After New Wave Of Arrests, Pussy Riot Releases New “Soundtracks For Political Activists”

Back in 2012, the musical group and activist organization, Pussy Riot, made headlines around the world for staging a “punk prayer” in a Moscow cathedral. Originally intended to draw attention to the corrupt relationship between the Russian state and the Russian Orthodox Church, the members who participated in the protest were quickly apprehended and tried. Ultimately, three members of the group—Nadya Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich—were each sentenced to two years in Russian labor prisons. 

Since their release in 2014, Pussy Riot and the radical message of liberation that their music exudes have continued to be icons in the global struggle against state oppression. From art installations to documentaries to a growing body of musical releases, the movement and the ideals it stands for have embedded themselves in activist culture. Now, on February 23, they’ve released their second single of 2021: “TOXIC,” a cathartic, industrial hyperpop track produced by 100 gecs’ Dylan Brady and featuring Dorian Electra.

Analyzing the dynamics of a toxic relationship from a nuanced, emotional angle while still retaining the group’s underlying political philosophy, “TOXIC” shows us a more refined, more experienced iteration of Pussy Riot. Yet, for as exciting as this evolution is, 2021 has been a rough period for the group: after participating in protests over the poisoning and imprisonment of Alexei Navalny, the Russian state, once again, has its sights directly on Pussy Riot. 

“There are two members of Pussy Riot currently under house-arrest,” Tolokonnikova told American Songwriter via a Zoom call last week. “They’re facing two years in jail, which is honestly heartbreaking because one of those members is Masha Alekhina, who already spent two years in jail after the same 2012 criminal case that I spent two years in jail for. We are in touch with them through their legal team, so we know that they’re holding up well. Masha is an extremely courageous person… although, I know it must be hard for her. Personally, my biggest nightmare is to have to go through another criminal case.”

See, the crackdown on the escalating political turmoil in Russia wasn’t quite anticipated by Pussy Riot—although Tolokonnikova is the primary songwriter and driving force behind the musical element of the group, after Alekhina, Viktoria Naraxsa and Lucy Shteyn were imprisoned, they opted to shift up their entire release schedule for 2021. So, on February 1, they released “RAGE,” the first single from their forthcoming debut full-length release, RAGE. Dropping with a corresponding music video—which, itself, was sabotaged by Russian authorities who shut down its filming—the song has been used as a rallying cry for political prisoners in the wake of the Navalny protests.

“There are dozens of other activists who have been put in jail for up to 20 or 30 days just for participating in protests,” Tolokonnikova explained. “There are numerous criminal cases—people are facing up to five to seven years in jail. There was one person who climbed onto a statue of a cossack and showed his butt-cheeks. He showed his ass—just his cheeks, nothing really revealing—for about seven seconds and now he’s facing five years in jail for that. But, people are being imprisoned, not only for showing their asses, but for writing Tweets, sharing Facebook posts, just writing about it. Masha and Lucy from Pussy Riot are under house-arrest right now just because they were posting about a protest action.”

In the face of such blatant oppression of political opposition, Pussy Riot’s new music serves as a testament to the power of art as a tool. “Think about it,” Tolokonnikova began, “what can we do to counter the government machine that has all of these weapons and arms and the most impressive mechanisms on Earth? Russia has a big prison system and an incredible amount of police officers. We can’t really counteract with force. So, the most important and valuable act of resistance is symbolic resistance. If this act of symbolic resistance can resonate in as many hearts and minds as possible… well, that’s the goal. Obviously, you cannot predict if a song you write will resonate with people or not, but you can hope that it inspires some of them to become more political than they were yesterday. Basically, we’re writing soundtracks for political activists.”

On the other side of the world, Dorian Electra is also busy making soundtracks for political activists, which is why the collaboration on “TOXIC” makes so much sense. Last year, Electra released My Agenda, a brilliant encapsulation of political philosophy, LGBT+ activism and hyperpop sensibilities. A standout song from the project was the title track, “My Agenda,” which—in addition to featuring the Village People—marked the first official collaboration between Electra and Pussy Riot (though the two have known each other since 2016). 

“Dorian is one of the most active humans I’ve met in my life,” Tolokonnikova said. “We started from the same position—they studied philosophy as well—and when we toured together, it was pretty incredible. I remember that we were talking about our processes for songwriting and we were both genuinely a bit concerned. I always start from the concept; every song Pussy Riot makes is political, inherently. So, I think about topics I want to cover—like police violence, toxic relationships, sexism, the environment, mental health, inequality, etc.—and I start from there. Then, they were telling me ‘Yeah, I feel like I have to write 30 pages all about whatever I want to talk about in the song and then I write the song.’ I was like ‘Yeah, I’m kinda the same!’ We were questioning ourselves and our writing.”

