Zemfira is one of Russia’s most prized rock singer-songwriters, continuing the tradition set up by the popular underground rock Soviet bands Kino and Aquarium. Born in Ufa, Bashkorostan, Zemfira went to music school, and then studied singing at the Ufa College of Fine Arts. She rose to fame in 1999 and has stayed on the central Russian music scene ever since, thanks to her authenticity and intensity, moving love ballads, and existential lyrics. To date, Zemfira has released 10 albums. Especially for the pop star’s 44th birthday, we’ve chosen five of her best tracks.
One of Zemfira’s first hits, SPID (AIDS) is a provocative love song. “You have AIDS/ And we are far away,/ You have AIDS,/ and therefore you will die,” runs the chorus. Rather than being sad, the hit has introduced Russian speaking audiences to Zemfira’s distinctive emotional intensity, longing for freedom, and love of a heavy drum beat. The song also speaks about Russia’s more liberal cultural environment of the 90s, compared to the neo-conservative values promoted in the country today, where the recent AIDS crisis remains a taboo subject.
Released as part of her second album, Forgive Me My Love, in 2000, Hochesh (If You Want) is one of Zemfira’s representative love songs and — be warned — things get intense. “If you want,/ I will turn off all the stars that don’t let you sleep,” and “If you want,/ I will kill all the neighbours that don’t let you sleep,” the lyrics go, in the singer-songwriter’s fresh poetic style. The video, meanwhile, uses western music video tropes of the era, with its black and white footage, close-ups of the star, and surreal, Magritte-like images of people floating in robes in the air across an urban landscape.
Part of her 2005 album Vendetta, Progulka (Walk) is another anthem for unbound love. Having dipped into a philosophy degree the year before, which she sadly abandoned, Zemfira gets metaphysical: “If you believe in movies, we’re trapped in The Matrix.” Later on, however, the lyrics fall into her classic trope where the miraculous meets the quotidian: “stars fell into my empty pockets by chance” and “my knees froze, you were happy and drunk, and something important in between,” she sings. The video sees a rebellious Zemfira, mixing feminine fishnets with more androgynous looks, as she walks across the stairs of a decrepit tower block.
My Razbivaemsya (We Scatter) is part of Zemfira’s 2007 album Spasibo (Thank You), which marks a new, mature and experimental era in her music, mixing jazz and classical music influences with rock sounds, with the Silver Age Russian poet Marina Tzvetaeva referenced in her lyrics. The video is also one of Zemfira’s first collaborations with the iconic Russian film and theatre actor and director Renata Litvinova, who has brought a more stylised and dramatic touch to the her music videos.
The 2014 Zhit v Tvoey Golove (To Live In Your Head) is another striking collab between Zemfira and Litvinova. The actor features in the black and white video waiting by a busy road before finding refuge at home, where she starts painting her own face red with a brush. Her head then explodes into footage from one of Zemfira’s live concerts. The dramatic image fits the contradictions of great romantic love that Zemfira explores in her lyrics, “To live in your head/ To love you in unjustified, desperate ways,/ To live in your head,/ And to kill you unconsciously, unintentionally.”