How the ‘90s Have Become a Source of Inspiration for Pop Artists
May 18, 2023
  • Maria Engström
    Uppsala University
Maria Engström looks at the cultural recycling of the 1990s in contemporary Russian popular culture which works with mass things, trashy, insignificant and previously rejected, such as the shabby Khrushchevka housing, bad music, all kinds of kitsch, and dubious political ideas.
The image of the 1990s as the antithesis of the contemporary Russian regime was formed by the mid‑2000s. It was then that the expression ”lawless/criminal 1990s” (likhiye devyanostyye) emerged as part of Vladislav Surkov’s “sovereign democracy” project. It was in the framework of that project that the first post-Soviet decade began to be constructed as a social and cultural trauma. It has been consistently described in official documents as a time of chaos, economic disaster and national humiliation.

In recent years, as state control has increasingly hardened, one can observe the creation of alternative autonomous zones of cultural production, not unlike those characteristic of the late Soviet period. The phenomenon of the “Soviet heritage” recycled in contemporary Russia includes not only a return to Soviet models in terms of government policies and revanchist foreign policy projects, but also in the reproduction of cultural practices from the underground, the unofficial, “grey” zone of Soviet culture.

One of the main vectors of the new counterculture is the construction of an alternative reading of the period between Gorbachev and Putin, which is perceived not as a national trauma, but as a reservoir of unrealized future scenarios. This cultural trend has evolved as non-violent resistance to official memory politics. If the “victory” over the 1990s and the memory of the victory in the Great Patriotic War have been used as the founding myths of the current regime, other interpretations of the 90s, even if they hint at some of its positive aspects, inevitably become an act of resistance.
Gosha Rubchinskiy, Yekaterinburg, 2018
Cultural recycling of the 90s

Alternative interpretations of the 1990s began to appear as far back as the end of the 2000s, when Gosha Rubchinskiy’s avant-garde fashion projects began to set trends. His first collection, The Evil Empire/Empire of Evil, launched in 2008, presented the Russian gopnik as a new cultural hero and launched a global subculture, the so-called “new Russian style” or “New East aesthetics.” With Rubchinskiy, clothes from flea markets and street markets in the 1990s, the style of skaters and rave subcultures, became the new arte povera (“poor art”), a sensible alternative to the glamour (glamur) culture of the “fat noughties” (zhirnyye nulevyye). 

Rubchinskiy was searching for new aesthetics on the terrain of the Soviet ruins, building either on the “trash aesthetics” of the 1990s transition period or on remakes of the Soviet aesthetics (military and school uniforms, Soviet constructivism and the late-Soviet artistic and musical underground).

The general themes of these aesthetics are abandonment, imperfection, vulnerability and fragility. The models participating in the fashion shows often do not qualify as professional models and do not meet the standards of conventional beauty. A characteristic feature of this style is melancholy, a longing for a future that was promised but has not been realized, the search for the path that one has chosen but not yet started to follow.

Working with the ghosts and ruins of Soviet visuality and aesthetics of the 90s, Rubchinskiy turns replication and retrospectivity into avant-garde fashion. He focuses on this aesthetic and the ideological polyphony of the 90s, perceived as a time of total freedom with the National Bolshevik party, radical right politics and a sexual revolution. His vision is successfully competing with the official portrayal of the “lawless 90s” as a time of chaos and national disgrace. Rubchinskiy has managed to mobilize a new generation to create a new post-Soviet visuality, where queer aesthetics have come to be an integral component of nostalgia.

