Russian female pop singers: from modest actresses to half-naked performers
At the 2013 Eurovision Song Contest in Sweden Russia was represented by a young female singer Dina Garipova (born in 1991) who finished fifth with her song "What If". Prior to Eurovision, Garipova won Russian TV singing contest "Golos" (The Voice) that is similar to "American Idol" TV show.
In her profile in Russian social network VKontakte (http://vk.com/dina_garipova) we can read: "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 (Россия)
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: If there is a Russian Janis Joplin?
Q: If there is a Russian Tina Turner, or Whitney Houston, or Beyonce?
A: Not even close.
Q: If there is a Russian Madonna, or Christina Aguilera, or Lady Gaga?
Q: Avril Lavigne or Courtney Love?
Q: If there are any female pop singers in Russia?
A: Yes, there are plenty of them out there!
Why we have all those negative answers comparing Russian stars with famous Western female singers from different decades and music styles?
Because the rules of Russian music business are very different and rooted in the cultural and music policies established during Stalin’s dictatorship in the USSR. Aftermath of those policies can easily be seen even in today‘s Russia.
During the Stalin era an average female pop singer had an image of patriotic and modest woman in a long grey dress. Conservative looks were mandatory: when such singers showed up on stage, their looks were similar to a high school’s biology teacher or a librarian.
Prior to World War II most female pop artists in the USSR were singing traditional Russian folk songs and romances from the 19th century. They, however, had certain liberties, e.g, 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 female pop singers in the totalitarian state.
The first famous female pop singer in the USSR was arguably an actress Lyubov Orlova (1902-1975). Obviously, we can’t make any fair comparison between Orlova from the 1930’s 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 USSR as a state. People still remember a famous quote "There is no sex in the Soviet Union!" by a female representative from a "Committee of Soviet women" during live TV-bridge between Leningrad (USSR) and Boston(USA) in 1986.
Orlova was married to film director Grigori Alexandrov, whose films were made with a heavy influence from Hollywood’s spectacles and "happy end" formula. Alexandrov, one of the beloved Stalin’s movie directors, spent few years in Hollywood studios gaining their experience.
His films were an upbeat and energetic showing of a new type of Soviet man. He also put his wife – Lyubov Orlova - in his films as a main star. Orolova had a soprano voice, and Alexandrov used her unschooled talents, including singing and dancing, in his comedies.
Любовь Орлова - Журчат ручьи... ( Lyubov Orlova - Streams gurgle)
After World War II there was a demand for singers, performing patriotic songs about the war times. And Klavdia Shulzhenko (1906-1984) became the answer. She sang with a soft and soulful voice, soothing pain of Soviet citizens that 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 1940’s.
Клавдия Шульженко Синий платочек (Claudia Shulzhenko – Blue shawl)
After Stalin’s death some sort of liberalization began under Khrushchev that lasted up to the mid-60’s, when the latter lost his position as a General Secretary of the Communist Party to Leonid Brezhnev.
During the Khrushchev era some new types of female singers came to the scene, e.g, 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 LP’s. Besides a huge popularity, "Landishy" attracted waves of harsh criticism from hard-line Soviet Orthodox ideologists.
Helena Velikanova recorded few more popular tunes until she lost her high and clear voice as a result of medical malpractice. In the past 50 years song "Landishy" was covered numerous times by various Russian singers and bands.
Гелена Великанова - "Ландыши" (Helena Velikanova - Lily of the valley)
Гелена Великанова - "Песня первой встречи" (Helena Velikanova - Song of the first date)
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 Poles. She arrived in the USSR as a student of Leningrad State University and started singing in amateur student’s group.
The rumors about Piekha’s singing talents spread around Leningrad through the word of mouth. Her official singing career began in around 1957, when she joined a pop band called "Druzhba" (Friendship).
But 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.
Эдита Пьеха - "Наш сосед" (Edita Piekha - Our neighbor)
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 specially for her. She came into the limelight in the mid-70’s and became Soviet middle-aged women’s favorite.
