I was driving with my husband and family a few weeks ago, listening to NPR as I like to do on the weekends, and was blown away to hear one of the standard anchors say the “P” word. It stunned me, and I immediately tuned in to the news blurb. The anchor was discussing the release of a new single from the band Pussy Riot, and I was at 7 “P” word count by the time the story was done. I was a little impressed with NPR. Admittedly, the word pussy is only a cussword if you let it be, and my father was quite fond of using this word to discuss cats, because he liked to watch my discomfort rise. Frankly, I was pretty impressed that NPR found this album release to be news, but Pussy Riot has been in the news for about as long as they have been a band, members even made it into an episode of this season’s House of Cards. There has been a documentary on HBO about their crusade for freedom of speech in Russia, and they have been recognized as crusaders for an important cause. All this attention for a band that has a revolving membership, was only established in 2011, and has no albums.
To me, it was pretty fortuitous that they chose the name Pussy Riot, and I can’t help but wonder if they would have reached their level of magnitude with a different name, say Kitty Brigade? Band names have a tendency to evoke a strong reaction in either the positive or negative direction, and this can be a key factor in the magnitude they reach or a deficit they have to overcome. I respect the musical ability of Dave Grohl, but still struggle with his choice of the band name Foo Fighters, even with its American historic context. One of my favorite newer indie bands was playing an affordable show at one of my favorite small venues in the area, but I could not bring myself to go see them because of the strong negative response I feel to their name, Diarrhea Planet. I enjoy them on satellite radio, but doubt the album will come into my collection. There are several less than stellar bands with terrible names, Chumbawumba, Limp Bizket, Panic! At the Disco (love their nod to the Smiths, but cannot stomach the explanation point). To me, the members who started Pussy Riot were genius in their embracing of an English slang word that evokes a strong response and name alone has helped their cause.
Pussy Riot’s main purpose was to challenge Russian policies that affected the rights of women, and they staged many guerilla-style performances to this extent. Many critics agree that their music is less than excellent, and I can’t say that I have enjoyed the songs that I have heard. I feel that they have been embraced for a second major concept- they have several attractive band members. Being attractive is a key feature in making it in the music industry as a woman, and also a major attribute for entering pop culture. In greater pop culture, we like our women to be young, attractive and kind as a perfect trifecta of feminine traits. As an adolescent who was on the fringes of the punk scene, I can tell you that girls in this scene had a few limited roles: girlfriend or band groupie. If you were unattractive, you knew you had to stick to band groupie status, and hope that someone might notice you. There were no girls in the bands. This was the age of the Riot Grrl movement, but the bands were few and not well-received by the greater pop culture. Being feminine was viewed as an asset if you wanted to draw male attention, but not so if you wanted to be taken seriously as a musical artist. I wish I could say that the culture has changed greatly, but it is still a major issue. One of my friends has a music business with no female employees, and was lamenting that they need coverage often when the guys go on tour with their bands. “Hire some girls, they are never in bands” was advice from another friend. Great. The members of Pussy Riot clean up well, as evidenced by their parts in House of Cards. It would be nice if they could produce some great music and political change, too.