Friday, March 27, 2015

Добро пожаловать/Welcome

I don't remember where, but I once read that dissertation writing is the most paranoid type of writing there is - and perhaps the same sort of thing might be said of academic writing in general.  Working in academia, there is the luxury, of course, of being able to produce writing that relies upon the construction of complex arguments and in-depth research, that moves beyond simple/superficial glosses.  However, such writing can also be rather stressful, perpetually - with each word, comma, endnote - under the scrutiny of a chorus of internalized critics ("missed a key source," "translated incorrectly," "argument weak," each voice the auditory/imaginary incarnation of an academic archetype or personage from the past), so that indeed paranoia can morph into paralysis.

This is not an academic blog - it is without any [academic] aspirations.  It is simply a way for me to revel in the joys of Russian pop while here at NIAS, and to share this music with those people who care to know more about it.  Both of them.

Separated at Birth?

[Sorry, I can't resist...]

Brit indie darling Sam Duckworth...

...and liminally-gendered, "heterosexual" estrada superstar Filipp Kirkorov?

Get Cape.  Wear Cape.  Fly, "Daylight Roberry" (Duckworth's previous band)

Kraak & Smaak (feat. Duckworth), "Good for the City" (it's Jamiroquai-rific)

филипп Киркоров, "Жестокая любовь" (Filipp Kirkorov, "Zhestokaia liubov'"/"Cruel Love") (one of his bigger hits

"Снег" ("Sneg"/"Snow") (sure to appeal to straight men everywhere)

"Посмотри, какое лето" ("Posmotri, kakoi leto"/"Look, What a Summer") (with wife, mega-superstar Alla Pugacheva; and a happily married couple they are)

Kirkorov at a concert, lip-synching, but someone in the sound booth must have recorded (and leaked) the actual audio (not what the audience heard).  Ouch.

One of the Kirkorov scandals, at a press conference with protege Anastasiia Stotskaia, fielding questions from journalist Irina Aroian.  The fun starts around 2:50.  Find a Russian friend to translate.

And here, an item from the TV "magazine" И Снова здравствуйте (I snova zdravstvuite/And Hello Again) in which the Russian press, again, constructs a more "acceptable" Kirkorov - here by revealing the "love affair" between the Svengali and the protege (Stotskaia).  Uh-huh.
(For some reason, YouTube won't allow embedding of the video.  Strange.)

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

ВИА-Гра/VIA-Gra and the "New [post-] Soviet Woman"

The Ukrainian/Russian "girl group" (an awkward fit for numerous reasons) VIA-Gra will be the focus of one of the chapters in my upcoming book; one of my many guilty pleasures for over a decade, I still follow the transformations and permutations of this eternally changing group.  The group, despite it's ostensible existence as (what many would argue is) yet another commodified "musical" group/product, one venally exploiting female corporeality for financial gain (and thus encroaching, yet again, upon female agency within the realm of the musical), is - I will argue - an incredibly complex formation encompassing sonic, visual, and discursive parameters in an implicit questioning of gender hierarchies, Western feminist hegemony, and (more recently) national sovereignty.  The variable of the human voice - central to the book project - will also be engaged in my examination of VIA-Gra, in part by attention to the group's more recent (self-) presentation highlighting the fact that, yes, really, we can sing.  (How well they sing, is a decision each person can make for herself.)

First, the name.  A play on words and Soviet musical history.

Once upon a time, in the cold-war era, the Soviet authorities, knowing they couldn't entirely eradicate young people's desire for the devil's music, rock 'n' roll, decided to attempt to channel its destructive attributes (its hyper-sexuality, for one) into something more wholesome, more refined, more uplifting for its komsomoltsy (communist youth).  And thus, the VIA (ВИА) was born - Вокально-Инструменнальный Ансамбль (Vokal'no-Instrumental'nyi Ansambl' - which, I assume, needs no translation).  Here are some of my favorites (and I've written about a couple of these song here):

ВИА Верасы, "Я у бабушки живу" (VIA Verasy, "Ia u babushki zhivu"/"I Live with Grandma")

ВИА Синяя птица, "Урок сольфеджио" (VIA Siniaia ptitsa, "Urok sol'fedzhio"/"The Solfege Lesson")

ВИА Песняры, "Вологда" (VIA Pesniary, "Vologda")

SO...with the understanding that "gra" (гра) means "game" in Ukrainian (and "igra" has a similar meaning in Russian - game, or play), the group VIA-Gra is the "Vocal-Instrumental Ensemble 'Play'."

