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 V.21 No.34 | August 23 - 29, 2012 

Aural Fixation

The Power of Pussy

Thanks, Rioteers

Pussy Riot
Igor Tuchin CC 3.0
Pussy Riot
There's an aging school of thought on songwriting that says the best songs avoid politics. Like polite dinner conversation.

After all, if you want to please the most people, you won't alienate any potential audience members. You are all-inclusive, bland enough for every earbud. Best stick to cartoonish dating: dancing and romancing, wide-eyed infatuation, sex, exes. Mix in a little domestic violence, LGBTQness or faux-feminism, too, as long as you keep it obscured. These songs are supposed to be for everyone—and nothing says everyone like dominant values and generalizations.

Pussy Riot's reminding us of something we have to relearn every decade or so: It's OK to be about something. And it's OK to mean it. These convictions are as crucial artistically as they are politically.

When the five balaclavaed Rioteers played their gig at the Christ the Savior Cathedral, they tackled: the separation of church and state, freedom of speech, and equality. Surely these topics are not foreign to anyone in the States.

More specifically, Pussy Riot was talking about the Russian Orthodox Church and its long tongue kiss with President Vladimir Putin's oppressive regime. Maybe it was a love song after all.

Five punk women took on the state, took on the church. They won. Because even though they're paying for it with two years in jail, their ideas lit people up around the globe, inspiring action.

They walked into that hallowed place in their tights and their dresses with a boom box (portable amp?) and danced and sang in its vast, echoing hall. In the clip on YouTube, some kind of uniformed security guard hilariously hustles their sound-making device offstage while they execute their choreography. Next to their humor and heart, Christ the Savior Cathedral appears absurd and out-of-touch in its ornate grandeur.

Pussy Riot/Live Journal

Sometimes the only thing you have to do to break down a sacred social force is to stop believing in it. The Russian Orthodox Church, the government—like currency and stop signs—are only symbols that we give power to with our belief. A stop sign does not stop traffic. Our agreement that that's what it does stops traffic. A dollar is just a piece of paper. And the Christ the Savior Cathedral is a big, fancy building.

You fight symbols with symbols. That's why art matters.

How old the old men look, their dated, dusty morality showing all the cracks as they use their remaining vestiges of power to lock away punk heroes (two of them mothers) on the antiquated charge of “hooliganism.” These men are as relevant as crumbling stone statues, relics of a time before information reached dark corners at warp speed and you could watch culture change before your very eyes on the Internet. Say what you want about the vapidity of social networking, we can thank it for that info/power shift.

The old men made their bed. Had no one been arrested, Pussy Riot's sub-minute gig would have been nothing more than an intriguing online vid, hot for a blink. Instead, thanks to the draconian knee jerk of the state, “Punk Prayer” is an international megahit. Madonna cares. Patti Smith cares. Chess master Garry Kasparov cares, and as of this article’s publication, might be facing jail time for it.

The whole world round, pro-Pussy Riot demonstrations took place. “Pussy” the word went public, adorning thousands of signs. Newspapers stopped preciously blanching at it when reporting the story. Remember, it was just in June that Congresswoman Lisa Brown drew the ire of her colleagues in the States with her utterance of the word “vagina.” We can thank the punk collective for bringing pussy into the light—and for calling all the riot grrrls back to the dance floor. Feminism got a shot in the arm.

Celebrity allies, though the most visible, are not what matters as the media does its nightcap sense-making routine, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich start serving out their sentences. Instead, the lasting effect is a call to arms: Makers of things everywhere should bother with politics, should bother with the world both broad and immediate.

In the United States, our freedom of speech is protected—though Occupy demonstrations and resulting police violence showed us that the First Amendment is something we'll have to guard. Still, it's a value we've agreed is a cornerstone of our American beliefs. Musicians, artists, thinkers—we ought to make better use of that right. We should be using our powers for good. It might save us from our flabby self-involvement, our ongoing nihilistic party. It'll definitely save us from at least one more bad love song.

 
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