Inevitably, and once in a while, I stray from my focus on Soviet photography to other subjects. This week I’d like to focus on, of all things, “contemporary” Russian pop music (2000-present). This is, of course, a large topic that ranges from pro-Putin mantras to, what I consider, the absolute absurd. Disclaimer, this post is not comprehensive: I don’t often question my Youtube feed, and yet in questioning it, I have been led to these current musings. Nor am I an expert in this regard (and, for reference, there are significant cultural appropriation issues related to the songs/artists in this post, which have not gone unnoticed, but are too big/broad/important to discuss in this particular blog post).
Russian music tends to be much more introspective and self-critical within bounds that are politically acceptable, particularly in the post-Pussy Riot epoch (if you haven’t yet seen it, though you probably have, Punk Rock Prayer is on Youtube). But Pussy Riot is more protest art than music (in my opinion). As such, their music is hardly emblematic of more mainstream trends.
So, this is, for lack of a better phrase, is a thought experiment.
First, you have contemporary music that is following afro-Latinx inspired videos and music, Dr. Costi being a prime example, who is the Romanian version of Pitbull (the two look surprisingly similar and Costi has taken on the moniker of “Mr. Worldwide” as well) who collaborates frequently with Shakhzoda (Zilola Bahodirovna Musaeva), an Uzbek singer and actress whose career began in the late 1990s, but has recorded songs in Uzbek, Russian, Persian, Kazakh, Tajik and English. She is impressive, not only from the standpoint of being a polyglot. He is, well, I’ll let the visuals speak for themselves.
Her partnership with Dr. Cositi and Lebanese/Australian artist Faydee is perhaps one of my favorite songs of all time: “Habibi: Smile and Everything is Ok” (Habibi: Ulybnis’ i vse ok), but it also doesn’t sound or feel Russian/Slavic/East European/Central Asian (there is also an English language version that was recorded with Shaggy). It’s pop music designed for the broadest possible audience.
Shakhzoda’s music is not necessarily localist or nationalist. And here is where it gets interesting: You have the pro-Putin stream of pop musicians, including Factory (Fabrika) featuring the artists “primping” for a potential encounter/marriage with Putin, or hoping that their future husband is a bit like “Vova” (the diminutive form of Vladimir). There is also the song from the electro-pop group Singing Together (Poiushie vmeste) that topped the charts in 2002 with “Such as Putin” (Takogo kak Putin). And then there are the artists Timati and Sasha Chest, who’s “best friend” in 2015 was president Putin. To be fair, the video makes Russia look “cool” but is also very Moscow centric.
I’d like to conclude with Little Big, based out of St. Petersburg. I say finally, because I don’t exactly know what to make of them. They are both nationalist and non-nationalist. Their take on Polyushko-polye (which has been translated into English as “Meadowlands,” “Song of The Plains” or “Oh Fields, My Fields”), is half in English. It is a Soviet song composed by Lev Knipper and Viktor Gusev in 1933, and implies devotion to the Narodnaia (Motherland), not necessarily the government, as stated in the introduction to their own video (the original Red Army Choir version can be heard here).
The artistic collective has expressed that they are invested in satirical representations of Russia, and yet are incredibly popular (not only in Russia – in Boston a few months ago I heard one of their songs blasting out of a Range Rover), catchy, and both political and apolitical. The closest pop musicians I could associate them with is Die Antwoord, (they are also listed as an influence on the bands website) based out of Cape Town South Africa, but even Die Antwoord don’t have the same satirical flare. While Little Big claim to be apolitical, I would argue that they are the most significant contemporary pop group in the Russian Federation: a) they have an international following; b) they are engaged with a politically apathetic audience (Russians aged 18-35); c) they are outwardly and inwardly critical. That is to say they are not afraid to poke fun at Russian stereotypes while also challenging “Western” culture; d) they are as critical of “Western” culture as they are of their own cultural heritage. Their song “Skibidi” is an incredibly satirical look at Soviet/post-Soviet life, whereas their “Romantic version” of “Skibidi” contains almost entirely Western references from the 1980s and early 1990s, from the cars driven to the type of photomontage and graphics used in the video (including a classic Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore “Ghost” reference including a Godzilla like monster); e) “Lollybomb” which is, quite frankly, amazing, and too much to unpack here. And then there is “Hateful Love” which is essentially an absurdist millennial anthem featuring balloon AK-47s and tanks amongst much more bizarre imagery (including “preserving” stuffed animals in formaldehyde) while “I hope you die” blares in the background. There is also “Punk’s Not Dead” which is essentially a two and a half minute-long penis joke.
It is also worth mentioning that their songs are almost exclusively in English. Despite the Russian carpets, riding tanks, and twerking amongst sheep, their songs are actually very catchy while also indulging in satirical stereotypes. It is also worth noting that in his collaboration with Little Big, the Estonian artist Tommy Cash spoke and sang only in English, rather than Russian (or Estonian). But the lead of Little Big (Ilya Ilich Prusikin) is also married to Irina Smelaia, otherwise known as Tatarka, from Tatarstan, and her music videos range from looking incredibly regional and amateur “Altyn” (or “Gold” in Tatar) to the quite sophisticated “U Can Take” and “Pussy Power.” Her work is an odd hybrid of localist nationalism, all the while wearing and advertising Calvin Klein, Prada, Adidas, and Dickies. Her videos contain many more visual brand cues than Shakhzoda, who appeals to, in my opinion, a wider audience. Tommy Cash and Ilya Prusikin are also the stars and masterminds behind the Youtube serial “American Russians” which is a combination of Russian stereotypes and jokes centered around Slavs who resettle in Brighton Beach, New York.
Given the current political situation in Russia where the incredibly popular electro-pop group IC3PEAK has had significant issues with the police and the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), including cancelled shows and arrests, it is interesting that Little Big has not experienced similar issues given their absurdist take on contemporary Russian life. IC3PEAK told the BBC that their arrest was “part of a bigger covert cultural war against art that’s popular with the Russian youth.” But that being said, why has Little Big avoided controversy given that the group continues to come out with more and more provocative content? Their latest albums are titled Antipositive (parts one and two). Rather, Little Big has become popular enough that the ill-fated robot “Boris” at the Russian Youth Forum in Yaroslavl in December of last year (who turned out to be not a robot but in fact a man in a robot suit) was dancing to “Skibidi,” while the audience danced along.
Essentially, this is just me sharing songs that I happen to like and find interesting. But in the broader sense, this experiment is as much about the unpredictability of censorship in the Russian Federation. How can Little Big get away with what they are doing? Censorship under any government is almost always arbitrary in a myriad of ways. But Little Big’s success, against all odds, appears to be a complete anomaly, at least to me.