Russian Music Fans Loyal To Homegrown Pop, Quality Notwithstanding

"Russian popular music is dead," high-profile jazz and pop singer Larissa Dolina stated emphatically at a recent session of the Presidential Council for Culture and Arts. Local audiences are now faced with the choice between "bad" and "very bad" pop, as people from fashion, catering, and other unrelated businesses have invaded the music scene, pushing professional musicians aside, she lamented.

That said, homegrown pop music seems to be more popular in post-Soviet Russia than foreign music, and it goes down equally well with listeners young and old.

Today's situation presents a striking contrast to the Soviet-age craze for Western music, then "forbidden fruit" to average Russians. Back then, the Communist authorities' barrier to musical influences of the West made the populace all the more eager to listen to whatever European and American stuff they could lay their hands on.

The first Russian jazz band emerged in 1922, as the young Bolshevik State's artistic community got passionate about artistic experiments. Paradoxically, it was the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin who promoted the spread of jazz across the nation in the 1930s, which was an era of fierce confrontation with the United States. He did that by allowing the release of the movie "Vesyolye Rebyata," starring jazzman Leonid Utyosov, leader of the Tea Jazz group. Director Grigory Alexandrov made this feature shortly after his return from a trip to Hollywood in 1934. Matvei Blanter's band, formed four years afterwards, was the USSR's only jazz band to receive official status. In the 1950s, with jazz and rock 'n' roll back in fashion, Oleg Lundstrem's band came into being.

The Soviet public's officially-allowed exposure to Western music was for a long time limited to the TV show "Melodies and Rhythms of Foreign Popular Music," which focused on pop from the former Soviet Bloc, devoting only a fraction of its time on air to Western European hits. More Western music was available for sale on the black market, but not every music fan could afford the overpriced albums offered there.

Soviet pop enjoyed its Golden Age from the 1960s to 1980s. The veteran crooners Klavdia Shulzhenko and Mark Bernes then shared the stage with rising stars, such as Edita Piekha, Iosif Kobzon, Alla Pugacheva, Sofia Rotaru, Lev Leshchenko, and Muslim Magomayev (a vocalist with classical training who achieved wide renown as an interpreter of popular songs).

Perestroika brought to this country's music scene a lot of new names, with Laima Vaikule and Valery Leontiev among them. Some of the established crooners, such as Tamara Gvertseteli, took advantage of the political liberalisation to promote themselves in the West. Many rock groups then came into the national spotlight, such as Mashina Vremeni and Akvarium, which both offered good-quality sound and meaningful lyrics.

Some of the Soviet hits were revived in the 1990s as the national television network ORT produced a series of videos featuring updated oldies. That series immediately found itself among Russia's best and fastest-selling music recordings.

The Russian music industry has no mechanism for promoting musically (rather than economically) talented people, songwriter Yuri Entin argues. Indeed, local media tend to support only those performers who have thick wallets, Ms Dolina confirms. Jazzman Georgy Garanyan is even less upbeat: "The culture of music making has been lost" in Russia. Good lyrics, too, are hard to come by these days, musical veterans lament. Nor is acting talent a must for a successful career in pop music any longer. Just anyone can be catapulted to stardom now, although a person with a voice will be charged less for promotional services than a voiceless one, an influential Russian show-biz producer remarks.

This must be the principle behind The First Channel's (formerly ORT) television talent show Star Factory, which ladles up pop star poseurs instead of unearthing talented artists.

Russia's crowded music scene offers little diversity these days. The two local Spice Girls-like groups, Blestyashchiye (Shining) and Slivki (Cream), are hardly distinguishable between each other. B2 replicates Mumiy Trol, a group which performed at a recent Eurovision contest. For lack of musical talent, many Russian performers try to attract audiences by an eccentric public image (the local crooner known as Shura, for one, tried to impress the public with his toothless mouth), overexposure on stage, or gay style (which is the case with the TATU, which uses the gimmick to make an impact on Western music markets).

Thief subculture music is especially popular with the first generation of Russia's nouveau-riches. Authorities try to ban public performances by groups who use overtly obscene lyrics, but this only adds to their [the groups'] popularity. The Leningrad band, led by Sergei Shnurov, is a bright exponent of Russian thief subculture. It has been quite successful in winning the hearts and minds of young people, too.

Standing out among her fellow pop singers is Alsou, the first Russian to have signed a long-term contract with an international record label, Universal, for a series of albums in the English language. She came into the European spotlight at the age of 16, after winning second place at the Eurovision Song Contest. Since then, she has collaborated with a number of Western celebrities, including Enrique Iglesias. Another untypical Russian pop singer is Vitas, boasting a broad voice range and a diverse repertoire.

It is not uncommon for modern-day Russian pop stars to mime in concert. By contrast, rock idols, such as Yuri Shevchuk or Konstantin Kinchev, never do this, if only to distance themselves from mass-oriented, low-quality pop. The crooner-turned-lawmaker Iosif Kobzon has recently proposed a bill obligating performers to notify the audience about their intention to mime, but his fellow MPs have turned the proposal down.

As surveys indicate, listeners aged under 40 account for 70 percent of the Russian pop music fans. Younger people opt for "live" gigs while older ones choose to watch music videos and shows from the comfort of their own armchair. CDs and tapes featuring Russian-made pop are readily available at music stores across the country, and they are usually not as expensive as imported albums.

According to pollsters, the Russian female population's favourites include the sweet-voiced Filipp Kirkorov and Nikolai Baskov. This latter, originally an operatic vocalist, has won recognition with mass audiences by switching over to a popular repertoire.

Russian statesmen prefer patriotic songs, like ones performed by the group Lyube or by singer/songwriter Oleg Gazmanov. Lyube's heroes are commandos and policemen while Gazmanov poeticises the military.

Many in the pop music community gain extra publicity by trying their hand at other high-profile activities. The waning star Alla Pugacheva, for one, has engaged in shoe and perfume design and potato chips production. Some singers (such as Baskov) become TV show hosts; others join the semi-pro casts of popular musicals. For instance, Kirkorov appears in the Russian-language version of "Chicago", while Alexei Kortnev can be seen in "The Witches of Eastwick".

According to surveys, Igor Krutoi is the nation's No. 1 pop music composer. Since 1990s, he has also been involved with producing music projects on leading TV networks and arranging concert tours for Russian and Western stars. He also organised Michael Jackson's concerts in Moscow in the mid-1990s.

Ms Dolina insists that a panel of music professionals should be set up in Russia to prevent low-quality music from getting into the public domain. She also argues that talented performing artists will hardly be able to make themselves heard unless the government supports them financially. Culture Minister Mikhail Shvydkoi echoes the point, adding that by helping performers survive in the market environment, the government will also provide taxpayers with entertainment of better craftsmanship. But, the question still remains: is the pop music community's amateurish majority really willing to learn the craft?

Olga Sobolevskaya, RIAN

Author`s name Petr Ernilin