly’s legacy to be part of the punk canon, her screams to be a rite of passage for punks, music lovers, and black girls who are tired of wallowing in their own out-of-placeness.