History of Russian pop
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Translated by
Joera Mulders
May 8, 2011
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Original appeared in Russkii Reporter
Author: Konstantin Milchin, Natalya Zaitseva, Dmitry Velikovsky, Yulia Ildis, Sasha Denisova, Tatyana Arefeva and Olga Andreyeva.
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Twenty years of Russian history through the eyes of Russian pop music

Popular music is not just bad lyrics and layered vocal tracks, but also social psychotherapy. Pop music reflects the traumas within the subconsciousness of society, whether it is the rise of prostitution for hard currency in the early nineties or the epidemic feminine love for Vladimir Putin in the middle of the next decade. Often those songs become popular that express social complexes, which are not yet articulated in the public sphere. Pop music therefore in particular reflects our ideas about the world and the different periods of Russian life.

See, Yalta has been canceled. A coup has taken place and Gorbachev has been overthrown’, says the gangster Sasha Belov in the serial ‘Brigada’, while watching the harmonious movement of ballerina legs in Swan Lake. During those days in August 1991, this ballet was broadcasted on all TV channels.

The new Russia is often considered to have begun with the coup in August 1991, but it must have started earlier, when at the Congress of Soviets in the spring of 1989, citizens could for the first time really choose between several candidates.

During the following 20 years Russians have continuously made their choices and delivered their votes. Some do so with their stomach, some with their heart and others with their wallet. And so the ideology of the new Russia took shape and found its expression in our national pop music.

Part 1. 1989-1995: ‘the sweet West’

The fact that the new Russia was born amidst the ruins of several old Russia’s, was recorded by Masha Rasputina in the song ‘White Mercedes’: ‘We do not live better, but nevertheless somewhat different times have come.’

In the early nineties the first social act of the liberated pop music was the mythologization of the West. ‘Goodbye, my boy, goodbye my sweetheart. Your little girl leaves forever,’ Anzhelika Varum sang in 1991. The group Kar-men produced the album ‘Around the world’, which was entirely made up of fantasies about foreign countries: ‘London’, ‘Paris’, ‘My girl from America’, ‘Cio Cio San’, ‘Delhi’, ‘Istanbul’ and ‘Bahama mama’.

In the same year Oleg Gazmanov sings ‘At night I dream of Jamaica, its lagoons and coral reef’ and lively describes the rumored local riches. ‘In my dream I eat papaya fruits. On coconuts and bananas, I chew.

Despite the abolition of the iron curtain and the Berlin wall, by 2005 only 3% of Russian citizens had traveled abroad. In the pop music of the 1990’s, the abroad isn’t a real place, but a source of myths. Even the suggestive English language chorus ‘Baby tonight’, literally ‘girl for one night’, acquires the romantic meaning of ‘girl of the night’ in the Russian language song by Lada Dance.

In the 1990’s the highest achievement for a woman was to get married to a foreigner. ‘He has gone to Kopenhagen. I was left behind. ‘That is how spending time with foreigners ends’, the group Kombinatsiya’ sings.

Kopenhagen was a common place in the mass culture of the early 1990’s. In 1964 Denmark had invited Khrushchev and in the mid 1980’s one of the products on the Soviet shelves that symbolized the good life had been the Danish butter.

In 1991 Alexander Buinov sings. ‘And you. Buy yourself a ticket to Copenhagen. Just go there and find out how to stay.’ You can hear the concept of the desirable, but unattainable happiness abroad.

Kombinatsiya develops this stereotype in the song ‘American boy’: ‘Well, where are you, my foreign prince?’ This song is about ‘a simple Russian girl’, dreaming about an American man, who will take her to consumption paradise: ‘I will cry and laugh, when I will sit in a Mercedes. And I will swim in luxury.’ But her prince never comes and he never takes her away from the Moscow, she comes to detest more and more.

In those days, a marriage with a Russian was a thorny path to prosperity. ‘That wedding dress and that sausage, I will remember them forever.’ promises the girl in the song ‘Two pieces of sausage’ (also by Kombinatsiya) combining the two feminine dreams of 1991: a white dress and sausage. But the song continues: “Perhaps you are tough now. You don’t listen to anyone. But do you remember my sweetheart, what we ate together?’ Here we see the paradox taking shape of the man who is providing, but at the same time a criminal gangster or businessman.

Until the end of the nineties in pop music property relations and family relations are placed on equal footage. In 1993 Natalya Vetlitskaya makes a tragedy, not as much out of her coming divorce, but all the more out of the division of property: ‘Don’t call me no more. I will forget everything you have said. I will return to you everything that you gave me.‘ At that time for women a divorce still meant the complete loss of the property, belonging to the man. Marriage contracts became popular only in the middle of the next decade.

