Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard, but back in 1977, the fiery teenager Poly Styrene had one thing to say to them: “Oh bondage, up yours!”
The whip-smart British-Somali teen was one of few female faces in that era’s burgeoning punk scene, and as frontwoman of X Ray Spex represented the brash voice of young women as they began to feel the effect of liberation, sexual and otherwise. Without women like Poly Styrene, it’s arguable that progressive music movements like Riot Grrrl might not have happened, while contemporary artists like Lady Gaga owe much to Poly’s barrier-breaking actions.
Thirty-plus years on, Poly Styrene has a different sound – more pop, less aggressive – but her strength of character hasn’t been dampened. No edges have been shaved off this spiky and inspiring woman, even with a recent cancer diagnosis which came on the cusp of a tour for her newest solo album, Generation Indigo. Despite having to cancel the tour, she has nonetheless ploughed ahead with promotion, conducting interviews from her bed and filling her fans in on how she is feeling via her Twitter account.
When State spoke by email with Poly Styrene – who was born Marianne Elliott-Said – she was in a hospice in London, undergoing treatment for her cancer. But it’s clear that though her body might be temporarily weakened, her spirit and mind are as strong as ever.
Here’s what she had to say about how music gives her strength, and what advice she has for the Poly Styrenes of the future.
Hi Poly – I was sorry to hear that you were recently diagnosed with cancer. Was it important to you to speak out about this and be honest with your fans about how you are feeling and what you are doing?
Yes, because I’m not properly mobile, and I didn’t want them to think I’d get out there and play the album and promote it properly, although I’m trying to get mobile now.
Do your fans give you strength during this time?
Yes, they’ve been really wonderful and I’m overwhelmed by all the kindness from everyone, my fans, the doctors, nurses, friends and my label. It’s been an amazing experience.
Generation Indigo has a very fun and bright sound, and political, strong lyrics – do you enjoy this juxtaposition?
I do, I love it I think it’s just perfect and I think Youth brought some of that energy to the table.
What was it like working with Youth and what did he bring to the album recording process?
Youth brought enthusiasm and fun to the album, he was very upbeat while we were working.
What female musicians working today inspire you?
Viv Albertine played guitar on ‘Ghoulish’ and I think she was pretty inspirational. Apart from that I really like the voices of Amy Winehouse, Duffy and Rumer and of course Beth Ditto. My daughter Celeste has a really good voice I think too, I really like a song of hers called ‘What You Fighting For’.
In ‘I Luv Ur Speakers’, you sing about wearing products that look good because they don’t use animal parts. Do you think that this subject is not mentioned enough in music?
Nobody really writes music like that in popular music, because popular music is mainly dealing with emotional subjects like Love, but there are some staunch veggies out there that don’t wear leather shoes…sometimes I wear leather in winter, but it’s much nicer in the summer when I don’t. I should really get it together to go to the vegan shop in Brighton, but I’m not always that good!
If you could give the young Poly Styrene advice, what would you say to her?
Music is fun, but whether it’s gonna be a livelihood I’m not sure.
If there are any young women reading this who want to start a band, what would your advice be?
The same as I’d give to the young Poly Styrene. But I’d also say that if you’ve got good content and you’re gutsy enough to get up there and do it, why not do it even if it’s only a hobby.
Do you think that a similar movement to Riot Grrrl could or should happen again?
I think it’s a positive form of expression in music and why shouldn’t girls revisit that…
What’s on your record player at the moment?
Spiritual Krishna music, because of my situation, I don’t have any other music with me. I’m not in a space to listen to music, but if I was I would be listening to some classical or spiritual stuff. Although, Corrine Bailey Rae comes to mind sometimes, with her song ‘Girl Put Your Records On’.
What’s the creative process like for you – how do you write your songs?
They channel through when I see something or something sparks my imagination, usually something real that happens in the world like the Iraq war or serious racism.
Is it important to you to keep a positive attitude even when singing about particularly dark subjects?
Yeah you always got to keep a positive attitude, even in dark times there is positivity at end of the tunnel.
Are there ever times when it is hard to keep this positivity flowing?
At the moment it’s been really difficult with the news, not really with the cancer, but with Japan, the wars and what’s going on in the Middle East. I’m not really a conspiracy theorist but a friend of mine, keeps telling me that there’s a weapon called HAARP that is being used by the US to try and control the weather and every time it’s being tested there seems to be a Tsunami nearby and that’s really worrying and I think the weapon is in Alaska.
When things are hard, do you turn to music?
Yes, I turn to music for solace.
The music business today is hugely different to when you first started working in it. What have been the best and worst elements of these changes?
The best element has been making this album, with Future Noise Music and the worst element is when I signed contracts without lawyers. It’s hard to make a living out of music these days and it’s something you almost have to do because you live it and you want to use it for communication purposes.
You said on your Twitter page that you were overwhelmed with how many liked ‘Virtual Boyfriend’ – does the love people have for your music always take you by surprise?
It does really, because it’s just something I do and sort of forget about it and I’m surprised and also get really happy to know that it’s made other people happy.
X-Ray Spex were only around for a relatively brief period, but their influence continues to this day. How do you feel about the band’s enduring legacy?
It’s really nice that people still love that album Germ Free Adolescence.
In what ways do you think that the music industry has changed since the punk era with regard to how it treats women?
It went through a stage with the videos where it was just like soft porn for female artists, and you know I don’t really see that as a really positive message for women.
What still has to change?
I think what has to change in the world is that we need to get to a place of peace and harmony and music and art can be part of this transformation.