How polystyrene broke the mold

STYRENE IS BORN Marianne Joan Elliott-Said in 1957 to a Somali father and an English mother, who raised Styrene and her siblings alone o...

STYRENE IS BORN Marianne Joan Elliott-Said in 1957 to a Somali father and an English mother, who raised Styrene and her siblings alone on a Brixton council estate. In her art-stricken and rebellion-stricken teenage years, Styrene fled home to hitchhike to hippie music festivals, stoking an ecological consciousness that she would bring to punk. She immersed herself in theatre, fashion, poetry and music. Bookish self-taught who left school at 15, she turned to philosophy, the occult, Freud and Jung. As a cinephile, she favors the retrofuturism of “Barbarella”. His rock idols were David Bowie and Marc Bolan. She loved soul and reggae, and Bell said she cited singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell, Carole King and Joan Armatrading as huge inspirations.

Styrene’s first pre-punk single was a pop-reggae song titled “Silly Billy” on teenage pregnancy. It was produced by a man 16 years her senior named Falcon Stuart who would become her boyfriend and the manager of X-Ray Spex. (Bell said she had received conflicting stories about Stuart, who died in 2002, over the years, noting in the film: “Sometimes she would say he was the love of her life; other times, that he had ruined it.”)

When punk hit, 19-year-old Styrène was galvanized. In love with the Sex Pistols – an unreleased clip of Styrene dancing in the crowd at one of their concerts returns in the film – she placed an ad in Melody Maker looking for “yung punx” to “stick together” and reunited a team that included bassist Paul Dean and, briefly, saxophonist Lora Logic (until Styrene fired her).

The group signed with Virgin for the classic “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” – his opening statement, “Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard / But I think, oh bondage, up your!” became feminist punk writing – before moving to EMI for “Germfree Teenagers”. (Styrene was an uncredited producer on the album, Bell said.) The LP took them to “Top of the Pops” and the BBC, which aired a TV documentary called “Who Is Poly Styrene?” where the singer famously described that she chose her stage name because it’s plastic and disposable: “That’s what pop stars are supposed to mean, so I thought I might as well ship it.”

The first BBC film and ‘I Am a Cliché’ both depict Styrene’s mental health issues, which the pressures of fame have exacerbated. In 1978, she was misdiagnosed with schizophrenia; she was in a psychiatric hospital the first time she saw herself singing on television. Bell believes her mother’s condition was made worse by the media’s sexist scrutiny of her body as well as punk’s destabilizing nihilism.

“A lot of people think X-Ray Spex was a lot more underground than they were. But my mom had that touch of stardom,” Bell said. “There’s a kind of stardom that you can never escape, and it was the kind of attention my mother got, although it didn’t last very long. It didn’t last very long because she got out.

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Newsrust - US Top News: How polystyrene broke the mold
How polystyrene broke the mold
Newsrust - US Top News
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