Rioting grrrlishly on singles like “Oh Bondage! Up Yours!” and “Identity” (“When you see yourself/Does it make you scream?”) a generation before Kathleen Hanna uncapped her first Sharpie, X-Ray Spex were one of a handful of bands to turn English punk’s scouring negativity to feminist ends. (See also: The Raincoats, Delta 5, The Au Pairs, and Ludus.) They weren’t all female, but its two most memorable members were: founding saxophonist Lora Logic, whose post-Spex work is another story, and Anglo-Somali vocalist/lyricist Poly Styrene (born Marian Joan Elliott-Said). Styrene’s first solo release, 1980’s jazzy, ahead-of-its-time Translucence, came soon after the band’s break-up, but her career since has been marked by long interruptions, with her most recent EP arriving in 2006.
Though it was preceded by last year’s “Black Christmas,” which set vignettes about a serial rapist dressed as Santa Claus to crisp pop-reggae, the new single “Virtual Boyfriend” is the latest and liveliest sign of her return to active duty. (Both songs are from her upcoming full-length Generation Indigo, due in April.) Despite references to consumerist waste (“I threw my credit card away”), one of Styrene’s perennial themes, the song is ultimately less distinctive for what it says about online dating (a ripe topic for an alienation-conscious ex-punk, as near-contemporary Jean Smith exhaustively demonstrated on Mecca Normal’s 2006 album The Observer) than its sound, a concoction of synth-pop basslines, vocoded hooks, and compressed, modern-rock guitars. It’s fitting that Styrene would tap the women of Brooklyn production duo CREEP for a delay-drenched remix, but the original remains a brighter, brasher setting for Styrene’s voice, which sounds about half its age – unless that’s her daughter and sometimes collaborator Charlene Bell-Dos Santos, also of Madrid-based Debutant Disco. If the accompanying video, with its floating dialog boxes and low-res graphics, recalls M.I.A.’s last album cover, that may not be an accident: as a multicultural Londoner with a day-glo fashion palette, Styrene (especially as she appeared in the late ‘70s) is one of Maya A.’s few obvious antecedents.
The song’s declaration that “I’m looking to the future and I’m not looking back” sounds even more defiant in the light of Styrene’s press announcement, just before the single’s release, that she has been diagnosed with breast cancer. It’s the most recent of a string of misfortunes that partially explain the gaps in her discography: in 1978, her bipolar disorder was mistaken for schizophrenia, and a ‘90s X-Ray Spex reunion was cut short when she was struck by a fire engine. The news of her illness is even more disheartening in the light of the death last October, also from cancer, of The Slits’ fiery singer Ari Up, another of Styrene’s punk-year-zero fellow-travelers. But let’s not read out the eulogy yet: like that of Up’s bandmate Viv Albertine, who resurfaced with the unexpectedly moving EP Flesh in 2010, Styrene’s still-critical voice deserves not just to be heard, but celebrated.