Poly Styrene died today.
When I heard X-Ray Spex for the first time, my mind was entirely blown. By that time I was pretty familiar with 1970s punkk music. But this was something else. X-Ray Spex made punk music that was mature beyond its genre. They combined art with artifice with amps, and they blew most dude-fronted rock bands out of the water. Poly Styrene’s singing and performing contained the sonic genesis of every riot grrl band I ever loved in the ’90s, except this was in the ’70s, when even punkers didn’t sound like this. Bands like the Buzzcocks were a pop factory compared to the gutteral growls of the Spex; and they backed up those growls with downright avant garde arrangements. A fucking saxaphone in a punk band. Their outfits were rad, too.
The other night, I was talking about this record project with my friend Peter and he gave me a great compliment. He said that he likes it because I don’t write about music the way a lot of critics write about music, which is to say in a way that makes him want to kill them. (Thanks, Peter!) That’s not an accident. I believe that music connects with an undefinable cross-section of many non-critical aspects of humanity and personality and experience and time. So do most critics. But somehow, at least in a lot of contemporary criticism, this macho, collector-dude, completist ego thing gets in the way and a lot of critics have to spend time talking like they know more than anyone else about music. Which makes us hate them, because that’s annoying.
I’m probably as annoying as the next music writer; the point of this story isn’t to prove my ego is less than that of some guy who’s invested his entire life in knowing about music. Sure, I probably know more than some people about certain musics. Of course I say things like “avant garde arrangements,” just like other critics.
But the point is, we all know about music. If we love even just one song, whether a pop teenage hit or an epic symphony of old, we know enough about music to talk about it with each other. We may not have all the context, and we still like to hear from people who do have that context, but when it comes to popular culture we are our own best experts. You can feel it in the way your feet won’t sit still to certain songs, in that universal and enduring human need to lip sync into a hairbrush, and in the chill that whispers across my arm hair when Poly Styrene screams.
Sometimes I feel made tired by writing about music. Sometimes it’s nice to just listen to it. So today, listen to some X-Ray Specs with me, and think about their context and influence and all that stuff if that’s what the record makes you think about. But mostly just listen. Do you like it? Why? Why not? What does it make you feel?
Later, you’ll remember this.