Cherchez la femme

“Their only crime was being young, arrogant, and beautiful.”

Patti Smith

Pussy Riot are the most perfect rock band in history. Even the Sex Pistols in their 77′ prime never looked this fucking good. Formed last year in response to Vladmir Putin’s third (and ultimately successful) presidential run, Pussy Riot are creating a pop experience that goes far beyond mere aural sensation.

Back in February 2012, the Russian feminist punk collective performed a ‘punk prayer’ against Putin inside Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour wearing multi-coloured balaclavas. Rallying against “evil crooks of the Putinist junta”, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, Maria Alekhina, 24, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 29, now face seven year jail terms for hooliganism motivated by religious hatred or hostility.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova is extraordinarily pretty and I want to sleep with her for all the wrong reasons. With Pussy Riot facing up to seven years in jail for singing in a church, having a crush on one of the accused seems completely inappropriate. It feels glib and trivial to fancy someone so unbelievably brave and intelligent.

Fortunately lust and intellectual admiration have never been mutually exclusive and sapiosexuals will appreciate that Pussy Riot have created a parallel universe that goes way beyond sonic thrills.

On being locked up like princesses in a cage, the Pussy Riot collective inevitably stoke up references to the Situationist International 68’. But unlike the liberal havens of Western Europe, modern Russia is a frighteningly oppressive regime and this Stalinist show trial only serves to remind people how many journalists in Russia have gone missing in the last twelve years.

And for all the talk of revolutionary politics and feminism, I find myself deeply conflicted by the case. As while I genuinely admire their intellect and courage, they are utterly, utterly brilliant, I feel ashamed that I have become infatuated by Nadia’s physical beauty.

However, I have to consider that many of the world’s greatest political movements were served by having a striking and iconic figurehead. Pussy Riot are all about symbolism in many respects – the glamour quotient of the Anonymous  hacker movement.

Pussy Riot have achieved their goals of becoming famous and their profile in Britain exploded after this brilliant article by Carole Cadwalladr, which is journalism worth paying for but you can read it here for free.

Pussy Riot are not individuals, they’re an idea. And that’s the thing that has gripped Russia and caught the attention of the rest of the world, too: that the Russian government has gone and arrested an idea and is prosecuting through the courts with a vindictiveness the Russian people haven’t before seen.

The Russian feminists really are a wonderful reminder that if you want to inspire change then you have to capture the imagination of the soul. Listening to their punk demo records, it becomes pretty apparently that you don’t want Pussy Riot to serenade you. They can’t play to save themselves. But glamour on this level is not necessarily a superficial thing. Pussy Riot are an idea and you can’t arrest an idea – not one that has been transmitted across the globe.

In stark contrast to what is going on in Putin’s Russia, political protest has been largely tolerated in Britain during the last sixty years. The Pussy Riot girls would be ironic clothes horses in this wet green island, casually appearing on faux-rebellious street art in Shoreditch High Street. In Russia they have become the only band that matters. Pussy Riot live dangerously so you don’t have to.

Hackney through the Looking-Glass

As someone who is comfortable wearing contemporary attire, it’s hard not to feel completely invisible at Broadway Market. Decorated by the capitalist toils of the British high street, I always develop an inferiority complex amongst Hackney’s bohemian community.

Broadway Market is not just a place to sample Ghanaian pot lunches or vinyl Beatles records. It’s an artistic confederacy of like-minded educated individuals, who choose too or instinctively diverge from the moneyed paths of middle-class employment, or at least that’s how it feels.

With its extravagant visual styles and fragrant riots of colour, Broadway Market is a place where every moment feels like an Instagram snap – a grainy artistic mirage dating from 1900-1969, where everything is re-lived for post-modern audiences. Pop history has long ended so all we can do is rewind, pause and live vicariously through the memories of others.

While there is a marked difference between what is genuinely old as oppose to say ‘retro’ – a ludicrous concept. Broadway Market feels more like a pastiche than a parody of the past, as its imitations and community spirit are warmly affectionate rather than mocking in tone.

Likewise, when I go to nearby Columbia Road Flower Market, I find myself once again succumbing to my everyday clothes. Even if I am just popping down to salvage scraps of hot street food, there is an unnerving sense of invading a private party – one that I could never be invited to in real life.

