Russian female pop singers: Modest actresses turned sexualized performers
At the 2013 Eurovision Song Contest in Sweden, Russia was represented by a young female singer, Dina Garipova (born 1991), who finished fifth with her song "What If." Prior to Eurovision, Garipova won the Russian TV singing contest "Golos" (The Voice), which is similar to the U.S. TV show "American Idol."
On her profile on the Russian social network VKontakte reads: "Dina is the best voice of the Nation. She can perfectly sing the most difficult vocal parts, from Whitney Houston, Celine Dion, Christina Aguilera."
Eurovision-2013 (final). Dina Garipova. What If. Source: YouTube
People often use comparisons to explain or to answer certain questions. So here’s a quick Q&A session regarding Russian female pop singers:
Q: Is there a Russian Janis Joplin?
Q: Is there a Russian Tina Turner, or Whitney Houston, or Beyonce?
A: Not even close.
Q: Is there a Russian Madonna, or Christina Aguilera, or Lady Gaga?
Q: Avril Lavigne or Courtney Love?
Q: Are there any female pop singers in Russia?
A: Yes, there are plenty of them out there!
Why do we have all these negative answers when comparing Russian stars with famous Western female singers from different decades and music styles? Because the rules of the Russian music business are very different and rooted in cultural and music policies established during Stalin’s dictatorship in the Soviet Union. The aftermath of those policies can easily be seen even in today’s Russia.
During the Stalin era, an average female pop singer had the image of a patriotic and modest woman in a long grey dress. Conservative looks were mandatory: When singers showed up on stage, their looks were similar to that of a high school biology teacher or a librarian.
Prior to World War II, most female pop artists in the Soviet Union were singing traditional Russian folk songs and ballads from the 19th century. They, however, had certain liberties—i.e., while singing in Soviet movies, they were also allowed to dance.
Under Stalin’s rule, many comedies and musicals were made in the government’s movie studios, such as Mosfilm Studios in Moscow. Some Soviet female movie stars sang pop songs in the films they were playing in, becoming first the female pop singers in the totalitarian state.
The first famous female pop singer in the Soviet Union was arguably the actress Lyubov Orlova (1902-1975). Obviously, we can’t make any fair comparison between Orlova from the 1930s and modern pop singers, because, during her stardom, a strict censorship cleaned any sexual flavor out of her image and performance.
No skin allowed! This strict "no sexual suggestions in entertainment" rule was in place until the end of the Soviet Union as a state. People still remember the famous quote ("There is no sex in the Soviet Union!") made by a female representative from the Committee of Soviet Women on live television in 1986.
Orlova was married to film director Grigory Alexandrov, whose films were made with heavy influence from Hollywood’s spectacles and "happy-ending" formula. Alexandrov, one of Stalin’s beloved movie directors, spent a few years in Hollywood studios gaining experience. His films were an upbeat and energetic presentation of a new type of Soviet man. He also put his wife, Lyubov Orlova, in his films as the main star. Orlova had a soprano voice, and Alexandrov used her unschooled talents (including singing and dancing) in his comedies.
Lyubov Orlova. Streams Gurgle. Source: YouTube
After World War II, there was a demand for singers performing patriotic songs about the war times. Klavdia Shulzhenko (1906-1984) became the answer. She sang with a soft and soulful voice, soothing the pain of Soviet citizens who had faced difficult times after the war. Her first LP was released in 1954.
There were, obviously, no sexual or erotic images related to Shulzhenko—just another conservative pop singer that looked like an insurance agent from the 1940s.
Claudia Shulzhenko. Blue Shawl. Source: YouTube
After Stalin’s death, a kind of liberalization began under Khrushchev that lasted up to the mid-60s, when the latter lost his position as General Secretary of the Communist Party to Leonid Brezhnev.
During the Khrushchev era, a new type of female singer came to the scene—i.e., Helena Velikanova (1922-1998) with a mega-hit called "Landishy" (Lily of the Valley). Catchy, silly pop tunes showed a temporary departure from cultural dogmas that allowed only patriotic, working-class and war songs to be released on LPs. Besides its huge popularity, "Landishy" attracted waves of harsh criticism from hard-line Soviet Orthodox ideologists.
Helena Velikanova recorded a few more popular tunes, until she lost her high and clear voice as a result of medical malpractice. In the past 50 years, the song "Landishy" has been covered numerous times by various Russian singers and bands.
Helena Velikanova - Lily of the Valley. Source: YouTube
Helena Velikanova – First Date Song. Source: YouTube
Edita Piekha, born in 1937, was a very unusual type of singer for the Soviet pop scene. She was born in Paris, France, and her parents were Polish. She arrived in the Soviet Union as a student of Leningrad State University and started singing in an amateur student group.
The rumors about Piekha’s singing talents spread around Leningrad through word of mouth. Her official singing career began around 1957, when she joined a pop band called Druzhba (Friendship). But the most unusual thing about Piekha was her Polish accent. Prior to her, people with foreign accents were portrayed as spies and villains in Soviet mass media and films.
Edita Piekha - Our Neighbor. Source: YouTube
Anna German (1936-1982) was another Polish singer known for her abilities to sing in different languages. Many official Soviet composers wrote soft and sometimes sad songs especially for her. She came into the limelight in the mid-70s and became the favorite of middle-aged Soviet women.
A few more female pop singers from friendly, communist, European countries were also well-known in the Soviet Union, like Lili Ivanova from Bulgaria, Radmila Karaklajich from Yugoslavia and Helena Vondrachkova from Czechoslovakia.
