Super (S)hero – Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot – By Jake Wiest

Super (S)hero – Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot – By Jake Wiest

I have a strong recommendation for you, for a female musician to check out.

In selecting my favourite female musician for this blog, I initially tried to think of someone who had a significant influence on me when I was growing up. To my unfortunate surprise, I couldn’t think of anyone. All the musicians that I loved and remembered from my parents’ collection were guys. Dudes. Men. People born with balls and testicles who identify as male. Just to be clear here in this era of prominent gender pronoun sensitivity.
My parents almost always played rock n’ roll on the stereo – you’d think they would have had Janice Joplin on more, as she was pretty much the all-time queen of their boomer era of classic rock. But I don’t recall hearing her. Hmmmm, who was a female on that stereo back in my childhood? I loved Brenda Lee’s “I’m Gonna Lasso Santa Claus,” that we heard at Christmastime, but I wouldn’t count that as a favourite.
When I got older and became more independent with my tastes, my own music collection developed, but there was still very little female representation in it. Paula Abdul was in my case of cassette tapes, sure, but I only got that tape because I liked the video with her and the dancing cartoon cat, so I wouldn’t count that. I had Mariah Carey, but only because she was favourite of the girl I had a crush on, which absolutely doesn’t count. Then when I hit my teenage years – those years where music became, at times, the glue that bound my whole angsty world together – still there was a noticeable dearth of women. In my music collection I mean, although the same could be said about my life in general at that time. lol ☹
I think the biggest female voices in my teenage CD collection were Garbage and No Doubt, fronted by Shirley Manson and Gwen Stefani respectively. But other than being women, what do Shirley Manson, Gwen Stefani, Paula Abdul, Mariah Carey and Brenda Lee all have in common? They are all singers! I honestly don’t know if I ever even had a female musician – one who plays an instrument or makes beats – in my entire musical library growing up (how my collection didn’t contain Veruca Salt is a mystery by the way, they absolutely belonged there)! Reminiscing about this fact hits home as to why this blog series highlighting female musicians is important.
But I have a favourite now. And for me she’s the best, because she’s more than a musician.

Since reaching adulthood I’ve come to discover and enjoy many great female musicians. Having become a musician myself, I’ve been influenced by them in my craft as well as through the many ways that the music we love shapes who we are, whether we are musicians or not.
I’m a fan of many genres, but my hands down favourite is punk rock. So, I considered writing about Kim Shattuck of the Muffs, Brody Dalle of the Distillers and Spinnerette, or Patricia Day of HorrorPops, all really great punk musicians (these talented women all play instruments and sing, extremely well). But I have decided to instead focus this piece on one of the most significant women of the punk rock pantheon, Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot notoriety.
Maybe Pussy Riot needs no introduction for you. They gained worldwide fame after a performance in Moscow that got them sentenced to a Russian prison in 2012. Even if you aren’t familiar with their music, you’ve probably heard of them from this event. That’s how I was for most of the 2010s – I knew this well-known piece of news about them, but nothing more of their story or their music.
The three women sentenced for their explosive “Punk Prayer” that they performed in a cathedral in Moscow are Maria Alyokhina (AKA Masha), Yekaterina Samutsevich, and Nadya Tolokonnikova. They performed in protest of the Orthodox church’s ties with Vladmir Putin and were quickly arrested during the demonstration.
Nadya is an amazing woman, and when I say “amazing,” I don’t mean this word in the overused, meaningless way that we Americans use it. I mean she is literally amazing. And I don’t mean “literally” in the overused, meaningless way that the kids use it (just a bit of kidding there, kids). In the words of actress Olivia Wilde: “Nadya embodies the true rebel spirit with every fibre of her being.”

Music is almost an uncanny thing, when you think about. Sound waves that can cause us to feel intense emotions. Invisible waves, floating through the air, going into our ears, and depending on frequencies and patterns of these waves, having effects as vast in range as the spectrum of human emotion itself: music can evoke tears of joy or sadness, sooth a savage beast, or rile us to revolution.
This is one of the reasons why I love punk rock music: because it’s the soundtrack to rebellion. It forms those sound waves in such a precise way as to angrily answer injustice, an auditory proclamation against oppression, spoken in a universal language. But as I grew up, it became more apparent to me that this genre is also steeped in a downright pretentious image. The cry of “Fuck conformity!” is puzzlingly juxtaposed with a scene teeming with people whose appearances seem pretty thoroughly governed by a code of rules.

