Pussy Riot offers danceable rebellion at San Francisco’s Rickshaw Stop

Pussy Riot
Игорь Мухин/Courtesy

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It’s shocking that Pussy Riot is actually good live.

After all, the Russian feminist punk collective receives more media attention for its resistance to state corruption and violence in Russia and the United States than for its artistic pursuits. Its members are heralded as symbols of artistic freedom before they are ever actually praised as artists. If anyone could get away with putting on an anticlimactic live show and still consistently sell out venues for their collective identity alone, it’s them.

Pussy Riot doesn’t seem to be aware of this shortcut, however — or at least its members don’t seem to care. Even on Wednesday night at San Francisco’s Rickshaw Stop, where the band played two shows, Pussy Riot’s enthusiasm for performance never flagged.

Wearing the band’s signature balaclava in baby pink, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, better known as Nadya Tolokno, descended almost silently onto a stage shrouded in darkness. A pixelated, starry black sky, projected onto the wall behind her, flashed a violent white from time to time. The only other source of light in the intimate venue was the flashlight in Tolokno’s hand, which she showered upon the waiting crowd at will.

Tolokno opened the show with “Organs,” a hypnotic track with lyrics in Russian that uses restrictions on female sexuality as a metaphor for Vladimir Putin’s regime. An English translation of the lyrics streamed behind Tolokno in the style of a classic “Star Wars” opening sequence. “Freedom and bondage is the same shit now,” crept the yellow text up the screen. A crowd dressed in beanies vaguely evocative of Pussy Riot’s signature balaclavas slowly came alive.

It’s a song as easy to dance to as it is to engage with on an overtly political level. As Tolokno delivered the politically charged lyrics that define the band’s music, synthetic percussion bursts and creaks beneath her vocals made the track undeniably danceable. It’s not the kind of music to stand and nod alongside in understanding and approval. Instead, it is the kind of music that transforms the simple act of dancing into an act of implicit political agreement.

Between songs, Tolokno offered inspiring political dialogue. “Our greatest enemy is apathy,” she told the crowd, encouraging it to take action by turning to “NGOs, alternative systems of healthcare, alternative systems of education and alternative systems of media,” with her final goal being, of course, to “work together to write a history that doesn’t include Trump or Putin.”

The most memorable of these asides came as she introduced an unreleased song.

“I’m not willing to talk about Pussy Riot, because anyone can define rules for Pussy Riot,” Tolokno said as a Eurodance beat built behind her. Before the impact of her words could register, a throng of people clad in bright green balaclavas swarmed out of the audience and onto the stage, dancing alongside Tolokno. “It’s riot time,” Tolokno shouted to a crowd still mesmerized by the sudden eruption of energy. The words “Hands Up” flashed across the screen, once again offering an English translation of the song’s Russian lyrics and issuing a command that has become as tied to political discourse as it has to dance.

The set featured a number of unreleased songs, each set against compelling visuals showing familiar images from Russian and American popular culture. The brutality of the lyrics often fell in stark contrast to the saccharine images that ran behind their singer. As Tolokno performed “Police State,” a song about police surveillance, glittery stars flashed behind her alongside cuts of the song’s bleak music video illustrating police brutality.

Following cheers of “Pussy” from the crowd, Pussy Riot ended the show on a familiar note. The encore featured “Straight Outta Vagina,” the band’s second most popular song, with the green balaclavas joining Tolokno onstage once more. Confetti poured across the screen as Pussy Riot’s DJ waved a Transgender Pride flag over the surging crowd.

The performance was an ecstatic celebration of the song’s themes of liberation and inclusion of marginalized groups. The whole night, Pussy Riot offered a danceable rebellion that’s hard to beat.

Contact Sannidhi Shukla at [email protected].