Punk Singer Poly Styrene Dies at 53

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Marianne Elliot-Said, better known as the punk singer Poly Styrene, passed away Monday evening. She'd been diagnosed with breast cancer earlier this year. Styrene was the frontwoman of X-Ray Spex, a London band whose 1978 album Germ Free Adolescents is generally counted as one of the great punk rock records of the '70s. Their most enduring mark on the pop-culture landscape was the single "Oh Bondage, Up Yours!"--which kicked off with a Poly Styrene scream that Allmusic calls "one of the most visceral moments in all of British punk." (Girl Talk fans might recognize Styrene's voice from the opening seconds of the track "Smash Your Head"--that's her screaming "one, two, three, four!")

The Guardian's Dave Simpson remembers Styrene as a proud nonconformist. "Mixed race, young and wearing bonkers outfits and dental braces," he writes, "her simple but powerful message was that it was OK to be different because everyone is special." And Fraser McAlpine at BBC America echoes the sentiment: "Day-glo Poly with her braces and astringent yelp was a world away from either the punk archetype--skinny white boys in leather jackets and jeans, or the over-sexualised female pop star."

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Maura Johnston at The Village Voice puts Styrene in pop-history context: "The way she paired incisive lyrics and a refusal to conform to societal standards with an awe-inspiring wail set the standard for the likes of Kathleen Hanna and Beth Ditto." Benjy Eisen at Spinner adds: "Loaded with witty, anti-establishment sentiments that seemed to dismiss proper feminism in favor of fierce individualism, Styrene predated and, in some ways, informed the riot grrrl movement that would follow."

Then there are the briefer tributes. The singer Boy George has tweeted his thoughts: "I was a fan of Poly before I got to know her, she was a Krishna follower too, oh bless you Polly you will be missed! Legend!" Choire Sicha at The Awl quotes Styrene herself on death: "I had a guru who left the mortal world in December ... It made me think about that; how this body is just a material body, like an outer shell. It will deteriorate and die, but we can leave something behind in our music or art." Meanwhile, Ray Pride at Movie City News offers his succinct but somehow appropriate response to the news: "O, Cancer, Up Yours."

By coincidence, Styrene's new album Generation Indigo comes out in the U.S. today. Here's an excerpt from Robert Christgau's review at NPR, evidently written before Styrene's death:

Poly Styrene stood out in British punk. Female in a male world, heavy in a skinny world, half-African in a white world, flaunting braces that looked like they could dent a lorry, she's linked in history to a song as iconic as "Anarchy in the U.K." itself ... Though her ingrained defiance coexists peacefully with her religious commitment, Poly Styrene claims she's still a poseur. But she's never let image get in the way of lucidity. She always says what she means plainly, winningly and tunefully, and on Generation Indigo those meanings are moral.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.