During the first half of the nineties it was harder to live inside Russia than outside Russia. The family was no longer seen as the basic unit of society. In name of all men in business or show-business Vadim Baikov, sings ‘I don’t have a wife. Who will blame me for that? I don’t have a wife and probably will never have.’

Baikovs song, however, is not the typical declaration of independence of a bachelor, but the self-justification of a divorced man: “A wife. What is a wife? The place where my daughter lives?‘ The hymn for the single mother is provided by the song ‘Lullaby’ by Tanya Bulanova : Don’t call your teddy bear papa. Please don’t pull his paws. It is clearly my fault. Not every child has a father.’

It would be an exaggeration to write that at the start of nineties suddenly everybody started to divorce. It was simply so that the subject of divorce stopped being a taboo in popular music. According to the data of Goskomstat, the increase in the number of divorces in the early nineties was insignificant. The real peak came between 2000 and 2003. Besides, the number of new marriages dropped from around 1 million in 1999 to 897 thousand in 2000. In 2004 the number of new marriages fell sharply again. At the same time the number of kids that were born outside a marriage increased.

These social changes were reflected in pop music, which in general began to treat the subject of divorce and incomplete families with much more ease. In 2002 the duet ‘Not a couple’ sings: ‘Cry and watch. He has your eyes. And if it wasn’t for you, it would have been the three of us.’ Because the chorus is sung by a man and a woman together it remains unclear who is to blame for the break up of the family. In 2006 ‘Tea for two‘ doesn’t even begin to place the blame, but simply discusses how the child should be raised: ‘Tell me, I hope that you will allow me to see him. I will come to visit very often. About our fights we will speak no more’.

The mid nineties: the turn to Russia

The romanticization of the abroad in general and the United States in particular was left unchecked, because until the mid 1990’s almost nobody came back. This despite the fact that the 1991 law which regulates ‘the order of departure from the USSR and the entry into the USSR for citizens of the USSR had come into effect in 1993. Free traffic in both directions was finally permitted.

I gave you, America, my rival in love, the man whom I love. Take well care of him’, sings Irina Shvedova in 1994, assuming that her lover had left for forever. The singer blames the infamous freedom of departure. ‘Why do we, women of the earth, need it, the freedom the loose, the freedom to live in separation, the freedom to forget the names of your close ones?

In the mid nineties however travel abroad became more common. The problem of the shortages was more or less solved and the western shops were no longer seen as museums of unheard of products like winter boots and cheese. With unexpected speed the shuttle trade developed. By estimates of the Turkish Ministry of Tourism the totals of shuttle trade in 1996 amounted up to $5 bln. The official bilateral trade at the time did not even reach $3 bln. By 1997 about a third or half of the shuttle traders traveled to Turkey and Turkish beaches became the first and most important holiday destination for Russians.

The abroad, with which we finally met in person, did not look like a fairy tale at all and was met with disappointment. Pop music was one of the first to reflect these new sentiments. In the second half of the nineties, the singer Karolina paints an ironic portrait of a Turkish playboy. ‘A young man lives by the sea. He is a hot guy. He doesn’t care about his own. He follows us Russians, calls us all Natasha and says come over here.

In the pop music of those days for the first time patriotism appears, albeit in a negative form – not pro-Russian, but on the contrary anti-Turkish and therefore pan-slavic. ‘My name is Alla. And I am Ekaterina. We’re looking for a nice blond guy on the pier. My name is Varya. I am exclusively made in Russia. No luck for you, boy! None of us is called Natasha!

By that time the wealth of Russian men increases, and as a result their attractiveness as potential husbands. Already in 1994 Kombinatsiya lists all prospective Russian fiances. ‘I love soldiers. Beautiful and muscular. I also love tough guys and all businessmen.

In this song the image of the ideal man appears: ‘He gives me presents. He is held in esteem in high places. He takes me to the casino. I would do anything for a polar fur coat.’ This is what the girls of Kombinatsiya dream of. Among Russia’s beauties the competition has started for those Russian men who are getting rich quickly and at that time there weren’t enough of them for all the wishful.

The surplus of women seeking to join a wealthy lifestyle, naturally leads to betrayal by men. From the mid 1990’s up until the wave of divorces in the early 2000’s betrayal was one of the favorite subjects in pop songs.