“The new Russian style” can be viewed as a manifestation of the global phenomenon of hauntology. In his famous works Capitalist Realism and Ghosts of My Life, Mark Fisher (1968-2017) looked into the way alternative and marginal cultures are absorbed by post-industrial capitalism. According to Fisher, neo-liberal capitalism does not create a new culture, but thrives on old cultural traditions, turning any authentic cultural phenomena into a museum full of ghosts and dead exhibits.
Such a vampiric draining of authentic cultural and political movements and phenomena, and their transformation into hauntological commercial products, has taken place in Russia in the last decade.
A similar and commercially successful subtrend is a focus on the post-socialist ruins, which have become particularly popular on the global cultural market. Fashion magazines, art galleries and museums have organized photo exhibitions of disintegrating socialist materiality, thus highlighting the “garbage” aspect of recycling practices. For instance, the 2016 London exhibition Dead Space and Ruins featured photographs from Danila Tkachenko’s famous seriesRestricted Areas. Pavel Otdelnov’s projects Ruins (2015-18), Industrial Zones (Promzona, 2019) and Russian Nowhere (Russkoe nigde, 2021), shown both in Russia and Europe, illustrate this contemporary fascination with post-socialist non-sites, Soviet waste landscapes and the ruins of the modernist utopia.

The so-called “Sovietwave” and “doomer” music, or the “new Russian wave,” which recycles the late Soviet and post-soviet electronic underground music of the 90s, exemplified by such bands as Molchat doma, Buerak and Elekroforez, may be regarded as another example of the global demand for these melancholic socialist ruins.

This is also the case with vaporwave, a musical subgenre that offers the sound of melancholy over an unattainable future, sampling sound fragments, re-encoding and generating new meanings. Vaporwave is a nostalgic critique of the contemporary collapse of futurity, the longing for the lost American consumer paradise of the 1980s and early 1990s. In contrast, the new Russian wave is a hauntological utopia, a fetishization of the lost dream of the new future that was imagined at the time of perestroika and in the 1990s – a future that has ultimately not come to pass. These two phenomena have a great deal in common, as they both appropriate fragments of 20th century future-oriented modernist cultures.

Neo-rave and metamodernism

One of the most interesting cases of the new counter-canon of the 90s is the Russian neo-rave. By the early 2020s, the era of rap music in Russia, which dominated throughout the 2010s, was coming to an end, giving way to the renaissance of electronic dance pop. The new Russian rave culture became an important cultural phenomenon and an example of rethinking and re-evaluating the 1990s.

In the 1990s, rave was a symbol of Russia’s and Eastern Europe’s liberation from the Soviet regime, a break from everyday life, an antidote for young people who suddenly found themselves in a situation of a total discursive chaos.
Today, the demonstrative reference to the 1990s becomes a political statement, a form of protest against the return to the atmosphere of the Cold War and a new Iron Curtain.”
The neo-rave projects are developing the gopnik style introduced by Gosha Rubchinskiy and using the hauntology as the aesthetics of resistance to the official memory politics.

As theorists of metamodernism point out, one peculiar feature of the metamodern turn is a shift toward emotionality, affect, performativity and corporeality, combined with a simultaneous reduction of individualism and rational thinking. In her 2020 book Metamodernism in Music and Around It, Nastasia Khrushcheva links the blooming of rave culture to this new sensibility and emphasizes that rave overcomes alienation and dissolves individual consciousness into a “people’s body” united by music and movement.

Another important characteristic of metamodernism is the coexistence of various ideological positions that seek neither conflict nor synthesis. Metamodernist strategies are aimed at existing “in a gap,” in the tense field between opposite poles.The 1990s – as a time that has diametrically opposing perceptions in society and culture (as the time of total freedom or national humiliation) – are well suited to metamodernist “rocking,” simultaneous acceptance and rejection. Within the neo-rave, one can see an emerging new non‑linear frame of reference and a new unifying metanarrative that offers a stylistic and existential alternative.
The DEAD BLONDE'S track “Malchik na devyatke“ (“Boy in a VAZ-9 car ”) has so far gathered more than 26 million views on YouTube.
GSPD and Dead Blonde: Rave and violence

Let us consider this metamodernist alternative using the example of two related rave projects: GSPD and Dead Blonde. GSPD is the project of David Deymour (born in 1993 in Nizhny Tagil) and his wife Arina Bulanova (born in 1999 in Arkhangelsk), who is the female voice in GSPD tracks. GSPD’s first release was in 2016, and the 2018 album called Rave Epidemic marked the beginning of the rave renaissance in Russia. In January 2021, a collection of tracks entitled Leningradsky Elektroklub was released. The album’s title invokes not only the reference to Leningrad as the criminal capital of the 90s, but also to the legendary raves of the 90s, which originated in Leningrad/St Petersburg.

