If France’s musical chansons — theatrical, poetic, overflowing with emotion — came from medieval ballads and odes, then Russian chanson was born amid the desolate expanses of the gulag archipelago. Despite taking much of its musical stylings from its western predecessor, the genre began as the songs that prisoners would sing to keep spirits high: its highly-charged lyrics deceptively simple, charting the crushing highs and lows of life trapped in the taiga.
The music, however, didn’t die in the labour camps. When Khrushchev’s post-Stalin political thaw saw thousands of gulag prisoners released, their music came with them, back to the city where they could be picked up by a generation of newly emboldened students and activists. It mixed crude songs on prison life with lyrical tales of hardships, trials, and joys of being a Russian outcast. Soviet officials swiftly moved to ban the genre— which only made its allure more powerful.
But as the decades wore on and the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia was bombarded with other musical forms. Chanson lost its shine — and the fact that, for most millennials, the genre was beloved by their parents was just one more reason to distance themselves from ageing crooners such as US-based Willi Tokarev, or Vladimir Vysotsky. Despite Russian chanson’s increasing rush to embrace modern pop and wider themes, modern stars such as Elena Vaenga, Grigory Leps, and Stas Mikhailov became the loved-by-mothers musical acts that were perfect as private only guilty pleasures, and cringe worthy out in Moscow’s bars and clubs.
But with strongmen still ruling the political roost and news of corruption, protests, and police brutality flooding the internet — if not the airwaves — more modern music fans are being drawn back to chanson and its irreverent, anti-authority roots: where small dramas become tragedies, goodbye means farewell for good, and every laugh could be your last.
The Calvert Journal is spotlighting the artists reinventing Russia’s previously most mocked genre for Gen Z’s modern masses, and re-injecting it with slang, raw emotion, and a keen “fuck you” to the law.
Bridging the gap between hip-hop and chanson, Korruptsia tells heady tales from the world of grasping bureaucrats, briefcases packed with cash, and falling in love with a female prosecutor. Frontman and Ukrainian rapper Mikhail Krupin brings the genre back to its criminal aesthetic, the texts that plunge the lyrical depths of chanson’s past, rhyming on murders, petty theft, money laundering and grand larceny. His morally-ambiguous characters aren’t thinking about prison, but choosing to live in the present. Korruptsia isn’t rushing to announce a tour yet, but is already causing a stir online, with tickets going fast for the sold-out debut album presentation.
Rapper Anna Zosimova and musician Petar Martic (who you might have heard of through his band, Pasosh) released their first single, I Forbid You to Be Sad to blend French and Russian chanson. According to Martic, they wanted the lyrics, which follow the conversation between to lovers, to portray the collision of different worlds: “One of the challenges was to create a universal language that everyone would be able to understand.”
For Zosimova, chanson was in her blood. “In my hometown of Donetsk, there are many gangs; my father was not a mobster but both he and his circle were trying to imitate them. Chanson was playing at every event. I took it all in from a very young age,” she says.
The first thing that Zosimova decided wouldn’t work in her own chanson project was irony: “At the start, I used to get really annoyed when my musician friends came up to me and said, ‘Well, this is cool, but you just did it as a joke, right?’”, she says.
At first, Zosimova wanted to make prison life her music’s central theme, but took on a more romantic flair after collaborating with Martic. (Both say that the search for real, honest, romantic storylines for their songs is the reason why their debut album, Song Is a Celebration, took so long to record.)
When it comes to foul-mouthed musical satire, mega-band Leningrad is the Russian market’s veteran juggernaut. It’s no surprise that the group made the switch to chanson style: frontman Sergey “Shnur” Shnurov has long gravitated towards French pop (giving his voice to Serge Gainsbourg in the biopic Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life) and to Russian chanson (in the early 2000s, he released a solo album called Vtoroy Magadansky, or The Second from Magadan in English, a direct reference to Soviet chanson bootlegs. Audiences loved the switch to female vocals and tongue-in-cheek tunes on the ins and outs of messy relationships — not to mention the music celebrating all the illegal drugs you can pick up in Russia’s major cities. The band recently announced that they’ll be taking a break, but apart from enjoying their extensive back catalogue, music fans will still be able to see them take to the stage one last time at this year’s Coachella festival.
Moscow hip-hop band Praztal Fraktal sampled chanson singer Mikhail Shufutinsky on their release, September 3. Band members say they did it as a joke; listeners didn’t care — racking up shares to celebrate the date.
Chanson and hip-hop in Russia are closely tied; Mikhail Shufutinsky has also dropped tracks featuring rappers such as ST. Rapper Yung Trappa, who is currently serving a sentence for drug dealing, is recording new music with local chanson artists, in prison.
But it’s Azerbaijani band Kaspiysky Gruz (Caspian Cargo) who has built a bridge between the two genres with their albums Ringtony dlia Zony (Prison Ringtones) and Pidzhakikostiumy (Blazer Suits).
The YouTubers behind Russian channel For The First Time even dedicated a song to A$AP Rocky’s Russian show, which combined hip-hop beats with the ultimate chanson classic, Murka. Rocky liked this short track so much that he used it in the trailer for his Babushka Boy music video.
While some chanson bands are entering the mainstream, others remain in the underground. One such artist is Aleksandr Zalupin (a stage name where the surname is a derivative of the Russian word for dickhead). He not only refuses to discuss his biography, but performs wearing a mask to keep his air of mystery — something that defies traditional genre rules. He also discusses queer love and relationships in his songs, considered particularly taboo for Russia’s criminal community.
The musician released his second breakthrough album, Pir (Feast), in 2011, but started making regular tours of the club scene only in the past few years, his previous appearances being to extreme underground events such as Moscow festival Strukturnost.