In November 2010,Pitchfork.com, the self-proclaimed herald of cutting-edge Western music culture, published a visually rich and lengthy piece by journalist Finn Cohen, titled “Beg, Borrow, or Steal: New Beats From Moscow,” on the development of a type of contemporary electronic music loosely known as “bass music” in Moscow. Eloquent and comprehensive, the Pitchfork article had a positive impact on the public image of underground Russian beat-makers. But it also left readers with more impressions of contemporary Russian society than of Moscow’s underground electronic music scene.
Russia is no stranger to exoticism, and is often depicted as something to be gawked at, a place out of the ordinary. Pitchfork’s article perpetuated this otherness and effectively exoticized Russian electronic music by presenting social commentary under the guise of music journalism.
The article included sweeping pans of Soviet apartment complexes, grainy shots of hunched, older women in slippers, young men crouched on street corners drinking resolutely from paper bags, countless cigarette butts in dirty snow…all of which we’ve seen before. Comprised of the foreign but familiar, poverty juxtaposed with excess, the magazine presented “Russia” with a powerful aesthetic overlay. While none of these images definitively related to music, they formed a type of filter Pitchfork used to present the electronic music scene in a more intriguing way to a Western audience.
By portraying more than just a musical subgenre and focusing on the culture that engenders or – in this case – represses it, Pitchfork offered readers a series of overly simplified intercultural observations about Russia:
“…even though the country is traditionally known and respected worldwide for its vast contributions to literature (Fyodor Dostoevsky), classical music (Igor Stravinsky) and film (Andrei Tarkovsky), taking a step towards redefining “wonky” hip-hop is a little unexpected. In the context of contemporary Russian music, however, it’s fairly remarkable, since a majority of what is considered popular utilises either heavy-handed regurgitations of the Justin Timberlake template or goofy rap.”
Without a doubt, Timberlake-esque regurgitations (especially set to throbbing Euro house tracks) drive the mainstream Moscow club scene. But this trend is by no means ubiquitous and cannot be applied to all musical output in post-Soviet Russia. While the author does not come out and directly say that all contemporary Russian music can be condensed into either Justin Timberlake pop or goofy rap, he certainly implies it.
Finn Cohen is not, however, the only music journalist to make cultural generalizations about Russia cloaked as musical discoveries. In August 2010, just a few months before Pitchfork published “Beg, Borrow, or Steal,” XLR8R.com – a more obscure but less condescending music platform –traveled to Russia as a part of its “Welcome to…” series, which is dedicated to going beyond the musical mainstream and featuring artistic production from less publicized places around the world. Written by Glenn Jackson, “Welcome to…” focuses more on music than “impressions” of culture, but there are still traces of commentary directly unrelated to musical tastes. For example, the first sentence of the article: “It’s been over 20 years since the Soviet Union collapsed…” sets the reader up to look at these artists through an irrelevant, historical lens. After doling out significant praise for the innovation of these artists, the article regretfully concludes that the Russian music scene has yet to land upon a unified sound (because Western music does) and helpfully suggests a belittling common denominator – nostalgia.
The burgeoning beat scene in Russia has little or nothing to do with Soviet nostalgia. Why does the West continue to frame post-Soviet culture in terms of it?
Russia and The Western Gaze
Unfortunately, the Western gaze has long been a narrow one when it comes to portrayals of Russian culture. Historically, Russia has straddled the boundaries between East and West – a gap that only grew as a result of the Communist experiment. For the West, this political divide was synonymous with cultural separation. The Soviet Union’s modernization policy helped accelerate the already established “otherness” of Russian culture – the unfortunate aftertaste of a pre-Soviet agrarian society. Today, this sense of otherness can be found in Western perceptions of a comically backward Russian mainstream culture.
So what does this have to do with Pitchfork or XLR8R’s targeted condescension? Contemporary Russian electronic music borrows heavily from an already established Western tradition. This is not unique to the Russian music scene, however. Cross-border creative influence is today’s international currency – connectivity bolsters worldwide creativity and innovation, especially in the realm of computer music. But with our minds preset to see Russian culture as clumsily following in the footsteps of the West, Russian electronic music looks like a heavy-handed, amateur imitation of the Western tradition instead of an analogous, though independent, movement.
While post-Soviet culture is anything but monochromatic, in the West, conceptions of Russian culture as monolithic are widely accepted. This trend is a continuation from the Soviet period, when culture was. As displayed by the Pitchfork and XLR8R articles, the homogeneity of Russian culture can be boiled down to a simple algorithm: Russia = bears + cold + alcohol. When it comes to covering electronic music, the equation is slightly modified to: bears + cold + alcohol ≠ high culture contemporary music. Finn Cohen awards Russian beat-making the highest praise – “sophistication” – only after comparing it to otherwise lowbrow Russian mainstream pop.
Viewing contemporary Russian electronic music as the limping underdog – even sympathetically – is a problem because otherwise active choices are made to seem like accidental results. For example, Moscow producer Pixelord’s use of retro video game samples and 8-bit sounds, as documented in the Pitchfork article, is reminiscent of the image of a man sifting through piles of broken wires in a recent cinematic manifestation of post-Soviet nostalgia, Elektro Moskva. Both the Pitchfork article and Elektro Moskva, a Russian-German collaboration documenting the history of electronica in the USSR, show modern electronic music production interspersed with scenes of or comments on Soviet decline.
