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A 19-year-old musician just released the best Russian pop album of the year. Seriously.

Source: Meduza
Monetochka’s personal photo archive

On May 25, Elizaveta Gyrdymova — aka “Monetochka” (Lil’ Coin) — released a new album called “Raskraski dlya Vzroslykh” (Coloring for Adults). Just two years ago, Monetochka made a name for herself with a collection of amusing songs uploaded to the social network Vkontakte, where she sings and plays piano. With “Raskraski,” however, Monetochka has fashioned her own tone and musical language, transcending what made her an Internet sensation. She’s now a national pop star. Meduza editor Aleksandr Gorbachev explains how this happened.

Monetochka was 16 when she became an Internet meme

In December 2015, an 11th grade student in Yekaterinburg named Elizaveta Gyrdymova uploaded her album to Vkontakte. Calling herself Monetochka and titling the album “Psychedelic Cloud-Rap,” it was a medley of witty, touching songs where she played piano and sang lyrics with cute vignettes about teenage everyday life, with satirical jabs at modern culture (especially at fashion designer Gosha Rubchinskiy) and even a few political jokes.

Within a month, pop-culture websites were writing about Monetochka, and her Vkontakte page was getting thousands of likes. In Moscow and in other cities across the country, people invited her to come perform. Monetochka’s songs became the ideal manifestation of the Vkontakte culture, which by this time had confidently become pop culture: the album was a funny, deliberately naive reworking of Russians’ everyday information overload, fit into short, catchy amateur hits. In other words, the music was a meme you could listen to at home and go see live in concert.

Monetochka performs one of her most popular early songs, “Mama, Ya Ne Ziguyu” (Momma, I'm Not Doing Nazi Salutes) — a parody of the pop hit “Zhenshchina, Ya Ne Tantsuyu” (Woman, I Don’t Dance).

This is usually the end of the road

Monetochka certainly isn’t the first person to strike the Internet’s collective nerve and win a following overnight. In Russia, there’s been Nikolai Voronov, the strangely talented, ill-fated man behind the song “White Dragonfly of Love,” and Oleg Legky, the bard from Khabarovsk whose 10-minute album about fish proved far more popular than anything his old band managed in years of struggling in Moscow.

These two cases illustrate well what usually happens next. Voronov performed at a Gosha Rubchinskiy party in one of Moscow’s hottest clubs, the “Solyanka,” and for a few months he played his strange music at concerts around the city, giving interviews to the media. He even sold his hit song to the band Quest Pistols. Gradually, however, the public’s interest waned, and his more serious compositions (Voronov studied to be a composer) didn’t impress. Legky also spent some time performing live concerts, gallivanting across the country. He even recorded a couple of new completely genius songs longer than 20 seconds, but he was unable to turn that initial symbolic capital into anything more, and eventually he moved back to Khabarovsk.

It’s a different story with Monetochka. Her new album changes everything.

At first, Gyrdymova’s trajectory seemed to mimic what’s happened to so many Internet stars before her: a hodgepodge of concert performances, meetings with celebrities, and a few collaborations with major rappers (where Monetochka mainly played out her usual comic role). Meanwhile, Gyrdymova finished high school, moved to Moscow, and enrolled in the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography. You might have logically assumed that she simply wouldn’t have time to continue working on her music.

You would have been wrong. Exactly the opposite happened.

Monetochka got serious about her music, with some help from Viktor “BTsKh” Isaev (who is maybe Russia’s most talented alternative R&B musician today). Their collaboration demonstrates wonderfully the role a good producer can play. Isaev has brought his groove to Monetochka’s music, highlighting all the irresistible clarity of her melodies, and finding the perfect sound for her voice. It was clear when Gyrdymova first teamed up with him on “Poslednyaya Diskoteka” (The Last Disco) that it was time to start watching her closely. With the new album, Monetochka has finally established herself as a true pop star. She’s already performed on “Evening Urgant” — which remains an important recognition of artistic legitimacy for Russian musicians — and she’s likely bound for further success.

“Poslednyaya Diskoteka” (The Last Disco)

When “Psychedelic Cloud-Rap” appeared online, Gyrdymova was 16 years old. Today, she’s 19. Many people experience a period of radical self-discovery in these years, and that is precisely what seems to have happened with Monetochka’s music.

This is a new kind of pop music, uncompromising and without shame

In a nutshell, “Coloring for Adults” is something created by people who remain gleefully unaware of that dirty word “pop.” The album’s first song recalls a guitar riff from Viktor Tsoi’s classic “Khochu Peremen!” (I Want Changes!), while introducing an almost pornographic, Kenny-G-like saxophone — it feels like something that goes against good taste, but it works perfectly. “Coloring for Adults” is elastic, sassy pop music that doesn’t try too hard. You might go looking for comparisons (like the synthetic funk Ivan Dorn made popular in Russia), but it’s not worth it: this is really more of a universal hit sound that borrows a bit from the past several decades of dance music but doesn’t ever go overboard.

