On my last trip to Russia, I grabbed a tourist t-shirt from a kiosk near Red Square that had a cheesy picture of Vladimir Putin wearing a pair of sunglasses with the words ‘Наш президент!’ (Our President!) written underneath it. I bought it because I thought it was funny…at the time. A year later, that t-shirt seems like a dire warning of our own country’s political future. As America may soon be welcoming new Russian overlords, Brightest Young Things want to make sure that you are prepared. The BYT Guide to Russian Pop Music is here to get you culturally up to speed.
The entertainment industry in Russia is pretty dynamic despite the political climate. Censorship doesn’t exist per se, but everyone knows the parameters that the Kremlin has set out. As a result, you won’t find many bold political or cultural statements in Russian pop music. It’s mostly fluff, but so is much of ours. As long as you play by the Kremlin’s unspoken rules, the Russian entertainment industry produces some pretty fabulous television and music enterprises. It’s an escape to distract the country from the fact that everyone in Russia lives in the exact same small apartment and every toilet in Russia smells like sewage due to the crumbling infrastructure. Russia’s a rather shitty place to live (and I love the place). It helps if you drink and dance.
Let’s jump in and give you a primer on some of Russia’s hottest pop stars.
Irina Dubtsova – Ирина Дубцова
Russians love their television singing contests. Nearly every big Russian pop star seems to come out of one. Irina Dubstova is no exception, having rose to fame by winning the 2004 season of Фабрика звёзд (Star Factory). Like most Russian pop starlets, she is a bleached blonde. However, she seems to be the only healthy figured one as most Russian pop singers maintain the build of stick insects.
Sergey Lazarev – Сергей Лазарев
You may recognize Sergey Lazarev as Russia’s official entry in Eurovision this summer, where he made it to the finals. I recognize him from my nightly dreams as my future husband. He reminds me of a sexy rat. Lazarev was part of an early 2000’s boy band duo in Russia called SMASH!! (spelled in English for a sad attempt at cool). SMASH!! covered WHAM! for a couple of their biggest hits, and the duo took a similar track with Lazarev becoming the George Michael of Russia while the other member became the Russian version of the other member of WHAM! whose name nobody can remember. Bonus Points for Lazarev: He grew a dedicated gay fan base at the beginning of his solo career. These days, he sells out stadiums in Russia and Eastern Europe. Yet, Lazarev continues to play small engagements at gay clubs and refuses to back away from his gay fans even after pressure from the Kremlin.
“It’s All About Her” (2015)
“You’re the Only One” Eurovision Entry (2016). Here Lazarev proves that even great Russian singers can make terrible Eurovision songs.
IOWA – IOWA
IOWA (spelled in English) is technically not a Russian band, but a Belorussian band. But, just as American bands from the heartland relocate to Brooklyn and LA, this band relocated to St. Petersburg. The name is indeed a reference to the American state of Iowa where lead singer Ekaterina Ivanchikova has said is a place “where many people are farmers and all the shops close early, so the people who live there have no choice but to hang around and find entertainment elsewhere.” No, the band has never been to the United States.
“Beats Beat” (2015)
Elvira T – Эльвира Т
Elvira T was one of Russia’s first YouTube stars where she rose to fame at age 15 for song she wrote and put on YouTube. A bit more substantive, her music is more complex. She took a break from touring to enroll at Moscow State Art and Cultural University to study music composition.
Egor Kreed – Егор Крид
Egor Kreed is the Russian version of Justin Bieber. Kreed was first discovered in 2012 by winning a televised music competition as a rapper. Shortly after signing with the Russian label Black Star, he was groomed instead into a pop singing product and quickly became a megastar. I’ve seen him perform on live television and it’s not pretty, but he is. Thankfully, his voice on studio tracks is expertly produced and he frequently takes his shirt off in music videos. Bonus Points for Kreed: His lyrics are so simple and mundane that they are a perfect aid to help first-year Russian students learn the language.
“Best One” (2015)
“Alarm Clock” (2016) – Yes, it is a song about his alarm clock. Just ignore the lyrics and look at the eye candy.
Timati – Тимати
Oh, Timati. He also rose to fame by winning Фабрика звёзд (Star Factory). Back then, the Jewish Tatar rapper was a gangly young thing. Now, he is a man. Timati is the Russian version of both Drake and Dr. Dre. He is not only the most prominent pop rapper in Russia, but he runs a record empire that has made pop and rap stars out of his proteges. While foreign rap can often seem comical compared to American hip hop, Russian rap is actually respectable and complex. Timati is its king.
“Where Are You, Where Am I” (2016)
Julianna Karaulova – Юлианна Караулова
Following a well-trod American tradition, singer Julianna Karaulova left her popular girl group 5sta Family in 2015 to strike out on a solo career where she found success.
Time is Up – Время и Стекло
This due is the epitome of Russian pop music, despite the fact they are a Ukrainian duo from Crimea. But, hey. What’s a national border between two peoples but one that is to be ignored, crossed, and slowly absorbed into greater Russia? Their Russian mega hit “505 Name” was perhaps Russia’s biggest pop hit in 2015.
“505 Name” (2015)
Philipp Kirkorov – Филипп Киркоров
Philipp Kirkorov is currently Russia’s most flamboyant pop singer. It’s hard to tell if it is because he is gay (he claims he is not) or if it is because his years of plastic surgery have turned him into a comical sight. Known for his quick temper, he found fame in the 1990s after meeting and marrying the Russian (and former Soviet) beloved pop star Alla Pugacheva.
Alex Sparrow – Алексей Воробьёв
Alex Sparrow first appeared on the Russian version of The X Factor in 2005 and quickly became a successful singer and actor. He sings in both Russian and English (His English songs are cringingly horrible. Successful Russian singers often have a hard time singing successfully in the English language). He is an extremely popular television actor and has also won the Russian version of Dancing With the Stars.
The Kazakh rapper Natan is one of the newer proteges of Timati and his Black Star label. Yes, many Russian artists aren’t actually ethnically Russian. This is in part due to the fact that Russia itself has many minority populations. It is also due to the fact that Russia has undertaken a systematic approach to dominate local pop music and television in many former Soviet countries in order to exert cultural control.
“Your Eyes” (2016)
Kristina Si – Kristina Si
Kristina Si is another Kazakh pop singer that rose to fame in Russia and is signed to Timati’s Black Star label. Her 2016 smash hit “I Want” is a far cry from Soviet ideals. It celebrates commercialism, consumerism, Jimmy Choo shoes and Instagram. Instagram is extremely popular among young Russians (those young Russian women following you on Instagram may not actually be bots). Yet, Russia remains one of the few countries where Facebook is hardly used. Instead, Russia has a blatant Facebook rip-off named VK (VKontakte) with more than 350 million users in Russian speaking countries.
“I Want” (2016)
My Michelle – Моя Мишель
My Michelle is a wonderful departure from mainstream pop. Their songs range from New Wave to slightly Goth to Brit Pop. Perhaps that is a product of being formed far from the Moscow scene in the Russian Far East town of Blagoveshchensk, directly on the Chinese border (Moscow is five times as far away from Blagoveshchensk than Beijing). My Michelle takes its influence from British and American bands, rather than Russian ones. While never reported, it is most likely that the band adopted their name from the Guns N’ Roses song of the same name.
“Dark Alleys” (2016)
“Cuba (Live)” 2014
Russian pop music is certainly more vast than the list above. But, hopefully that gives you a taste of what is in store for you once Vladimir Putin realizes his great dream of bringing us into his realm. Did you make it through the YouTube list? Congratulations! Your email has been hacked.