Party Like a Russian

by Marijeta Bozovic

Marijeta Bozovic is Assistant Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Yale University

Robbie Williams brags more than apologizes in an interview with The Sun that his newest music video, “Party Like a Russian,” dropped two days ago on September 29, might offend all 147 million people in Russia. While a portion of his lyrics seem specifically targeted at Putin—or rather, at the clownish media Franken-Putin that has taken over our airwaves and social media feeds over the past three years—much of the puerile fun of the video rests on rank ethnic stereotyping and a painfully outdated worldview.

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

Williams, 42, must have been a teenager when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, but that doesn’t prevent the most bizarre Cold War rhetoric from informing his visual and verbal fireworks on vivid display today. From the space wars-era space station mentioned above to lines like “I’m a modern Rasputin” and “There’s revolution in the air,” his music video is shocking less for its painfully racializing gaze (which is, for some reason, smilingly tolerated by cosmopolitan elites when directed at Slavs in the twenty-first century) than for the sense that this should be the work and vision of a much older man.

What revolution, Robbie? The specter haunting Russia and East Europe today isn’t that of communism, but twenty-first-century nationalism. And, as Williams’ video amply demonstrates, that same specter—along with its reactionary postmodernist aesthetic and inherent gender politics—is hardly foreign to either the UK or US.

I’m all for mocking oligarchs and their fashion choices (here ostentatiously Russian orientalist, as re-imagined by haute couture), but were the S&M ballerinas really necessary? “Put a doll inside a doll,” Williams croons over bass-heavy samples of Prokofiev’s ballet “Romeo and Juliet,” while idealized and blanched girls alternately play domestic Black Swan housemaids and White Swan beauty-pageant brides gone very bad.

The implied sexual threat becomes rather more explicit around minute 2:25 in the video, when the “dollies” are allowed to speak/sing for the first time. In place of the expected feminine harmonies, we hear the voices of an all-male choir overwhelm Williams’ scratchy tenor: “We’re the [well, more like ‘ze’] Russian boys, we’re everywhere.” But then, the best Bond bad girls were always icy Soviet agents with a surprise weapon tucked in their lacy underpants.

Are we really here again? “Party Like a Russian” is hardly a solitary phenomenon. The confused media coverage of cultural and current events ranging from Svetlana Alexievich’s 2015 Nobel Prize in literature, the aftershocks of Ukraine’s Maidan, the mostly imaginary Trump-Putin bromance, to even the current strikes against draconian anti-abortion legislation in Poland all speak to a desperate attempt to cling to narratives that refuse to hold. Rather than “What is to be done,” the (imagined, former) West and East alike ask only, “Who is to blame?”

What happened in Poland, anyway? The resurgent Cold War narrative of a struggle between two fundamentally opposed ideologies, the good and evil Empires, can hardly explain away why the ultimate New Europe success story (Solidarity and the dissidents won!) has resulted in impressive financial recovery and a reactionary government intent on waging war on its women and refugees alike.

I put a bank inside a car, inside a plane, inside a boat
It takes half the western world just to keep my ship afloat

That last line might be the only bit of accidental self-reflection that makes it into Williams’ new party anthem. But the only line that made me giggle, for what it’s worth, came not from the song but from the online comments of an anonymous Russian blogger: “How’s Brexit?”

7 responses to “Party Like a Russian”

  1. Igor says:

    Much ado about nothing

  2. Lyttenburgh says:

    Deleting my comments? Finally! I guess, the one about “Clinton&Blowjob” finally got your attention.

  3. John says:

    I saw this video in a different way. In my opinion, Williams uses Russian stereotypes to point to the activities and motivations of some politicians and businesspeople in the US and UK.

    First, the dancing women act as a visual reference to the video for Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love” (1986). This becomes explicit in the bits where the dancers are playing musical instruments, as the others do in “Addicted to Love.”

    Second, the lines “I put a bank inside a car, inside a plane, inside a boat / It takes half the western world just to keep my ship afloat” are adapted from Russian folklore, specifically the “death” of the villain Koshchei the Deathless — “На море на океане есть остров, на том острове дуб стоит, под дубом сундук зарыт, в сундуке — заяц, в зайце — утка, в утке — яйцо, в яйце — смерть Кощея.” This is a common motif in folklore – one’s soul or “death” is hidden in some far-removed object. This hint about Koshchei is fused with a picture of extremely conspicuous consumption that takes up the resources of “half the Western world.” I would interpret these lines in the following way: “I engage in extreme wealth-gathering to make up for my personal weaknesses, and therefore these objects, in which I’ve hidden my human vulnerabilities, protect me, but I must in turn guard them at any cost.”

    The folktale motif and the borrowed image from the Robert Palmer video (popular during the Cold War in the UK and US) point to shady practices in politics and business not in Russia, but in the Anglophone world. This is the meaning of the title “Party Like a Russian” — those outside of Russia are acting in ways associated with stereotypes of Russians. The video and lyrics offer various fluffy Russian stereotypes as filler, but the references I’ve noted point not to Russia at all, but to those in the rest of the world who behave in a manner (in politics, business) associated with Russian oligarchs.

    • Lyttenburgh says:

      Okay – take two

      “I saw this video in a different way. In my opinion, Williams uses Russian stereotypes to point to the activities and motivations of some politicians and businesspeople in the US and UK.”

      Good! Splendid! Excellent! Then Mr. Williams (like any honest man “living-not-by-a-lie”) will surely make his numerous fans all across the world happy with sequels of this new music video. Well, after his usual stint in rehab.

      Here there are several suggestion as to what must be included in the lyrics of these new songs:

      1) Party like an American:

      “Reagan was stupid cowboy
      Fat Yankee eats BigMac
      We are bombing whom we please
      Hi, my name is Bill – give me a quick one, luv!”

      2) Party like a French:

      “Eat les frogs
      Napoleon was ze best
      We are surrendering
      Arabs are burning our cars again”

      3) Party like a Brit:

      Churchill and his big cigar
      Rule Britannia.
      Eat porridge, fish’n’chips
      Our teeth are rotten

      P.S. Song demonstrates once again that so-called Russian liberals are liars. Western “elites” and ordinary people are beholden to self-perpetuating stereotypes about our country and they have absolutely no desire for abandoning them or even attempting to see Russians as human beings. No – this songs appeals to stereotypes both new and old, repeating and reinforcing them, acting as a propaganda.

  4. Emily Erken says:

    Great article, Marina. Have you figured out which ballet company performed in the video?

  5. Tori says:

    abusively, as anti-Semitism

  6. Neil says:

    Perhaps the worst review that I’ve read. Only used to project the author’s own predudices. Sad.

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