Scream until the glass ceilings crack. As punker Poly Styrene opened the door for another – A2larm

It is sometimes said that popular music is like a battlefield. There is a struggle for the right to self-determination: for who we are. When you look at archival footage of Poly Styrene and his band X-Ray Spex from the 1970s, you have to agree. Styrene wears a military helmet and pilot goggles, as well as colorful tights and a greenish dress. She parades on stage, squints and smiles all over the place, her suspenders shining. “Some people think little girls shouldn’t be seen and heard, / But I say: Put bondage somewhere,” Poly Styrene, then 20, shouts at the start of the single Oh Bondage, Up Yours! starting in 1977. After that, the band began an energetic three-chord punk procedure, but the new wave saxophone solos also attracted attention. Poly Styrene’s screaming voice sounds like a horn and goes well with the saxophone – she never sang softly, quietly or submissively, as was expected of singers at the time. From the first concerts, X-Ray Spex caused a sensation because the group did not sound like the others.

I am a cliche

Although some thought the single title bondage referred to sexual practices, Poly Styrene used it as a metaphor for the consumerist lifestyle and social stereotypes that place women in preconceived and close roles. But it’s not just a feminist anthem: inspired by shots of suffragettes demonstrating outside Buckingham Palace, it’s also a song from David Bowie’s Suffragette City or images of chained African slaves.

Although Poly Styrene did not use sociological terms, it introduced the much-discussed intersectionality into today’s punk.

As an Anglo-Somali of mixed race, Poly Styrene fought for liberation on many fronts. “If someone told me I was a sex symbol, I would shave my head the next day,” she said in an interview. She chose the name Poly Styrene because it is said to describe an era full of art and the rise of the environmental movement. “The name is plastic and disposable, like pop stars,” she once explained. His music was full of exaggeration, cultural criticism, references to science fiction and pulp books, and above all there was joy and a spark of glamor in his speech. In the midst of an explosion of self-destructive punk, this was unique. Instead of sharp pyramids on jackets and chains, Styrene chose sequins. At the same time, she embodies the DIY punk motto more than anyone else: in addition to composing music, she also makes clothes and creates pop art covers for recordings.

Poly Styrene died 34 years after the release of the breakthrough single for breast cancer, but he still inspires and his legacy is joined by singers such as Neneh Cherry and FKA Twigs. “She made me a confident artist,” he said. “I love polystyrene, I love what you stand for. And most of all, how hard and cheeky she pushed for it.”

The new documentary Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché (named after an X-Ray Spex single), which premiered last year and will be screened in the Czech Republic on April 8 in Prague, Hradec Králové and Brno at European Film Days festival, tells the unusual story of the punk pioneer. This is not a classic musical documentary. Starring director Paul Sng, it was directed by the singer’s daughter Celeste Bell and, among other things, captures their complicated relationship. Belle accompanies the document and describes what it’s like when your late mother finds herself with a bunch of zines and you come to understand her better.

fight with glory

Poly Styrene was born Marianne Joan Elliott-Said in 1957. The Somali father was a nomad and a sailor, so she was raised by her English mother. She grew up and grew up in Brixton at a time of racial unrest, when she saw the words “Black Gone” all over her neighborhood and all over London. She was persecuted by skinheads because of her background, but even black immigrants didn’t accept her. She ran away from school at the age of fifteen, rode a wave of hippies and toured music festivals. She was interested in ecology, theater, fashion and the occult. She read Freud and Jung and watched David Bowie with the same fervor. She composed her own songs from an early age, took opera lessons for a while, even released a Silly Billy single under her own name, but only punk gave her feelings the expression she felt. was looking for.

On her nineteenth birthday, she saw a Sex Pistols concert in the seaside town of Hastings. Shortly after the concert, she placed an ad in the music magazine Melody Maker. “Young punks who want to pull themselves together,” he said. The first line-up was bassist Paul Dean and saxophonist Laura Logic, the name of the group was read in a real detective magazine, and after less than three concerts they already had a contract with Virgin, which is an incredible success of rocket. Shortly after their debut single, the band signed to Germfree Teenagers, this time with another major label EMI. Poly Styrene and the band quickly outgrew punk and became pop stars. This was followed by appearances on the prestigious BBC airtime on Top of The Pops, US tours and concerts at the famous New York club CBGB.

“A lot of people think X-Ray Spex was a lot more underground band than they actually were. But my mom struggled inside to be a celebrity,” her daughter Celeste Bell explained in a recent interview with the New York Times: “There’s a kind of notoriety that you can’t escape. Mom got all that attention, even though it didn’t take long – because she voluntarily quit.”