Few more female pop singers form friendly communist European countries were also well-known in the USSR, such as Lili Ivanova from Bulgaria, Radmila Karaklajich from Yugoslavia, Helena Vondrachkova from Czechoslovakia.
Анна Герман - "Эхо любви" (Anna German - Echo of love)
Throughout the Brezhnev era that is now commonly called "Zastoy" (Stagnation) (1964-1982) a few generations of Soviet female pop singers arrived at the scene. They were ranged from conservative "housewife" types of Maya Kristalinskaya (1932-1985) and Valentina Tolkunova (1946-2010)…
Майя Кристалинская - "Нежность" (Maya Kristalinskaya - Tenderness)
Валентина Толкунова - "Стою на полустаночке" (Valentina Tolkunova - Standing on a station)
…to a younger and more energetic Alla Pugacheva (born in 1949) and Sofia Rotaru (born in 1947).
Алла Пугачева - "Арлекино" (Alla Pugacheva - Arlekino)
София Ротару - "Родина моя (я, ты, он, она)" (Sofia Rotaru - My homeland)
Soon after Brezhnev’s death Perestorika was announced by a 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 that quickly broke into the mainstream. Masha Rasputina (born in 1965) and Zhanna Aguzarova (born in 1962) - just to name a few newcomers during Perestroika.
Маша Распутина - "Играй, Музыкант" (Masha Rasputina - Play, Musician, play!)
Жанна Агузарова - "Мне хорошо рядом с тобой" (Zhanna Aguzarova - I’m feeling well being near you)
The collapse of the Soviet Union at the beginning of the 1990’s led to creation of a new Westernish 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 for aspiring young female singers. And without TV and radio presence no female singer could go touring, because nobody would know who they were.
However, few new female singers’ names came into prominence in the 1990’s, such as Tatiana Bulanova (born in 1969), Alyona Sviridova (born in 1962), Valeria (born in 1968).
Valeria in 1990’s 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 a big billboard stated "Valeria - the singer that everybody was waiting for!"
The 1990’s also brought a cloud to the female singer’s reputation, 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 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, which clearly stated that this singer performed using prerecorded vocal tracks.
Татьяна Буланова - "Старшая сестра" (Tatyana Bulanova – Elder sister)
Алёна Свиридова - "Розовый фламинго" (Alena Sviridova – Pink Flamingo)
Валерия - "Самолет" (Valeria - Plane)
In the 2000’s, 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 few broadcasts previously unknown singer turned into a "flavor of the month" due to a viral Internet scheme or some kind of a TV contest or launched a career that lasted few years until she was replaced by the younger and sexier "overnight sensation".
All-females singing groups also turned into the trend. All-girls group called "Via Gra", whose name sounds like a blue male sexual enhancement pills, is well-known for sexy looks of its singers and 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", when one of the showbiz big shots came up with a certain idea and turned it into reality.
This time the idea was based on Spice Girls’ popularity. Some former singers from Via Gra, however, have been able to start a solo career. Vera Brezhneva, who was a group’s member in one of the "Via Gra" formations, now is a solo star of pop radio and music TV channels.
When she went for a Via Gra’s casting, the group’s producer found that her real surname was Galushka (that means kind of dumpling in English) that in his opinion 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 Leonind Brezhnev. In 2007 she was named the sexiest woman in Russia by the men’s magazine Maxim.
ВИА Гра - "Попытка №5" (Via Gra – Attempt №5)
Вера Брежнева - "Любовь спасёт мир" (Vera Brezhneva – Love will save the world)
It’s worth mentioning that many Russian pop female singers form the 1970’s, 1980’s and beyond are still active 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 60’s.
But advancements in plastic surgery and anti-aging medicine are changing the rules in showbiz worldwide, including Russia. And, maybe, it’s not too far from the times when people will see on the same stage a new hot and sexy teen "ovenight sensation" with another "hotter than ever" female singer, who is four times the girl’s age, singing "Forever young" as a duet.
Maybe, it’s some kind of Russian tradition inherited from Tsars and General Secretaries, when after many years in the business people just can’t leave their high positions and let younger generation in. Just look at the current state of Russian politics. Nobody wants to leave. Ever!