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April 30, 2011

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A tale of two punks

AS one punk goes, another comes. The 53-year-old Poly Styrene died of breast cancer in Sussex, England, this Monday; Avril Lavigne, 27, will be performing in Shanghai next Monday.

Two events: one week apart, both concerning female punk singers. What does it mean for the Shanghai music fans?

Punk as a music and culture is usually pinpointed as starting in the mid- to late 1970s in New York. Bands such as the Ramones produced simple melodies with frenetic, bouncy guitars.

They rejected common conceptions of beauty and fashion for a DIY (do-it-yourself) ethic that commonly presented a fiercely individualistic, bleak or outsider perspective.

For the most part spurned commercially in the United States, the Ramones first played in England in 1976 and sparked the punk movement there, launching a wider social movement.

One of those legendary early British punk bands were X-Ray Spex, led by Styrene (real name Marianne Elliot-Said), who cooed, screeched and occasionally sang about the posturing involved in consumer culture.

In the band's most durable song, "Oh Bondage Up Yours!" Styrene tears away at her own defenses, lambasting herself, and by proxy the listener, for being a slave to the "chain-store" and "chain-smoke." That song was released on September 27, 1977.

Three days short of seven years later, Lavigne was born in Belleville, Canada. She sang backup for local Christian singer Stephen Medd before signing to Arista Records in 2000.

Posited as a counter to the blonde female pop singers whose blindingly white smiles were ubiquitous at the time, Lavigne released her debut single "Complicated" in May 2002.

In August, she released the song she is perhaps still associated with most, "Sk8er Boi." In it, Lavigne describes a boy "punk" who has a girlfriend that dumps him. Lavigne then starts a relationship with the punk, and they go on to live happily ever after, aka "rockin' up MTV."

With the release of that song, Lavigne's brand was established: the girl that a boy could hang out with and still maybe steal a kiss from. A far cry from the pop tarts at the top of the charts at the time such as Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears, whose music videos mostly featured them as objects of fantasy.

In fact, Lavigne was dubbed the "anti-Britney" in US magazine Entertainment Weekly by the time her first single was released, while many others labeled her the "pop-punk princess."

Just as much by the music, her appearance and attitude solidified that image, with the before-mentioned smiles of Spears and company replaced with nothing more than a devilish grin or kidding outstretched tongue.

More than that, her standard apparel of baggy pants, white shirt and a man's dress tie seemed mocking of society's standards of femininity, a theme familiar to Styrene.

In March 2003, a subtly disparaging article about Lavigne appeared in the UK newspaper The Guardian that countered her claims that she was the prime songwriter of her singles, including "Sk8er Boi," and also called into question her punk credentials.

She denied the charges that she only made perfunctory contributions to the composition of her music, but from then on she did distance herself from the punk label: "I'm so not," she said in early 2004, referring to being a punk or a rebel.

Her pronouncement has had little effect, as many articles profiling her current Asian tour still go with the punk princess moniker to describe her.

More than that, denying the title of "punk" while still appropriating much of its iconography puts her in a more easily defendable position: simply utilizing the sound and look of it without explicitly invoking it.

Lavigne escaped from punk in name, but never it's legacy. For Styrene, the sound and the fury were one and the same.

Styrene never played the Shanghai Grand Stage - she never played the grand stage of anywhere. Lavigne's popular success is part of Styrene's legacy, for better or for worse.


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