Flash Points: An Unquiet Riot

When Kathleen Hanna et al. started the Riot Grrrl movement in the mid-‘90s, they couldn’t have anticipated how far the movement would reach. They certainly could not have anticipated that Riot Grrrl would provide the inspiration for a collective of young women embroiled in one of the hottest – and most devastating — trials we have seen.

These young women, a punk band clad in brightly colored balaclavas, is named Pussy Riot, and they have been detained for their so-called obscene performances, namely an anti-Putin one entitled “Punk Prayer” that took place on 21 February on the altar of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. The cathedral performance was the culmination of earlier performances in the center of the Red Square, outside a jail, and in a subway station.

Censorship under Putin is nothing new. In 2009, The Guardian ran a piece on the censorship of Russian rock bands who criticized Putin, citing police rushing the stage during performances of the punk band PTVP. (“Banned in the USSR: How Russian rock bands are being censored”. ) It’s important to note that censorship has different connotations in Russia than in the US, where a Clear Channel ban is one of the worst things that can happen to a band. Mikhail Borzykin, lead singer of Russian political band Televizor in the above Guardian piece, said:

”Today’s censorship does not happen directly. Instead of making a list to include certain songs or artists from being played on the radio or at local clubs, the government scares the owners with sudden closures, higher rent fees or other ‘violations.’ No owner wants to risk their livelihood being taken away.”

Other Russian punk-inflected bands have been politically outspoken in recent history, but none have faced the punishment facing Pussy Riot. As of this writing, the band was facing the prospect of “up to seven years in prison and being denied food, water, and sleep” during their detainment. (Will Stewart,Daily Mail 5 August 2012)

Another female-fronted Russian band, Louna, has been outspoken politically throughout their career and faced the threat of police brutality, but even they did not receive the harsh penalties being levied at Pussy Riot, perhaps because, according to the best of my research, Louna has never directly attacked Putin or his regime. Earlier, a Russian punk bank named Sektor Gaza became popular under perestroika for singing lyrics that could have gotten the members jailed during the Soviet regime. Meanwhile, Zvuki Mu (whose first record was produced by Brian Eno) were the subject of protests while playing in Poland simply for being Russian. Considering the first Russian rock clubs didn’t open until the early ‘80s, it’s safe to say that censorship and protest have been two of the main inspirations for Russian rock (though punk music was still, of course, being played during the days of the USSR, as this playlist attests).

So, what is it about Pussy Riot that gets under the skin of the Putin regime? The Sabotage Times’ Daniel Kalder, though referring to the band as ‘”shitty”, discusses their protests:

”Beaming a skull-and-crossbones onto the façade of Russia’s parliament with a green laser was not bad, but painting a 65 metre long penis on the bridge that leads to the HQ of the Saint Petersburg branch of the FSB, the successor agency to the KGB (and Putin’s former employer) was a stroke of genius. As an act of protest it was still extremely puerile, but it was the right kind of puerile, crudity on an epic scale. It was ridicule, raw and joyous, thrust directly in the faces of those who do not like to be ridiculed.” (10 August 2012)

If the protest was puerile, what can be said about the government’s response? (Can being offended by a mock penis be anything but puerile?)

Perhaps that because Pussy Riot is an all-female band may lead to harsher treatment. Due to prescribed gender roles for women throughout the world, obscenity is generally less tolerated. Wendy O. Williams of The Plastmatics was arrested for obscenity after simulating sex with a sledgehammer onstage. (Naturally, Williams never faced the prospect of seven years in prison.) Donna Summer faced radio bans for her simulated orgasms in 1976’s “Love to Love You Baby” but was never charged with obscenity. (In fairness, male musicians (most notably Bobby Brown) have also been in hot water over simulated sex onstage.)

The arrest and detainment of Pussy Riot has spurned counter-protests. It’s interesting that Pussy Riot sympathizers have not faced charges themselves, such as artist Petr Pavlensky, who sewed his mouth shut during the band’s pre-trial hearings. (Laurie Tuffreym The Quietus, 28 July 20120)

This issue goes deeper than pussy power. It goes into real power, the kind of power that transforms political protests like those that currently dog Putin into real revolutions, the kind of color revolutions that Putin calls “instruments of destabilization.. And whether or not these movements are rooted in punk rock, they are certainly steeped in the punk philosophy, the mindset and actions that “millions of people whose lives have been enriched by punk, which, at its best, instills an ethic of personal responsibility and self-reliance that outsiders can find difficult to reconcile with punk’s shambolic aesthetics.”

What’s ironic is that in the Putin regime’s harsh treatment of the band, he’s instead fostering one of the greatest punk movements our generation has seen. Perhaps Pussy Riot should change their name to Pussy Revolution once their trial is over. They’ve earned it.

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