Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Party Politics

by Simon Morrison

Still from Robbie Williams' "Party Like A Russian."
When English pop singer Robbie Williams released his single “Party Like a Russian,” the song stalled on the charts yet still made headlines. The dance tune provoked outrage in Russia, both for its use of music by Sergei Prokofiev and indictment of contemporary Russian culture. Perhaps Williams was hoping to capitalize on Russia’s prominence in international news, or even pay homage to the 125th anniversary of Prokofiev’s birth. But East-West tensions are high, and Williams seems not to have contemplated the consequences of bating the bear.

Prokofiev was born in 1891 and died in 1953 on the same day as Joseph Stalin. His sudden passing went all but unmentioned at the time, eclipsed by the death of the Great Leader. But the composer has had his revenge, enjoying enduring fame while Stalin rots in infamy. Prokofiev ranks among the most popular composers of all time, beloved for his musical fairytale Peter and the Wolf from the mid-1930s but famous too for his Third Piano Concerto, Fifth Symphony, Seventh Piano Sonata, and epic opera War and Peace. Even those who might not know his name will recognize the ominous music that accompanies the Montagues and Capulets in his ballet score Romeo and Juliet from movies, television advertisements, and now “Party Like a Russian.”


Williams deploys the menacing music of the warring parents, full of bellicose rhythms and hysterical-sounding violin flourishes, as the hook in a song that rhymes Rasputin with Putin. Lyrics also include a reference to nesting dolls and several botched attempts to pronounce the Russian word for “thanks,” spasibo, while the Russian police chorus intones the strains of revolution. The music video features gaudy and gauche images straight from oligarch central casting: strutting babes and coital champagne surfeits accompany nihilistic references to screwing over the world, or even the entire cosmos. Women in bridal white and S&M black stride through gilded palaces, stabbing the floors with their heels. The cuisine on display is more Mayfair than Moscow, inaccurate even in its kitschy stereotypes. “Like a Russian” at once seems to celebrate and denigrate Russia’s neo-imperialist nouveau riche, with reference to the dissolute goings-on in the penthouses of London’s billionaires.

This is not the first time Prokofiev has been called to represent, from beyond the grave, a clichéd vision of Russia. In 1985, when Russia (as the dominant nation of the Soviet Union) and the United States pledged themselves to mutually assured destruction, Sting cobbled together a song called “Russians” using a beautiful hymn-like tune from a film score by Prokofiev. But rather than celebrate, even mockingly, the excesses of Russia’s ruling class, Sting’s ballad offered a poignant critique of nuclear stockpiling during the Cold War.

Putin’s cultural watchdogs have reportedly banned Williams from performing in the Motherland, whereas Prokofiev was forbidden from performing anywhere outside the USSR after 1938. The composer had returned to the Soviet Union from Paris just two years before, lured by promises that the Soviet cultural establishment would nurture his career as a composer. He received lucrative commissions from Soviet institutions, but was then hectored into compromise by Communist cultural apparatchiks; some of his scores were censored into oblivion. He sought refuge in his faith—he was a devout Christian Scientist—and in the arms of a younger woman. In the midst of World War II, he walked out on his Barcelona-born, Brooklyn-raised first wife for a Communist true believer more than two decades his junior. His two sons were traumatized, and never quite forgave their father his treatment of their mother, who ended up in the GULAG, imprisoned for eight years on trumped up charges of espionage.

Prokofiev was no Romeo. When it came to representing matters of the heart on stage, he exercised a spiritual desire that can seem like prudish decorum. The star-crossed love between Shakespeare’s teenage pair was, in his imagination, a chaste affair. He did not want audiences to get the wrong idea about their single night together, and accompanied the bedroom scene in a halo of shimmering winds and strings.

Sergei Prokofiev plays chess.
Only in the 21st century has Prokofiev been able to shed the yoke of Stalinism, in part by proving useful to capitalism. His music has been paraphrased by Hollywood studio composers (think Avatar), featured with or without permission from the Prokofiev Estate in Russian-themed documentaries, and accompanied fireworks shows, including the celebration of the world’s tallest building in Dubai. The composer’s grandson, Gabriel Prokofiev, has remixed his grandfather’s scores in nightclubs like Le Poisson Rouge in New York City. The composer’s original intentions have no doubt been violated, but the transpositions have liberated his art from a context that he hoped to escape, at least in music. He meant to serve not the Soviet system, but rather his own talent.

In his original version of Romeo and Juliet, Prokofiev imagined the young couple fleeing into a realm beyond—an “elsewhere,” as he wrote in his score. Their love could not be bound by fate. Likewise he believed that his art would be transcendent. And it has survived being chained to the Great Terror, to war, to Stalin, to the Soviets, to Hollywood, and even to hyper-produced pop songs. Prokofiev didn’t party much, but he is dead. Until copyright expires in 2028, his music belongs to his heirs, who granted Williams license, for a fee, to quote Romeo and Juliet. If profit was the motive, so be it. But if the idea was to liberate Prokofiev from politics, quite the opposite has occurred, and in terms typical of the current East-West intrigue. Williams has been branded the Russian equivalent of a hack, which makes his treatment of Prokofiev the musical equivalent of hacking.


Simon Morrison is Professor of Musicology at Princeton University.  He specializes in 20th-century music, particularly Russian, Soviet, and French music, with special interests in dance, cinema, aesthetics, and historically informed performance based on primary sources.

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