In Loving Memory of Poly Styrene

Poly (far right) performing with The X-Ray Spex

The X-Ray Spex not only expanded punk rock’s palette sonically, but stylistically and demographically. They presented a cogent, creative anti-Capitalist critique that was miles ahead of the adolescent anger of many of their peers, to say nothing of the intelligent radicalism of their race and gender politics. And they were fun. Poly was plenty pissed off, but she sure knew how to have a good time singing about what was fucked up in her world. The X-Ray Spex personified what I, as a highschooler, thought of as Real Punk Rock when such a phrase actually meant something to me. They were daring, rebellious, and spat in the face of convention, including punk rock convention. Poly was an ideal punk front person–bold and unique and passionate, with truth after truth she insisted on telling through The Spex’s series of indelible singles. She dressed as oddly as she pleased, as any good punk should, and her excellent style pushed the boundaries of punk’s commentary-through-fashion. Her plastic dresses and braces were a revelation. She virtually remade punk rock into the big umbrella of intelligent misfits its true believers like pretend it can be. According to my memory of what Poly’s said, The Spex ultimately disbanded because their post-Germ Free Adolescents sound refused to stagnate. They got musically weirder, and more experimental, and a chunk of their base turned on the band, heckling and pelting them at shows. I can’t for the life of me find the interview where she says this right now, and I don’t want to perpetuate a convenient myth of a narrative, but it’s sadly unsurprising if Poly and the Spex, ultimately were too challenging to the emerging genre they helped define.

I haven’t even talked about her voice. Poly’s vocals were both immense and relateably human. She could employ a ‘luded out sing-song, then turn on a dime and let loose an earthquaking bellow that shook you deliciously to your core. Large swaths of Bikini Kill-era Kathleen Hanna’s extremely effective vocal qualities and techniques are directly reminiscent of Poly’s pioneering style, a comparison Hanna herself acknowledges as legitimate. When I was in high school, I was able to take for granted that women could not only scream into a mic in front of loud guitars (and sax!), but fuck with their delivery in all sorts of interesting and exciting ways. Poly had an amazing voice, but the way she utilized it was revolutionary. Most of the riot grrrl and other feminist-ish punk/influenced singers I listened to in high school owed much to Poly’s brave and experimental approach (as they do to kindred spirit and rabble rouser Ari Up, who also recently died tragically young of cancer.)

This is probably my favorite X-Ray Spex song:

Today, all the songs on Germ Free Adolescents, the band’s classic 1978 album, feel both timely and timeless. The band still manages to sound ahead of the curve of what passes for punk music today, and the lyrics…well, the lyrics, despite being very much of their moment, hold up impeccably. “1977 and we are going mad/1977 and we’ve seen too many ads/1977 and we’re gonna show them all/Ah-pah-thy’s a draaaaaag!” Poly thrillingly railed on the chorus of “Plastic Bag”, and you could just as easily substitute 2011 to make the song work, if you had a singer with even half as much talent, charisma, and conviction. On the ironically subdued chorus, in between the narrator’s moments of white hot clarity, she muses “My mind is like a plastic bag/that corresponds to all those ads/it sucks up all the rubbish that is fed into my ears/I ate Kleenex for breakfast/and used soft, hygenic Weetabix to dry my tears” and “My mind is like a switchboard/with crossed and tangled lines/contented with confusion/that is plugged into my head/ I don’t know what’s going on/It’s the operator’s job, not mine”

This resonates with me as much today as it did in the ’90s, when I wore out my CD copy of the blessedly, finally reissued album. The reissue had a different song order than the original, supposedly, and I’d often program my CD player to the original pressing’s sequence (I felt the album worked better with “Oh Bondage, Up Yours” as a thrilling bonus track coda rather than up front, and generally enjoyed being a bit obsessive in my fandom of a band this awesome). The Sex Pistols were fun, at least when they weren’t whining about some lady having an abortion, but The X-Ray Spex were a real blast. They were not only entertaining as hell, but convinced me that older punk must have a lot to offer (the first time I heard the Pistols I was pretty underwhelmed–this angsty pop was what caused all that fuss?) leading me to some highlights of the golden age (loosely defined)–The Clash, The Buzzcocks, The Slits, the stuff I still listen to today.

Poly Styrene
Why was there a painting of this iconic photo hanging in the Facebook office in The Social Network?

Sadly, Germ Free would be the Spex’s last album until (most of them) reunited in the ’90s for the disappointing (to me) Conscious Consumer. Poly released a difficult to find solo album called Translucence in 1980, and a couple other unrock-y works over the decades, but generally slipped off the musical radar. She found solace with a Hare Krishna temple for some time, until they, like the punk rock, proved too screwed up and stifling. According to an interview published just last month, she left over reports of pedophilia in the community, as well as her fatigue over pressure to get married. “I did get engaged once, but couldn’t go through with it. Some of them were misogynistic, too crazy,” she said. This interview was part of Poly’s tragically truncated promotion of her recently released solo album, Generation Indigo. I want to post this asap, so I’m not going to wait til I can include a proper reaction to the record, but you better believe it’s in my iTunes and I’ll be listening carefully.

