209 Summer 2012
Me and Pussy Riot
Riot Grrl, Russia and the future of music
Rebel girl, Rebel girl
Rebel girl you are the queen of my world …
When she talks, I hear the revolutions
In her hips, there’s revolutions
When she walks, the revolution’s coming
In her kiss, I taste the revolution
– ‘Rebel Girl’, Bikini Kill, 1991
I am not scared of you. I’m not scared of lies and fiction, or the badly formed deception that is the verdict of this so-called court. Because my words will live, thanks to openness. When thousands of people will read and watch this, this freedom will grow with every caring person who listens to us in this country.
– Maria Alyokhina, ‘Pussy Riot trial: closing statement denounces Putin’s “totalitarian system”’, Guardian, 8 August 2012
It’s about the romance, partly. What could be more romantic than the sight of three women – mothers of small children – on trial in a small glass box, flanked by police officers and a massive dog, surrounded by the state apparatus of Russia, with the remnants of the Iron Curtain knitting together to prove just as impenetrable as before? On 3 March 2012, five members of the punk feminist art collective Pussy Riot played a gig in Red Square, in the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. The performance had been carefully planned and choreographed; of equal importance to the neon-coloured balaclavas and tights the band members wore was the fact supporters were on hand to document the event. Guitars were wielded, but the power wasn’t switched on. The entire occurrence – the women leaping up and down in front of the altar – lasted about a minute, before security moved everyone on. By the evening, the collective had already released the performance as a video on YouTube: ‘Punk Prayer – Mother of God Chase Putin Away’.
Cue outrage among the authorities in Russia: this was not a political statement – despite the song’s title, opening line and chorus mentioning Putin directly. This was a hate crime against Christians and all good people, worthy of the severest punishment. Retribution would be swift.
The following news story appeared worldwide the next day:
Vladimir Putin triumphed in Russia’s presidential election on Sunday and, tears rolling down his cheeks, called his victory a turning point that had prevented the country falling into the hands of enemies.
Within a couple of weeks, three members of Pussy Riot – Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich – had been arrested and charged with hooliganism. Very rapidly, Pussy Riot (brightly coloured, female) became a worldwide focal point for dissent. It helped that the response to their act of provocation seemed so disproportionate and po-faced to Western eyes.
All they were doing was having a bit of fun, expressing themselves!
Eventually, after a long and drawn-out trial that not even the reliable hype around the Olympics could hide from the world’s media, the three women were sentenced to two years in jail in August 2012. (‘Give us eighteen years, not seven!’ ran one Pussy Riot lyric written during the trial, when it was widely expected the musicians would receive the maximum possible sentence.)
Cue outrage in the West. ‘Freedom of artistic expression,’ yelled almost everyone, many conveniently forgetting that such freedom of speech is not always applied at home in similar circumstances. (Occupy, anyone?) It helped that Pussy Riot were photogenic (and female). It helped that they were mothers. It helped that they were trading in a currency – rock’n’roll – easily understood and digested by the Western media. It helped that Amnesty International had gotten behind them, and it helped that Pussy Riot themselves, and the art collective (Voina) they sprang from, were so clued in about documenting their performances.
And it especially helped that Pussy Riot rapidly became a celeb cause célèbre: Madonna, Sting, Paul McCartney, Green Day, Faith No More, Kate Nash … many were the outraged celebrities who came out in support of this punk ‘band’ from Moscow.
Incredible what a choice of venue can do to a band’s career.
I first wrote about Pussy Riot on my website on 3 February 2012:
Without a doubt, my new favourite band ever. A feminist punk rock collective inspired by Bikini Kill writing anti-Putin songs (‘Putin has pissed himself’) and performing in guerrilla-style costumes in Red Square itself.
