“Clearly, she is just the face of a high-budget project engineered by a team of producers,” goes the recurring comment about Luna, the brightest emerging star of Russian-language pop. “She doesn’t even write her own songs.” This kind of feedback is hardly unique — even Bjork famously has to prove the authenticity of her authorship year after year. Pop music has always been a tricky terrain: in the complex interplay of beauty myths and commercial fantasies, it’s perceived as the world of fake avatars, particularly if you happen to be a woman. At the same time pop music today is no longer just fantasy land but a reflection of the struggles we face. We’ve seen a rise of strong pop heroines shifting the cultural landscape: from Beyonce’s heartbreak gospel to Lady Gaga’s constant self-reinvention. In Ukraine and Russia, traditionally home of rather questionable pop acts, today's homegrown talents are constructing a new empowering message for contemporary pop.
“People often think of me as a sort of face for a huge commercial investment but the truth is, Luna was born as a DIY project,” says Kiev-based Kristina Bardash, aka Luna. Her rise was stellar: on the release day of her debut album Magnets in April 2016 she performed live for the first time, and now is touring major concert halls in Ukraine, Russia and Latvia, gradually conquering the Russian-speaking world. In her songs, enchanted melancholy merges with romance and longing spiced up with a pinch of irony — and it's got the new generation restlessly lip-synching. Filmed dancing on the spiral staircase of a breathtaking Soviet library in Kiev, Luna has the perfect ratio of sincerity and performance — and a stunning visual image to boot. A former photographer and videographer, Bardash has always perceived a pop act almost like an art piece, a combination of audio-visual elements. “I used to work with performers before, and wanted to invest some of my vision in them,” she recalls. “But often they didn’t hear me, so it was a difficult and fruitless job — only when working on my own personal project could I truly fulfil my vision.” With a team of collaborators, Bardash is involved in all sides of the project: sound, style, stills, videos. Her creation, Luna, is a classic pop heroine — but this time truly self-made, in control of her own image.
While Luna’s sound and vision are rooted in experimental Russian 90s pop, her very existence is enabled by the shifting pop discourse of today: her songs gained their first listeners on social media. She is not alone: direct connection to the audience means that performers come to pop music through increasingly diverse pathways. Moscow-based Yana Kedrina aka Kedr Livanskiy first emerged as part of Moscow-based underground label and community Johns' Kingdom. Now signed to New York-based label 2MR records, Kedr Livanskiy is an avant-pop sensation on her own. In a way, her work is the opposite of pop — elusive, poetic, abstract. Her face is often hidden, her videos are shot around train tracks and gloomy courtyards at the edges of Moscow, her references include Russian rock icons Grazhdanskaya Oborona and Yanka Dyagileva. At the same time, as her mock pop choreography and red nightie in Otvechai Za Slova confirms, this is pop — but pop deconstructed and fed back into the system, transmitted through a broken radio, veiled in mystery. “It’s about the sense of distance, and something you can’t explain but is always present, like a portal,” Kedrina sums up.
Today's homegrown talents in Ukraine and Russia are constructing a new empowering message for contemporary pop
IC3PEAK, perhaps the most cutting-edge pop project to come out of the new east, also grew together with a certain underground scene in Moscow. What duo Nick and Nastya describe as a “futuristic opera and audio-visual experiment”, was first performed at the W17CHØU7 witch house parties that were sensationally popular among the emerging generation all over Russia. IC3PEAK gradually grew into a separate, powerful entity bordering on music and art, with its own take on Generation Z’s visual obsessions and a strong pro-LGBT, feminist outlook. “To begin with we had a distinction: Nick works with sound, and I sing and work with visuals. I am still in charge of photos, graphics, posters, merch, and also write lyrics and work with vocals. But our work is very collaborative,” says vocalist Nastya. “I think IC3PEAK is one of the few truly feminist projects as we both are completely equal parts of it. Even at our gigs we are both at the front of the stage, we share everything half and half,” adds Nick. IC3PEAK create an overwhelming powerful wave of broken beats, drums and glitches intertwined with tender piercing vocals — their songs are about sexuality, the body, freedom and being human in the 21st century, and their videos look like digitally infused dreams.
Constant merging of different styles and genres is another key feature of contemporary pop we now see reflected in its rising stars. Moscow-based Kate Nv in that sense is at the forefront: half of the avant-garde punk project Glintshake (recently also known as ГШ) she also experiments with electronic music, although prefers to describe everything as pop. Inspired by the aesthetics of both the 1980s and 1920s, she creates what she describes as a survey of herself and the moment, regardless of the genres. “I think today genres exist just out of laziness — it’s the quickest way to describe music to convey the way it could sound. But I prefer it when music is described without genres or comparisons to different musicians — it’s a more time-consuming way but also more rich and diverse,” she says. “For me everything today is pop, it just has a large spectrum. Techno today is pop, particularly considering how widespread it is in Moscow. Contemporary, academic music is also pop, and so is everyone’s love for Russian avant-garde pop.”
“I think IC3PEAK is one of the few truly feminist projects; we both are completely equal parts of it”
Today the field of pop music is becoming more and more liberated creatively. Distinctions between fake and real are fading and what used to be a land of plastic ideals is turning into an all-permitting terra incognita inherited by the ones willing to take risks, and women seem to be at the forefront. In all the diversity of their styles and messages, would they be happy to stand back to back? In the mishmash of contemporary culture, this might be the only way. “In the last 10 years the internet has erased all the borders between subcultures,” adds Kate Nv. “Everyone is drawing from the same melting pot where anything is possible. It’s mesmerising and scary at the same time, and I am very thrilled.”