I recently read Nadya’s book “Read and Riot: A Pussy Riot Guide to Activism.” I recommend it, as well as Maria Alyohkina’s book “Riot Days.” At the beginning of her book, Nadya defines what punk means to her. She writes: “Being a punk is about constantly surprising. It’s not about having a mohawk hairstyle and keeping it your whole life. Being a punk means systematically changing the image of yourself, being elusive, sabotaging cultural and political codes.”
“Punk is a method. Bach and Handel are my main punk influences. I don’t like the concept of a punk subculture, where you are really stuck in the image… Punk demands more.”
She really gets it. And of course she does. To rebel against unjust authoritarianism as boldly as she and her friends do, to go to a Russian prison for it – that is what punk is all about.

As Nadya states, Pussy Riot is “not a band, it’s a movement. But it’s a movement that has a music project inside of it.” The philosophy is that anybody can be in Pussy Riot.
In addition to Bach and Handel, Nadya was inspired by boundary-pushing performance artists, political philosophers, powerful feminists, and the riot grrrl movement. You can hear and see these influences in Pussy Riot’s songs and music videos, lyrically, musically, and stylistically.
Punk is not necessarily just a music genre. It can also be a lifestyle. And some of Pussy Riots songs don’t fit the strict definition of punk rock music. They also encompass the genres of metal, electro, hip-hop, or indie music. Some favourite Pussy Riot songs of mine are the anti-cop anthem “Bad Apples,” which made it near to the top of my list “Top 20 2020 Black Lives Matter Protests Soundtrack”; the bad-ass catchy feminist hip-hop answer to N.W.A.,“Straight Outta Vagina”; and “Make America Great Again,” the Fuck Trump song that sharply contrasts chill vibes music to the brutal horrors of the patriarchy represented by the rise of the Big Orange Monster. Pussy Riot is staunchly anti-Putin, sure, but Putin is just one of many nauseating arch-villains.


Nadya is one of many real-life super (s)heroes – the fact that Pussy Riot’s iconic garment is the balaclava is a nice touch to this image. Since gaining worldwide fame after her arrest for performing Punk Prayer, she and her friends have continued working as hardcore feminist activists. This past year, Russia exploded in protest over the sentencing of Putin’s political opponent Alexei Navalny. Naturally Pussy Riot took part. Fellow Pussy Riot member Masha was arrested – she recently posted on Instagram showing herself wearing an ankle bracelet, which I take to mean that she’s on house arrest (I couldn’t understand the Russian text on her post– honestly German is a tough enough language for me to tackle for a lifetime).
If you’re on Instagram, check out Masha and Nadya. Pussy Riot has a plethora of great videos on YouTube, including interviews and new music videos that came out within this last tense year. I highly recommend checking them out too. If you don’t care for their musical style, you might like the interviews anyway. Police broke up the filming of the video for the song Rage, claiming that it contains homosexual propaganda (put on the subtitles to understand what the police are saying to Pussy Riot at the end of the video).

I also really like the Japanese animation-themed Panic Attack. And just this month they released a collaboration with a guitarist from one of my favourite bands from my teenage years. But you can check that out yourself to find out who it is, because he’s a guy, and this blog ain’t about guys.
These days, I frequently rock out here in my Berlin flat to the music of The Muffs, HorrorPops, and Veruca Salt. I’m really looking forward to the Distillers to come play their postponed concert in Berlin, that I bought tickets for at the very beginning of 2020. And okay, I must admit that at Christmastime I still jam out to Brenda Lee singing about threatening Santa with a water pistol, taking his bag of toys, and giving them to poor kids –because that song is from 1956 but isn’t it essentially just punk af? I’m happy that many female singers and now also musicians make their way frequently into my earholes, blasting those invisible waves and shifting or complementing my mood through the magic of music. But Nadya Tolokonnikova is more than just a musician. Pussy Riot is more than just music. They embody the power of punk. They are super (s)heroes who use music as one of their superpowers, and you are invited to be part of the team. I promise you that they are at least worth your attention.

Sources (check these out too):
“It’s Not a Band, It’s a Movement: Pussy Riot Rages On” by Jim Sullivan
https://www.wbur.org/artery/2021/02/03/pussy-riot-rage

“Read and Riot: A Pussy Riot Guide to Activism” by Nadya Tolokonnikova

Thank you, Jake, for your insightful and engaging contribution to our Her*MusicWorld Blog and also letting us be a part of your journey to find a female musician who is not only a singer and is actually a Shero to you!

Spread Love and Music

Yours Zoey

About Jake Wiest

https://www.facebook.com/jakobwiestandtheearthlingband
https://www.instagram.com/jake_wiest_berlin/
www.jakewiest.com
Photocredits: Jake Wiest

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