This was just a month before the performance that set the world momentarily alight with indignation. Already, footage had appeared on YouTube of the anonymous, all-woman collective, one of them seemingly pregnant, performing in public: in Moscow’s Metro system, in a fancy department store, in Red Square itself. The videos (tightly constructed montages, drawn from several different locations) were incendiary, inflammatory: one clip identified secret service members talking into their cell phones; multi-coloured flares and smoke bombs and fire extinguishers were wielded to chaotic effect.
I liked the music a whole bunch. Shambling, basically recorded, political punk with aggressive lyrics and humour, and a major female slant.
Pussy Riot excited me. In the early 1990s, writing for British music paper Melody Maker, I had been one of the writers responsible for giving the proto-feminist punk movement Riot Grrrl its initial media exposure. I was bored of rock made by men. It had long occurred to me that rock was a firmly patriarchal institution, set up on partisan male lines, designed for men and intended to be enjoyed by men. Notions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ were tied in with whether you could play music in a certain way – the way of men. The iconography of rock, the language of rock, the very music of rock … it was all male.
If you were women, the best you could aspire to was pop. Yet pop was deemed ‘inauthentic’ (a view that has only been changing in the past decade – and barely in Australia) whereas rock itself was ‘authentic’. It began to seem absurd to me that women would even want in, to take part in an art from that had been specifically designed to exclude them: why couldn’t a new culture be set up, that could perhaps run parallel with some of the bits of rock worth saving, but one that didn’t automatically favour you if you happened to be a man?
In the US, in Olympia Washington, a handful of feminists and punk rockers were creating bands and fanzines that had female empowerment on the agenda (alongside other such givens as ‘fun’ and ‘good rocking’): Bikini Kill, Heavens to Betsy, Bratmobile, Girl Germs, Jigsaw.
In the UK, in Brighton and London, a handful of feminists and punk rockers were looking to build a similar agenda: Huggy Bear, Ablaze!
The Americans were playing more traditional rock music but seemed more politicised. The British were attempting to undermine the notion of music itself. I facilitated an introduction (of sorts) between the bands, and somehow a new feminist musical agenda was created. There weren’t leaders but prime movers. It wasn’t just music but a lifestyle choice. It was about the power of the collective, of mutual support. There were female-only gigs. Bodies were scrawled on with markers. Academic papers were written. Man, the early Riot Grrrls were ridiculed – by both men and women. I’m sure you’ve heard some of it.
Pathetic. Silly girls. Can’t play. Not wanted. Not needed.
I’m simplifying, of course. Stuff like this was going on everywhere all the time. In our tiny microcosm in Brighton, we hid underneath our kitchen tables and devised non-linear feminist agendas. Didn’t everyone? We knew that what we were doing then wouldn’t necessarily have any immediate effect: shockwaves, ripples underneath the surface … that’s what was going to take place. Shake up complacency and something will happen.
Forget Nirvana and grunge shaking up the music industry.
We were going to change the fucking world.
I’m currently teaching a unit at QUT in Brisbane entitled ‘Sex Drugs Rock N Roll’. I also give guest lectures in a variety of music-related subjects. During one entitled ‘Performance as Protest’, centred around recent events in Moscow, I quoted from an article that American musician and academic Al Larsen wrote for Collapse Board. In it, he talks (somewhat misleadingly) about the notion of ‘space punk’. No, not Lost in Space gone spiky and rude. Something far more revolutionary.
Larsen posited that Pussy Riot have far more to do with guerrilla theatre than rock’n’roll itself. It’s almost a coincidence that they’re a rock band.
The truth in the videos is in projecting an idea of the possibility of what can happen in public spaces. Where rock’n’roll has traditionally been concerned with recordings and touring, this is more about doing something in public space and representing it online. The performances are about the moment and for the moment. But there’s also some pretty serious staging going on. It’s ephemeral and it’s for the archive.
