11:58 a.m. February 1, 2013

Pussy Quiet: Where Are The Pro-Pussy Riot Songs?

On Wednesday, a Russian court banned video footage of Pussy Riot’s controversial performance last February inside a Moscow cathedral. The new ban—which lumps Pussy Riot’s protest in with other unlawful expressions of “extremism” such as neo-Nazism and terrorism—calls for fines of up to $3,000 for Internet providers who fail to block the video.

It’s just the latest salvo the Russian government has leveled at Pussy Riot. Two of its members, 23-year old philosophy student Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and 24-year-old journalism student Maria Alyokhina, are currently serving two-year prison sentences for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.”

Everyone’s a critic.

That said, Pussy Riot has a posse. As the women fought for their freedom in court last summer, musicians worldwide rallied to their defense. Playing a show in Moscow in August, Madonna voiced her support for Pussy Riot—albeit with the disclaimer, “I mean no disrespect to the church or the government”—before donning a balaclava (Pussy Riot’s stage-disguise of choice). She then revealed the names of three of the band’s members scrawled on her back. Luckily those came off in the shower.

Many others stars, like the members of Red Hot Chili Peppers, have written letters in support of Pussy Riot, which Putin surely read with a heavy heart, his worn-out cassette of Blood Sugar Sex Magic spooling softly in the background. Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong voiced his sympathy by saying, while standing on the red carpet of the MTV Video Music Awards, “Always speak your mind, always speak the truth, no matter what the cost.” Granted, that truth cost him nothing but a lungful of warm California air. And then there’s Sir Paul McCartney, the biggest pop star in the universe, who put the full force of his cultural might behind Pussy Riot and declared his vehement support for their freedom… with a tweet.

On a humbler scale, scores of smaller, edgier bands—ones that might be able to actually relate to Pussy Riot—have staged protests and benefits for legal funds. And a documentary about the group, Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, was recently picked up HBO at Sundance.

There seems to be something missing here, though. Hmm, let’s see… A band called Pussy Riot gets imprisoned for performing an anti-Putin song. By doing so, they dramatically demonstrate the political power of music. Musicians, in turn, are moved to wave their flag. Oh, wait. There it is.

Where the hell are the pro-Pussy Riot songs?

Not so long ago, bands loved singing about social injustice, the abuses of power, and anything else privileged college kids might eat up in order to feel both informed and righteously belligerent. And then Rage Against the Machine broke up. By some accounts, though, the protest song actually has a long and rich history. Not that you’d know it anymore. Among the musicians have lent their full-throated support (for five seconds to an hour) of Pussy Riot, almost none of them have put their music where their mouth is. And yet, music is their medium. They have devoted their lives to its efficacy as a means of artful, emotional communication. So long as that communication doesn’t become sullied with anything remotely conscious or topical.

This isn’t an underground-verses-mainstream issue. Some of the greatest protest songs of all time trickled down from the top, and some of pop’s most insipid tripe has burbled up from the bottom. Some protest songs have cynical, selfish motives, and others are obnoxious in their ideological purity. It doesn’t matter. Songs can—and have—raised awareness, served as an anthem, and even, believe it or not, helped free people. That power comes from music’s way of mixing entertainment and messaging, an alchemy that take the most complex, abstract issue and render it into something heartbreaking. Or blistering. Or danceable. Or even some magical combination of all of the above.

Musicians today are fucking cowards. In this century—blame it on 9/11 and I’ll crash The Clash into your house—music as a whole has grown increasingly myopic, solipsistic, and chicken-shit. It doesn’t matter what genre. The Phil Ochses and Curtis Mayfields and Joe Strummers and KRS-Ones have either gone or gone soft. When Rage Against the Machine actually does look good compared to today’s crop of prancing navel-gazers, you know we’ve got a problem.

It isn’t just popular music. Pussy Riot identifies itself as a punk band. Punk bands aren’t singing about Pussy Riot, either. So much for solidarity.

The sad thing is, it’s easier than ever today for a musician—of any stripe—to write and distribute a song about topical issues. Thanks to GarageBand and Bandcamp and a hundred others software programs and media sites, a song about Pussy Riot (or gun control or Israeli air strikes) could be recorded and disseminated within hours of a major event.

But this new technology is also the drawback. To put yourself out there in such a way is too much for the vast majority of musicians. Thanks to the Internet, those songs will be there forever, instantly accessible at the touch of a screen. And bands these days don’t want to be tagged as committed, conscious, outspoken, opinionated. A stray remark on stage here and there, yes, that’s fine. Only a random fan recording the show in her cell phone is there to document it, and even then, the YouTube video isn’t likely to go viral, if its audible at all. Taking a stand is not what gets your music on a car commercial or an episode of One Tree Hill (which, by the way, is named after a U2 song, one that was written when the band stood for something other than its ego).

It’s ironic, then, that while Pussy Riot’s comrades—including their punk brothers and sisters—are burying their heads in the sand or paying lip service, its electronic artists who are stepping up. At least a little. Merrill Nisker, the button-pushing, Berlin-based artist known as Peaches, recorded and released a song called “Free Pussy Riot” last summer during the band’s trial. The song was offered directly to fans as a donation-based download, with the proceeds going toward Pussy Riot’s legal fees. The money is a nice if nominal gesture, and Peaches herself surely has something to gain through the publicity. But the bottom line is this: She’s putting herself on the line not just as a person with an online presence, but as an artist. When she screams “We are all Pussy Riot” over and over at the end of the song, her voice splitting and cracking, it’s the kind of message no amount of letters or balaclavas can ever equal.

Another German outfit, the legendary industrial band KMFDM, has also written a Pussy Riot song. Titled “Pussy Riot,” it appears on their new album Kunst, it’s as blunt as its name suggests. Singer Lucia Cifarelli howls about her “blood sister comrades” over shredded guitar and throbbing beats. The message cuts both ways—as a reaffirmation of strength to Tolokonnikov and Alyokhina as they sit rotting in a penal colony, and as a call to action to anyone listening.

When I asked about KMFDM’s leader Sascha Konietzko about the impetus behind the song, he didn’t mince words any more than he minces his music. “I believe that political activism is a very important tool to express opinions and generate attention,” he said. “Unfortunately, too many people are too lazy, cowardish, or plain unaware of the various problems and issues in our societies. People are getting number and dumber, generally speaking. Here are some young women that don't just sit at home and grumble, but take things into their own hands, ultimately facing the consequences.”

The consequences for singing politically charged music in Russia are clear. Doing so can get you sent to prison. In a video about their plight that Pussy Riot made for MTV, they made it sharply clear what their priorities were. “We’ve been fighting for the right to sing,” said one of the group’s masked members, “to think, to criticize.”

“To sing” is the first right on their list. Pussy Riot have shown themselves willing to sacrifice their freedom to in the hopes it might make that right real. Meanwhile, the music world quietly writes Pussy Riot’s names on their backs. And then they pat their backs. And then they turn them.