Pussy Riot @ Hollywood Theatre, Vancouver – March 19th 2023

Live Review: Pussy Riot @ Hollywood Theatre, Vancouver – April 19th 2023

The feminist mothership landed in Vancouver this week, armed with the Russian art movement bombshell that is Pussy Riot, poised to rock the house down and fuck up the patriarchy. The seeds of the rebellious collective that were sown years ago by Nadya Tolokonnikova have sprouted into a powerful deeply rooted institution of activism by way of art and music. The larger-than-life figure has been persecuted for speaking out against injustices and imprisoned for her art, yet still continues to push the envelope with pieces like the recent interactive art exhibit “Putin’s Ashes”, putting them at risk of further repercussions. Tolokonnikova took a break from her dangerous demonstrations to grace the Hollywood Theatre to enrapture fans with a heavy-hitting Pussy Riot performance. The pairing with opener Boyfriend, a deliciously crass feminist rapper, was a match made in heaven and made for a wildly entertaining show from start to finish. 

Boyfriend is a pure anomaly on the music scene, the unhinged act created by Suzannah Powell that has spawned from its own special sauce of outlandish cabaret performance, in-your-face feminist imagery, and lyricism. Boyfriend has dabbled in genres but seems to have really found her niche spitting nimble-tongued hip-hop bangers, which she showcased in this gig. Her signature look consists of 80s glasses complete with gold chain, a wig done up with exaggerated curlers, and a total abandonment of even a hint of make-up – at once poking fun at female beauty standards while strictly committing to eschewing them. But that’s nowhere near the end of the story when it comes to the visual feast at Boyfriend’s stage show, which involves costume changes for nearly every number.

Hitting her stride mindset, for example, the frontwoman emerged from a satin changeroom on stage in a poofy retro wedding gown, manically calling, “Who wants to get married?” and “I’m your boyfriend for the evening!” The frontwoman was balanced out on stage by two complementing performers, flanking her and dancing while donning white unitards and veils, tearing away Boyfriend’s skirt. She made a show of snapping on pink rubber gloves with a sinister tone, while the dancers wielded spatulas and grooved robotically in unison, a warped pastiche of 60s domesticity. Before you could stop to comprehend what was happening, the backing track warped into “Push It” mashed up with Victorian harpsichord, announcing the popular single “Marie Antoinette”, which saw the ladies strutting the stage with frilled ruff collar and fan choreo. Half the people in the crowd didn’t know what the hell was going on –and I don’t blame them!– but I was delighted to be along for the ride.

Boyfriend went full-on performance art delivering a couple of unbelievable spoken word pieces that can only be caught live. The epitome of brutally feminist poetry, one piece featured unabashed lines like, “Let the blood drippy drip from the tampon tippy tip,” and saw the woman throwing a bloody tampon into the crowd with an unhinged expression on her face. Just when you thought the envelope was fully pushed, the opening strains of the angelic tune “Pegasus” began and a dancer donning a unicorn mask, wings… oh yes, and a black strap-on dildo, came prancing onto the stage with ballet strokes. Like many Boyfriend compositions, at a casual listen the song could be taken for your everyday R&B offering, but honing in on the lyrics reveals Boyfriend singing with stirring passion an ode to the act of pegging, defiant and inspired.

After an adorable and provocative slumber-party-themed striptease featuring a plush rabbit (let your imagination run wild) by one of her associates, Boyfriend came back to perform the nuanced “Are We Dead Yet?” tugging at a black unitard this time, pulling it off like shedding skin, and twisting it around her neck. Coming to the set’s apex of female empowerment and sex positivity, she rocked a sheer leotard with assless tights and launched into undeniably brilliant “Like My Hand Did”. The song spits some truly iconic lyrics that turn years of misogyny in rap culture on its head –cocky brags about her fertility supplant the usual menu of dick measuring. The grand finale was an intoxicating analog cover of “I’m Just a Girl” and, by way of goodbye, a hearty bout of ass-waving by the trio. The boundlessly creative act played for a solid 50 minutes but I would have let Suzannah Powell be my Boyfriend for hours, owning her sexuality, taking up space, and defying double standards at every turn. 

Fans donning Pussy Riot’s signature neon ski masks from the merch stand were running amok in the venue and the waft of heated political discussions abounded, featuring a certain Russian leader who puts the dick in dictator. The room was electric as Nadya’s voice cut through the darkness: “Are you ready to mosh? Are you ready to riot? Are you ready to scream?”