Family drama

It is said that the only community New York punk bands knew was through a syringe needle. The Vietnam War and lost dreams of a hippie utopia were probably to blame, but this deep nihilism and darkness hit the sensitive Poly Styrene hard. It wasn’t much better at home and it was affecting his personality as well. In 1978 she was misdiagnosed with schizophrenia and watched some of her television appearances from a psychiatric hospital room, but a visit to New York made matters worse and Styrene gradually developed bipolar disorder.

In addition, she felt alone on stage – she was not a follower of folk singer Joni Mitchell, but even Siouxsia’s gothic stylization did not appeal to her. She didn’t need to make up horror stories about the London cemetery when she had real trouble in front of her. The documentary I Am a Cliché details the scene where Styrene goes to a party with Sex Pistols singer Johnny Rotten. She is sitting in a room full of people and no one is paying attention to her. After a while he disappears, locks himself in the toilet and disappears without a word after an hour. The next day, he will perform at the Rock Against Racism concert alongside The Clash or Sham 69 and show a 100,000 people in London’s Victoria Park a shaved head.

At the event, the groups jointly protested against the far-right National Front and the anger over Margaret Thatcher as leader of the opposition to the Labor government. Music magazines such as NME and Sounds published multi-page articles on institutionalized racism at the time, and the punk movement itself dealt with fascism at its heart. Rock Against Racism was a huge hit, although mainstream dailies wrote about the concert. However, shortly after the gig, Styrene collapsed and announced his retirement – the year Johnny Rotten declared the punk dead, he disbanded the Sex Pistols and founded Public Image Ltd.

“She was not the first woman to shave her head in defiance, and certainly not the last. It was a strong gesture, but also a cry for help,” comments Celeste Bell on archive footage X -Ray Spex “She really needed a break and couldn’t handle the pressure on the pop star.” Poly Styrene realized it was becoming a commodity.

The documentary I Am a Cliché is told through Poly Styrene diary entries, through which her daughter delves into and navigates pivotal moments from her mother’s past. The film is unique in that it shows fame on both sides. Bell describes that her mother was considered a fashion icon, but she was ashamed of her on the streets. She was bored during her interview. She didn’t even understand his spiritual journey, and she embarrassedly recalls a time when they lived together in the Hare Krishna commune on Bhaktivedanta Manor, a move spearheaded by George Harrison in the 1970s. years, she ran away from her mother and the authorities left her in the care of her grandmother. Bell was only able to appreciate her mother’s cultural influence from a distance, and the reconciliation took place in her zero years, when they began to spend more time and even create together. The documentary I Am a Cliché is therefore almost a family drama, which begins with rejection and defiance and ends with acceptance. Additionally, Bell was left behind as the protector of her mother’s legacy, leaving her a box full of drawings, vintage documents and journals, from which she curated Dayglo in 2019! The history of polystyrene.

New dictionary

On November 10, 1979, when X-Ray Spex disbanded, Germ Free Teenagers was released, which influenced future generations. Donna Summer reigned supreme on the Billboard charts with MacArthur Park and Anne Murray with You Needed Me. Both songs are tender, in which the woman appears as an emotional and melancholic being. Poly Styrene, on the other hand, screams on recording so you can hear the glass ceilings crackle. “When you look in the mirror, / do you see yourself? shouts Poly Styrene with determination in Identity: “Do you see yourself on the TV screen, / do you see yourself on the front page? / When you see yourself, / do you see yourself wanting to scream?”

He criticizes with a breath the way women are portrayed in the media and the invisibility of those who do not meet beauty standards. Elsewhere, he points out that there is no authentic expression in a consumer society. As in the song Art-I-Ficial: “When I wear makeup, / this beautiful mask that isn’t me, / then I look / at what a girl should look like in the consumer society.” It’s remarkable how germ-free teens the recording has aged. Today, while the influence of women in rock and punk music is still appreciated and new challenges emerge, her songs are perhaps even more current than before. “My mom didn’t have a simple life,” Celeste Bell told The New York Times. “There were a lot of hurdles in her path that she had to overcome as a woman of mixed background, but she made it and she did it on her own terms.”

Although Poly Styrene didn’t use sociological terms, it punked the much-talked-about intersectionality: issues of racism, capitalism, feminism and environmentalism were part of a fight for it. The same year that Germ Free Adolescents came out, British punk bands Raincoats and The Slits released their first albums, which Poly Styrene stomped on and provided them with vocabulary. As Raincoats vocalist and bassist Gina Birch says at the end of I Am and Cliché: “To me, Poly Styrene’s legacy is that she opened Pandora’s box. It gave us all new tools, ideas and opportunities. »

The author is a music publicist and prepares the Soundsystem newsletter for Alarm.

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