David Deymour previously performed as “MS Gospod” [MS Lord], hence the current name of the project: GSPD. GSPD, used as a short for Gospod’ (God or Lord) also stands for the fictitious Gosudarstvennaya Sluzhba Propagandy Diskotek/State Service of Disco-Propaganda. These simultaneous serious and ironic connotations define the neo-rave. The parallels between dancing to hard electronic music and state violence is drawn both in GSPD’s lyrics and in its music videos. The violent corporeality is offered as a cure against the atomization and apathy of perpetual screen scrolling, as a unifying performative experience. Russia is about a movement of young bodies, and rave is about eliminating by force fragmentation, alienation and weakness.

In this video (2.6 million views on YouTube), young “barbarians” in Adidas suits and their sexy girlfriends are giving a new life to languid intellectuals reading Kafka. They sweep hipsters’ rosé and old sushi from the tables, replacing them with “food for the poor” (vodka and pelmeni), while a bronze bust of Putin is replaced with a worn portrait of a smiling Yeltsin.
The rave violence of GSPD is one example of the hyper-normalization of Russian state violence in contemporary culture.
Dead Blonde, “Princess from Khrushchevka,” 2021
Dead Blonde is another project by Arina Bulanova and David Deymour, created in 2020. It proved very successful and the track “Malchik na devyatke“ (“Boy in a VAZ**-9 car**”; 2020, the Propaganda album) has so far gathered more than 26 million views on YouTube. The summer of 2021 saw the release of Dead Blonde’s second album Knyazhna iz Khruschevki (“Princess from Khrushchev-era [shabby] house”), which cemented Arina Bulanova’s status as a rave princess. The album cover features all the attributes of the early accumulation of wealth in the post-Soviet era: checkered bags used by shuttle traders, a bouffant hairdo and excessive, trash glamour style in her clothing.

The listener will not find any exact musical quotes or references in Dead Blonde or GSPD tracks. Although they evoke familiar images from the 90s, there are no direct quotations. What we are dealing with is not intertextuality, but the desire to find and encapsulate an archetype/myth that combines the most typical and recognizable features of the 90s era. What is characteristic of metamodernism is not citation, but appropriation.

It is a recycling of the ruins of meanings, and the aim is not to return to these meanings (in a neo-modernist or post-modernist style), but only to immerse oneself in them for a while, to delve into them and stay there. The life-affirming drive in the GSPD and Dead Blonde projects is intertwined with melancholy, and the understanding that it is all about ghosts and the rustle of a world that is gone forever.

The 2020s as the new 90s: remembering what you never knew

Contemporary cultural recycling actively borrows visual and musical material not so much from the realities of the 1990s, but from the cinematography of that period. The interest in the 90s is purely aesthetic: young artists, musicians and directors have no desire to live in this heroic time of change. Arina Bulanova in an interview emphasizes that the modern rethinking of this period is absolutely medialized:

When I try to analyze my love and craving for the ‘80s and 90s... I understand that... I really like the music, culture and broad attributes in the past and most likely this is because I did not live there, I know about it from the best that has come down to us. I know this from pop culture, mass media, from some amazing cult movies... and I understand that... I don’t really like the 90s, I just like the way it looked and I want to look like in the 90s, listen to music like in the 90s, but I don’t (f*cking) want to live in the 90s. When David [her partner Deymour] was born, there were tanks driving around the city.

Yuri Saprykin also notes this “cinematic-ness” and “photogenic-ness” of the 90s:

For Russian cinema, the 1990s have become what the Prohibition was for late 20th-century Hollywood: a time where one does not want to return but that is extremely interesting to film.