This questioning led to some of the creative changes behind Pussy Riot’s new, more experienced sound and style. See, beforehand—back in the “punk prayer” days—Pussy Riot was much more concerned with the energy and the intellect of their music than the actual musicality of it. As Tolokonnikova explained, they felt they had to “show off how smart we were.” But, after she was released from prison in 2014, Tolokonnikova started exploring the art of songwriting and quickly realized that there were a few things they could do to bring their songs to the next level. 

“In the beginning, we were all nerds,” she explained. “When we started writing songs, we were pretty much just listing political doctrines that we read and wanted to mention. It was valid and cool and fun, but now we want to do something else. Lately, I’ve started to gravitate more towards an emotional depiction of the concepts I want to talk about. There are some things that are universal and they’re really fucking easy to speak about in a universal manner. For example, inequality. You don’t need specific terms—they’re rich, that’s it. Ultimately, I realized that I don’t really know how smart it shows you to be when you just list a lot of terms that some people may not understand or relate to. So, lately, I’m finding more joy in describing things I care about in language that a 6-year-old would understand.”

Likewise, Electra made a similar turn in their musical direction. 

“We both come from similar backgrounds in philosophy and political theory,” Electra told American Songwriter last week. “My older music was, like, literally educational music. It was ‘pop music,’ but it was educational. Now, my music isn’t explicitly ‘educational,’ but I hope that people might get educated by the content, the project or the message behind it. I think there’s something really important about making it accessible to people, so that it could stand alone as just music. That’s something that Nadya and I talked about—the more people your music reaches, the more people your message reaches as well. If you put your message at the forefront, you limit  the amount of people who could be in your audience before they even hear it in the first place.”

With this new approach to writing as the wind in their sails, Tolokonnikova and Electra began working on a collaboration that would eventually grow into “TOXIC,” the Brady-produced single that came out last week. 

“When Dorian was on tour with us, I was with someone who was toxic to me but nice to everyone else,” Tolokonnikova said. “So, Dorian had no idea that me and my partner at the time had this toxic thing going on. Later, I broke up with that person and after that I told Dorian: ‘Look, you might not notice because some people come across as the nicest person on Earth to everyone else, but partners can really be toxic.’ We talked a lot about this—about toxic people, about how to protect yourself from becoming toxic. Being toxic isn’t an inherent quality that some people have, we can all be toxic at some point in our lives. You have to constantly watch yourself to prevent this from happening.”

On the song itself—and in between the blazing peaks of cathartic noise provided by Brady—Tolokonnikova plays the straight-man while Electra takes on the role of the toxic partner.

“I wanted to bring in the perspective of how intoxicating it can be to be in a toxic situation sometimes—it can feel good, even when it’s bad,” Electra explained. “I wanted to add that layer of complexity to it because I feel like that’s the part that people don’t talk about as much. People are just like ‘Oh, fuck bad people! Fuck bad vibes!’ I like to explore things from the mind of the villain character and wrap my head around stuff from their perspective. There’s an overly-simplistic narrative about abuse and toxic relationships that we’ve been taught that’s not really accurate to how complex these situations can be. So, this song was a perfect marriage of stuff we were talking about and thinking about in our personal lives and careers.”

With “RAGE” and “TOXIC” both out, three members of the movement behind bars and more unreleased music to come, Pussy Riot finds themselves at a pivotal crossroads heading into March. While help from their collaborators and all the global media coverage may go a long way in freeing their imprisoned bandmates, Tolokonnikova reminded us that, even then, the larger struggle is still very-much at hand. 

“The thing that is the moral imperative to do right now is: support political prisoners,” she declared. “I know that Russia is not the only country with political prisoners, but we are going through an incredibly cruel violent wave of political oppression recently. Alexei Navalny, Pussy Riot members and dozens and dozens of political activists are going to jail for years and years just for showing up in the streets and standing up for their beliefs. They must be celebrated for doing this, not put in jail. The more we talk about them, the bigger chance that they’ll be let go. Putin’s not as strong as he’d like to portray himself as—he actually does care about public opinion, both inside and outside of Russia. So, write songs about political prisoners, write social media posts. If you want to write an Instagram story, don’t be afraid of being ‘too shallow’—nothing is too shallow, everything matters. Everything you’re comfortable with. If you want to take political action in front of the Russian embassy or even just out in a field, just do something. The most important thing is to not get apathetic. The biggest problem is that people don’t know that they have power. When we’re together, we do have power. We must show solidarity to each other.”

You can learn more about Pussy Riot and how to support them HERE. Listen to their new single “TOXIC” produced by Dylan Brady and featuring Dorian Electra HERE.

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