Seeing Red: The Olympic Village People

While I can respect those who chose to boycott the Olympics in Sochi, I have neither pro-actively avoided them nor watched much of the coverage. But yesterday morning I saw the above video that didn’t make it into NBC’s broadcasts but got a lot of buzz through blogs and elsewhere.  The Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs Choir’s take on Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” is amusing for the awkward dance moves of the younger cadets singing lead, but it is the reactions of the older members who stare on with a mix of confusion, disdain, and bewilderment that got a lot of laughs from the internet and remarks of the order of “Ha, ha.  Looks pretty gay.”

The very idea of secret police singing about “staying up all night to get some” and “getting lucky” probably wouldn’t elicit many laughs from any woman who has endured the realities of KGB interrogation or the force of the conquering Red Army.

Trying to imagine what it would be like to grow up in the days of the Soviet Union or live in the current Russian Federation has always intrigued me, and the above performance really got me wondering about the whole history and background of these guys.  Formed in 1938, the Alexandrov Ensemble and MVD Ensemble are better known as the “Red Army Choir”.  And, yes, there is a Wikipedia page for them, and their own website with DVDs and CDs that I am conflicted about buying them since I can’t find them on Pandora.  I think I’ll settle for YouTube videos for now.

Most of their work is very traditional, and they are obviously more at ease when singing Russian folk songs.  This from their website makes their mission sound quite noble:  This strong spirit sprang from a people who had suffered much: under the tsars, during the wars, throughout the revolutions, the famines and the political indoctrination. Through all of this, the spirit of the Soviets endured, rising again after every false step, strengthened by the hardships.

But not unlike the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, they do their fair share of pop and foreign tunes. To take the Mormon Tabernacle Choir metaphor a bit further, it is easy to see how a young gay man in the Red Army might take refuge in the choir.  I make no assumptions about the sexuality of the soloists in the clip below of a cover of ABBA’s “Money, Money”, but it is also easy to speculate on the back story on the singers.

With those ill fitting uniforms, the out of proportion hats, and the soloist on the left who looks like he was made to play Emcee in in “Cabaret”, this clip is almost more surreal than the Sochi performance.

Then there is this rendition of “Sex Bomb”.

This could certainly could elicit its share of laughs if only for the smiles from the choirs director, General Eliseev, who seems to be benignly oblivious to the translation and meaning of the lyrics.  But not unlike the Sochi performance, there is something darkly eerie about the cultural emissary of the former Soviet Union singing about sex and bombs in one silly pop song.

But as I dug deeper down the rabbit hole of YouTube searches, I came across this guy whom I have dubbed “the Sachmo of Stalingrad” taking on “Let My People Go”.  No laughs here.

And he does a version of “16 Tons” that erases Tennessee Ernie Ford’s forever from my memory.

There are some obvious parallels to this song associated with Appalachia and the Russian experience, albeit transferring U.S. corporate control to that of a centralized state. It reminds me of how Nina Simone managed to reshape “Pirate Jenny” from a dark tale from Weimar Berlin to the American South during the civil rights movement.


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