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Pussy Riot: Not Sponsored by Nike or Coca-Cola

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I was at a gig in south London last week when, so to speak, my day job popped up. One minute I was "chillaxing" (as I believe the kids and the prime minister like to say) to some genial indie rock, the next ... I'm listening to a longish poem about Russian authoritarianism. In terms of pop and politics I actually reckon it was a quietly telling moment. Anyway, here's what happened.

Fifty minutes into a performance by the Jeffrey Lewis & Peter Stampfel Band (all jaunty, ramshackle folk-indie up to that point) the singer-guitarist Jeffrey Lewis took a break from the music to voice a lengthy complaint about the "so not cool behaviour" of bands that do commercials "for shoes and insurance". It was good-natured but totally heart-felt. The "so-called counter-culture", he said, comprises up-and-coming bands who seek sponsorship even when "they've just come out". These new groups see no shame in doing TV ads and hawking their wares at heavily-commercialised music biz jamborees like South By South West.

If like me you're a bit of a music obsessive and you try to seek out the interesting (but not heavily-promoted) stuff, then Lewis was probably talking your language. Anyway, this was just the prelude to Lewis embarking on a long poem about ... Pussy Riot. Lewis was now in full-on 'political' mode. For me, a long-time fan of his frazzled brand of indie, this was actually the highlight of the gig.

A sample: "Pussy Riot went to prison /Just to make some people listen ... These woman are my heroes / And the world needs punk rock heroes". And so on. It was simple Blake-ean couplets but Lewis' tribute to Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich also made a strong claim about Pussy Riot being exemplars of an approach to art that rises above commercial considerations and even sees creativity as a form of refashioning of the world: "You're the power, you're the biz / The world is what you say it is". I may have heard a touch of irony in the way the poem set up a refrain around the deliberately clunky abbreviation "WWPRD" ("What would Pussy Riot do?") - "So when you see bands on TV I'll ask you and you ask me / WWPRD" - but ... the whole thing more or less worked.

In my day job (at Amnesty) I've followed the Pussy Riot case throughout, blogging on it numerous times (eg here, here and here). I've never, I must admit, thought much of their music, but then their approach is really a Malcolm McLaren-type utilisation of music for other - political/artistic - ends, rather than musicianship itself. But the continuing ripple effect of their protest stunt in Moscow is of undeniable significance.

At one end of the scale, pop uber-celebrities like Madonna and Paul McCartney have spoken out over Pussy Riot (McCartney only last week wrote letters to the Russian authorities asking that Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina be released from jail early). There's a new book featuring dozens of Pussy Riot-supporting musicians and artists being put out as part of the forthcoming Meltdown festival, this year curated by Yoko Ono, herself another high-profile Pussy Riot supporter. And indeed almost anyone who's anyone in the arts world has by now paid some kind of tribute to the women.

All well and good, but to me the Jeffrey Lewis poem went deeper. "So at least I can ask me and you can ask you / What would Pussy Riot do?", he said. Carrying an echo of Crass' anarcho-libertarian desire for fundamental freedoms, this seemed to take us closer to the spirit of a group that have said they don't want to be part of a money-based music industry that sells tickets, t-shirts and, through sponsorship, helps flog a never-ending conveyor belt of consumer goods. Pussy Riot are prisoners of conscience imprisoned simply for exercising their political views, and they should never have been prosecuted - never mind jailed - in the first place. But for those who've got the wit to hear it, Pussy Riot are also the latest in a long line of radical artists with something important to say about freedom, self-expression and why mainstream culture is suffocated by Nike and Coca-Cola ads.

So I say: freedom for Pussy Riot!

And what will Pussy Riot do when they're free? You can ask you and I can ask me / But we'll all just have to wait and see....

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