What Pussy Riot is doing has something to do with rock’n’roll, punk rock, street theatre, performance art, protest and flash mobs but none of those terms really hit the mark. ‘Interventionist protest art’ would be a decent, if dull-sounding, description but the framing of Pussy Riot as a band is significant. It suggests something that anyone can get in on. Because – who knows? – maybe the recording industry will stop threatening to collapse and get on with it. Maybe we’ll see a new form – a blossoming of bands that dispense with ‘touring the album’ in favour of creatively engaging the poetics of public space.
Rock’n’roll as revolution is a tarnished currency. Remember all those editorials declaiming the lack of protest singers to help frame Occupy with a musical voice? As ever, the media commentators were looking in the wrong place (they always look in the obvious place, the place they’ve been trained to look, by long years of bottom-feeding). For decades now, revolution caused by rock’n’roll has happened away from the US, the UK and Australia. It happens where there is still a need for superheroes, where stylised protest can cut deep. It hardly matters whether the imagery is hackneyed to Western eyes … although, going back to those initial Pussy Riot videos again … know why I was so excited?
It was clear that here was a group that had taken the lessons of Riot Grrrl to heart and were moving along, taking it to the next stage. Not to shift units (to the best of my knowledge, you still can’t buy any Pussy Riot music anywhere). In 2012, it’s not enough to act all revolutionary on stage in a rock venue or in a photo shoot – although, weirdly, that was precisely what Pussy Riot were doing within the confines of YouTube, until the Russian authorities stopped playing it smart and paid attention. But it was within an entirely different context, a public space, an act that was designed to exclude no-one.
No-one blinked when members of Pussy Riot – as part of the confrontational art collective Voina – stripped off and had sex (while pregnant) in state museums. It was far more shocking when they entered a church and kept their clothes on.
You need to choose your performance space, your battlefield, carefully.
Ah yes, the music. The weak link, apparently. The mainstream media can barely conceal its sneer when it comes to discussing Pussy Riot’s music, the kindest arguing a variant on the old ‘the ends justify the means’ line. For example, the New York Times wrote:
Judging [Pussy Riot] on artistic merit would be like chiding the Yippies because Pigasus the Immortal, the pig they ran for president in 1968, was not a viable candidate.
I’m a music critic. So I made some observations about Pussy Riot’s music in that initial blog entry:
Fucking nice music too! I can hear Crass, I can hear Bikini Kill, I can hear Dutch insurrectionists The Ex … but most of all I can hear anger and determination and energy and bleakness and hope and a refusal to lie down and accept things as they are. This band is so, so genius. Great name and great image, too. They totally understand the language of revolt.
I chose my reference points carefully.
Both Crass and The Ex were/are (The Ex is still going strong thirty-five years on) politicised bands with a leaning towards anarchist beliefs. The power of the collective.
Crass famously released a free flexi-disc entitled ‘How Does It Feel To Be The Mother Of A Thousand Dead?’ dedicated to British prime minister Margaret Thatcher on the occasion of the sinking of the Belgrano during the Falklands ‘War’. It was rumoured to have shifted 500,000 copies. The Ex is associated with the squatting movement in Amsterdam. Both bands had their roots in simple two- or three-chord punk thrash but both very rapidly moved on from that, becoming experimental in their anger, and with strikingly feminist agendas. The Ex has recently released a searingly brilliant series of collaborative records with Ethiopian jazz musician Getatchew Mekuria.
Bikini Kill is the obvious one. The connection between the two bands is obvious, both musically and politically. Female. Empowered. Confrontational. Determined.
Even now, especially now, it seems there’s still a perceived right and wrong way to play a guitar, record a song, how to make your instruments sound: an idea rooted in fifty years of male expression. Pussy Riot’s music is so charged with emotion and intelligence and humour and – yes, catchy as shit choruses – that it’s an insult to label it as anything other than music.
