February 21, Moscow. A group of female punk rockers enters a church. They sing a song that many find offensive. They are forcibly removed from the church.
August 5, Milwaukee. A young man enters a temple. He belongs to a rock band and often sings songs that many people find offensive. He is removed from the temple.
These two cases look remarkably similar, right? In both cases, individuals holding dissenting opinions turned to music to express their views, selecting places of worship to stage their protests. Here’s the kicker though: the first describes the feminist musical collective Pussy Riot, the second the Wisconsin shooter Wade Michael Page. In the first case, music was used to critique the current political establishment in Russia, specifically the Kremlin’s cozy relationship with the church. The protest follows disputed parliamentary elections and street protests last December. No one was hurt, and no church property was damaged. In the second, music was used to fuel an ideology of hate that inspired violence against religious minorities. Seven people were killed, including Page.
Given the context, it’s really difficult to view these two incidents in a similar vein. But Russia does. On August 17, a Russian court convicted three members of Pussy Riot of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred. They were sentenced to two years in prison. According to Russia, the Pussy Riot incident was a religiously-motivated hate crime — just like the Wisconsin shooting — and anyone who says otherwise is part of a grand Western conspiracy. Western bias or not, we can distinguish between the two with a few simple questions of content, intention and site selection.
First, what does the music say? Pussy Riot’s “Punk Prayer” calls on the Virgin Mary to “put Putin away.” The band blames Putin for oppressing women and gays. Claiming that the all-powerful Putin has become like a god on earth, they scream “Shit, shit, the Lord’s shit!” Throughout, the song focuses on the Virgin Mary as a female religious figure and asks her to join them as a feminist.
In Psychology Today, Anthony Lemieux outlined lyrical themes prevalent in white power music like that of Page: awakening, conspiracy, decay of traditional values, celebration of white power “heroes,” “us” versus “them” distinctions and a call for violent action. Although “Punk Prayer” seems to suggest some degree of awakening (from religious and social oppression) and conspiracy (between the Kremlin and church), it also differs on other counts. “Punk Prayer” does not focus on decay so much as the stifling of progressive religious and feminist values under Putin. Rather than commemorate “heroes” for the cause, Pussy Riot detracts from the individual. They function as a collective with changing membership and wear balaclavas to maintain anonymity. No one person, they seem to say, should ever rise to the level Putin has. Most crucially, “Punk Prayer” does not enforce an “us” versus “them” mentality. It is inclusive, asking the Virgin Mary (and the church itself) to join them as feminists. Unlike hate music, “Punk Prayer” does not encourage its listeners to take action of any kind, much less violent action. Rather than command, it pleads: “Virgin Mary, Mother of God, put Putin away!”
Next, what is the purpose of this music? According to Christian Picciolini, a former member of a white power hate band interviewed by McClatchy Newspapers, hate music is the primary recruitment tool for white power groups. Not only does the music help recruit, said Picciolini, but it also reinforces hateful beliefs by providing a community of like-minded individuals. The performance is a testosterone-heavy, energetic event that gives the performers a sense of power, and hate crimes often occur after these shows.
In contrast, Pussy Riot doesn’t seem to be interested in recruiting new members and purposely performed in a place where they weren’t going to find like-minded people. Their actions suggest a forced dialogue with people who would otherwise not engage. Unlike the hate music bands, Pussy Riot isn’t insular. The music seems to help ease this forced dialogue, making it harder to ignore and easier to swallow through humor and entertainment. By modelling their song after a prayer, Pussy Riot might be trying to bring their cause closer to home.
Finally, why do both incidents take place in places of worship? Page seems to have chosen the Sikh temple for reasons both practical and ideological. Not only were the worshippers clearly not expecting an attack, but Page’s choice of site sends the message that he is targeting them because of their religion. In contrast, Pussy Riot does not enter the church with a violent purpose. If Putin has indeed replaced god, then the church isn’t a religious site so much as a political one. By offering a prayer, Pussy Riot is reclaiming the church as a religious site and stirring conversation.