Poly Styrene's inspiring sensitivity should be the true legacy of punk

Mixed race, with braces on her teeth, Poly broke the mould of UK punk. A new documentary explores her struggle to find meaning in the Day-Glo chaos of modern life

The moment I heard that Marianne Elliott-Said, AKA Poly Styrene, had died, I was at band practice. We put on X-Ray Spex and jumped around, screaming along to Identity, Oh Bondage Up Yours! and Germ Free Adolescents. On that day in 2011 we lost one of punk’s greatest heroes and one of the few who really looked and sounded like me. She broke the mould of UK punk stereotypes. She was brown, chubby, weirdly dressed and had braces on her teeth. Even in an era when quirky, abrasive style was all the rage, she stood out.

Poly Styrene embraced this. She played with the attention her weirdness attracted, making a cartoon of herself. To be an artist is often to feel like a shiny trinket – hip and trendy one moment and disposable the next – and Poly had a fascination with all things garish and throwaway. She knew that through selling her art, she herself would inevitably become the product. Consumer culture overwhelmed and horrified her at times but she poured those thoughts and feelings into surrealist, confrontational art and music.

In keeping with its subject, the new film Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliche is not your average music documentary. It shows Poly struggling to deal with fame at a young age, disbanding X-Ray Spex and abandoning the limelight to live in a Hare Krishna commune. It thoughtfully reflects on themes of creativity, identity, spirituality, motherhood, loss and mental health. The central voice is that of Poly’s daughter, Celeste Bell, confronting the difficulty of mourning the loss of a mother who had been so loved, yet so complicated. Through archival footage and interviews, the film examines the uneasy line between how the music press categorised and celebrated Poly Styrene as a rebel and a figurehead, overlooking the vulnerability of Marianne Elliott-Said.

Growing up, I heard thoughtless stories of Poly Styrene “going mad” wielded like a punchline. The film goes straight to the heart of what it means to be a creative person: not just an exceptional artist, but someone who struggled to find their place in the world, searching for meaning within the Day-Glo chaos of modern life. I remember seeing a photo of Poly at a Rock Against Racism gig with her shaved head. It felt like such a fabulous “fuck you!” to the co-opting of skinhead culture by white nationalists. She had, in one simple gesture, subverted all the identity signifiers that were such battlegrounds at the time.

Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliche – trailer

But the film pulls back: at one point, Don Letts recounts the story of Poly disappearing to shave her head during a party at Johnny Rotten’s house. He admits that he didn’t respond well in the moment: he and Rotten laughed at someone who was obviously unstable. To hear this story retold through the fresh and honest framing of I Am a Cliche, I questioned the vibrant, playful picture of the 70s punk scene that I had painted in my head.

When the film tells the frankly harrowing story of Sid Vicious locking Poly in a cupboard, I felt a vivid sense of how scary it must have been to be mixed race, female and fronting a punk band at the time. As someone who also grew up being called “half caste”, I can draw a lot of parallels between my own music career and Poly’s. I also know what it can be like to have family members who have serious mental health problems. The film’s unflinching unravelling of such complex themes moved me deeply.

Poly wasn’t someone who speculated on society’s downfall from the sidelines. She lived and embodied these modern-day tensions: in the space between black and white, using her voice in a wild and noisy way, she occupied a very real outsider identity. This knife-edge existence, paired with such a sharp wit and vision, meant that she saw through the cracks in society. She was porous to the darkness and the mess of the world. As an artist, to question what it means to have agency within a racist, consumer capitalist society can leave you in an uneasy place, in truly uncharted territory.

Her inspiring story encapsulates what should be the legacy of punk: not simply spiky rebelliousness, but a self-aware sensitivity to the world that can help shape how we navigate the music industry and our lives as a whole. I Am a Cliche shows how Poly’s innate sensitivity was often misunderstood and exploited – yet for me she remains a radiant symbol of defiance, luminous rage and joy. I believe that she dreamed of reaching a higher level of consciousness through art and wanted to examine a more spiritual route to identity. Her music and lyrics transcended the everyday, stretching the limits of the imagination.

Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliche is on Sky Arts at 9pm on 6 March.

Rachel Aggs is a Glasgow-based musician who plays in the bands Trash Kit, Sacred Paws and Shopping.

Rachel Aggs

The GuardianTramp

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