As the singer of X-Ray Spex, in the late 70s Poly Styrene broke free of traditional rock’n’roll’s patriarchal constraints, and her contribution to pop culture has inspired everyone from Kathleen Hanna to Karen O and FKA twigs. With a new crowd-funded documentary about her in the works, here Styrene’s daughter Celeste Bell considers the legacy of her mother’s prophetic lyricism in an age of narcissistic consumerism.
My mother was born in the late 50s to a Somali father and a Scottish-Irish mother, who raised her as a single parent on a council estate in Brixton. My mum left school without having passed a single exam. Her teachers had lamented that, although she showed academic potential in her younger years, at the age of 15 she was a troublesome truant who was disruptive in class, regularly getting into physical altercations with her classmates. Her weekend pastimes were shoplifting with her friends and dancing all night to the ska and rocksteady in too short hot pants and platform sandals; kissing boys and smoking joints.
This juvenile delinquent would go on to write one of the best albums of the late 20th century, X-Ray Spex’s 1978 LP Germfree Adolescents. Am I biased in making such a claim? Of course I am. Yet there can be no doubt when listening to songs like The Day the World Turned Day Glo, Identity and Genetic Engineering, that this young woman from south London had pulled off a truly postmodern masterpiece; vividly creating for the listener a sci-fi future that is both dystopian and utopian, a world as familiar to a millennial in 2017 as it was fantastical to a young punk in the 70s.
Although Poly Styrene, in keeping with her irreverent postmodern credentials, was never consciously political, she was nevertheless a media–savvy social critic who was able to perceive the forces and ideas that shaped the world in which she lived and to accurately predict the world to come. In an age where the hipster de jour is anxiously seeking an ever unobtainable authenticity, I Am a Cliché and its rejection of the idea that anyone can be or even desire to be original anymore is a radical if disconcerting notion. Likewise in the selfie age where self-expression is unashamedly narcissistic, the celebration of vacuous vanity in I Am a Poseur resonates because of the ambiguity of the intention behind the lyrics:
“I am a poseur and I don’t care/ I like to make people stare… Exhibition is the name/ Voyeurism is the game”
Was my mother an attention-seeking show-off? Of course she was, as were most of her punk and new wave contemporaries. Is a society that encourages such self-adulation problematic? Possibly. Does that mean we should quit posing and aim for authenticity? No, not really – that would be a fool’s errand in our day and age.
Such ambivalence is also clear in X-Ray Spex songs like Artificial, I Live Off You and Germ Free Adolescents. Poly thought we were living in an increasingly fake world, where we are more dependent on technology than ever before, alienated from the natural world and from each other, where human interaction is more and more based on what material or social advantage we can get from the other. But she nevertheless refrained from suggesting a remedy for such ills. My mother described the world as she saw it, but it was not her job to tell us how to fix it.
She did, however, hint at the self-destructive underbelly of postmodernism in songs like Warrior in Woolworths and Plastic Bag, warning us of the consequences of ignoring such rumblings. The seemingly innocuous, inarticulate youth who ‘doesn’t know no history, threw the past away’, reluctantly assisting you at the self-service checkout at your local supermarket, might just be waiting to explode, destroying, in an orgy of nihilistic rage, the fake world of which they are as much a product of as you. In moments like this, the words of Poly Styrene still burn brightly:
“1977 and we are going mad/ 1977 and we’ve seen too many ads/ 1977 and we’re gonna show them all apathy’s a drag”
You can help fund Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché via indiegogo.com. The closing date is 29 May.