This morning I was greeted with the news that Poly Styrene had died. I should be getting use to the deaths of punk icons by now, given that so many have begun to pass on from either hard living or old age. But the death of Poly Styrene hit me pretty hard. I never met her. Never got to see her perform live. But she made a deep and indelible mark on me. She is one of the reasons I consider myself a feminist today.
Born Marianne Elliot-Said, Poly Styrene went to see the Sex Pistols perform on her eighteenth birthday. Inspired by what she witnessed, she immediately formed the band X-Ray Spex. They released only one album, Germ Free Adolescence, before splitting up (they reformed later, but I’m not counting that). They gained famed with “Oh Bondage Up Yours!,” marked by Styrene’s infectious and absolutely unconventional vocal style. After the band broke up, she went on to release three solo albums, including this years’ Generation Indigo. She also spent some time being a Hare Krishna. I read somewhere that Boy George of Culture Club tried to “liberate” her from a Hare Krishna temple. I really hope that story is true, because I like to imagine how it must have gone down.
I got turned onto Poly Styrene and X-Ray Spex fairly early. It was probably around 1981-83, just after I got into punk as a really young teenager. For me, punk was a guys’ thing. At the time, I didn’t know too many females who were into punk and all the bands I listened to were made up entirely of guys: The Clash, The Ramones, Sex Pistols, Minor Threat, and Black Flag. In my feeble mind, punk was entirely a male thing. Picking up the X-Ray Spex’ Germ Free Adolescence at the local record shop blew the top of my fucking skull right off.
First off, that wasn’t what I thought punk was supposed to sound like. I assumed it was all just macho-posing hard rock. This was playful, catchy, unconventional, and most definitely punk. And that voice! Holy fucking shit. That was some serious emotion punching through my speakers. Completely unorthodox, even by what I though punk standards were. And what the hell is a saxophone doing in a punk rock song? Suddenly the horizons of what punk was and could be opened up all around me.
I remember each sides of the album saved their knock-out punches for last. Side A culminated with the brilliant song “Identity,” while side B slams the reader with “The Day The World Turned Day-Glo.” Supposedly Poly wrote “Identity” after seeing a girl slash her wrists in a bathroom. She took that tragedy and turned it into a powerful indictment of our capitalist consumer society. I still have no idea what “The Day The World Turned Day-Glo” is about, but I do know that it is a brilliant piece of work. My friend Mack wrote to me this afternoon and noted that Poly wrote more brilliant songs when she was 18-freakin’-years old than most brilliant song writers will ever hope to write. So true.
But it was really “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” that personally transformed me. I picked up the single soon after getting their debut album (later re-releases would include the single on Germ Free Adolescence). I’m sure in the outpouring of eulogies that are no doubt begin to circulate, people more articulate and more famous will talk about the enormous impact this song had on them and the world. I can only testify to what that opening sentence did to me. It made me a feminist. Before the music kicks in, you can here Poly saying: “Some people say little girls should be seen and not heard, but I think OH BONDAGE UP YOURS!” Blam, a high-heeled boot straight to my cerebral cortex. Before I heard that single, I was just another 15-year-old misogynist-in-training shithead. I didn’t know any better. I thought guys made punk and girls watched them admiringly. I thought women were objects, not equals. I thought all the stupid shit that I am now embarrassed to even remember.
I’m not saying I suddenly grabbed a copy of Betty Friedan’ Feminine Mystique and charged into the frontline of the boys’ locker room to challenge the patriarchy wherever I saw it. I wish. No, my path to being an enlightened male feminist took some time. But Poly Styrene did me a huge favor by launching me down that road. I picked up other records by punk women. I increasingly turned away in revulsion at the misogynist rantings of punk icons (we all know who they are). And, more than anything, I recognized that punk was a site for female empowerment. It always had been. But something got lost along the way. When the Riot Grrrl movement took off in the 1990s, I was right there with them. This was about reclaiming lost territory. Poly Styrene and others had made sure punk was an open space. Somehow we betrayed them and it was important that we take that space back. It still is. It is still a fight worth having. It is a process we can’t give up on. There is too much at stake.
I’m a college professor now. I’m not sure what my students make of me. I think they are probably bemused both my feminism and my being a punk. They are generally more conservative than I am. And their music tastes suck. I always say that the day one of my students wears a t-shirt for a band that I like, I will hug them.
This afternoon, one of my favorite students walked into my office to pay me a visit. She was wearing a day-glo robe that she had sewn together and a white t-shirt. Across the t-shirt in big scrawling letters she had written “Oh bondage up yours!” I hugged her and broke into tears.