Western obsession with ruin porn – the aestheticizing of abandonment – appears prominently and colors these scenes with wistful or even nostalgic images of people just making do with the little they have. Dominik Spritzendorfer, Elektro Moskva’s German director, even verbalizes this concept directly in the “About” section of the film’s website: “The story of the Soviet synthesizers is an allegory to the everyday life under the Soviet system: nothing works, but you have to make the best of it.”
Reading “Beg, Borrow, or Steal…” or watching Elektro Moskva, the audience is led to believe that the choices these producers make are the result of necessity. In reality, the man sifting through piles of junk to build synthesizers in Elektro Moskva is driven by enthusiasm for a different sound, not desperation for modern technology. Likewise in the Pitchfork article, Pixelord is making an active stylistic choice that has little to do with either Soviet nostalgia or lacking technology.
In fact, it is precisely the variance in stylistic options that set the contemporary Russian sound apart from its Western counterpart. For example, Pixelord’s output has a distinct, consistent aesthetic: even the home page of Hyperboloid Records, the Moscow-vased record label he co-runs, is an homage to his signature clunky sampling and utilization of 90s kitsch. Travel north a couple hundred miles to St. Petersburg, home to producer Nocow, and the emphasis shifts to discordant melodies and lo-fi, hypnotic rhythmic lines that recall ice on the Neva and the six-hour days of December. Down in Krasnodar, just north of Sochi, Wols, a producer at the FUSElab collective, experiments with genres, changing his name with every new sound.
In short, the soundscape of contemporary Russian electronic music is changing rapidly, and with little regard for the observations of its Western counterparts.
Webzine and forums like Pitchfork and XLR8R build their reputations on being “the first:” first to discover, first to listen, first to promote. But in a virtual world where news is just a click away, being “the first” means that context trumps content. Is it really that inconceivable that Russia, with its rich history of Soviet innovation and technological experimentation, would produce sophisticated electronic music? No – but capitalizing on the exotic or underprivileged images of Russian society produces a more compelling journalistic angle. In reality, the Russian electronic music scene has grown exponentially since the Fly Russia compilation, a 17-track joint effort on the part of label ErrorBroadcast and Siberian blog Gimme5 released in 2010. Four years later, Muscovites bob their heads at parties thrown by record labels like Hyperboloid, whose own Pixelord was featured on that very compilation. In other words, Russian producers are looking forward, not back.
This is journalism that is not specific to Finn Cohen, or even Pitchfork in general. Straight music commentary without context just is not that interesting, and when that context is making headlines in world news, it seems all the more relevant. Set against a backdrop of Stolichnaya, shit-stained statues of Lenin, and skinheads, a glimmer of modernization (even in music) seems all the more rare and exceptional. But, with these headlines in mind, it seems more important now than ever to reconsider contextualizing.
Alternative music tends to emphasize reputation over revenue. Today, this emphasis manifests as yet more Western condescension toward Russian culture. The press wields great power in this reputation-based industry, and so for Russian producers, all press is good press. But that does not mean Russian musical tastemakers crave or need press attention. Sergey Saburov, one of three label heads at Hyperboloid Records in Moscow, said that while “…the West has its cargo culture [a fascination with manufactured goods and about Western commodity fetishism] effect on the Russian media…Russian electronic music is almost entirely independent of the Western media. It is also independent of the Russian media too, actually.”
Features like XLR8R’s “Welcome To….Russia” are ostensibly beneficial: regardless of tone, they promote Russian music to a target audience. Affirmation is great. And tone is not that important, Saburov says later, not because it is not there – but because these features are so infrequent, Russian producers tend not to rely on the press for affirmation.
Pitchfork’s sociological commentary falls flat for another reason. Wols puts it bluntly: “I don’t like conjuncture in music [,] especially in alternative and electronic music, historically aimed to be ANTI-conjunctural. But the growing industry, including press, forms the market and the conjuncture and…it all goes a little bit crappy.” In other words, the culture of “cool” that Pitchfork targets is fundamentally irrelevant to Wols’ production in particular. The “conjuncture” made by Pitchfork is distasteful, and not directly relevant.
Because of its chimerical sound and quickly developing scene, Russian bass music won’t stay in the shadow of its Western counterpart for long; even now, the producers don’t seek the applause of forums like Pitchfork. Articles on Russian electronic music might be loaded with outdated or patronizing commentary, but as long as there’s a link to Pixelord’s new video, I’m the only one left indignant.
“Anorak,” Pixelord’s newest release from Hyperboloid Records
In other words, perpetuating stereotypes in order to encourage interest in this particular case is not wholly problematic. Russian producers have carved out their own niche, independent of the media, and are therefore mostly unaffected by it. Journalism that exoticises a cultural aspect, even for the sake of promotion, is dangerous; contextualizing is a game of smoke and mirrors. Contemporary electronic music in Russia is independent of sociological or historical attributed to its development. In fact, it sounds better without it.