Pussy Riot's anti-Putin agit-punk may have temporarily made them international stars, but explicit political messages are a rarity in the Russian charts, irrespective of whether they're aimed at the ruling party or country's powerful business elite. That may not be entirely unconnected to the fact that most of the major outlets for music, including the ubiquitous Muz–TV television station, are owned by oligarchs. Emulation is far more common than confrontation, with the luxurious lifestyle of the nation's rich a constant source of material for aspirational music videos.
The Tony-Montana-meets-Donald-Trump aesthetic has always had a home in American hip-hop, and it's unsurprising to see it replicated in the music of a country where billionaire gangsters are a reality, rather than a romantic fiction. Leading the pack is Timati who has become the first Russian act since Tatu to make the top 10 across Europe.
His single Welcome to St Tropez features Kalenna Harper of Diddy Dirty Money and is the latest in a series of releases to have seen the rapper lining up with heavyweights from the US, including Snoop, Busta Rhymes and Diddy himself. It's difficult not to wonder whether, as with Arnold Schwarzenegger and his Japanese energy drink commercials, the participants expected the results to remain an embarrassing secret only to be viewed by a domestic audience.
Party politics may be off the agenda, but Russian pop has long been engaged in a war of attrition with social conservatism. As in many other countries in central and eastern Europe, a sexually liberal youth culture butts heads with the church and sections of the older generation. The faux lesbianism of Tatu may have prompted eye-rolling in some parts of the world but it's easy to underestimate how transgressive it could appear in a nation where the battle for recognition of gay rights has further to go.
Irrespective of the orientation of the singers, disco and high-camp techno pop have done more to shape the Russian charts than any other influences – a situation that hasn't changed significantly since the mid-1990s. Openly gay stars may be thin on the ground but, from Ruki Vverh's video for On Tebya Tseluet to Mitya Fomin parading around Havana to the backing of Pet Shop Boys' Paninaro, gay culture is central to Russian music.
The exuberant bounce of 2011's biggest hit, Mama Luba by Serebro, whose gleefully silly zero-budget video has become the most parodied clip in recent memory, showcases one side of that debt. It is, perhaps, the marriage of wistful Russian lyricism and melancholy Italo-disco that has traditionally been responsible for the most distinctive and compelling singles, however.
The reigning queen of the darker side of dance-pop is Moscow's Nyusha – a 21-year-old singer-songwriter who, like Taylor Swift in the US, has won the grudging respect of curmudgeonly critics. Her hits Vibirat Chudo and Vishe have been hailed as a return to the spirit of a putative turn-of-the-millennium "golden age" when the tear-stained electro of stars such as Tatiana Bulanova ruled the airwaves.
An even more striking exploration of similar territory is the superb Derevya by Vintazh, which swaps synths for Eastern instrumentation and boasts an extravagant video decried by bonkers internet site The Vigilant Citizen as occult propaganda for the new world order. It's not necessary to subscribe to outlandish conspiracy theories to find either the single, with its lyrics about being beaten by satyrs, or the visuals unsettling. As attempts to wind up the religious right go, it's more interesting than anything Lady Gaga has been up to recently.
There may be little appetite to take on President Vladimir Putin, who remains far more popular than most of his foreign critics are willing to accept, but there's too much independence within Russian youth culture to cede ground on the social battles. With cities across Russia following St Petersburg's lead in introducing laws to censor "immoral" content, primarily relating to homosexuality, it's a fight that's likely to intensify in the immediate future. Not for the first time, the old capital's lawmakers might find themselves on the wrong side of history.
Burgess Powers creates web sites and applications like this one!