This blog post could go on for days. Memories and anecdotes have been flooding my brain since I heard the terrible news earlier this week. The Spex remain one of my all time favorite bands to this day, and Germ Free Adolescents one of my absolute favorite albums. Poly Styrene is the #1 reason why. I’m so grateful for what she’s given me, and hope those of you who haven’t had the good fortune of listening will do so, now.

Poly Styrene 1957-2011
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Will the Real M.I.A. Please Stand Up?

Some Thoughts on M.I.A.’s new album, MAYA:

  • It’s really good.  MAYA is exciting like a mix tape (on cassette) back before you had the internet, if you’re old enough to even remember what that was like.  I used to get a lot of mix tapes when I did riot grrrl zines–new sounds from lo-fi, underground political bands.  This sounds similarly secretive, urgent, and difficult.  The pervasive punk influence appeals to a special place in my psyche, left largely undisturbed by pristine, protoolsed pop and rock.  Whether it holds up favorably to Kala remains to be seen.  It’s at least as good as Arular.  It’s an exciting, logical continuation of M.I.A.’s artistic growth.  The number of backlashy reviews disturbs me.
  • The sexist and racist meme of reducing M.I.A.’s role in her own songwriting and production dates way farther back than the Hirschberg hack job. I’m really tired of it. I’m shocked I haven’t come across a review of Xtina’s Bionic that credits Diplo for “Elastic Love” (one of the more critically approved tracks on the largely maligned album, written by M.I.A..) Why are so many invested in the notion that M.I.A. is the pretty, vacant, exotic face of a sophisticated musical operation masterminded by Smart White Men?
  • As to the negativity towards MAYA in particular: Maybe she’s being punished for not repeating Kala‘s winning formula of kaledoscopic hipster worldbeat.  People seemed to really dig that.  Maybe they were hoping Paul Simon would show up eventually and put things in order. Perhaps, despite some edgy lyrical content, Kala provided a kind of globalization lullaby anthology, we can all rock to the same stew of global sounds from places we don’t know anything about except, like, Bollywood! Or, Famine!  This album is less like that.  The musical inspiration leans more heavily towards machines and urgent, driving punk rock that gives a fuck.  As M.I.A. says on “Meds and Feds”:  “I just give a damn”.  Some people seem to hold that against her as, like most young punx, she doesn’t give a damn in the right way.
  • Journalists are justified in seeking out informed voices that may disagree with M.I.A.’s assessment that the Sri Lankan government is guilty of genocide.  Laypersons who scoff at M.I.A.’s assessment as ignorant of crazy or scandal mongering with no information other than their own emotional feedback (it’s nicer to think that things aren’t so bad, unless we somehow take pleasure in the tragedy): less so. Genocide is a  specific term, one we need to not throw around irresponsibly, and one might reasonably argue that some cases of murderous oppression of specific races or ethnicities don’t meet the criteria. Perhaps the broader “ethnic cleansing” could be more properly invoked, but when music critics and fans say “lol M.I.A. wingnut doesn’t know what she’s talking about in Sri Lanka” or whatevs, I rarely read or hear any such arguments. They seem to relish to notion that MIA is talking out of her ass much more than they are disturbed by whatever the fuck is happening in some exotic third world nation across the globe, I mean, global politics are complicated. Ignorant snark is fun.
  • Relatedly, I don’t take M.I.A.’s comments about google and Facebook being started by the CIA at literal face value, given her cheeky media side.  I could be wrong, maybe she means EXACTLY JUST THAT. Either way, the rest of her comments in interviews (and on MAYA) re: the Facebook/google issue, about our eagerness to participate in the destruction of our own rights and privacy, are quite apt and hardly the stuff of conspiracy theories that distract from the real, documented atrocities surrounding us.  She points directly at real evils, in interviews and on this album.  Why is she mocked for this?   Lady Gaga (and I like Lady Gaga) is at least as politically pretentious as M.I.A. (I would argue she is more pretentious,) makes far less sense, yet is rarely scolded for her ventures.  Perhaps because her politics are rarely more challenging than “live for your art, gay is okay, let’s go charity, fur = dead muppets” or whatevs.  Lady Gaga is wacky, but Socially Responsible so far as Liberals are concerned (the right wing obvs feels differently.)  M.I.A. is uppity!  She criticizes the kinds of Liberal fave  companies Gaga might prominently endorse in her videos!
  • Since when is it the job of pop artists to articulate clear political platforms, anyway? It may be their job (if they see themselves as political artists, at least) to make us think and feel things, and to question, and that’s exactly what M.I.A. is doing. This album appeals to me in its timely rage and confusion and noise much the way The Battle of Los Angeles or Fear of a Black Planet or London Calling did (does.) The album fits my fucking mood.
  • The Village Voice review claimed that MAYA contains “a few flares of outright hostility, like the record itself is actually mad at you. ” Huh. Interesting. I certainly hadn’t experienced it that way at all. MAYA makes me feel validated and less alone. Interesting that Rob Harvilla feels attacked.
  • I could listen to the drums on Born Free all day. That song really moves me. I loved the Letterman performance:

  • Will the real M.I.A. please stand up? Fuck it, Let’s all stand up.

    (This is a good take on M.I.A.’s infamous “Born Free” video, a video I kind of absolutely loved.  The same writer wrote a smart review of MAYA here.  Check it out.)