And indeed the Russian, the Soviet, and the Post-Soviet are all on display in this song/video, "День без тебя" ("Den' bez tebia"/"Day without You"):

The imagery here is, I think, an excellent representation of the complexity of constructions of the feminine and the female that draw upon, concurrently, both current and anterior cultural scripts (as, I suppose, all do); women here are represented as intelligent (they're in charge of a space probe that will clean the sun of cosmic dust, thus allowing life on earth to continue) and empowered; caring, selfless, and maternal (after a collision with a cosmic projectile, they are unable to return to Earth, but carry out their mission so that their children might live); and (depending upon one's personal aesthetics) sexy.  Cosmonauts in heels and spandex - but with little ones back at home.  This juxtaposition of attributes may, via the optics of "western feminism" be seen as some sort of "conflict" - at the level of representation - between exploitation and empowerment, but I will argue in my book that for many Russian women, such a supposed "conflict" is a non-issue; the desire for beauty (to be beautiful, to witness beauty) is not seen as disempowering, but rather the exact opposite, taken in the context of Soviet history where the "stripping away" of one's gender (and one's ability to create one's self as a gendered individual) was experienced by many as the ultimate attack on empowerment and subjectivity.

This is the penultimate line-up of VIA-Gra, before the group was entirely disbanded, and then re-configured via a reality show (in Ukraine) Я хочу в ВИА-Гру (Ia khochu v VIA-Gru/I Want to Be in VIA-Gra) - Al'bina Dzhanabaeva, Nadezhda Granovskaia-Meikher (one of the original members), and Eva Bushmina (stage name of Iana Shvets').  Bushmina arguably had one of the best voices of all the "singers" who had taken part in the group, and I think her inclusion signaled a direction for the group - one in which the voice/singing was to be seen as (almost) important as the singers' physiognomies/bodies.

Not incidentally, numerous members of VIA-Gra have parlayed their celebrity as part of the group into viable solo careers; here, one of Al'bina Dzhanabaeva's latest:

Альбина Джанабаева, "Надоели" ("Nadoeli"/"Bored")

And from Eva Bushmina:

Ева Бушмина, "Собой"

Well.  So much to be made of this, indeed.  According to the director "the main idea of this video is the eternal confrontation between man and the environment, the search for harmony, the search for one's self in this space."  Uh-huh.

Friday, February 27, 2015


Nothing to do with Russian popular music, really - but quite beautiful.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

For the Children

I know, I know Lee Edelman, I'm falling prey to the very discourse I should disavow.  But only a truly bitter, horrible person would not find this song/soloist (Андрюша Орехов/Andriusha Orekhov) adorable:

"В траве силед кузнечик" ("V trave sidel kuznechik"/"In the Grass Sat the Grasshopper") (and he was killed and eaten - by a frog.  Life is hard, kids, learn that early.)

I'm going to guess that 97% of Russian children and adults know this song.  Probably 99.8% know this:

It's the theme music from the children's television program Спокойной ночи, малыши (Spokoinoi nochi, malyshi/Good Night, Kids) which has aired continuously on Russian television since 1964.  Broadcast in the evenings, it's what many children watch and have watched before being put to bed - and I've never met anyone in Russia (or Russians living abroad) who did not know the program and the words to the theme song.  I have always found it fascinating, however, that this arguably most-Russian-of-Russian cultural production (one so ubiquitous in formative years, one operating on arguably affective registers) is so not traditionally Russian, at the level of harmonic/melodic attributes, as well as the level of style.  Yes, certainly "jazz" has been a part of the Russian "soundscape" for decades (and, as Yurchak notes, sometimes lauded, sometimes reviled), so it is definitely not entirely (sonorously) "other"; yet it cannot compare with the ways in which the following - also widely known among the populace (I'll say...98.1%) - adheres to the stereotypical harmonic/melodic (to say nothing of the ideological) structures of so much of Soviet and post-Soviet popular music:

"Что тебе снится, крейсер Аврора?" ("Chto tebe snitsia, Kreiser Avrora?"/"What Are You Dreaming, Cruiser Aurora?")

Everything is better in claymation:

The cruiser, of course, holds an important place in Russian history and memory.

Some more (stylistically) typical Soviet-era songs, performed by the Big Children's Chorus (Большой Детский Хор/Bol'shoi Detskii Khor), soloist Serezha Paramonov (Серёжа Парамонов).  (Paramonov was quite well known in the early 70s; he died at 37.  An interview with him, later in life, can be seen here.)

"Старый барабанщик" ("Staryi barabanshchik"/"The Old Drummer") (I love watching how the children do or do not move during the instrumental breaks - mostly the latter.)

"Не дразните собак!" ("Ne draznite sobak!"/"Don't Tease the Dogs!")

Edelman is, of course, correct - the construction of the image of "the child" plays a central role in so many ideological constructions (and not only in the US).  Listening to children's songs - and taking them seriously as performative cultural constructions - raises so many questions not only about the promulgation of cultural narratives and tropes on a "textual" level (the "meaning" of the "lyrics"), but also about the very production and ontology of memory.  In my book, I suggest that harmonic and melodic structures, as part of the environment in which one lives, are apprehended in part somatically, and thus become lived and re-lived at the level of the body; not exclusively, of course, but certainly as more than a minor adjunct to the "importance" of text and/or discourse and/or ideology.  What can be gained from exploring the very concepts of "memory" and "nostalgia" at the level of "embodied sounds," with attention to those sounds/actions so widely dispersed geographically, culturally, and temporally?

