Rock It To Russia

Like many things in the former Soviet Union, rock & roll ain't what it used to be.

But this golden era quickly turned into a lost age. Russian musicians now find themselves in a radically altered economic environment, and they seem unable, or unwilling, to adapt to the new economic realities. The increasing irrelevance of the Soviet generation of rock musicians has left the field wide open for Western music and its Russian lackeys to dominate an increasingly unoriginal popular music scene. In Soviet times, rock gained authenticity through its music and its lyrics. Some bands, such as Time Machine, combined Western rock with traditional themes from Russian folk music. Others had a more direct Western musical influence, usually punk or heavy metal. But Westernized music went hand-in-hand with explicitly political lyrics. In "Get Out of Control," Leningrad punks Televisor sing: "They've watched us from birth, our kind uncles and aunts/We sing what they want/We live how they want...with the Soviet System/...Looking up at the terrorists above/I say, Get out of control/Tear down these walls/Sing what you want, not what you're told/Get out of control, we can be free." Today, such sentiments have been largely replaced with slick pop aesthetics and empty sentimentality.

This can be blamed partly on the fact that rock musicians were no better prepared for the shock of capitalism than other Russians were. And as their identity had been forged as a counterculture to Communist rule, the collapse of that rule took away the Other which they had used to define themselves. Rock musicians in Russia traditionally cared little about commercial success, which was both irrelevant to their art and impossible under central planning. Market forces, in turn, have made social consciousness irrelevant to the success of Russian musicians. Boris Muradov, the former rock musician who is now the rock music critic for the highly respected newspaper Arguments and Facts, laments this lack of substantive content. According to Muradov, "Now all you need is a good video and you are popular. If a band tries to say something with a social sense, people don't like it. Now what kids care about is vodka."

To understand what has happened to rock music under Yeltsin requires an understanding of the new economics of Russian capitalism. Under the Soviet system, the means of production were nominally owned by the whole people, but in reality everything was run by and for the Party; musical production facilities such as recording studios, concert halls, factories that made records and cassettes, trucks that took music from factories to stores, and the stores themselves, were all owned by the Party. The decision to dismantle the old system was made before anyone had a clear idea of what kind of system would replace it, and which path would lead to the new system. In music, as in other aspects of Russian life, the end of central planning meant the end of most productive activity. There was no longer a distribution system to get records into the hands of consumers. With no distribution, factories stopped producing albums. With no sales, musicians could not afford to buy studio time. Record companies and studios could not count on future sales to cover up-front costs. Music production essentially collapsed.

Nowadays, the mafia and banks, both controlled by Party hacks from the old era, have taken control of the recording industry, as they have taken control of most aspects of Russia's economy. Back when these new capitalists were old Party cadres, they had no interest in dissident rock music, and they still don't. The new/old bosses are interested in what sells, and what sells are Russian imitations of Western trends. When shopping at the kiosks and outdoor markets which serve as Russia's record stores, cassette and CD shoppers can now easily buy the music, Russian and Western, that was banned in the Soviet era. Newer Russian music, however, is in short supply, and is almost exclusively radio-friendly pop from a handful of popular bands.

While Russians have long looked to the West for rock & roll inspiration, there is little comprehension of the market factors and cultural specifics under which Western music is created, and even less knowledge of the history of Western rock. A case in point is Kurt Cobain. Many young Russians have Cobain shirts, and Nirvana bootlegs are sold everywhere. But except for journalists, no Russian I spoke with had any grasp of Cobain's struggle with the dual pressures of authenticity and stardom. Instead, what little information circulates about Western music in Russia is sensationalist. Even Muradov, writing for a respected paper, is chided for his interest in the artistic and social aspects of music. Instead, his editors ask for stories about the sordid lifestyles of Western rock stars, which are even more common in the pages of Russia's many tabloid papers.

Obviously, rock music in Russia has always been heavily influenced by the West. Under new commercial pressure, however, the music has become derivative of the lamest Western pop. Take for example last summer's hottest Russian act, Bravo. Each song on their album is a lifeless reproduction of a Western genre, from rockabilly to new wave to hip-hop. Before making this album, the band kicked out its Soviet-era female lead, Ivanna Anders, whose melancholy voice no longer fits the image of an upwardly mobile Russian band. Well-marketed, with professional videos and lots of radio play, Bravo was in the top 10 for much of 1995.

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