It's hard to imagine a more infuriating ordeal than that of Pussy Riot, the Russian punk band and performance-art guerrilla squad that's been in the news lately. The charges three of its members face -- "hooliganism" and "religious hatred" -- are viewed as a mockery of justice everywhere in the world, except in the court that convicted them recently. They were sentenced to two-year prison terms after performing in a church to protest President Vladimir Putin.
Musicians across the globe have rallied behind Pussy Riot, finally making it fashionable to decry Putin's pathological disregard for human rights and democracy. His approach to free speech is both tyrannical and silly. Under his watch, the Kremlin has censored everything from South Park to a satirical puppet show called Kukly.
Local bands have yet to make many grand gestures -- such as holding benefit concerts, in true Madison fashion -- but they're quick to defend the three jailed musicians.
Matt Fanale, who melds harsh industrial beats and hardcore-inspired yelling in his project Caustic, responded by repurposing one of his songs that was neither noble nor political. "Booze Up and Riot," which Fanale says is about "people getting fucked up at Halloween on State Street," became "Free Pussy Riot" after a quick re-write of the lyrics and a new vocal take.
"I make music that offends people, either lyrically, sonically or both, so I completely understand [Pussy Riot's actions]," says Fanale, who's has sampled the profane stand-up comedian Doug Stanhope in his music and invented the term "jizzcore" to describe his own sound. "Punk rock and punk electronics are only different in the instruments used. We make music that's designed to piss people off to a degree, but it's still art. It's still valid. But it's also a lot more meaningful than a dismissive and incorrect term like 'hooliganism.'"
Michelle Schinker of Madison punk band Bes Monde doesn't claim to make much politically significant music either.
"I sing songs about baseball, beer and bass players," she says, but adds, "If I ever decide to wear my politics on my sleeve, I sure wouldn't want anybody to try and stop me."
That said, Schinker has some thoughts on why the Russian court was so quick to punish Pussy Riot: "I think pure artistic expression is fearless. It's opinionated and evocative. Consequently, it can be misconstrued as threatening."
Russell Hall, leader of local post-hardcore outfit the United Sons of Toil (USoT), would likely agree with Schinker's thesis. He's written many lyrics about human-rights abuses and historic moments of social upheaval. The band's three albums sport Soviet propaganda art, and the most recent is titled, with grim irony, When The Revolution Comes, Everything Will Be Beautiful.
In a recent post on USoT's blog, Hall posited that Pussy Riot tempted the authorities by putting on stunt-like performances in public spaces such as churches.
"If they operated purely as a band and worked within established channels -- playing clubs, releasing records -- they would not have as great an impact or have become as great a target," he says. (An LA Weekly writer took this idea one step too far by claiming that Pussy Riot is not a band.)
Other Madison residents have made visual gestures to support Pussy Riot. The chalkboard sign outside Victory coffee shop on Atwood Avenue often gets political. Last week it featured a drawing of a balaclava. This type of head covering is one of Pussy Riot's signature garments, and supporters around the world have been wearing them in solidarity.
Emily Mills, an Isthmus contributor and drummer for the band Little Red Wolf, made herself a "Free Pussy Riot" T-shirt and wore it to a recent gay pride parade.
"I had been following the band prior to them getting arrested, and I thought, what a cool way to bring attention to some of the political problems and how cozy the church and state are in Russia," says Mills. "It's such a great part of the punk tradition to have this provocative phrase that's going to get people's attention."
Mills wore the shirt again last Thursday, August 23 at Mickey's Tavern, as Madison band Screamin' Cyn Cyn & the Pons performed. Frontman Shane O'Neill, visiting from his new home in New York City, and his counterpart Cynthia Burnson, ought to feel a kinship with Pussy Riot since their band is also known for its punk rock and flamboyant stage presence. But O'Neill took a humbler stance.
"While it's flattering to compare oneself to a band like Pussy Riot, I think it goes without saying that their level of political involvement, especially in a country with such dire consequences for artists, demonstrates a lot more courage than I have ever shown," O'Neill says. "I would hope that the same people championing Pussy Riot take a critical look at how frequently the U.S. justice system mistreats its own citizens, especially those who are not attractive white women in cool bands."
The Russian person I spoke with was least eager to comment on Pussy Riot's ordeal. I thought Moscow native Victor Gorodinsky might provide an interesting perspective. In addition to being a Slavic Languages librarian at UW-Madison, he's the founder and conductor of the University of Wisconsin Russian Folk Orchestra.
Gorodinsky says he has no interest in politics and doesn't see how Pussy Riot has "anything to do with real Russian music."
"I feel very sorry for those girls because they're in jail right now," he says. "But it's Russia. It's still a miserable country, the way it always was."
If only it were so easy for these free-speech martyrs to wash their hands of it.