(Answer:  much.)

Monday, February 23, 2015

Killing Him (not so) Softly

The chapter of my current book project tentatively entitled "The Beauty of Justice" will engage just those two foci, exploring how instances of corporeal female beauty may be related - in the context of post-Soviet space, the preceding (ostensibly) "gender neutral" Soviet sphere, and largely Western construction of "feminist" discourse - to a type of social justice, the ideal made visible.  This concatenation - beauty/justice - will be explored not only via theoretical literature and writings in the popular (Russian) press, but by attention to the the music, life, and career of singer Valeriia.

A second part of this chapter, however, will examine - again, in the context of post-Soviet space,  the reporting (or lack thereof) of violence against women in the Russian-language press, and incipient formations of groups devoted to addressing the issue of domestic violence - audiovisual representations in Russian language popular music of a sort of "vigilante justice" by "beautiful" women; here, the concatenation of beauty and justice becomes arguably more tense and intensified.  Below, several examples:

ВИА-Гра, "Цветок и нож" (VIA-Gra, "Tsvetok i nozh"/"Flower and Knife")
This is one of the earliest examples I've found
(And note:  the group's name is a rather funny play on words - and the Soviet musical past - which I'll explain in a future post devoted to the group - the focus of another chapter)

ВИА-Гра, "Сумашедший" (VIA-Gra, "Sumashedshii"/"Crazy")
This clip in particular is very interesting - not only is the "violence" directly related to female sexuality and sexual pleasure (arguably representing male fears of the same), but the object of the "attacks" is one of the group's members, Tat'iana Kotova, in male drag.  What is important here - in terms of my focus on the voice throughout the book - is that Kotova was (to my knowledge) the only of the 16 members of the group's changing roster who never sang a note - she literally had no voice.

Анна Седокова, "Что я наделала" (Anna Sedokova, "Chto ia nadelala"/"What Have I Done")
(Sedokova was a former member of VIA-Gra, from what many call the group's "golden" era)

ВИА-Гра, "У меня появился другой" (VIA-Gra, "U menia poiavilsia drugoi"/"I've Got Someone Else") (That's a rough translation)
This current line-up was the result of a televised competition a-la the Idols or X-Factor franchises; the program, Хочу в ВИА-Гру (Khochu v VIA-Gru/I Want to Be [in/part of] VIA-Gra) featured numerous hopefuls, the finalists chosen by the group's founder/producer/composer/arranger Konstantin Meladze and other celebrity judges (including original VIA-Gra member Nadezhda Meikher-Granovskaia).  As groups were formed, each was mentored by a former VIA-Gra member (Sedakova, Granovskaia, and Al'bina Dzhanabaeva).  It goes without saying that the "competition" was largely an empty spectacle, and that the "winners" - Misha Romanova, Erika Gertseg, and Anastasiia Kozhevnikova were likely selected long before the program began.  It's notable that all three are Ukrainian citizens - but I'll address that in a future post.

The rapper, by the way, is the very talented (although you can't really see/hear it in this song) Вахтанг Каландадзе (Vakhtang Kalandadze).  You can get a better idea of his abilities here.

Полина Гагарина, "Шагай" (Polina Gagarina, "Shagai"/"Walk")
To her credit, Gagarina is one of the few singers on the Russian scene who actually appears to sing live at many of her concerts/performances - something that I'll be discussing in the book.

Also notable is her really radical change in image; in this clip ("Колыбельная"; "Kolybel'naia"/"Lullabye") she's quite different than her man-eating novyi Russkii ("New Russian") persona in "Shagai."

(By the way, I quite like this song - and [here comes a tangent] it was a good choice for singer/model Aida Nikolaichuk's audition on X-Factor Ukraine.  If you watch the clip, note that they stop her - they don't believe that she's not lip-synching, so they ask her to sing a cappella.  She wound up winning the season.)

Ева Польна, "Я тебя тоже нет/Je t'aime" (Eva Pol'na, "Ia tebia tozhe net/Je t'aime"/"I also Don't/I Love You")

For some reason, YouTube will not allow embedding of this video, but you can watch it here.

(Pol'na is a very interesting performer with a very interesting history; I've written about her previously, but am not sure if she will make the final cut for this book - at least not as an artist on whom I will focus at length.  It's a pity.)