The stench of hypocrisy emanating from the US government over the Pussy Riot ‘verdict’ (inverted commas used, because clearly the decision was made to incarcerate the three women before the ‘trial’ even began) is overwhelming: think they’d have reacted any differently in similar circumstances on their own soil? ’Course not. UK politicians, too. It’s all a gigantic bandwagon that folk can clamber on, nail their colours to the mast, the cynical secure in the reflected credibility of those who passionately care, a big old whirligig of sex and mock outrage and ‘free speech’.
Sting goes public in his support for Pussy Riot and the same day the verdict is announced, he plays a party in honour of Putin’s sister. That’s joined-up thinking for you. Back in the UK, the Tories condemn the trial verdict. Right. The fucking Tories.
The Russian Orthodox Christians were very vocal in their condemnation of the collective before verdict, absolutely supportive of the idea of a prison sentence: ‘It is God’s will,’ announced one senior clergy member. (Funny that, I thought it was Putin’s will. Or are the two indistinguishable in Russia?) Now that the Orthodox Church sense the moral majority turning against them – after all it’s hardly an ‘eye for an eye’ – they want that Pussy Riot should be set free. Sanctimonious, smug hypocrites.
The judge in the case pronounces men and women to be already equal across Russia and hence feminism is only there to create religious hatred. Or something. It’s hard to tell in the translation. And I’m sure I read somewhere that the prosecution argued the Pussy Riot song ‘Punk Prayer’ was an attack on religious beliefs – so nice to know that the fate of Earth rests with folk who believe in supernatural beings – and not political, because no politicians are mentioned in the lyrics. Er, that would be except for Putin. Or is he viewed as God by the Russian Orthodox Church?
Whatever. There’s a new Pussy Riot single out. Of course there’s a new Pussy Riot single out. And it fucking rocks harder than anything else from 2012 (UK rapper Plan B’s disorientating statement about the British 2011 riots ‘Ill Manors’ perhaps excepted). Of course it does. CONTEXT CONTEXT CONTEXT. No coincidence that it’s taken women to effect any major change within the poisoned citadel that is rock’n’roll in 2012. Men are such a devalued currency … as Putin and his humourless, protectionist cronies and apologists, and their hypocritical counterparts condemning them from the other side of the world, prove.
One simple acid test for anyone supporting Pussy Riot now. Who among the very vocal and increasingly public chorus line of celebs and B-grade politicians voicing their support for a bunch of disenfranchised women in Russia fighting a battle most can barely comprehend would have done the same thirty years ago in the UK when it was Crass versus the establishment (or even twenty years ago, when it was Riot Grrrl versus the establishment, albeit on a much smaller scale)?
Kate Nash: yes. Peaches: why the fuck not? Bjork: definitely. The US State Department (who issued a statement condemning the verdict the day it was released)? Are you fucking kidding me?
State more time in prison
The more arrests – more happiness
And every arrest – with a love of sexist
After swinging his cheeks, as the chest and abdomen
But we cannot be resealed in the box
Security officers overthrew the better and more
Putin ignites the fires of revolution
He was bored and frightened people in the silence
Whatever punishment he had – that rotten ash,
With no time in many years – the subject for wet dreams
The country is, the country goes to the streets with audacity
The country is, the country is going to say goodbye to the regime,
The country is, the country is a wedge of feminist
And Putin is Putin goes, leave cattle
Arrested on May 6 the whole city
7 years we have little, give me 18
Ban yelling, slander, and walk,
Take his wife’s dad Lukashenko
Chorus 2 times
(‘Putin Lights Up Fires’ – Pussy Riot)
Song of the day? Song of the fucking year.
In 1991, Huggy Bear appeared on late night UK pop culture programme The Word. Henry Rollins got heckled, a load of cool-looking kids jumped up and down, people swore, security got called, and the whole mess made the front of Melody Maker. It was the music paper’s best-selling non-promoted issue in years. Shortly afterwards, the band travelled to America and disintegrated, perhaps unprepared for the attention.
Bikini Kill recorded a great single with Joan Jett, spawned Le Tigre and … well, we’re here right now, aren’t we?