Olympic Smoker: Dark Humor and a Stubborn '60s Romanticism

Looking for initial information concerning the Kazan musician and DJ known as Olympic Smoker is a task that will probably throw up а few false leads, especially when it comes to images. Most often an online search will produce pictures of Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, who - not long after winning eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics - was photographed smoking an illegal substance. The individual pictured here, therefore, is not the man we need.

Instead, as already hinted, we turn to the Russian city of Kazan, founded in the tenth century and now home to more than a million people. Here, in the last year of the Soviet Union, a boy was born by the name of Emil' Shakirov. At the age of 14 he would start experimenting in various realms of electronic and dance music. Now, at the advanced age of almost twenty, he lists his preferred styles as minimal, techno, tech-house and "experimental." These same experiments began to be published a couple of years ago, initially through the Shoki Recordings offshoot of netlabel Deep-X, located in Ekaterinburg.

His other basic home, should we wish to follow Shakirov's future trajectory, is Bypass, another web project - this time based in Beijing, of all places. Working hard to erase the significance of political geography, Bypass was founded in 2008, and has already produced more than 50 releases, spanning ambient works, chiptunes, more vague "experimental" compositions, idm, trip-hop and field recordings. Irrespective of one's native language, Bypass is happy to see contributions from "all artists who work seriously in the name of free music and sonic creativity."

Shyness is clearly not an impediment to that requisite seriousness.

If we turn our attention to Shakirov's MySpace page, a few photographs are available, plus links to earlier recordings, several of which can be found at Archive.org. He heads the MySpace location with a reference to the 2006 US film-satire, "Thank You for Smoking." That rather dark, though successful movie sought humor in a reversal of politically correct stereotypes; it concerned the professional fate of a businessman entrusted with the suspect goal of making smoking socially desirable, much as it had been for Hollywood movie-makers decades before.

This same enjoyment of deliberate contrariness can be found elsewhere in Shakirov's output, in both sonic and graphic forms. The artwork below is but one example.

The text-heading at his PromoDj page continues in the same vein. It reads - in Russian - "This is really bad music. I had hoped that it'd turn out a lot better." Clearly this is not be taken seriously. Shakirov has uploaded his music - onto a site that's specifically designed for promotional goals. This tongue-in-cheek approach serves two purposes. First of all, it allows for a sense of subversive potential in the face of primetime entertainment; one can mock the conservative canon from afar - by refusing to take its PR rules seriously. Rather than busy himself with self-congratulatory haughtiness, no matter how (un)justifiable it may be, Olympic Smoker produces counterproductive humility.

This is really bad music. I had hoped that it'd turn out a lot better.

Looking down upon one's public is not Shakirov's intention. Consequently, we find ourselves among, rather than arrogantly above, the mismatched roofs of Kazan.

And yet, of course, that same humility sounds less than serious. It operates, in essence, as a form of safety-net, should critical acclaim not be forthcoming. Moving slowly from the periphery of public attention, one can always resort to the sudden declaration that one's work (in the face of likely criticism!) was indeed supposed to be "really bad." Self-mockery makes a great deal of sense when the likelihood of mass attention is slim, at least from the leading lights of distant, awe-inspiring or centralized media.

Ridiculing one's output when compared to the well-funded glitz of major media is logical enough, but does your local public, pondering a visit to nearby nightclubs, also wish to hear that they'll be paying for "really bad" music? Here the choice of suitable rhetoric is trickier. Time to pause and ponder.

Ironically, one also needs to win that local attention before moving onwards and upwards to the Big City. Consequently, for all the apparent self-abasement and Shakirov's "contrary" moniker," it may - in fact - speak of very big dreams. They are directed at Moscow, not the intermediary of Kazan.

The tracklisting of his new album, showcased here and entitled "Noises & Echoes," speaks to this same issue. Themes of preeminence ("Aplha," "Instant Happiness," "Quintessence") alternate with those of reversal and radical change ("Electronic Minced," "Fine Line," "Joke"). Once again, the line between possible success and/or falling into destiny's "mincer" is blurred by humor. Not only is one of the instrumentals here specifically called "Joke," but we return again to the dark humor of smoking's "benefits" in Track #11, "When Reality Needs Some Filters."

The clearest and most culturally specific of these dual-edged references comes in the number known as "Gallad of Busar." After a few seconds, it becomes clear that Shakirov has reversed two of the title's letters, in order to hide the phrase "Ballad of Gusar."  This, in turn, is a "semi-translated" version of "A Hussar's Ballad," a 1962 musical comedy. It was directed by nationally-adored filmmaker Eldar Riazanov and based, in turn, upon a patriotic WWII play that did much to help Soviet citizens forget the horrors of war in several snow-bound cities.

The story concerns a young tomboy, Shurochka, who is so inspired with patriotic zeal after Napoleon's invasion of Russia that she pretends to be a man - and signs up for national duty. Having done so, she then runs into a certain Lieutenant Rzhevskii, who had been sought by Shurochka's parents as a possible suitor. Both are shown above.

Shurochka, however, always found Rzhevskii an utter bore. When these two figures find each other on the fronltline, therefore, tensions ignite again, though Rzhevskii has no idea that he's facing a closely-cropped girl he recently visited at home in peacetime; he merely thinks he's dealing with a cocky young upstart.

These confused identities would soon lead - as we might imagine - to all manner of indecent jokes throughout the Soviet Union, involving not only the pushy hero and plucky heroine, but all kinds of other figures from Russian literature, such as Natasha Rostova from "War & Peace," or poet Aleksandr Pushkin.

This film is still popular today, watched by millions of people, as opposed to those thousands who tell improper jokes and giggle in dark corners.

Why the enduring fame for such a stagy story? Because "Gusarskaia ballada" is, ultimately, a love story. At the end of the film, having earned each other's respect in battle, Rzhevskii and Shurochka are revealed to one another in their true guises... and they fall in love. A tale of tension resolves itself.

Shakirov uses this same movie in his new album; he reverses the letters of a title that concerns role reversal.

As we've seen, our musician's (self-) mockery actually revealed the desire for acceptance in high places; his manipulation of this movie title works in a similar way, too. A nationally loved tale of hard-won harmony is ridiculed - by one person in one distant locale. The very desire to make these jokes, however, suggests that they, paradoxically, harbor an object of the joker's desire. That object is mocked because it cannot be easily won. For all the dark humor in these tracks and all the severe artwork (above), then, we're left with the impression that Mr. Shakirov is a closet romantic...

That seems a fitting conclusion in a city where local artists once raised a Temple of All Faiths; it remains a famous expression of tensions resolved, irony deflated, and the kind of "serious [social] creativity" celebrated all the way from Kazan to Beijing. The kind of place where bitter jokes give way- finally - to joyful inclusion... after which a cigarette would be a forgivable, if not guilty pleasure.


Olympic Smoker – Electronic Minced
Olympic Smoker – Gallad Of Busar
Olympic Smoker – Sterilization Of Heart(soundcheck)

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