I Am A Cliche: Who Is Poly Styrene
Updated: Apr 2
Unapologetically herself, a trend-setter, a punk rock heroine. These are just a few ways in which people would describe Poly Styrene, all of them well and truly deserved. Yet, on top of all of that: a person. But how much do we really know about the person that Poly was, and of who she became?
Written by Paul Sng, alongside Poly's daughter Celeste Belle, I Am A Cliche takes a deep-dive into the life of one of punk's most influential front women. This insightful documentary features interviews from the likes of: Don Letts, Vivienne Westwood, Pauline Black, Rhoda Dakar, as well as many other well known names and faces on the scene. All of whom speak very highly about Poly Styrene's influence on music, her uniqueness and ability to laugh in the face of banality. However, the constant battle with her mental health, in a world of consumerism and self indulgence, began to take its toll - and the documentary allows the viewer an intimate look into her life, right from the very beginning.
Born Marianne Elliot in July 1957, life as a young mixed-race individual was a relatively new experience in Britain at the time. As Don Letts puts it in the documentary, the '"social experiment" of navigating your identity was something Poly Styrene became aware of from a very young age. Forever striving to learn more about, and understand, her Somali heritage was something she often wrote about in her journals, as well as in poems; such as the poem 'Half Caste' which is featured in the programme. Struggling to find a group of friends to bond with, forever being questioned by others and not really knowing to which 'group' you belong, definitely led to Poly Stryene questioning her own place in this world. Heartbreaking as this is for a young woman, these lived experiences definitely fuel the fire of emotion behind every X-Ray Spex lyric and performance ever to have happened.
Although Poly never considered herself to be punk, she found acceptance from the scene, with punks tending to be the outsiders of society, people who had also struggled to find their own place in this world. Another huge part of the punk scene was the DIY aspect of style, most famously championed by designer Vivienne Westwood from her King's Road store at the time - a popular hangout for many famous followers of punk. Coming from a working-class family, making and customising your own clothing was something that was always a part of Poly Styrene's life, even opening a store of her own. Her style never really fell into a particular category, but it's safe to say her bold, futuristic looks were nothing less than original, sporting braces on her teeth which really emphasised her "I don't care" attitude towards the trends and beauty ideals of the time.
Given her individuality, passion, and genuine talent for creative writing, it only seemed natural for Poly to be the front woman of a band, forming X-Ray Spex in 1976. Until this point, punk, and rock music in general, was largely dominated by middle-class white men; X-Ray Spex really were a huge breath of fresh air for many, including the likes of Johnathon Ross, John Cooper Clarke, Thurston Moore and Neneh Cherry. Having a typically British, cynical view on the world, Poly Styrene poked fun at the behaviour of people in her lyrics, as well as the horrors of the modern world, one of mass-production and over-consumption. What is interesting about these lyrics is that they could've been written now, in 2021, and alarmingly, everything which Poly warned us about back in the late 70's is very much what we are experiencing in today's day and age.... on steroids.
Taking a look at the lyrics from the song I Live Off You, for example, "...and the whole world lives off everybody, see we're gonna be exploited". The message is clear: you may be taking advantage of me, but I'm taking advantage of you - everyone is using one another for their own wants and desires, so let's all come to acknowledge this objectification and get on with our lives. Similarly, with the song Oh Bondage, Up Yours, the common misconception was the lyrics are talking about forms of sexual bondage, whereas Poly is quick to elaborate that she wrote about "all kinds of bondage". Now considered as somewhat of a feminist anthem, the lyrics speak of liberation, and breaking down the social constructs forced upon us by society and the media. In an interview regarding the record, Poly even ironically joked that the fact the song was given little, to no, airtime on the radio was just "another form of bondage".
I Am A Cliche explores the negative impact of being in the limelight, as well as constantly hounded by interviewers and fans alike. Poking fun at Poly Styrene's bold sense of dress, the braces on her teeth and her romantic relationships, it's no surprise that she longed for a simpler life, away from the spotlight of fame. Finding peace and acceptance within the Hare Krishna community, Poly left her celebrity status in the past and chose to raise Celeste amongst others who practice the religion. Celeste speaks about how, even at a young age, she rebelled against her mother's beliefs, however in the end coming to accept and be at peace with it - even travelling to India's Yamuna river to scatter her mother's ashes.
Celeste speaks of being the “caretaker of Poly Styrene’s legacy” - a legacy which is very much kept alive today through modern day music and fashion. Most notably in the fashion world is the collaboration between X-Ray Spex and UK based knitwear brand HADES. After the release of I Am A Cliche HADES released two limited edition knitted scarves, with inspiration taken from both Poly’s handwriting, and from the band’s tour posters. This release is the second collaboration between HADES and the band, the first being a line of knitted jumpers, sporting the name of the band, as well as lyrics from the hit: Oh Bondage Up Yours!
Although, to this day, Poly Styrene’s life is celebrated and enjoyed by many, the documentary truly highlights the struggle of being a young woman in the limelight, whilst not truly knowing where it is you belong; a story which sadly we have heard repeated over again. It’s heartwarming to see Poly face her fears by taking to the stage later in life, alongside Celeste, to perform her final farewell to all of her many loving fans. I laughed, I cried, but mostly I just felt an overwhelming feeling of awe to hear the full story of such a strong-willed and talented woman. I absolutely recommend I Am A Cliche to anyone even slightly interested in the 1970s British punk scene, or just simply more interested in learning about Poly Stryene’s life: a shining soul amongst the pollution, the plastic and the poseurs.
Watch I Am A Cliche here: www.modernfilms.com/polystyrene/watch