A well-known example in this context is Monetochka’s track ”90s“ (2018) and the music video for this song, based on iconic images from Alexei Balabanov’s film Brat (Brother, 1999). In the “Malchik na devyatke” video, scenes from Brat are subjected to ironic subversion, while in the “Sasha Bely” track, Dead Blonde talks about her love for the bandit from the cult TV series Brigada (Brigade, 2002), played by Sergei Bezrukov, and she dreams of becoming the killer’s wife.
The encapsulated effect of violence enables the audience to get out of the trap of the trauma discourse, so instead of denying or condemning, they can accept and play around with all the scary and dark things that are associated with the 1990s in cultural memory.
The song “Akh, Rossiya-Matushka!” (“Ah, Mother Russia!”) from the album Knyazhna iz Khruschevki musically and textually refers us to Kombinatsiya’s 1990 hit “American Boy” (with its line ‘Ya prostaya russkaya devchonka’ [I’m a Simple Russian Girl]. However, in this track, Dead Blonde, looping the entire post-Soviet history of Russia, offers an alternative soundtrack for the coming era of the “new 90s:” unlike the heroine of the perestroika anthem, today’s “Russian girl” no longer needs a foreign prince, she chooses Russia:

Under your protection my sleep is sound at night.
And I’ll endure what I see during the day (Ooh!)
And I won’t marry a foreigner
Oh, Mother Russia, I love you (Oy)

This track is an example of metamodernist “rocking:” we are not very clear what this statement actually represents: sincere patriotism or a subversive critique of a closed authoritarian state.

Aesthetic populism and imitative commonality

What gets aestheticized in the new Russian popular culture is mass things, trashy, insignificant and previously rejected, such as the shabby Khrushchevka housing, bad music, all kinds of kitsch, dubious political ideas. This aesthetic populism, i.e. the common, the banal, the unprofessional and the non-new, is at the heart of metamodernist culture.

Metamodern works with banality and vulgarity, turning the mass into the elite. Nastasia Khrushcheva writes:

... the metamodern grinds all the phenomena of culture, and we can work with anything. There are no longer, for example, “bad” and “good” poems – even the most banal, weak or, on the contrary, worn out from widespread use, poem can be “turned” into beauty: if you read it aloofly or with post-ironic tenderness.
The metamodern recycling is primarily applied to cultural phenomena that can unite people from different social segments in a single emotion to create an imitated commonality.
What serves as a significant musical reference point for GSPD and Dead Blonde is the work of Sergei Zhukov and the band Ruki Vverkh! (Hands Up!). Their hit “Kroshka moya” (“Hey, babe”) became the anthem of the late 1990s. In 2020, the renaissance of light pop music was dubbed “Zhukov-style pop.” In July 2022, Ruki Vverkh! set a record, attracting 72,000 people to their concert at Moscow’s Luzhniki stadium and more than 50,000 at St Petersburg’s Gazprom Arena.

Music critic Nikolai Redkin describes the mechanism of cultural recycling:

The Zhukov pop fad originated in the underground. There is a theory that when underground musicians run out of ideas, they go looking for inspiration in the most unlikely places. And the genres that are best suited for this are those that have been written off, utterly unfashionable and hackneyed. The Zhukov pop was also like that, and artists picked it up, kind of, ironically, but then it turned out that it was more about real love than irony.

In the era of metamodernity, it is not surprising that both artists and the public are turning to the songs of Ruki Vverkh!, since the new cultural paradigm is focused on phenomena that have maximally absorbed the spirit of a specific time and evolved as a new folklore.

Metamodernist culture is based on a simplification of the cultural field. It reduces individual diversity to supra-individual formulas and types and comes close to medieval culture and folklore, where the ritual function of art prevailed.

This paper was written as part of the research project entitled ‘No (w)stalgia of Modernity: Neo-Soviet Myth in Contemporary Russian Culture and Politics’, Swedish Research Council, Project No. 2020−02479.
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