The Russian language, to put it mildly, is rich in expletives. Its grammar allows for a dizzying range of possibilities, the layering of increasingly foul expressions as one tries to bridge the gap between reality and its designation. Radical changes need radical names if one hopes to foster any degree of self-determination. Perhaps the most famous exponent of obscenity in Russian pop music has been Shnur, until recently frontman of the ska outfit Leningrad.
He disbanded the group this year, believing that the current social climate requires a different set of accompanying noises; he placed ska to one side and took up a rough and ready form of garage rock. At the time it also appeared as if his legendary cursing had reached a dead-end, no longer able to designate current events, and it had dissolved into the grunge-like chords of two guitars channeled through cheap amps. Speech had become sad, loud noise.
Briefly, however, the role of court jester has been passed to female hands, more explicitly to Masha Liubicheva, vocalist of trash-trio, Barto, who this week release their second album. The band continues to ride atop a wave of critical acclaim: the authoritative site Zvuki.ru and Moscow music festival Stepnoi Volk both named that first CD "Debut of the Year" in 2008.
The celebrations were evidently tiring.
The Moscow trio attribute their success thus far to some explicit traits: "This is why people love Barto... The sexual anarchy of their lyrics, together with the kind of elecrotrash that gives you no time to think. The songs are both cruel and straight to he point; anyone who attends their gigs is going to get an earful of rhythms to get 'em dancing - and loads of all the right emotions!"
This is why people love Barto... The sexual anarchy of their lyrics, together with the kind of elecrotrash that gives you no time to think.
The ability to deliver these goodies makes Barto (in their own immodest words) "one of Moscow's most fashionable and relevant groups. Their fans grow in number each and every day; their home page gets more than 200 first-time visitors every 24 hours. They put on a dazzling show with their charismatic singer. 'Erotic' is too feeble a word to describe what she does... To be brief, these are the wild and crazy dances of today's forward-looking youth."
The irony in that final sentence is key, as is the reference to "the right emotions." Let's take a quick look at the music first of all, in order to explain things. The band themselves - as we see - prefer the term electrotrash to define their style. This, in other words, is not the confident, moneyed style of the 80s, but a deliberate downgrading of the same technology.
This second album reuses the dirty synth-sounds of the debut CD, but what's novel on "Sex, Violence, and a Good Mood" is the group's recourse not only to cheap and cheerful, perestroika disco-stomps, but also to (even cheaper!) 8-bit melodies in a few songs.
We're wilfully going, in other words, to the junkyard to find appropriate sounds, so what about those "right emotions"?
This is where the swearing becomes especially important; sure enough, almost every track is full of the kind of language that could lose most people their job, but this second CD is more overtly sexual, too. It also includes a handful of (equally vile!) phrases in English. The result is a series of three-minute stories at the dead-end of the dictionary, where even a second language offers insufficient tools to name (and therefore handle) actuality. And so the lyrics, convinced there's "no future," tumble into grim stories of almost purposeless, depressing sex. Several of the more "erotic" songs simultaneously describe both the need to have sex and a pronounced dislike for the other person involved.
The irony inherent in these pessimistic ditties plays two roles here: it tries to laugh off the nasty predicaments in which the songs' heroine finds herself and - at the same time - to dismiss the sense of insignificance embodied by cheap keyboards, 8-bit melodies, and the claustrophobia that results from an exhausted vocabulary.
These songs do what they say on the tin: they tell of (bad) sex, (worse) violence, and (a self-deluding) good mood. As several of these pictures show, there's a supposed sense of rebellion at the band's gigs, but as soon as the crowd-diving starts, surely we've got something closer to a community of suffering.
The band agree that "the new album's name fits its purpose perfectly. It's like the twelve angry men (or women, if you want) of Nikita Mikhalkov's film [called "12"] who are knocking the final nails into the coffin of surrounding reality. It's aggressive, fun, and sexy all at the same time; there can be no semitones or half-measures for people who listen to this CD. It may well be, as one of the new songs says, that 'Everything'll Soon Be F***ed,' but the band will always be able to dig in its pockets... and find something to calm us down... "
Once again, despite dragging in phrases such as "no future" to invoke the fun-filled rebellion of the Pistols, there's less rebellion here than graveyard humor!
Barto's most famous fan, critic Artemii Troitskii, has also talked of the ensemble as a collection of young people who "call things by their real names," but it seems there are no words to describe what's going on. The only thing left is to take your clothes off, grab the person next to you and pretend as if you're having fun. Hence Troitskii wonders whether Liubicheva can be called "Shnur in a skirt, perhaps? Zemfira with the breaks off? To be honest, we're probably dealing with something else here... I'd say that every young, hip girl in Russia should have a copy of this CD - as an antidote to her boyfriend, work, and [TV celebrity] Ksenia Sobchak."
The last time that Russian society underwent hugе social change, language also morphed. Cussing began the process of naming strange alterations out in the street, because the vulgar footnotes of any dictionary will always lean towards things absurd and surreal; these were the words needed. In the late 1980s, Russian swearing adopted a particular series of new or previously hushed words to describe unknown degrees of success or failure (vezukha, prukha, prokol, or oblom, for example). Terms relating to a lack of control (e.g., kranty) or diminished agency (pofigizm) were also heard more often.
In a nutshell, swearing did two things: it was a form of protest and it was cathartic. People complained about what was going on outside; they couldn't do much, but after a few choice words, they felt a little better. That's why the quip above about digging deep in one's pockets for drugs makes just as much sense when applied to language. Judging by the number of indecent terms on this CD, a couple of pressing matters are coming to the fore. It's time to close the windows, stay indoors, and make up a handful of neologisms.
Really rude ones.