Tanya Bulanova voiced the accusations and complaints of the first wives of the Russian businessmen in ‘Betrayal’ (‘How could you? After all we trusted each other’) and in the song ‘My mother said.” (‘I am out of love. When leaving, leave, my mother said.’ )

The song ‘You will like him, when you get used to him’ (1997) talks candidly about female competition for men: ‘I didn’t want to take your freedom away, but my friend clearly was bolder than me.’ In 1995 Irina Allergova presents the other side of the struggle. ‘When I am asked where I found such a sweet boy. I answer that I drove him away like a foreign car, a sports car. I stole him in front of all to see. So openly. Everybody was stunned.

In those times Russian men worked a lot. In 1994 Buinov makes excuses for all Russian businessmen: ‘For already how many years does she not live with me. She does not live with me and only languishes. This beauty, my wife, this beauty my wife. The comfort of a hotel room, life on the road. How I want to relax and sweat it out in the sauna. But it won’t happen because she waits for me. Indeed, she waits for me, this beauty, my wife.’

Already in 1996 male singers begin to express their irritation with capricious women. The same Buinov complains how ‘my wife annoys me. No money, no sex. And my mistress squeezes all my juice. She annoys me too.’ And in ‘the wedding march of the lonely bachelor’ Arkadii Ukupnik sings ‘I will never marry you. I’d rather eat my passport during the ceremony. I will run away. I will fly away, I will go up in smoke, but I will never marry you.

1996-1999: Anti-West

Soon thereafter pop music begins to reflect a counter reaction to the desperate wish to leave the soviet surroundings, which was so characteristic for the songs of the start of the decade. Murat Nasyrov sings his famous ‘A boy wants to go to Tambov’. The hero in the song is a youngster from an unnamed foreign resort, who dreams about Tambov, ‘a city whereto no planes fly, whereto not even trains go’. He dreams about Tambov like Russians on the threshold of the 1990’s dreamed about any, even the most shabby foreign city. Even an American Uryupinsk would do. (Wikipedia: The name of this town is known to most Russian people as a synonym for “backwater town”)

In the mid 1990’s pop music finally realized that there is little happiness to be found abroad. Two camps emerge: the glamor-escapist and the patriotic camp.

In escapism pop music finds a new subject to dream about. Now the place of their dreams is no longer the existing abroad, but an abstract glamorous paradise, clearly non-existent and therefore all the more beautiful. The first steps on the path to glamor, which became a powerful trend in first decade of the 21th century, were taken by Natasha Koroleva in 1995. In her song ‘Little country’, she created an utopia, where ‘animals have kind eyes’, ‘life is full of love’ and most importantly ‘awaits me a beautiful boy on a golden horse’.

Patriotic pop is exemplified by the lyrics from the song ‘Mama, everything is okay’ (1996): ‘Mama, what the hell do we need these (United) States for. Mama, here you can live in luxury too’.

By the way, the widespread anti western and anti-American sentiments in the public politics appeared only much later. In 2001 during a meeting of the youth movement ‘Walking together’, its leader Vasily Yakemenko said: ‘We need to show Russia our faces. To the West we should show a very different part of our body’, Yakemenko only summarized that what in some way or another already happened in pop music ten years ago.

By the end of the 1990’s the property aspect of marriage in pop music and life in general moves to the background. On the foreground appears the subject of family values. Larisa Dolina sings ‘What’s most important is the weather at home. The rest is vanity’ and receives the ‘Ovation’ award for best album of the year.

Now the stereotypical woman becomes the housewife, loving and most importantly conservative. Even VIA Gra condemns sex before meeting the parents: ‘Before you get to know me better, get to know my mother’.

By the way, the message is not as much about formal marriage as it is about the feeling of protection in general. A woman needs a man, on which strong shoulder she could lean when necessary. In those days in Russia the number of registered marriages plummets. Civic marriages on the other hand become a statistically significant quantity. After 2002 in censuses the marital condition of Russians is no longer determined by documents, but by the words of the people surveyed. ‘Heaven sits on your shoulder. I don’t want my freedom. Don’t ever leave me, my love’, VIA Gra sings with Valery Meladze in 2004.

The stereotype of the family has changed. While in the 1990’s society was build on individualism, at the start of the 2000s society again consisted of families and couples.

The first phase of the formation of the new Russia is hereby completed. It was a time in which the search for new social ideology was foremost conducted in geographical space. The newborn society found it’s pillars of support at first across the ocean (in the USA), later simply across Russia’s borders and later again in non existing countries. By the second half of the 1990s however the search returned within the borders of the Russian state. In the next phase the new ideology will be sought for in temporal space or to be more exact in various historical times.

Read more in the history of Russian pop part II

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    Russian pop music Uunlocks twenty years of history