Boy bands are officially back in. It’s no longer shameful to admit that you know the lyrics to the Backstreet Boys’ I Want It that Way or the dance routine to Everybody — 90s nostalgia has it covered. And those without any warm memories of dancing to N’Sync’s Bye Bye Bye in their living rooms are simply declared too young. Reunions hit stadiums harder than bad weather and stage choreography is no longer reserved for Rn’B stars. And now it’s gone even further, with supposedly trendy twentysomethings embracing the latest boy bands, like One Direction, too.
Russia plunged into American-style pop culture in the late 80s with perestroika, and homegrown boy bands were suddenly everywhere. In the 90s, music TV channels like MuzTV and MTV Russia acted as incubators for new pop talent, and music programmes appeared even on regular channels like the ORT and TVC, where MuzOboz, a Top of the Pops-style show, invited all more or less important Russian bands to perform.
And while Russia hasn’t yet caught up with the trend for adoring boys with highlights from 20 years ago and their wicked dance moves, it won’t be long (trends generally take a little while to reach Russia). Read on for a list of the most important Russian boy bands of the 90s whose time back in the limelight is surely just around the corner.
Laskoviy Mai (Tender May in English) were founded in 1986, formed in a singing class in an Orenburg orphanage by a teacher and one of the students, Yuri Shatunov, who was 13 at the time. The rest of Laskoviy Mai members were orphans too, and their situation was widely used by the producers and songwriters as they marketed the band and wrote melancholic songs for them, with frequent metaphors of abandonment and longing. As Shatunov sings in White Roses: “White roses, white roses, harmless thorns […] People decorate their holidays with you for a few days, And then leave you to freeze on the windowsill”. At the height of Laskoviy Mai’s success, their managers took commercial boy band culture to its peak when several clones of the original band toured all over the country with different members, all pretending to be the original Laskoviy Mai. The band(s) filled stadiums all over the Soviet Union and then Russia, often playing as many as eight concerts a day. The band’s Russian Wikipedia page attempts to list all the members who were at some point involved with Laskoviy Mai, and even the approximate list runs to over 30 people. The band officially ceased to exist in 1992 but saw several reunions and a documentary release.
Na-Na were formed by producer Barry Alibasov through open call in 1989, but the final version only saw the light of day after a few years of members coming and going. Many of their live shows and videos involved guitars and keyboards, but that never stood in the way of traditional well-rehearsed boy-band choreography. The official video for their song Faina, in which an eponymous woman sings about an unfaithful lover, was one of the first explicit music clips in Russia, showing racy dance moves and scenes styled to look like an ancient orgy. In fact that video, often included by the media in the “90s videos they would never make now” lists, is an important 90s relic, showing that even the tamest boy bands explored daring topics in the newly free country. But the riskiness of the band didn’t last: by the late 90s and early 00s the band had become a staple at concerts at the Kremlin and started touring with official government delegations as Russian musical ambassadors.
Ivanushki were probably the most popular Russian boy band in the short history of post-Soviet Russia. Their success, often attributed to great production and songwriting, could also be explained by the fact that they were one of the first bands to have clearly stereotyped members to appeal to different fans, like a Russian version of The Backstreet Boys but with fewer people. Two tall male models and an ex-musical theatre actor, they all fitted into the traditional boy band roles: Andrey, the tall ginger, was the goofy playful one, Kirill, dark-haired, muscly and conventionally attractive, was the serious, romantic type, and Igor, the shorter blond one, was the band’s “poet” character, pensive and mysterious. Igor, who actually wrote lyrics for a fair share of the band’s songs, left the band in 1998 to pursue a solo career. When he died the same year in an accident that was later concluded to be suicide, he immediately gained a Kurt Cobain-esque status and a cult following among the band’s fans.
Ruki Vverkh (Hands in the Air) were founded in 1995 by members Sergei and Alexey together with a Moscow-based producer. From the beginning, the story was built around the dynamic between the two members, where Alexey played a villain, seducing Sergei’s girlfriends in different scenarios described in the band’s naively simple songs and played out in their videos. For example, in the song Student, the drama builds between two friends, a student (Alexey) and a townie (Sergei), when the student steals the townie’s girlfriend. Sergei sings: “Student, where did you find your new toy? You didn’t think or guess much but you stole my girl.” A similar story unfolds in the song Aleshka, where the lyrics address Alexey by a short form of his name. Most live shows also saw the addition of Irina, a dancer and backing vocalist, who played “the girl” on stage, mixing rave moves with interpretive dance as she dashed between the evil Alexey, standing behind a synth, and sad Sergei, singing with a mic in hand.
