‘MATRIARCHY NOW’ Review – Fun, Free, But Troubling


Pussy Riot’s ‘MATRIARCHY NOW’ is Music Feeds’ Album of the Week. Cyclone Wehner reviews.

The Russian feminist performance art group Pussy Riot are known more for activism than music. In early 2012, five members, dressed in brightly coloured balaclavas, performed their Punk Prayer in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, protesting President Vladimir Putin’s authoritarianism and the Russian Orthodox Church.

Pussy Riot’s Nadezhda “Nadya” Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich were all convicted for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”, landing terms in Russia’s bleak labour colony system. As political prisoners, they received wide support in the West, while Russia was condemned for human rights abuses. Madonna praised them.

Still, Pussy Riot have a notable discography. Ironically, their most famous song, ‘Make America Great Again’, in which they repudiate Donald Trump prior to his winning 2016’s presidential election, relates to US neo-imperialism, not Russian. (Miguel memorably covered it). Pussy Riot have also collaborated with various American artists, among them Dorian Electra and Village People.

MATRIARCHY NOW (Neon Gold Records)

Pussy Riot

On the tenth anniversary of that trial verdict, Pussy Riot have ostensibly rematerialised with the debut mixtape, MATRIARCHY NOW. Though, despite preferring to be called “a protest art collective”, the mixtape is Tolokonnikova’s solo project.

MATRIARCHY NOW is about “revenge”, with Tolokonnikova assuming the role of “a super(s)hero character who owns magic superwoman-like qualities and uses these powers to fight sexism.” Released via New York’s Neon Gold Records, the project is executive produced by Swedish electro-pop artist Tove Lo and has credible and inclusive curation with predominantly US guests like ILOVEMAKONNEN, Slayyyter and Big Freedia, the New Orleans bounce rapper and LGBTQIA+ icon sampled on Beyoncé’s ‘BREAK MY SOUL’.

Originally, Pussy Riot were inspired by American riot grrrl bands, but MATRIARCHY NOW sounds like the ’90s electroclash group Chicks On Speed mimicking Grimes. Lyrically, it’s more “girl boss” than anarchic. The hyperpop opener ‘PRINCESS CHARMING’, featuring rising star salem ilese, is a corrupted fairytale with Tolokonnikova’s Auto-Tuned vocals. ‘SUGARMOMMY’ could be Eurovision avant-garde. Yet, beyond its crypto bops, MATRIARCHY NOW presents a quandary.

Pussy Riot – ‘PLASTIC’ (feat. ILOVEMAKONNEN)

Since the Western European Enlightenment generated a grotesque scientific racism, Eastern Europeans have been “othered” – Balkan academics like Milica Bakić-Hayden have latterly declared this a form of Orientalism. That cultural fear was exemplified in the appropriation of the Slavic vampire in Anglophone gothic fiction (now sublimated into contemporary fantasy such as Game Of Thrones). These narratives flourished amid the Cold War.

Following the Soviet Union’s demise in 1991, Eastern Europe (and Eurasia) has experienced not only the collective trauma of economic transition – dubbed “shock therapy” capitalism – but also resurgent religiosity, ethno-nationalism and geo-political conflict; the latest brutal example being Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (notably, Tolokonnikova has raised money for Ukraine’s defence with an NFT).

The ensuing social dislocation exacerbated domestic violence in Russia, which Putin partly decriminalised in 2017, prompting Pussy Riot’s earlier single, ‘НОЖ / KNIFE’. Regardless, the West has capitalised on malaise across Eastern Europe, with a surge in both labour and sex trafficking. It’s theorised that Brexit was somewhat driven by xenophobic animus towards Eastern Bloc migrant workers post-EU enlargement. Alarmingly, Putin has propagandised such stigmatisation at home, using it to legitimise himself.

But MATRIARCHY NOW is weirdly disconnected from Eastern European realities. Increasingly, Tolokonnikova is leaning into a Western liberal feminism which, far from being globally intersectional, marginalises ethnic Eastern European women, denying the specificity of their identities and experience. Even Tolokonnikova’s “super(s)hero” reflects US cultural hegemony and the ubiquity of DC/Marvel movies. By contrast, Ukraine’s FEMEN collective – notorious for anti-patriarchal stunts, like topless protests – address sex tourism.

Pussy Riot’s greatest achievement is their very visibility. However, MATRIARCHY NOW exposes a vacuum of discourse. In her own music, Tove Lo laudably extols female sexual empowerment, and she brings that energy to MATRIARCHY NOW. But, given Eastern European women face a loss of corporeal autonomy through gender-based exploitation or violence, ‘HORNY’, featuring Phoebe Ryan, broaches cognitive dissonance with its sex positivity.

Pussy Riot – ‘HORNY’ ft Phoebe Ryan

Representation of Eastern Europe in Western media and pop culture remains problematic. Today, the West’s antipathy towards the Eastern European “other” is projected onto a female body: Eastern European women are typically either objectified or essentialised as femme fatales, painting them as inherently nefarious.

Especially egregious is BBC America’s critically-acclaimed TV spy thriller Killing Eve. The Russian psychopathic assassin Villanelle (played by Jodie Comer) is derived from the old racialised trope of the atavistic, amoral and abject Slav – a trope that can’t be redeemed by grafting a queer identity onto it, let alone as a #MeToo chronicle.

Tolokonnikova subverts latent misogyny in the sexpionage genre as her “vengeful shero” in MATRIARCHY NOW‘s visceral lead single, ‘PUNISH’, musically evoking SOPHIE with pitch-altered vocals and glitchy beats courtesy of producer TimFromTheHouse (Tove Lo, 5 Seconds Of Summer). She rages against toxic masculinity: “I’m gonna tie you up / I might slit your throat (no).”

In ‘PLASTIC’, with ILOVEMAKONNEN, Tolokonnikova sings mockingly about being a doll, decrying objectification and conservative expectations of female subservience. But ‘POOF BITCH’, with a prominent Big Freedia, has the mixtape’s best line: “I turn your prisons into clubs where everyone is free.”

Nevertheless, MATRIARCHY NOW is so universalised as to engender no critique, much less validation for Eastern European women, diasporic included. MATRIARCHY NOW is fun – and, yes, free. But it’s too reductive to signal any challenge to the status quo.

Further Reading

Pussy Riot Announce Debut Mixtape, ‘Matriarchy Now’

Pussy Riot Team Up With 100 Gecs & Dorian Electra For New Single ‘Toxic’

Tove Lo On Pushing Personal Boundaries With New Album ‘Sunshine Kitty’

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