What do you think of when I say Pussy Riot? Do you think I’m being crass? Have you heard of Pussy Riot? Do you like their music?
Well, you might have answered “yes” to any of those. One you certainly don’t have in mind, though, is something like Oh, I heard their song on the radio the other day and I really enjoyed it! Because even if you do enjoy Pussy Riot’s sloppy and frenetic brand of Russians-against-Russia punk, you’re not about to hear the band crack the Billboard anytime soon.
What I’m getting at, here, is the propulsive, political power of music. And you can throw away your Top-40 charts when figuring out what pieces of music have that power. We shouldn’t only think about what we listen to, but we should think about what others listen (and listened) to. We should think a little bit more about music as a means for social cahnge. We should think a little more about Pussy Riot.
Now, don’t get me wrong, you don’t have to listen to Pussy Riot. You can still listen to whatever you want to listen to. Sometimes, you’ll want to listen to a sad record because you’re sad. Sometimes, you’ll want to blast the radio’s Song Of The Summer from your car as you drive to the beach with the windows down. That’s because music has personal power, too. We form memories around the sounds we hear, associate sensory details with pieces of music passively in our minds. It’s really quite amazing.
But what about cultural memory and transnational awareness? That’s where music as an art form and as a cultural phenomenon really starts to shine.
I don’t truly know what it’s like to live in Russia under Putin, but I know more than enough to know that I’m extremely grateful for that. I’ve learned a lot about the Russian conflict because of Pussy Riot. You can hear it in their scathingly loud music. You can read it in their lyrics about religious and political corruption. You can see it in their balaclava-laden flash shows. Their music has inspired me to learn about modern Russia, but even if it doesn’t inspire you to do the same, the force of Pussy Riot’s vision cannot be ignored. When you listen to Pussy Riot, you don’t hear radio fare. You hear social change in bloom.
The timing, of course, could not be any better. Here we are, in 2014. The Olympics are in Sochi, which has given Pussy Riot a global stage. America is in the process of honoring one of its great social activists, Pete Seeger, who just happened to play a couple of strong protest songs back in his day (see: “We Shall Overcome”) and whose legacy of social change has far outlived the reductive, yet once-accepted notion that he simply hated America. Social movements tend to transcend that sort of thing.
So yes, the Olympics are cool. USA! USA! USA! It feels obligatory, sure–but admit it, you care a little bit about it (patriotism works in mysterious ways). What I’m really interested in, though, is using these games to pay attention to Pussy Riot. I’m hopeful that they will stay strong and be safe within Russia’s borders, that their message continues to spread and that people continue to hear it. No medal for that, no. But I have a feeling that it could be a hell of a lot more consequential. AC