Monday, September 17, 2012

How Pussy Riot became the cause of 2012


Back in January, I blogged on Osocio about a Russian punk band called "Pussy Riot" that made headlines for its guerrilla gigs against Vladimir Putin.

Here they were in Red Square with "Putin Pissed":



At the time, they seemed like another expression of post-Soviet feminine frustration with the continued male dominance of — and corruption in — politics. Like Femen, but with balaclavas instead of bare breasts.

Also in common with their Ukranian sisters-in-protest, they continued to push boundaries. After a a guerrilla performance in Moscow's main cathedral, in which they sang to the Virgin Mary to protect Russia against Vladimir Putin, Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich were arrested for "Hooliganism" and "Inciting Religious Hatred". In August, they were sentenced to two years' hard labour. (Two other band members fled Russia.)



And then the whole world took notice.

Amnesty International  proclaimed the group Prisoners of Conscience, and set their global membership to work demanding their release. Paul McCartney, Sting and Madonna joined the cause. (Well, they did sort of ask for her help.) Alicia Silverstone demanded they have access to vegan meals. Peaches held a concert for them in Canada.

Not to be outdone, Femen sent prominent member Inna Shevchenko out to chainsaw down a wooden memorial cross in Kiev... topless, of course. (She had to flee to France afterwards, to avoid arrest and/or angry religious mobs.)

Free riot from FEMEN Video on Vimeo.

With all this attention, mainstream reporters and news editors suddenly found themselves writing "Pussy" over and over again, sometimes with amusing results.

Pussy Riot even made a conceptual appearance at New York Fashion Week (see photo at top), their colourful balaclavas co-opted in the Gerlan Jeans runway show. Quite the strange journey for a anarcho-feminist collective.

There are many people in the world who suffer for free speech. Why are Pussy Riot the ones everyone got behind?

Never underestimate the power of branding. The name gets your attention, especially in a year in which frank discussion of women's sexual parts has become mainstream political conversation. "Free Pussy Riot" is one hell of a slogan, and lends itself easily to memes.


And then there are those balaclavas. 


They're anonymous and frightening, combined with the hardcore music, but also use warm colours and soft fabrics. It's a look easily copied by supporters, and make a memorable symbol of protest.

And the music. Fast, guitar-driven punk with one political barb after another. The band kept releasing new material, even with three in prison:



Sex, balaclavas and rock 'n' roll... it's a powerful combination for a fringe movement in need of popular support. And it's working.

Just last week, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev called for the three members of the punk band Pussy Riot to be freed, saying "In my view, a suspended sentence would be sufficient, taking into account the time they have already spent in custody." They have an appeal scheduled for October first.


Branding your message matters. Always.

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