Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Mutually assured deconstruction


Without context, it's easy to think just once about things that have another think coming.

Apparently, the lack of context has a whole lot of Ugly Americans -- your Mighty Favog included to some extent -- either ridiculing mercilessly (many YouTube commenters) or chuckling bemusedly (me) at one Edward Anatolevich Hill, Soviet-era singing sensation . . . and star of the video in the previous post.

Upon further review (and a trip down Google Lane), the man doesn't deserve it. And come to think of it, maybe the godless commissars were doing a lot better job with Soviet culture than the "free" market is doing with ours right about now.

Comrade Hill was a little awkward-looking in that 1976 video from Soviet TV. So was Bruce Springsteen at last year's Super Bowl and The Who at this year's.

But there's a bunch to like in this 1966 performance on state television (above). Besides, I just saw Ludacris' "performance" Monday night on Letterman, and I'd give a farting chorus of Soviet collective-farm managers five stars by comparison.

Look at it this way. Ronald Reagan won the Cold War to make the world safe for hip-hop imperialists spewing cultural toxins into the global ecosystem? All while stereotypical "hos" shimmy in the background?

Where is Nikita Khrushchev when the world finally does need him to "bury" us -- preferably in Soviet-era music videos?

HERE'S SOME of that context I was mentioning about Comrade Hill's "vokaliz" performance, via Justin E.H. Smith's blog:

The song he is interpreting, "I Am So Happy to Finally Be Back Home," is an Ostrovskii composition, and it is meant to be sung in the vokaliz style, that is to say sung, but without words. I have seen a number of comments online, ever since a flurry of interest in Hill began just a few days ago, to the effect that this routine must have been meant as a critique of Soviet censorship, but in fact vokaliz was a well established genre, one that seems close in certain respects to pantomime.

Recent interest in Hill has to do with the perceived strangeness, the uncanniness, the surreal character of this performance. There is indeed something uncanny about a lip-synch to a song with no words, and his waxed face and hair helmet certainly do not carry over well. But once one does a bit of research, one learns that the number was not conceived out of some desire to cater to the so-bad-it's-good tastes of the Western YouTube generation, but in fact was meant to please --to genuinely please-- Soviet audiences who were capable of placing this routine, this man, and this song into a familiar context. The audiences would recognize, for example, that the same number had been performed by the Azerbaidzhani singer Muslim Magomaev in a film from the early 1960s, The Blue Spark:

One thing to notice is that, in spite of the absence of text, and of the fact that he is clearly lip-synching, there is nothing at all uncanny about Magomaev's version. It is a perfectly standard musical number from that era. So whatever it is that makes Hill so remarkable has to lie elsewhere than in what he has inherited from Ostrovskii and Magomaev, and what Soviet audiences would recognize as linking him to them. These other elements are the hair, the eyebrows, the elbows (I first decided to learn Russian when I became frustrated with the number of times the translator of my edition of War and Peace resorted to the phrase 'arms akimbo': surely, I thought, Russia can't really be a place where people so regularly resort to so special a posture). Still other elements are the set, the lighting, the quality of the color film: musical productions from the early 1960s still look charming and comforting; the same songs interpreted 15 years later often seem like perversions of the original. Hill's version seems nothing if not perverse, but what a bit of contextualization helps us to see is that this is not at all the result of his own innate weirdness, or of the innate absurdity of the song he has undertaken to sing.

THE POINT I think Smith is making here is that it was the '70s everywhere, even behind the Iron Curtain. The Brady Bunch Hour could happen anywhere . . . and did.

commenter put it, "It's easy to laugh at this bull****. But the Russians can just post clips of Lawrence Welk and we are owned. "

You mean, like this "modern spiritual by Gale and Dale"?

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