Anna German - Echo of Love. Source: YouTube
Throughout the Brezhnev era commonly called "Zastoy" (Stagnation, 1964-1982) a few generations of Soviet female pop singers arrived on the scene. They ranged from the conservative "housewife" types of Maya Kristalinskaya (1932-1985) and Valentina Tolkunova (1946-2010)…
Maya Kristalinskaya - Tenderness. Source: YouTube
Valentina Tolkunova - Standing at the Station. Source: YouTube
…to the younger and more energetic Alla Pugacheva (born 1949) and Sofia Rotaru (born 1947).
Alla Pugacheva - Arlekino. Source: YouTube
Sofia Rotaru - My Homeland. Source: YouTube
Soon after Brezhnev’s death, perestroika was announced by new General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. More non-conventional and less conservative female singers were allowed to be shown on Soviet TV, including those from underground pop bands, which quickly broke into the mainstream—Masha Rasputina (born 1965) and Zhanna Aguzarova (born 1962), just to name a few newcomers during perestroika.
Masha Rasputina - Play, Musician, Play! Source: YouTube
Zhanna Aguzarova – I Feel Good Next to You. Source: YouTube
The collapse of the Soviet Union at the beginning of the 1990s led to the creation of a new Western-ish type of show business in Russia. It became much harder for young girls to break into nationwide TV broadcasts and radio rotations—even those with singing and performing abilities.
Without a solid financial backer with the right connections (commonly known as "sugar daddy"), doors of TV studios and radio stations were closed to aspiring young female singers. And without TV and radio presence, no female singer could go touring, because nobody would know who they were.
However, a few new female singers’ names came into prominence in the 1990s, such as Tatiana Bulanova (born 1969), Alyona Sviridova (born 1962) and Valeria (born 1968). In the 1990s, Valeria was married to a composer and showbiz heavyweight, Alexander Shulgin, who was her manager and a major contributor in making her a star. Muscovites still remember the big billboard: "Valeria - the singer that everybody was waiting for!"
The 1990s also brought a cloud over the reputation of female singers, following rumors that many of them were lip-synching during live shows, because they had no singing talent and were picked by producers just for their sexy looks. This discussion about the usage of playback during live shows is still very hot in Russia. Russia’s State Duma even passed a law forbidding usage of vocal playback tracks without a special warning sign on posters and tickets clearly stating that the singer performs using pre-recorded vocal tracks.
Tatyana Bulanova. Older Sister. Source: YouTube
Alena Sviridova. Pink Flamingo. Source: YouTube
Valeria. Plane. Source: YouTube
In the 2000s, when Internet and satellite TV channels created a new opportunity for musicians worldwide, this trend also became a new tool for gaining popularity among Russian female singers.
We could see more and more so-called overnight sensations, when, after a few broadcasts, previously unknown singers turned into the "flavor of the month" due to a viral Internet scheme or some kind of a TV contest. Usually, these singers launched a career that lasted a few years, until they were replaced by a younger and sexier "overnight sensation."
All-girl groups also became a trend. The group called Via Gra, whose name sounds like the sexual enhancement pills for men, is well-known for the sexy looks of its singers and the frequent changes in their line-up. By now there are already more than 13 former singers in this band. Girls come and go without any notice or commotion from the audience. Via Gra is a typical "producer’s project": Some showbiz big shots came up with a certain idea and turned it into reality. This time, the idea was based on the Spice Girls’ popularity.
Some former singers from Via Gra, however, have been able to start a solo career. Vera Brezhneva, who was a group member in one of the Via Gra formations, now is a solo star of pop radio and music TV channels. When she went for the Via Gra casting, the group’s producer found out that her real surname was Galushka (which translates as a kind of dumpling in English). In his opinion, this was unacceptable for showbiz. He asked her where she was from and told her to change the surname for Brezhneva, because she was from the same town in Ukraine (called Dnyeprodzerzhinsk) as General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev. In 2007, she was named the sexiest woman in Russia by the men’s magazine Maxim.
Via Gra. Attempt №5. Source: YouTube
Vera Brezhneva – Love Will Save the World. Source: YouTube
It is worth mentioning that many Russian pop female singers form the 1970s, 1980s and beyond are still actively making TV appearances, new recordings, videos and concerts. They have no plans for retirement, despite the fact that some of them are in their late 60s. But advancements in plastic surgery and anti-aging medicine are changing the rules in showbiz worldwide, including in Russia. Perhaps we are not too far from the day when people will see on stage at the same time a new sexy teen "overnight sensation" with another "hotter than ever" female singer four times the girl’s age, both singing "Forever Young" as a duet.
Maybe it’s some kind of Russian tradition inherited from czars and general secretaries that, after many years in the business, people just can’t leave their high positions and let the younger generation in. Just look at the current state of Russian politics. Nobody wants to leave. Ever!
Vasily Shumov is a musician, producer, photo and video artist. Born in Moscow, he founded Moscow's first new-wave, electronic band, Center (Центр), in 1980. From 1990 to 2008,Shumov lived in Los Angeles, California, graduating from the California Institute of the Arts with a Master of Fine Arts degree in 1998. Vasily has presented numerous solo and group exhibitions featuring his photo and video artwork. His most recent personal photo art exhibition was held in April 2013, at the Central House of Artists in Moscow. In June 2013, he performed with his band Center at PAX Festival in Helsinki, Finland.