I discovered Poly Styrene, like most of the touchstones of my punk education, a little late. I’d missed out in high school, when you’re supposed to reap all the benefits of all that loud rebellion, and it really wasn’t until late in college that I began working my way backwards from mid-90s Dischord post-punk into 80s hardcore, before finally ending up in New York and London circa 1977. Yet X-Ray Spex still eluded me for a few more years, until a girl I’d just started dating was kind enough to put one of their songs on a mix-tape. (Yes, an actual cassette tape! This was still the late-90s, after all.) I don’t remember anymore which song it was, though it wasn’t the obvious “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” Whichever one it was, something in Poly Styrene’s voice said, “GO FIND MORE OF ME NOW,” and I took heed and rushed right out to pick up a copy of Germfree Adolescents.
Listening to that record was like stumbling upon some kind of punk rock Rosetta Stone. Suddenly, so much of what I’d spent the past few years listening to made so much more sense. And the key was in Styrene’s voice, that hoarse wail that I could suddenly hear in the foundations of everyone from Exene Cervenka to Lydia Lunch to Courtney Love. And of course, more than anyone else, in Kathleen Hanna, who seemed to have internalized Styrene’s influence so completely that she felt like the unnamed collaborator on every Bikini Kill record.
Like most everyone else, the song that I came back to more than any other was “Oh Bondage Up Yours!”, the band’s first single, which hadn’t even appeared on the original version of Adolescents. All due respect to the opening guitar salvos of “Anarchy in the UK,” “Clash City Rockers,” or “Blitzkrieg Bop,” but there is no sound that more perfectly embodied the spirit of punk than those first ten seconds of “Bondage”:
I can recall, through a smoke and alcohol haze, many a Sunday night spent in the basement dance space of St. Ex back in the mid-00s where my friends would DJ and we’d often all close out the bar in a mass of sweaty, drunken, danced-out bliss. On the handful of occasions when I was invited to take some turns behind the decks, “Bondage” was one of my staples, and for purely selfish reasons: I simply couldn’t get enough of the giddy recognition on the face of every woman out on that dance floor the moment they heard Poly Styrene say, “Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard,” followed by every single one of them screaming out in unison with her, “OH BONDAGE UP YOURS!!!!” And then the ecstatic dancing, shouting and catharsis that followed for the next two and a half minutes.
I won’t pretend to be an expert on the career of Poly Styrene, though I’m aware of the basic outline of the years that followed, which you can read in any number of the obituaries sadly dotting the internet today. All I know is how that record made me feel when I heard it the first time — and not just my admiration for its tuneful immediacy, the way they managed a diversity of sound that ranged from buzzsaw punk to reggae-laced balladry, the integration of Lora Logic’s wholly unexpected (but essential) saxophone, and the way Styrene brought it all together. More important than that was the sense of defiant freedom in those songs. You didn’t have to see Poly Styrene in action to know that everything about her communicated a resounding “fuck you” to notions of conformity or artificiality; and unlike so many other late 70s punks, her rebellion wasn’t limited to just falling into the leather jacket and safety-pinned alternate conformity of the scene. Styrene, with a mouthful of braces and decked out in day-glo, embodied be-who-you-are independence in ways that most of her peers weren’t brave enough to approach. She understood consumerism and the pressures of conformity in ways that allowed her not just to defy them, but to have fun with them as well. That gave her work with X-Ray Spex a satiric maturity that belied her young age.
All of that was right there on the record. The smiles that broke out across the dance floor when “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” came on were prompted by a defiance that was fueled by critical thought and a desire to inspire positive action as much as it was out of anger and frustration. No one who’d ever felt beaten down or restrained could hear that full-throated four word scream and not feel empowered. And in articulating that empowerment as simply and as directly as she could, Poly Styrene became not just a little girl who demanded she be heard, but the inspiration for generations of women to follow to demand and expect the same.