Two girls in neon bikinis, fishnets, and ski masks came out and started to gyrate to the opening strains of “Police State”, flanking either side of the stage. Then the woman herself came out looking larger-than-life, her dark hair tied into low pigtails and wearing a black tracksuit style outfit with a tennis skirt. She strutted sexily across the stage singing the lyrics describing police brutality juxtaposed with a chorus of “Oh my god I’m so happy I could die,” and ended the song in a bloodcurdling scream – the first of many throughout the night. Pussy Riot’s penchant for highlighting the dystopian and unjust continued with the eerie childlike chant of “Black Snow” with Russian lyrics mixed with the tune of “London Bridge is Falling Down”. The song was created in response to increasingly intolerable living conditions in the county due to the pollution wrought in the name of capitalism and unwaveringly describes bloody rivers, black snow, poisonous garbage, and acid rain. 

Pussy Riot moved next into the realm of equality and women’s rights with tracks from their latest album, MATRIARCHY NOW, which dissects traditional gender roles and embraces body autonomy and sexual liberty. The set was programmed with a fantastic video reel that captured the essence of the songs, like “Plastic” and “Punish” which featured glossy eye-candy images of the knife slicing through the eggplant of the new album’s cover, and shining animations of studded collars and butt plugs, and whips. 

As a musical act that works in collaboration a lot, the show was a lot of strutting around and screaming over recordings, as in the performance of queer anthem “My Agenda”, and feminist manifesto “Toxic” which shifted from DDR-style J-Pop verse into a wretchedly screamed chorus. Musically the tracks were pretty thin, but the message and emotion more than made up for it. A standout track was the irresistible pop hit “Princess Charming”, nearly squeaky enough to be in a Pixar credit sequence. 

As empowerment anthem after anthem scrolled by, the Pussy Riot dancers progressed into increasingly provocative poses and moves, owning their sexuality on stage, like the most sex-positive strip club ever. Solidifying their stance and highlighting recent activism, they played a collab video with Unicorn Collective about body sovereignty and the abortion issue, filmed in Texas, pivoting around a central message that resounded loudly: Vasectomy Prevents Abortions. The crowd went wild with approval. The stance was further enhanced with a rage-filled rendition of “Hangerz” which repeats: “My body does not need advice from a priest.”

Nadya took a break from the heavy-hitting playlist to speak to the crowd about the experiences and passions that had led her to this point. Fresh off a TED talk she gave at the Vancouver Convention Centre just the day before, Tolokonnikova graciously shared some highlights from her speech, which including a powerful message to Putin himself: “You have already lost. You know it. The world is with Ukraine.” Tolokonnikova lives in exile and recently nabbed a spot as one of Russia’s most wanted, public enemy number one of Putin not because of any physical or political power, but simply because “Courage is contagious.” In her closing statement, she pointed out that “Even though we are behind the bars, we are freer than the people persecuting us, because we can say whatever we want, but they can say only what political censorship allows them to say.”

Nadya and her fellow Pussy Riot accomplices were sentenced to two years of hard labour for performing the protest song “Punk Prayer” in a cathedral in Moscow back in 2012. While a harrowing experience filled with unspeakable acts of violence, Nadya shared that she was able to keep her flame burning in the darkest moments because she knew that their fight was not over. Since getting out, she has met thousands of people who were inspired to resist because of their fight. Pussy Riot’s post-imprisonment accolades are nothing short of staggering. They started one of the biggest uncensored media outlets in Russia called Mediazona. They raised over a million dollars in two days for Ukraine at the outset of the war in 2022. When reproductive rights were under attack in the US, they raised nearly a million dollars for Planned Parenthood. They raised 3 million dollars to support female and non-binary artists. The list goes on and on, but as she reminded us, the fight is nowhere near over.

In the last leg of the set, Nadya waded into the struggle she still has in front of her. She gave a cathartic release of justified despair with “Besit” (translating to “Rage”) which saw her drop into the crowd who moshed around her. She barked out Russian lyrics with a ragged voice and cackle, and with demonic and guttural screams the performance was an embodiment of all that is ugly in this world. She further expressed anxiety in the dancy “Panic Attack”, defying gender expectations by screaming over hyper-feminine pop lines. And she further wandered into the ugly truth with “1312”, hauntingly repeating “All my friends are dead.” It was as if she could no longer bear the weight of it all, as the song saw Tolokonnikova leaning against the DJ booth at the back of the stage as if reflecting on the friends and family she has who are still under the fire of persecution back home. 

It was a truly emotionally charged set that tackled so much of what is wrong with society, so as artists and activists, Pussy Riot really got the job done. Of course, what works so well with this group is the balance between the serious and the willingness to embrace the ludicrous and incite joy, which they certainly demonstrated in this engagement. They closed things out with the banger “Hate Fuck”, delivered with the ironic aplomb of a cutesy girl band, with Nadya and her onstage cohort thrusting in unison and rhythmically shaking middle fingers at the crowd. The cherry on top was, as the girls left the stage, a video on the screen of Putin looking very silly doing TikTok-type dances as flames slowly engulfed him. Hats off (or ski masks) to Pussy Riot for their courage and relentless efforts to do right.

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