The pink scare

Slightly neurotic Russian superstar Zemfira is Elvis, the Sex Pistols and Courtney Love rolled into one.

Topics: Music,

The pink scare

She’s a slightly neurotic, platinum-selling alterna-girl. Her lyrics hint that she might be a lesbian, or bi maybe. She, or what she does, wouldn’t make anyone faint here in the States. But in Russia, a country that has barely decriminalized homosexuality — or even seen a female rocker — the 23-year-old superstar Zemfira is Elvis, the Sex Pistols and Courtney Love rolled into one. The Russian press likes to call her “Kurt Cobain in a dress.”

Amid the manufactured crooners of the Russian popscape, Zemfira (just Zemfira) rode a carefully plotted, self-designed upward spiral to success. In a culture still largely silent about HIV, her debut album included an up-tempo ditty titled “AIDS.” After it became a hit, millions hummed its refrain: “So I guess we’re gonna die.”

The first song she released begins with words “I burst into your life, and you freaked out.” The gender-specific language in the line identified a woman as the object of the calamitous love story. Zemfira knew the song would blow up in the press, and she was right: The hype around her is enormous. The media now follows her every move; when she recently lost a Walkman, the press turned it into an Interfax news item. Her second album, due out at the end of March, will debut in a stadium ceremony.

- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – -

There has never been a female rock songwriter in Russia. Cabaret-pop stars, sure, and giggly girl-power knockoffs by the dozen. In a way, it’s the dominance of women in easy-listening genres that precludes them from rocking out. Young Russian rock ‘n’ roll developed its identity, as any adolescent must, through negativity — namely, via opposition to ’80s estrada (officially approved Soviet pop) and ’90s popsa (dinky disco on the Italian model).

In the context of Russia’s odd musical landscape, rock is easier to define by what it isn’t: no synths, no lovelorn lyrics, no gypsy-derived chord progressions in A minor. In short, nothing smacking of popsa — and that means no girls allowed, either.



Over the past two decades, only a handful of women even came close to the definition of a singer-songwriter. Nastia Poleva sang somebody else’s lyrics over her own streamlined new wave. Yanka Dyagileva, a tragic punk amateur, died without a day in a studio, and her waning notoriety hinges on hissy home tapes. Zhanna Aguzarova, the one-time leader of the retro big-beat band Bravo, sings standards in L.A. nightclubs. The funniest, and saddest, facet of the Russian paper flurry around Zemfira is that she gets incessantly compared to these three, as if no music ever existed outside. “With her second album,” writes a Moscow magazine, “Zemfira is poised to claim the Lady of Rock chair vacated by Poleva” — the world’s evidently too small for two of these at a time.

Meanwhile, Zemfira’s musical influences lie almost entirely outside her homeland. It’s easy to hear Suzanne Vega and Portishead in her softer numbers, Alanis Morissette and Ani DiFranco, in the harder-edged stuff. She does, however, write in her mother tongue, and how could she not: Russian audiences, sublimating the fantasy of Western acceptance into a sort of sour-grapes denial, consider writing in English a crude sellout.

Westernized or not, Zemfira’s songs are very much her own. “I’m responsible for every note,” she often says. And her debut album is blissfully free of meddling producers — a shocking novelty in Russia, where the music industry is primarily subsidized by shady businessmen managing their girlfriends.

- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – -

A Tartar by ethnicity, Zemfira grew up in the provincial town of Ufa. “In the age of the Web and MTV, none of this has absolutely any relevance,” she defensively stresses in interviews. At 16, she sang eyebrow-raising selections of jazz, soul and Motown in local restaurants. In 1998, while DJing at the town radio station, she cut a CD’s worth of self-penned demos on a home computer. The recordings made their way to Ilya Lagutenko — the leader of the established power-pop band Mumy Troll, who was about to start his own vanity label. From there on, she followed an archetypal ascent: MTV Russia, magazine covers, screaming teenage fans.

Zemfira writes and sings ascetically arranged guitar pop with occasional excursions into bossa nova and jazz chordings. Her voice is fresh and uninhibited, yet she sings “wrong.” A recent cover story in the popular magazine Ogonek calls hers “the breaking voice of a generation,” even though it is anything but. Still, the idea that someone might willfully leave in an imperfect take, say, or a gleefully improvised yelp, proves surprisingly hard to grasp. The Stateside lo-fi movement was an intellectualized reaction to sterile studio perfectionism (there would be no Sebadoh without REO Speedwagon). But Russian rock, born and bred on illegal dubs of basement tapes, embraced professional production in the past 10 years. The idea of flaunting the lack of it strikes the Russian listener as raging insanity. So does the idea of a debut CD’s not containing a single image of the author: The cover of Zemfira’s debut is a wallpaper pattern of little pink flowers, a faintly sarcastic nod to girlhood.

Zemfira’s lyrics are nonnarrative wordplay informed primarily by its own sound — hard to translate and harder to comprehend (think early R.E.M.). Yet her imagery invariably creates tiny whirlpools of subtle subversion. The blunt refrain of “AIDS” single-handedly mainstreams a criminally hushed topic, and does so with shocking flippancy: “We’re gonna die, la-la.” But mostly, she deals in what could be termed reclaimed titillations. “Annie” outraged the country with a cryptic chorus consisting of the words “Annie asked, T-shirts off,” without corroborating the scenario. “The Girl Is Ripe,” her latest hit, is a self-consciously outrageous rave-up about the “languid self-love” of a bored virgin.

These levelheaded excursions into sexuality are fun, sly and somewhat rude, and make great angry copy — just like Boston popper Juliana Hatfield declaring in 1994 that all girls are bad guitar players. In the end, however, it’s neither Zemfira’s larynx nor her lyrics that get the papers hot and bothered. It is the disturbing disparity between the message and the messenger. A ticked-off time bomb of a girl who names Vladimir Nabokov as her favorite writer has usurped the chart positions reserved for homegrown Madonnas. And journalists have gone on the attack. Here is a shortlist of the maddening questions asked in two or three recent interviews by serious newsmagazines:

Why do you move onstage like that?
Do you have a husband?
Do you like children?
What does your mother think about your success?
Why no makeup?

Smoking and a clean strong voice — an odd combination, isn’t it?
But really, what do you think about lesbianism?
Where does such pessimism come from?
You are a young girl — why are you so depressed?
Why are you so surly?
Can you cook?

She answers as best as she can, serving up deadpan platitudes that play well under the circumstances. (“I can repair a car — why would I not be able to cook?”) Newspapers treat her verbal output like a direct communication line to the collective consciousness of the new generation. She gags at the honor. During the hysteria surrounding her first album, she quietly retired to London to record the second. Her quip on the irrelevance of borders is gaining literal meaning. Her target audiences, meanwhile, are busy whipping up Internet shrines, and let the collisions over their idol fall by the side. And that, quite possibly, is Zemfira’s greatest achievement to date: The adults can divine the decline of youth that breeds such frivolity — but apparently, or at least as of now, little girls do understand.

Michael Zilberman is a New York writer.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>