Share this story:
You enter a dingy club, the room full of new-wave blitzers. Young scrawny brits waiting with their chins up to the stage, clad in Joan Jett mullets, geometric make-up, and over-sized jackets. The lighting is dim and the room is thrumming. In some suppressed part of my cerebrum, I am there. And I am inspired to snarl. Twenty one year old Poly Styrene, the singer and songwriter for X-Ray Spex enters the stage. She is dressed like a car salesmen from 1977. She wears a padded grey blazer over a pink turtleneck, and a fedora lies atop her short, curly nest of hair. Her overbite is bedazzled with braces and her bangs fall over her wide forehead. She is tiny, weird, and unassuming. Yet she immediately dominates a humble power over the stage. She opens her mouth, and growls,
“Some people, think little girls should be seen and not heard,”
Enthralled by her scratchy drawl, the audience’s eyes are drawn.
“but I think, OH BONDAGE! UP YOURS!”
She spits into the microphone with joyous power. Suddenly her domination is not homely. She bounces up and down with the crowd, scratching out a feminist punk anthem to the warbling sax. She has submerged herself in a sea of jostling misfits.
Poly was a daughter of a legal secretary and a Somali immigrant. She was born July 3, 1957 in Bromley, England to the birth name Marianne Joan Elliott-Said. She died at the age of 53 to cancer. She was raised in a time of systematic oppression of women and people of color, of which she was both. She wrote a song titled Identity that illustrated that struggle. The portrayal of women in media depicted them as either a sex objects, or obedient housewives; of which Poly was neither. Poly protested this objectification using S&M as an allegory in the song Oh Bondage! Up Yours! The visceral single also depicts Poly’s aversion to consumerism. Her stage name Poly Styrene, or polystyrene, is something plastic, overproduced, and poisonous. Like the hypnosis of mainstream media, which especially in the seventies, painted a gross picture of minorities. It instilled these generalizations into everyday life. In Styrene’s lyrics, she talks about being a drone contributing to this cycle.
“Chain-store chain smoke, I consume you all, chain-gang chain mail, I don’t think at all…Bind me tie me, chain me to a wall, I want to be a slave to you all.”
Her lyrics are an empowering denial of plasticity and plaster people. A middle finger to the boundaries and labels we put upon ourselves. It is infact much more than a feminist anthem. This song is an advocation for individuality, self-awareness, and the revival of sub-culture. It averses the idea that women are submissive trophies, that people are dogs to be trained. It does so simply and unapologetically.
Punk rock was a bright, hellish revolution that made way for politics. And Poly Styrene was a poster-girl for defiance of gender roles in the late 70’s punk scene. Oh Bondage! Up Yours! was a piece of the jigsaw that brought more intersectionality into punk, and the music of the era. The question is, why are Poly’s songs still so blatantly relevant almost forty years later? As an adolescent growing into togetherness and empathy, I have yet to see definite change in our society that prioritizes marketing schemes and labels. As a child of this artificial womb, I have yet to see perseverance. I have yet to feel an urge, a pull from modern music. Perhaps, I am not listening hard enough. Perhaps, music has been industrialized into another corporate sponsor. What am I not noticing? Do I have to make a conscious decision to get up and contribute?
If music is such an effective way to unite masses against oppression – Poly’s plastic world – where is our change? Maybe we need another Poly, in all of her technicolor glory. Or another Jayne County, or another Joan Jett, or another Patti Smith. Someone to cover race, class, and gender issues in popular music. Music has to once again scream in a revival of unity:
“Oh bondage, up yours! Oh bondage, no more!”
If a widespread anthem can be written with such coy and bold resistance, Poly Styrene will give one more overbite clad grin from beyond the grave.