This week, two years after his debut album, "chanson" star Andrei Bandera has released his second CD: "I Can't Help But Love" (Ne liubit' nevozmozhno). It contains twelve new tracks as a collaboration between SOYUZ Productions and his own system of so-called People's Producers, which incorporates fans' views in the selection and creation of music. The picture below shows Bandera and his team weeding through the public's response to various pre-release materials.
The absence of vodka on the table suggests that very sentimental songs will enter the voting at a disadvantage. If we could replace that mineral water on the table with 40% proof, everybody would be hugging each other and weeping uncontrollably.
Bandera has risen to considerable popularity thanks to heavy rotation on Radio Shanson, which now - with scant modesty - refers to itself as "Russia's National Radio Station." Bandera's format-friendly interpretation of the traditional "chanson" involves a marked reduction in its usual, time-tested themes of criminality, exile, regret, and so forth. While keeping the expected, overarching air of melancholy, he nonetheless turns miserable tales of injustice into gentler ditties of yearning: for a girl, a hometown, or a childhood experience, for example.
Take this song, "Gorlinka" (Turtle-Dove) about the the sadness(!) of a bird's release into freedom.
His popularity is - in essence - grounded in a series of validations: all these girls, villages, and experiences are celebrated... it's simply that they're sorely missed when absent. There's no bitching about the legal system or endless hunger, which is what we'd normally expect - from singers who often look as if life has given them a good kicking. Bandera, however, is very much a ladies' favorite.
Using this take on the traditional Kleenex-wielding format of chanson, Bandera has slowly become a positive poet in a difficult land: his songs, even when less than jolly, nonetheless foster a worldview of patience and consolation. There's one proviso, though... the degrees of that consolation are small.
Bandera's concerts - as with many other of his contemporaries - give voice to low levels of self-definition; his heroes do not boast any great ability to the fashion the world as they see fit. Any personal victory tends to be couched in terms of ongoing battles, whereas any great loss is tempered by the aforementioned patience, hope - and eventual consolation (if you're lucky).
And that's what makes the genre so important - especially in its most conservative MOR format, as here. These are songs that take no great risk: in terms of tempo, structure, and melody, they're all very familiar indeed. Even the "gypsy" or Georgian elements, for example, that Bandera draws upon are less academic or ethnographically accurate references so much as they suggest the cinematic treatment of those regions in melodramas or musicals of the 70s. They reflect a type of TV tourism.
These are not gypsies yearning for the steppe; they're the alter egos of Russian in bad jobs who miss their childhood. It's a modern significance that plays a big role in Bandera's promo work, as we can see. The images in this post are evidence of ways in which he uses songs about wandering spirits... to surround and celebrate the daily work of a wandering minstrel. The great majority of his PR images show him on the road.
All in all, this may sound rather miserable, especially when so many Russian chanson numbers are - willingly - caught in tight circles of conformity. What, however, makes them so popular(!) is that they celebrate ongoing movement; they tell of processes, rather than goals. They tell of endurance, no matter how small the scale on which that tenacity manifests itself.
Chanson is critical whipping-boy Number One in the Russian press: no style could be less urbane, less fashionable, or less adventurous. In several possible senses of the word, it is profoundly provincial. Whenever it has money to spend, don't expect elegant understatement...
This again, is a reason to pay chanson considerable and constant attention; it reflects the nation in better ways than any Moscow glitz. It's the embodiment of normality and a very useful, if not poignant social barometer. If, one day, the chanson playlists swing back from Bandera's touching tales of turtle doves to prison cells, then be afraid.
Be very afraid. (Is he holding a grenade?)