The spectacularly untalented Юлия Ковальчук (Iuliia Koval'chuk), "Прямо в сердце" ("Priamo v serdtse"/"Straight to the Heart")
I love a good "girl group," I make no apologies for that (although I am growing very, very tired of Icona Pop for some reason - and not only because of the really problematic nature of this video) - but Koval'chuk was a member of one of the most unlistenable girl groups of all time, Блестящие (Blestiashchie; I'll translate this as "Shiny [Ones]" or "Glittery").  I know, I'm supposed to be objective and open-minded, but for me it just doesn't get any worse than this.  Today's Russian lesson:  дерьмо.

А.Р.М.И.Я, "Я независимая" (A.R.M.I.IA, "Ia nezaisimaia"/"I'm Independent")
A Ukrainian group - and granted, this isn't really "violence," although the stunning number of dislikes on YouTube (about 40%) and several of the nasty comments suggest that many find the message of this song threatening and disturbing.  To be independent?  How dare you!

(As an aside - but an important aside - one of the issues I'll have to deal with in this book is deciding how to engage these artists who are, at least by nationality [if not residence] Ukrainian, but who speak/sing in Russian, appear in all manner of Russian [not only Russian-language, but Russian-owned] media, and are clearly listened to by Russians in Russia - as well as Ukrainian citizens who consider themselves culturally closer to Russia than Ukraine.  It may well be that these groups/artists may have to be analyzed differently, on a case-by-case basis.  The Ukraine/Russia tension will most certainly be in issue in my chapter on VIA-Gra, especially considering the group's latest video/song which not-at-all-subtly draws upon the current political-cultural-military conflicts [and to the group's credit, rallies for "truce"].)

Поющие трусы, "Му му" (Poiushchie trusy, "Mu mu"/The Singing Panties [yes, that's their name], "Mu Mu")
An often funny, often vulgar Ukrainian group that will not be part of my book, but whom I could not resist including.  I don't understand all of their comic references, but here is a (NSFW) video which not only lampoons Madonna, but also unambiguously (and sometimes offensively) engages the topic of homosexuality; in short, the narrator says, you won't be intimate with her because you're gay.) (And the visual references to Kazaky are, of course, obvious.)

Finally, although many of us have become desensitized to images of violence and sex, due to their ubiquity, I find this video accompanying Anna Sedokova's song "Сердце в бинтах" ("Serdtse v bintakh"/"Heart in Bandages") quite disturbing.  In the book I will be examining it in order to argue - in a classically postmodern vein (if "classical postmodernism" isn't an oxymoron) - that a hyptertrophy of the aesthetic can even lead to a justification of violence.

(This last song reminds me of a mega-hit by Irnia Dubtsova, which I'll discuss here)


Every time I hear the opening hook to Sedokova's song "Сердце в бинтах" ("Serdtse v bintakh"/"Heart in Bandages"), I cannot help but hear the opening hook of Irina Dubtsova's megahit "О нём" ("O nem"/"About Him"), a song that was seemingly played in Russia thousands of times per day, every day from 2004 to 2005:

Dubtsova wrote the song herself , a fact that was apparently compulsory to mention in conjunction with uttering the song's title, either in official or social channels:  on the radio, "And now, Irina Dubtsova's 'O nem,' a song that she herself wrote"; among friends, "I love this song, 'O nem' - and did you know that she wrote it herself?"  Y   e   s.      I      k   n   o   w.    E  V  E  R  Y  O  N  E    O  N    T  H  E     P  L  A  N  E  T     K  N  O  W  S).  To be fair, it's actually a pretty good song (or at least it was until the 2,407th time you heard it).  And it was played so constantly that this hook cannot but have been imprinted in the social consciousness - and I'm absolutely certain that Sedokova's producer's knew this.

Dubtsova's certainly did/do - because, in an attempt at "auditory branding," her follow-up closed with the same hook; if you don't want to listen to it, skip to the last 15 seconds or so:

Eight years later, in 2013:

Ирина Дубцова и Брэндон Стоун, "Игра теней" (Irina Dubtsova and Brandon Stone, "Igra tenei"/"Game of Shadows")
Why mess with success.

Dubtsova, by the way, got her major start on and was the winner of the fourth season of Фабрика звёзд (Fabrika zvezd/Factory of Stars), an Idols-type talent competition that ran for years on Russian television.

The runner-up that season was Антон Зацепин (Anton Zatsepin) - whose "talent" was arguably his physiognomy, not his voice:

Nine years later, Anton releases this:

Hey, he was on Dubtsova's season, and he came in second place - it's his hook too, isn't it?

[Humor aside, these sorts of repetitions and borrowing are not uncommon in Russian pop, and if we listen to the homogeneity of vocal timbres, arrangements, and harmonic/melodic structures, it is clear that these musical reiterations warrant a culturally and historically grounded analysis - one that moves beyond an assumption of venality and profit-seeking, or aesthetic homogeneity as constructor of social passivity/docility/conformity, as the sole explanatory loci.]