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Culture, Society 05/10/2016

Does Party Like a Russian feed the Putin myth?

Youtube/Robbie Williams

Robbie Williams denies targeting the Russian president but his lyrics say otherwise 

What exactly was Robbie Williams thinking when he wrote Party Like A Russian? Infusing pop music with a political message is hardly a novel endeavour. Despite the long history of artists trying their hand at channelling the political zeitgeist, it’s very hard to imagine what sort of divine inspiration lead the singer of such protest anthems like Let Me Entertain You to take a shot at Russian strongman Vladimir Putin and his cadres. 

Or was it something else that led him to take the easy way out and pretend it ain’t nothing but a party song, rather than risk “offending” people, or, more likely, the actual target of his mockery?

On the surface, the first single from Williams’ upcoming album is almost glorious in its tackiness. The golden decorations, the ballerinas, the embroiled jackets – mocking Russian oligarchs has never looked so glamorous. And then there are the lyrics. 

With “It takes a certain kind of man with a certain reputation/ To alleviate the cash from a whole entire nation /Take my loose change and build my own space station” the tone is set from the beginning. The song is a takedown against kleptocrats everywhere, against their lavish lifestyles built on money that should belong to the people. Robbie has had enough of these guys showing up at his parties, being rude and off their rockers (I've got Stoli and Bolly and Molly, so I'm jolly / And I'm always off my trolley, so I never say sorry).

One would think Williams has found a new need to pinpoint the injustices inflicted upon the Russian people and exported unto the world, or something similarly noble and pure.

Perhaps in a world where a new cold war is taking hold and men like Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump and Nigel Farage make up a real life “Evil League of Evil”, what the hell, Williams can be our Bob Dylan. He may not be the cold war warrior we need, but from the look of things, he is the one we deserve. 

Anxieties that permeate the public sphere like inequality, racial tensions, gender relations, rising tensions between nations, are all finding their place and representatives in mainstream popular culture. And if someone is going to throw down the glove at Mr Putin (Ain’t no refutin' or disputin' – I'm a modern Rasputin”), it might as well be Robbie. Like Beyonce and the Black Lives Matter movement and feminism, M.I.A highlighting the refugee crisis and Pharrell Williams working to promote action on climate change, inequality and democracy could be just the thing for our man on the inside.

That’s if it didn’t come with a caveat of the sort that impacts almost every other modern pop star who decides to stand for anything when it clashes with a paycheck. 

The former Take That sweetheart was quick to distance himself from such earthly concerns. He took to Twitter to shoot down a piece by the Sun’s Dan Wootton, labelling his song “an audacious, tongue-in-cheek take-down of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his chums” with “I love you Dan but this song is definitely not about Mr Putin x”. This probably came in response to several senior journalists (like Damien McElroy of the Sunday Times) and members of the public on social media, calling it what they thought it was: an anti-Putin song.

But as he himself explained on his website, “It’s about hedonism and the spirit of partying. The person singing is a bit me, and a bit a character... Part of the British identity is that we all believe we’re the best at partying, most nations think that of themselves … but there ain’t no party like a Russian Party.” If there are any leaders on the world stage today whose name rhymes with Rasputin, that’s completely coincidental, according to Robbie Williams who also said he had to edit his original lyrics and make them more PC as he “didn’t want to offend anyone”. 

Williams is, for better or worse, just one more artist who is happy to cater to the tastes of the global oligarchy. It was only back in August that he was reportedly paid £1.6m to perform at the wedding of Russian oligarch's Rashid Sardarov's daughter. That’s one revenue stream hardly anyone can afford to shut down, even Robbie Williams with his £200m plus net worth. It’s no different to Beyonce playing private parties in countries where women don’t enjoy basic rights while proclaiming her feminism. The problem with both these examples is the denial that their work, or at least the way it is perceived, is antithetical to their actions and hugely troubling considering the context of our times.

It was just this September that London became host to another kind of art performance, headed by Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina. In a theatrical play called Burning Doors, Alyokhina of the feminist punk trio that was sent to jail for mocking Vladimir Putin, and Belarus Free Theatre a theatre company banned in their country – attempted to retell theirs and other censored artists’ stories. There is nothing funny about what happened to these people, and there’s no comparison with what would happen to people like Williams if they actually criticised kleptocrats. So where is the integrity of people who should know better?

It feels like Williams is not giving us the whole truth. There is nothing hedonistic about abusing an entire nation and turning their wealth into a lavish lifestyle for yourself, or the thuggery required to do so. Both are targeted in the song and described in no favourable terms. While this is fairly obvious to everyone – including the Russians commenting under his song on Youtube, which has now been viewed over 1.8 million times – Williams just turns around and denies it, taking cover behind his usual cheeky image.

The language used to justify his stance is that of not wanting to insult the Russian people, bundling them with the class of kleptocrats that have impoverished them and are now leading them down the road of conflict in Europe and Asia. 

But it does feel as if he is buckling in the face of the aforementioned thuggery, even before it manifests (there’s hardly been any reaction anywhere on the song or its perceived message). If the mere thought you might insult someone like Putin makes a millionaire pop star cower, what should it mean to us?

The story of being forced to swallow bitter pills over making a living isn’t new. For an interesting historical parallel, we must look at the background of “Party Like A Russian” and more specifically to the string arrangement dressing the song, Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev’s “Dance of The Knights” (a part of his “Romeo & Juliet”). Also known as the theme tune for “The Apprentice”, it’s one of the most recognisable pieces of classical music in the world. The composer didn’t enjoy the same kind of luck during his lifetime. 

Born in 1891 in Krasne, Ukraine, he witnessed the October Revolution - after which he left the country with the blessings of the regime - and the Great depression of the inter-war period which forced him to return in 1936. It was then that he composed Dance of the Knights. While there are hardly any grounds to dispute his artistic merit and achievements, Prokofiev spent the last part of his life effectively as a regime stooge, composing works for the pleasure of Josef Stalin, as he was finding it hard to make a living otherwise.

As now, there has never been a time when artists didn’t have to get into bed with unsavoury elements to keep afloat. But let’s think about the context of Robbie’s new release: this week Putin withdrew from a nuclear deal, as the US walked away from talks on a resolution in Syria. A man who feels chummy with Putin might be the next president of the US. In the UK, some of the very same people who lead the country to Brexit have declared their admiration for him. And it’s precisely things like this that inspire their admiration: anyone who mocks people like Putin (or say, Tayyip Erdogan) either apologises or lives to regret it somehow. Every wannabe authoritarian admires this quality.

By refusing to own up to his own words, Williams has added another layer of invincibility to the authoritarian image. Where artists would openly mock these caricatures in the past, by keeping quiet they legitimise their “very real concerns”. The myth of the autocratic strongman is built every day and by participating in the charade celebrities like Williams are harming us all.

Yiannis Baboulias is a journalist whose work has appeared in Politico, the LRB, Al Jazeera, Newsweek, the New Statesman and others. He has spent too long covering the Greek crisis.