Pussy Riot Brings Punk Performance Art to Los Angeles for US Live Debut: 'We're Not Here to Entertain'

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Evan Woods
Pussy Riot perform at the Lodge Room in Los Angeles.

The politically-minded Russian art troupe towed the line between concert and spectacle Tuesday night at the Lodge Room in Highland Park.

Pussy Riot made its United States live debut Tuesday night (Dec. 12) at the Lodge Room in Los Angeles with the sort of unconventional show one might expect from the provocative Russian performance art troupe -- or at least some might expect, while others seemed more uncertain about what they were there for and what they were watching. 

The set opened with Nadya Tolokonnikova and three other members entering the stage wearing body bags and performing some synchronized dance steps before emerging to perform an unreleased song that might be called "Bad Apples," judging by the chorus: "Bad apples/ Are good for something/ When they're six feet underground."

Following that with the dystopian pop song, "Police State" (which was released last month), soon the concert fell into a rhythm but a good portion of the audience still seemed to be fidgeting in their shoes, unsure how to react. As Tolokonnikova and her bandmates -- some in face paint, some in Pussy Riot's now synonymous balaclava masks -- performed a mix of electro-pop songs that sometimes ranged to a rap hybrid, the show was one-part concert and one-part spectacle, with neither fully engaging the more casual fans who had turned up to witness the group's first stateside gig. 

When asked backstage later why it has taken Pussy Riot so long to play in America -- after rising to international recognition in 2012 when Tolokonnikova and member Maria Alyokhina were arrested on hooliganism charges for preforming at a Moscow cathedral -- Tolokonnikova said simply, "I don't know, we just didn't feel like it before."

"We're not here to entertain or something; this is more about our own intuition and so when we feel like it we do it," she continued. "We're coming from a conceptual art background ... we made a fake band as part of our art form and some people do believe that we are the band but actually we're just a bunch of artists and activists living mostly in Moscow."

As a concert, it was amateurish by modern standards with tinny production, with vocals that involved more shouting than any singing or rapping and casual dancing with other theatrics. As a spectacle, it was too contained to make a strong impact in the venue that's a converted 1923 Masonic lodge reopened last month in an increasingly gentrified neighborhood. And while many Americans feel faced with their own tyrannical government these days, few in the audience could possibly understand what it's like to have the kind of personal, creative and political expression clamped down in their home country. And anyone hoping to gain that sense from the concert may have left disappointed, as strife and the passion it stirs cannot be handed out in that way. 

Pussy Riot's performance was only about 45 minutes in full -- and without, admittedly, fully grasping the greater meaning behind it all, the set lagged in the middle as the early novelty wore off and the music briefly turned to harder electronica. A recorded announcement of Donald Trump's impeachment from the presidency and an impending trial on several criminal charges woke up the audience and elicited cheers, but also underlined a larger trouble with many Americans' sentiment towards overtly political music: While some in this particularly heavy year may complain artists haven't faced the issues head-on, when art is too explicit it often feels obvious and ineffective. (Asks the nihilist, "We all hate Trump, so what?")

From there, the set closed on "Make America Great Again" and "Straight Outta Vagina," for which opener Desi Mo joined the group to deliver a brief but blistering rap verse, marking the night's highlights and ending things on a high note. After a brief exit, Pussy Riot returned onstage to the crowd's cheers, but as almost a statement to not being a typical band it was only for a curtain call, waving Russian flags as they bid fans goodnight. 

Backstage, Tolokonnikova sought to create a firm distinction between Pussy Riot and most typical bands today, explaining her issues with modern culture and music, while defining Pussy Riot's stance. "Everybody is just trying to be successful, but nobody is trying really to surprise," she said. "Not nobody, okay, but not a big amount of people. Because it's really safe to do the same thing.... But it's not what we're trying to do because we're anarchists and punks, and it's our definition of fun to make electronic punk."

She added, "If you think about it, what's the most accessible equivalent [of punk] today? It's not even guitar, it's your laptop, and you can upload it into GarageBand or whatever software for free and make your own song within even an iPhone. So know when young kids are trying to make political music now, think the first thing that they will do is they will make electronic punk music. And punk music is something that should redefine itself, so besides our political goals we are working on the definition of punk and what should it be in 2017? Definitely not something that it was in the '60s and '70s, though we are inspired by that and really love it, we don't want to just recreate the same thing."

From here, Pussy Riot will play the Bootleg Theater in Los Angeles on Wednesday (Dec. 13) before heading Houston for the Day For Night festival on Saturday (Dec. 16). When asked how their show might adapt for a festival setting, Tolokonnikova was largely indifferent, saying maybe they'll change things up, maybe even write a new song for Texas -- or, maybe not. 

"You don't want to change yourself for the audience. You're not a $100 bill. People don't have to like you," she said. "So we're just doing what we feel right doing."


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