What’s most important here isn’t the sound, however, but Gyrdymova’s voice. This kind of singing is something new in Russian: the toylike childishness of Monetochka’s early music has grown into something far more complex in this album. It’s as if we’re watching in real time how someone’s voice breaks down, except not in a physical but a conceptual sense. We see a vocalist adapt her own ironic defenselessness to issues that are no longer “post-” or “meta-” — the content is now devastatingly real at times.

It would be meaningless to say that Monetochka falls “somewhere between Alena Apina and Joanna Newsom,” but that’s exactly where her tone fits: in a conceptual space where wily naivete blends with a certain alluring strangeness. When she was in the band “Massa Kryma,” the singer Evgeniya Borzykh managed something like this. Where Borzykh showed principled amateurism, Monetochka has demonstrated professionalism in the best sense of the word.

A generation’s manifesto

Elizaveta Gyrdymova’s work with Russian rappers wasn’t for nothing: Russian hip hop clearly will never claim “Coloring for Adults” as its own, but in terms of technical skill Monetochka can put together words and rhymes as well as many in the industry (and Noize MC’s influence on her is especially noticeable). One of the main functions of today’s Russian rap is to talk about yourself and about time, and this plays out wonderfully for Monetochka. Of course, it would be an exaggeration to say that social issues are what drive the album. The balance you find here is normal for any 19-year-old: there’s love, sex, money (no money), feelings about your hometown and other cities, and there’s “Your Name” — a surprising, tender song about death that will bring you to tears. But Gyrdymova’s music also goes further.

Monetochka performs “Net Monet” (No Coins), a comical ballad about rap, youth, and empty pockets.
On Air

“Coloring for Adults” rightly starts with the song “Russkii Kovcheg” (Russian Ark) — an aphoristic composition about Russia’s special path:

Where’s their Slavic mass, oil, and gas?
They’ve got unisex, but we’ve got kvas,
Iconostasis and Mikhaylov, Stas.
Pussy Riot took off their masks — a pity.
But they look good without them — they’re pretty.

Another key track is “90” — a satire on the myth of the “troubled” 1990s, and something like the opposite of a song with the same name by the band “Barto”:

It’s fun to sit around and divvy up the shops,
But carving up a country is where playtime stops.
It’s only thanks to tapes and to Krovostok’s song
That I learned with horror what had gone wrong.
That in the 90s people turned up dead,
And they ran the streets buck naked.

What’s important here isn’t just what is being sung, but how: Monetochka’s music has neither patriotism nor contempt. She brings only a keen interest in the land of her people, and a genuine love for its paradoxical nature. In the song “Russian Ark,” when a chorus of voices starts chanting “Rossiya!” it’s authentic, but it isn’t some pro-Kremlin cheer. Listen carefully and the sound might as well be people Gyrdymova’s age shouting the same word at some unpermitted protest.

Monetochka isn’t alone: there are many young women behind a new wave of interesting music in Russia

This new women-led pop music in Russian didn’t start with Monetochka. Before her, there was at least the Ukrainian singer Kristina Bardash — aka “Luna” (Moon) — who lacks Gyrdymova’s originality, but has more style. The important thing, however, is that this new music doesn’t end with Monetochka. So far, “Coloring for Adults” is probably the most marketable product from this new generation of women singers, but there are other artists right up there with Gyrdymova.

There’s Liza Gromova, the former vocalist for the band “Ozera” (Lake), who released her new album a week after Monetochka’s. Her producers are from the band “Malbec,” which is always collaborating with another important singer: Susanna. There’s the band “Komsomolsk,” which combines the aesthetics of the utopian 1960s and the realities of life today in Moscow. There’s the “Derevyannye Kity” (Wooden Whales) with their exceptionally beautiful shoegaze indie rock that recalls the Thaw under Medvedev. There’s “Lemniskata Petrikor” with its mystical synthesized urbanism. And, of course, there’s Anastasia Ivanova — aka “Grechka” (Buckwheat). All these artists are worth following; in one way or another, they’re all laying new paths for what Russian music with women’s voices can be.

In her last song on “Coloring for Adults,” Monetochka cuts herself off in mid-sentence and says into the mic: “I haven’t come up with an ending yet.” It’s less an admission of failure than a promise of more to come.

Review by Aleksandr Gorbachev, translation by Kevin Rothrock

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