Poly Styrene and the Female Punks

Poly Styrene saw the Sex Pistols play on her 18th birthday in 1975, a year before the infamous gig at Free Trade Hall that inspired anyone from Joy Division to The Fall and The Smiths. Even though she saw them play a set of cover songs, she was still inspired to form a band, placing an advert in the paper looking for “YOUNG PUNX WHO WANT TO STICK IT TOGETHER”. The result was X-Ray Spex. In typical punk fashion they only ever released one album, Germ Free Adolescents, in 1978 – an album which, as the cliché goes, remains just as fresh, exciting and relevant as the day it was born and stands as a testament to the importance and vibrancy of punk music.

However, just how important is the legacy of punk music made by women like Poly Styrene? What impact did her sad passing in April this year have on the music listening public? Will she come to be remembered and idolised in the same way as Sid Vicious or Ian Curtis? While these punk icons died young, an element which undoubtedly increased their posthumous fame and glamour, it seems to me that the death of Johnny Rotten would be met with widespread lamentation and idolisation, despite his recent foray into butter advertisement. Poly Styrene, on the other hand, became a Hare Krishna convert, continued to make music and didn’t take part in any form of commercialised exploitation of the ghost of the punk scene that she had once been at the centre of.

Would advertisers have wanted her to make adverts? Was she a recognisable presence? Perhaps unlike Debbie Harry, punk’s most (and arguably only) widely recognisable female figure, she refused to be sexualised by the media, asserting

“I said that I wasn’t a sex symbol and that if anybody tried to make me one I’d shave my head tomorrow”.

It turned out not to be an idle threat, either. Even when she began making music her image was a strange and different one, even within the punk scene. Completely subverting 70s ideas of conventional attractiveness, she wore braces on her teeth, was of mixed race, and dressed in day-glo plastic dresses and army helmets. That legacy has not been lost on contemporary artists such as Lady Gaga and Beth Ditto. Equally, Poly was a massive inspiration to the likes of Karen O and to the 90s Riot Grrrl movement. But how many people are even aware of the Riot Grrrl movement, in comparison to the contemporaneous and thematically linked grunge movement, headed by third-to-be-mentioned-male-music-superstar-who-died-too-young Kurt Cobain?

Feminist website The F Word carried out a public survey asking young people in Manchester, well-known as a hotbed of alternative music, what sprang to mind when they heard the word “punk”. The results were interesting to say the least. Few had heard of, or knew about, any female punk bands, and many confused punk with more recent genres of pop-punk; for example, several replied with “Avril Lavigne” upon being prompted to name a female punk artist. The F Word’s examination is a remarkable one in that it shows just how much, or little, of an impact punk really did have outside of the alternative music scene. Punk was such a subversive movement that it is interesting that most, if not all, female punk bands either remained unknown or have been subsequently forgotten. On paper the anti-authoritarian ethos of punk seems to fit perfectly with the artistic and political equalisation of women, and yet, in hindsight, the punk genre appears to be a male-dominated scene. Of those consistently remembered in the survey, only the Sex Pistols could realistically be considered as a genuine punk band. The legacy of punk, in the mind of the public, seems to be primarily based upon fashion rather than music – mohawks and ripped trousers take precedence over bands and their albums.

Is this something to worry about? Is it true to say that the impact made by female punk artists, even by punk in general, has been filtered out and lost by succeeding generations, and is now only relevant to snobbish music journalists like myself, or bands and artists who are largely outside of the mainstream? Or is it the case that, even if it is only a subconscious mimetic influence, and even if the likes of Poly Styrene will never receive the public recognition they deserve as innovators, the influence of punk is still felt in every day life, and not just in music? It can be seen in young women who wear nose rings, dye their hair a plethora of colours and dress however they feel like dressing. A social liberalisation outside of the music scene which has perhaps had a much larger effect on women than men, in Public Image terms at least. The death of Poly Styrene is a sad loss for society and not just for music; she is not only a hero for a small group of music aficionados, but also a largely unsung hero of female liberation.

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