Capturing the essence of this lifestyle difference is a gypsy-folk singer, Brooke Sharkey, who offers a window into another lifestyle, one more fanciful and beautiful than my own. She sings pure sweet bohemia and listening to her poetic voice accompanied by a large double bass and accordion, it’s hard not to feel utterly banal in comparison. And while I would never ordinarily listen to gypsy-folk music at home, in the right setting, her songs are vividly beautiful.

Evoking memories of a pre-war bohemian lifestyle, I can imagine her band holidaying in St Ives drinking gin and sage, while dining on freshly caught scallops. A fanciful life perhaps and it’s one that only seems possible on Broadway Market, which on examining the looking-glass, I will never obtain but can always admire from afar.

Lacking any starry-eyed garments of my own, I remain an invisible figure in London Fields, but it’s wonderful to think that songwriters such as Brooke Sharkey can survive without being coarsened by the demands of modern life.

Joy in People

Evoking memories of student bedrooms and NME inspired collages, Jeremy Deller’s pop-art exhibition at the Hayward Gallery throws open his cupboard for all to see. Almost like a counter-culture riposte to the hedonism of the New Labour years, Joy in People, offers a sweeping nineties retrospective.

Indeed his vision of the decade appears to pine inwards towards the 1980s – a hangover of union brass bands, strong armed marches, Margaret Thatcher, cups of tea and weekly music magazines. Every decade has to be historically collectivised in some way. In that respect this exhibition is a museum of old ideas. A collision of forces that formed and peaked during the passive consumerism of the Blair years.

One rock band in particular, the Manic Street Preachers, form the social heartbeat of the exhibition. With the 1997 fanzine project ‘The Uses of Literacy’ being reinstalled for new audiences, it pays tribute to the obsessive fan culture that surrounded the band in the mid-nineties.

Literary quotes, paintings, confessional stories and some fucking awful poetry, the exhibition never veers too far away from an alternative kid’s bedroom. Music is fleeting in that respect. Most people’s inspirational touchstones are formulated from the ages of 14 to 22 and slowly ebb away with each passing year. The pressures of earning a living and the cyclical nature of youth culture pay heed to that.

*Offering my own tribute, written as a 24 year old, I recall a diary piece I wrote as the lights of fan worship were dimming if not completely dying out. Below is my recollection of my last ever Manics gig at the Edinburgh Corn Exchange in April 2005. It’s my late, late offering to Jeremy Deller. If only to serve as a reminder of how quickly one’s memories can become an exhibit in a museum.

Monday, April 18th 2005 

Paradise City

After watching my girlfriend collapse in a bucket in tears on my bed I realised I had made a mistake. I felt incredibly guilty but I was scared of being disappointed and I didn’t want my ragged feelings ruining everybody else’s night. I changed my mind of course and later on that afternoon we were in Edinburgh rummaging for sailor suits and jumpers inside a 20th Century clothes shop. I knew then that I had made the right decision. There are some happy memories in the capital and walking through the historic Old Town in the rain was beautiful, it was almost like my footsteps were being drawn in ink.

The Manics were the major pulling factor and they were playing the Corn Exchange, which is deep in the suburbs and we arrived late that evening and the venue looked like an abandoned swimming pool. The rectangle white hall was much smaller than I expected and consequently there was very little room to manoeuvre. James Dean Bradfield looked muscular and extremely fit, while Nicky Wire was really tall and danced around on stage like a glittering Welsh salmon. The Manics reached their saturation point years ago and it felt strange seeing them live again. There was something serene and ghostly calm about them, previous landmark singles that were once powerful statements had now become cabaret and were played with a jukebox familiarity.

I did feel the Manics were slightly cabaret in places, the Holy Bible moments however were absolutely amazing, especially Of Walking Abortion and If White America, which were like vicious snarling scabs and for blurring white seconds I felt like I was obsessed and eighteen all over again. There was also Roses in the Hospital and they ended with a crashing version of Motown Junk, which started off with Paradise City by Guns and Roses and it was coolest send off ever! The thudding drums whipped the crowd to a chaotic frenzy and it was the perfect ending to a heavenly evening. It was the goodbye moment I had always wanted.