“My boyfriend is the coolest anarcho-communist/ He wants Hungarians to live free/ We go to protests defending white rats/ Regular boys are not trendy enough,” Liza, a shy 17 year old girl, sings onstage in her home town of Yekaterinburg, as the crowd shouts and cheers along. Her pale skin glows in the stage lights, and the occasion feels like a cross between a school talent show and the first gig of a rising indie singer-songwriter. With the exception of her school friends (she leaves school this year), the audience probably knows Liza Girdimova as internet sensation Monetochka.
She started uploading her music onto Russian social media site VKontakte in early January 2016, and by the end of February she had accumulated over 20,000 followers, gone viral, and now receives offers for concerts and interviews, as well as shoutouts from musicians, bloggers and media. Her song The Coolest Anarcho-Communist is one of the first Monetochka ever uploaded and, along with another crowd favourite, Mother, I'm Not Doing Nazi Salutes, ironically explores the need to adopt ideologies and labels as a teenager in modern Russia.
Monetochka is one in a number of unconventional internet-made popstars of recent years, but even she took Runet by surprise with her nonchalant image. Her videos show the singer in her bedroom, wearing a hoody, without any make up or the bubbly persona that has become a default for many teenage Youtube stars. Her songs are accompanied by a synth and styled, perhaps subconsciously, to sound like songs from Russian and Soviet cartoons. Her voice is high, childish and slightly shy. Everything Monetochka puts out is recorded at home and their low-fi quality gives the tracks a refreshing and real sound. It's almost like you're eavesdropping on a neighbour singing through a wall.
Journalists have called her sharp and ironic lyrics “too smart for her age” — an idea that’s clearly startled Monetochka in several interviews. One of her most popular songs is G.Rubchinsky, a scathing takedown of the designer sung as a jingle: “Gosha Rubchinsky is the trendiest/ His cool and stylish looks need to be seen/ Because it's so original and unusual to dress like your grandpa/ I'd pay a thousand roubles max for these pants/ Oh, please, explain to me why do you sell this crap for so much dough?”.
Another crowd-pleaser is Rye Crouton, a surreal monologue written from the point of view of Russians' favourite snack that announces itself as a proletariat meal in contrast with the elitist french fry. Some of her songs bear political messages, albeit without the opinion which you might come to expect. In the track Ukrainian Question she narrates the life of a family at war over the Crimea situation, “Mum's gone to live in a tent/ Dad's getting his Kalashnikov out of a safe/ He says Crimea is not ours/ I say it's ours,” and Farewell Syria features ironic mentions of a Russian bear walking back home and the heartfelt singing of lyrics like “Goodbye Syria, goodbye Assad, farewell.”
A song that Monetochka wrote for International Women's Day, called A New Form Of Capital (Novaya Forma Capitala), is probably one of the most insightful so far: she sings about how a woman's body is her most prized possession in which she invests most of her money, with lyrics like “my body is mass-market art”. The response from her fans was overwhelmingly positive – a rare occurrence on the Russian internet, where the word “feminism” now tends to attract more trolls than “Putin”. When I ask why, Monetochka explains: “My audience are just normal, adequate people.”
And it's not only Monetochka who’s stirring the hearts and minds of those online and IRL. With their in-your-face and inappropriate songs about sex, drugs and love for Ryan Gosling, Petar Martic and his project Jump, Pussycat (Prigay Kiska) have made headlines and the Facebook wall-posts of hundreds of thousands of teenagers. Their initial viral success landed the musicians several gigs but, somehow, the irony behind the lyrics was lost along the way. Martic had to shut the project down, concentrating on his other band Pasosh.
Another hyped Moscow-based project is a hip hop band called Prud who first gained recognition in the media through Afisha's feature Weird songs about Gosha Rubchinsky we found online with their song Gosha. In another of their tracks they comment on the huge divide between the flat white-sipping Nike-wearing crowd in Moscow, and the rest of Russia: “I'm at a seminar on new urbanism/ Outside of Moscow is brewing another cataclysm/ It's the evening, I'm habitually drinking an Old Fashioned/ High school football fans are beating up someone in a suburban train.” Also gaining fame through a Gosha Rubchinsky song (notice the trend?) is FACE, a young rapper who otherwise sings almost entirely about Megan Fox, Yeezy Boost sneakers and Instagram.
Apart from their shared desire to comment on Russia's main fashion export, the new digital pop stars have other distinctive traits in common. Humour is essential to viral success, particularly if it's related to teenage issues and social awkwardness. The music is usually simple, and the lyrics though easy on the surface are laden with deeper meaning: Monetochka's song about a discount store brand mascarpone can be just that if you want it to, but on a closer look it explores the “modern paradox” of how something so exquisite and foreign can also be so cheap. The sheer amount of pop-cultural references, often incomprehensible to anyone above a certain age and lifestyle, make the lyrics sound like someone's Twitter timeline. McDonalds, makeup trends and Gosha Rubchinsky mix with current events and memes to form a genre too weird to be pop, and too popular to be underground.
Gosha (remix) by Prud
And while the topics of these weird-pop songs focus on the some of the more globalised aspects of youth culture today such as internet, memes, style, sometimes even samples from popular western pop-songs (listen out for Coolio's Gangsta Paradise, rephrased as “crouton paradise” in Monetochka's Rye Crouton), the end result is truly Russian, without any bears or vodka involved. This is the new updated image of Russia — young, talented, and perpetually online — and is proof that the internet and globalisation aren’t killing authentic Russian-ness but in fact keeping it alive. And while the country's main TV channels broadcast concerts of pop-star fossils from the Soviet era, trying to push “traditional values” and anti-Western sentiment, a young generation knows that craving Yeezy Boosts doesn't make them any less Russian — and who are you to tell them otherwise?