THE BLOG
02/13/2014 11:47 am ET | Updated Apr 15, 2014

Russian Pop Culture in the West?

Much controversy continues to surround the host country of this year's Winter Olympics, including the two darlings of Sochi 2014 -- compatriots and colleagues, figure-skating champion Evgeni Plushenko and 15-year-old "Ice Princess" Julia Lipnitskaya. While at first glance neither Plushenko's nor Lipnitskaya's individual performances were in any way "politically driven," the mere fact that they represent a country yet again on the verge of a potential Cold War is a clear sign that both sports and arts will long continue to influence diplomatic, social and political relations between nations.

The day of the opening ceremony in Sochi, Konstantin Ernst, the director of Channel One, Russia's largest state-controlled TV station, announced: "We cannot, like London, boast of a great number of world-famous pop performers; that's why we focus more on the most popular part of Russian music -- classical."

After all, pop music in the most authentic sense of the term was (arguably) never truly in our blood to begin with... Born in Soviet Georgia (country not the state, as I often half-jokingly remind my American friends) and raised in post-Soviet Russia, I became aware of this early on. Foreign music was still scarcely available through the mid 80s and early 90s, but that did stop us from getting hold of American records smuggled via the black market. I witnessed this personally, time and again, as a daughter of one of the most devoted "jazz buffs" in the U.S.S.R.

Just over a decade earlier, my father had made headlines in pro-communist newspaper, Pravda, as a "certain Givi, well-know Soviet architect who sold his car, latest model of Volga, in order to buy American loudspeakers made by Bang and Olufsen, imported illegally from capitalist U.S.A." The piece ended on a harsh note: "Beware, comrades, of this man and anyone else who is betraying our socialist morals by turning to the ever-corrupting capitalism."

Another anecdote from my childhood comes to mind... B.B. King was one of the first American jazz musicians to ever tour the Soviet Union in 1979. After successful shows in both Moscow and Kiev, he was invited to visit Tbilisi, Georgia, the music capital of the U.S.S.R. As a courtesy to the blues legend and his band, after the show, the local organizers took him out to meet some of the nation's most knowledgeable jazz collectors. While most of the Soviet block stood in line for hours on end to buy fresh groceries from limited outlets, my father worked hard to get his hands on some of the rarest and most professional music gadgets and foreign records.

Years later, my dad told me in great detail about B.B. King's visit to his house. "He was dumbfounded by what he saw and asked countless questions about my collection, which in his words was not only impressive by Soviet standards, but also unusual for American eyes and ears." Apparently he was most fascinated by how a Soviet man had managed to recreate a capitalist haven in the comfort of his Soviet home.

Since buying, owning and enjoying foreign records in Russia is no longer a political issue, why hasn't the vast nation, in turn, managed to capture western hearts with their take on pop music? Aside from dance/house acts, the faux lesbian duo, t.A.T.u, and Glasnost-era rockers, Gorky Park (let's not even mention the politically controversial Pussy Riot -- a different category altogether), no other pop/rock performer has had any significant success in promoting Russian pop music abroad.

Mr. Ernst's comment is a clear sign that although Russia won the Eurovision Song Contest (for those less-than-avid followers of ESC, it's the equivalent of pan-European Olympics of Songwriting) in 2008 with Dima Bilan's "Believe," the western perception of the former communist superpower as one of the leading exporters of pop music still remains... nonexistent. As 90 percent of Russian pop/rock songs in constant rotation on mainstream radio stations are still being recorded and performed in Russian -- is the language the only real explanation? Or is it the quality of pop records produced by modern-day Russian producers that somehow fails to live up to the inarguably high standards of musically spoilt western ears?

The jury is still out. And meanwhile, the closing ceremony of Sochi 2014 Olympic Games is some 10 days away. Is a gala concert of Russian pop and rock stars on the horizon? If so, then perhaps Western TV spectators will have the opportunity to objectively evaluate and judge Russian pop music and some of its leading estrada (a wide-ranging Russian term for popular music) performers for themselves. But for now -- do svidanya!

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