Despite being one of the first Russian rap collectives, Malchishnik (Stag Party) were positioned as a boy band, with choreography, dancers and a celebrity producer behind the act. Initially the band was supposed to be a Soviet version of New Kids On The Block, but the direction was later changed as the band members suggested a trendier hip-hop sound. The band was among the first artists in Russia to use explicit lyrics in their songs, leading the post-Soviet sexual revolution. In fact the lyrics and topics of the songs were so unambiguous that the group is still described as the country’s sole “sex rap band”. Malchishnik was dissolved in 1994, with all three members, Dolphin, DJ Groove and Mutabor, going on to have successful solo careers in electronic music.
This pop duo, founded in 1994 by its two members Stas and Denis, existed for nearly a decade without being extraordinarily popular even once in those years. This is because they were never marketed towards teenagers, the traditional hype engine for pop music, attracting instead a middle-aged audience and a reputation as that band that your parents’ friends like. In the 90s, Chai Vdvoem (Tea for Two) toured Russia several times supporting older Soviet pop and chanson acts, expanding their adult fanbase by regularly performing topless and showing off their muscles in complicated choreography. Notably, most of their songs were written not by producers but by Stas and Denis themselves.
Diskoteka Avaria (Disco Accident) were founded in 1990 and was initially advertised as a comedy pop. Many songs were built around parody, and some were just dance music with funny rap-style voiceovers, with the four band members switching between various roles and voices as they sang. As Avaria grew more popular, they started writing traditional pop songs. But real country-wide recognition came to the band as they established their own style of catchy tunes mixed with humorous lyrics, like the song Novogodniaya (For the New Year), still one of the most recognisable anthems of the holiday season that simultaneously makes fun of and celebrates Russian New Year traditions. After one of the band’s key members Oleg died in 2002 the band went on a hiatus and returned later to only partial success.
Although not technically a boy band, as their music leans towards chanson more than pop, and Ukrainian rather than Russian, Nensi are still worth mentioning in this context as the band had a number of dance songs, a large fanbase and regular rotation on school disco playlists of the 90s. Formed in the Donetsk region in 1992 by the frontman Anatoliy Bondarenko, the band was locally acclaimed before moving to Moscow, casting a few new members and quickly rising to fame. They are best known for their chanson songs that focused on heartbreak, betrayal and the general depressing state of existence in Russia, like the song Menthol Cigarette Smoke: “Menthol Cigarette Smoke, I’m drunk and stumbling, You look into someone else’s eyes as he caresses you, Well I found someone else, I don’t love her but I kiss her, And as I hug her I still remember you.” The band is still together, mostly touring in Europe and performing for Russian expats.
Premier-Ministr (Prime Minister in English) is one of the bands whose history could symbolise bad business decisions in commercial pop music. Initially started in 1997 by the producer Evgeniy Fridland, the band in its original line-up enjoyed mild success and represented Russia in the Eurovision song contest in 2002, ending up in 10th place. Some years later, the four original members of the band left the producer citing creative differences, having to rename themselves as PM because they didn’t own the trademarked name of the band. New younger members were cast by Fridland to record and tour as Premier-Ministr. Both bands exist to this day, neither of them successful or critically acclaimed.
This trio was formed in 1996 by the band’s members, who pride themselves on the fact that the band wasn’t a producers’ project but came from the musicians themselves. Playing a mix of catchy dance-pop with hip-hop, the style of Otpetie Moshenniki was more alternative with dyed locks and weird haircuts, appealing to those rebellious teenagers who found Ivanushki International too sweet, and Malchishnik too wild. Even the name of the band, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, was there to say this band wasn’t just another tame pop act. Their songs, as with many other 90s bands, celebrated the freedom to sing about sex with songs like Dvigai Telom (Move Your Body) and Devushki Bivaut Raznie (Girls Are All Different).