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Remembering Poly Styrene, Punk Rock’s Betty Friedan

I don’t get too emotional about rock ‘n’ roll deaths anymore, so I didn’t expect to shed tears over Poly Styrene this morning, playing Germ Free Adolescents while I picked at some toast. Last night, I saw a rumor on Twitter that the X-Ray Spex singer had died of breast cancer. Instead of searching to find out whether it was true, I put away my computer, watched some TV, and then went to bed.

But there it was, when I woke up. “Punk star Poly Styrene dies at 53.” “Poly Styrene — an optimist to the last.” “Poly Styrene: Taking Moral Stances Solo.” “Boy George Pays Tribute to Poly Styrene.” Everyone, even semi-relevant ’80s singers-turned-cultural punchlines will have their own way of remembering Poly Styrene. This is mine: X-Ray Spex were the first punk band that made me feel like a part of, rather than an object of, their anger.

Allow me to make an incredibly uncool comparison: Germ Free Adolescents was my Feminine Mystique. From working-class job dissatisfaction to gendered consumerism (“When I put on my make-up/ The pretty little mask not me/ That’s the way a girl should be/ In a consumer society,” Styrene sings in “Art-i-ficial”) to the grooming product-obsessed title track, Germ Free Adolescents is packed with details about the drudgery of everyday, female life. And then there are the truly angry moments, namely the classic punk retort, “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!” — which just about singlehandedly gave birth to riot grrrl.

While Johnny Rotten was flipping off the queen and the Ramones were sniffing glue, X-Ray Spex got personal. On the media-critical “Identity,” Styrene’s voice comes through like a runaway steamroller: “Identity is the crisis you can’t see… When you look in the mirror/ Do you see yourself?/ Do you see yourself on the TV screen?” The performance art-flavored “Plastic Bag” picks up on the theme, in seemingly nonsense phrases that slowly reveal their meaning: “My mind is like a plastic bag/ That corresponds to all those ads.” Songs like “I Am a Poseur” and “I Am a Cliché” masticate those epithets until they’re nearly meaningless. You get the sense that Styrene, who formed X-Ray Spex at 19 and was only 21 when the album came out, was constantly flinging back the load of societal bullshit she’d spent her young life swallowing.

X-Ray Spex broke up less than a year after Germ Free Adolescents was released. Poly Styrene soon put out a solo album, 1980’s Translucence, and became a Hare Krishna. Over the years, she experimented with jazz and New Age, making only a few more albums. Beginning in 1991, X-Ray Spex reunited to play a show every now and then, releasing their second album, Conscious Consumer, in ’95. Styrene did, at least, live to see the release of her final solo record, Generation Indigo, which appeared last month in the UK and will, coincidentally, hit American stores today.

As much as we may admire any artist, perhaps we only cry over the ones we feel we know. Smart and awkward, with an uncontrollable Afro, a face full of braces, and an attitude that just dared you to make fun of her about it, she reminded me of myself and so many other teenage girls I knew. Along with our other heroes, she prodded us out of complacency and self-hatred, towards actually doing something meaningful with our lives, instead of succumbing to a commercial culture that makes us fixate on our flaws to the point of paralysis. I never met Poly Styrene, never even got to see her perform, but what really matters is that she changed my life.

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