As KEXP celebrates its 50th anniversary, we're looking back at the last half-century of music. Each week in 2022, KEXP pays homage to a different year and our writers are commemorating with one song from that year that resonates with them. This week, Martin writes about the band's 1978 single, the iconic Poly Styrene, and finally conquering a lifelong struggle with identity as a Black punk rocker.
Read or listen to the piece below.
I don’t know how it happened, but I’ve somehow dedicated my life to forcing my way into places where I didn’t feel adequately represented.
This noble path of devotion started for me as a child in love with punk and alternative rock music. Speaking to fellow Black punks in adulthood, I’ve learned many of them had formative personal influences who showed them the way. A very different case was in the file for me. I got laughed at in middle school for my idolatry of Kurt Cobain; I lived with one of my uncles for a spell who forbade punk rock being played in the house. I didn’t see myself on MTV or hear myself on alternative rock radio. That’s not to say I didn’t see other Black people represented in the punk scene, but they were always a few degrees off from who I saw myself as and who I wanted to become.
The woman known as Poly Styrene was a biracial child at a time when the fascist National Front was gaining steam in her London borough of Brixton and beyond. She was reminded of her so-called “otherness” every day, trapped in an era where people made nasty assumptions about biracial children and the people they came from. Outspoken and confrontational even then, she was born to be a part of the burgeoning punk rock movement. She released a reggae single called “Silly Billy” as Mari Elliot. But on July 3, 1976, her nineteenth birthday, she went to see the Sex Pistols. Not too long after, she placed an ad in Melody Maker, one of the UK’s most widely read music weeklies, and X-Ray Spex were born.
Inspired by flipping through the phone book, the stage name Poly Styrene was christened as a commentary on the artifice of pop stardom. Disarmingly intelligent and wielding her outcast status like a switchblade, she eventually became one of punk’s foremost iconoclasts. Few lyricists in all of music could match her insight or observational skills. Styrene wrote brilliantly and rather unsettlingly about exploitation (“I Live Off You”), the world being overtaken by chemical products (“Germfree Adolescents,” “The Day the World Turned Day-Glo”), consumerism (“Art-I-Ficial”), and, of course, the emptiness that comes from only feeling represented when you see your face in the mirror.
On “Identity,” Poly Styrene acutely observed the psychic damage borne from being made to feel as though you don’t belong. She was an outsider even in a community of outsiders; one of the precious few women of color in London’s punk scene. In an interview with influential punk zine Shotgun Seamstress, Styrene mentioned she never felt isolated because of her race, and writing the song “Identity” came from her position as an observer of human life.
The harrowing imagery that shows up on the second verse of the song comes from seeing her friend Tracey so desperate to be accepted in the punk subculture, she took drugs and engaged in self-harm. The particular incident sung about in “Identity” took place in a London nightclub, and Tracey later died of a drug overdose. In the song, the descending chord progression on guitar, coupled with the shouting saxophones, lend a high-stakes air to the desire to feel accepted.
Growing up, I had no Black punk role models; I had to conceptualize and embody the person I wanted to become. I was an outsider in Black and white spaces. Around other Black people, my Black experience was reduced to the colors of an Oreo cookie. Some white people accepted me, but most didn’t, and even those who regarded me warmly couldn’t relate to how good, ol’ fashioned Southern racism (or subtle, passive aggressive Pacific Northwestern racism) threatened to kill me. How poverty and food stamps and Section 8 housing and an abusive biological mother with drug addiction issues threatened to starve me. How I found myself in the warm embrace of depression and that threatened to kill me too.
I’m revealing these very personal experiences only to highlight the fact that seeing people express themselves creatively offered me a glimmer of hope in a hopeless existence. Seeing people that looked like me doing the kind of things I wanted to do would have provided me with an aspirational template of sorts. Instead, I had to invent the person I wanted to become.
By the time I started finding Black people conveying the ideas and aesthetics I held close to my heart, I was already in my twenties. By the time I was afforded the chance to look back and see all the talented Black people who could have served as a template for me to explore who I wanted to be, I was deep into carving out a niche that didn’t need those templates. Due to the necessity of the times, Poly Styrene had to invent the person she wanted to become.
Finding people who look like us, who have experienced the same things as we have, gives us solace. It’s a clear example of someone who made it out. Not only is it essential for people to relate to and feel less alone, it’s even more so for the people still in those hard situations we’ve survived.
Poly Styrene wrote about identity before it became quote-unquote “discourse.” She lived it when her identity was often scaled to life or death proportions. Nowadays, notions of identity have devolved into cliché and performative allyship. If Styrene were alive today, there’s a big chance she would have noted the insidious artifice that goes along with identity politics today. The disingenuousness of people talking about diversity when most of them never stray far away from others who dress, walk, talk, and look just like them. Anything straying outside of monoculture being tolerated with a grimace. Corporations using identity to sell bath soap.
But because the world is how it is, the fact still remains. Representation matters.
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