The first wave of war songs is on the decline. What to do next? Step-by-step instructions

Max Chukhlib

Hundreds of patriotic tracks released after February 24 this year have already gone down in history as a manifestation of the impressive unity of Ukrainians during the Russian invasion. However, summer has almost passed outside, the first wave of war songs is on the wane, and the question seems to hang in the air: what’s next?

How can artists express themselves about the war if the time of straightforward manifestos in Ukrainian music is already passing? How to write tracks so that they are not “songs for supermarkets about bayraktars”?

For all those who ask themselves this question, we have prepared step-by-step instructions. We explain how not to waste the historic chance that the war gives its Ukrainian performers at great cost.

In his column, SLUKH journalist Max Chuhlib describes the three steps that every Ukrainian artist must get checked on the way to new Ukrainian music.

Step one.

Wake up after a long oppressive sleep.

We live in turbulent times. The full-scale war forced Ukrainians to think even more deeply about the search for their own identity, and since culture has always been the most effective reflection of thoughts and moods in society, the change in the cultural paradigm of Ukrainians was perhaps most vividly reflected in the explosion of new Ukrainian music after February 24, 2022. Be sure: it will never be the same again.

Ukrainian artists have grown up. Never before have our performers expressed themselves so powerfully, accessible, and succinctly. When the atrocities of the Russian army are in the news, and there are explosions and gunshots outside the window, it is impossible to ignore. It is impossible not to choose a stable civic position while recording and making sense of the war in creativity.

To continue listening to Russian music-even that was considered oppositional is unacceptable in our time, and to focus on the cultural samples of the aggressor country is painful and shameful. Under such conditions, Ukrainian performers began to massively abandon the Russian language in their work, switch to Ukrainian, and search for a new identity. However, until recently, we lived in a completely different reality. If someone had told me before February 24 that Ukrainian stars would very soon become powerful fighters on the cultural front, I would not have believed it at all.

I would answer that our artists are already tired of the war that has lasted for eight years. That it is difficult for them to express their position because even Alyona Alyona’s public protest against police arbitrariness after the murder of 5-year-old Kyrylo Tliavov was already an unusual event for Ukrainian music. As for the creation of a unified Ukrainian-language musical field, there are still many years of consistent public work and state policy.

Such pessimistic forecasts are now a thing of the past as a full-scale war seems to have forced us all to wake up from a long and depressing sleep.

In the new reality, Ukrainian performers defend Ukraine in the ranks of the Armed Forces: Andrii Khlyvniuk, Oleksandr Polozhynskyi, Sasha Boole, Zhenia Halych, СТАСІК (Anastasiia Shevchenko), Oleh “Fagot” Mykhailiuta, Yarmak, Zheka Kurgan, Oleh Kadanov, the Antytila band, the original MC Kylymmen from KALUSH, Max Barskih and many others.

Those who remained in the rear now actively volunteer and collect money for the needs of our defenders: they organize charity concerts abroad and in Ukraine, as was the case, for example, at recent events in Ternopil, Lviv, and Vinnytsia from the Faine Misto festival or during the Go_A European tour.

The impressive unity of Ukrainian society in the first months of the war united the musical mainstream and the underground, causing an explosion of mass and intellectual culture. They were always as if from different worlds, and especially in Ukraine, where commercial and independent music existed in parallel worlds for many years. However, a single cultural context thematically integrated both parts of Ukrainian music into one whole, and, regardless of genre or creative goals, our artists delivered a single powerful message against Russian aggression.

Step two.

Moving from manifestos to therapeutic poetry.

War songs have already entered the modern history of Ukrainian music. In the first months of the war, they supported the belief in victory, raised the morale of the soldiers at the front, and did not allow those in the rear to despair. The leading themes were the glorification of the Armed Forces, Javelins, and Bayraktars, the unity of Ukrainians, anger at enemies, mourning for the dead, and nostalgia for a peaceful life. See here for a detailed review of the songs of the first month of the war.

Today, there are countless patriotic tracks. And it becomes clear that most of them are quite similar musically and lyrically.

Regardless of the performer’s origin, mainstream or underground, the war songs were filled with related images and meanings, being rather a common political and cultural manifesto than a quality product that required plenty of time to develop.

It is not surprising: the performers mostly prepared songs in a hurry and were not sure whether a rocket would fly into their house. Someone left his hometown, escaping from Russian troops. But time has shown that the hasty creativity of Ukrainian artists was in great demand at that historical moment for the state.

The first wave of war songs received an almost abnormal number of listens for Ukraine. Previously, a few thousand listens on Spotify was already a holiday for a non-mainstream Ukrainian artist, and after February 24, anything related to the war easily made it to the top and went viral on TikTok. For example, the track Касета (Cassette) by SadSvit was released back in 2021 and was appreciated only by fans of the Ukrainian doomerwave. However, when the Azov regiment added the song to their footage from Mariupol, the track seemed to explode. As of today, it has more than a million listeners on various platforms.

While the first phase of the full-scale war with Russia was going on, the Ukrainian listener had the opportunity to find more Ukrainian-language music and meet new independent artists, eager to hear something that would allow us to believe in our victory.

Every speaker then broadcasted “Good evening, we are from Ukraine” by PROBASS ∆ HARDI. A video has gone viral where Andrii Khlyvniuk performs the anthem of the Sich Snipers Hey, hey, Rise Up, Khrystyna Solovii’s cover of the Italian partisan song Bella Ciao!, Ukrainian Fury, Ruzzky Mir from the band хейтспіч (hatespeech), and Не вистачає кисню (Not enough oxygen) by Alice Change.

However, it is already summer outside. The first wave of war songs has almost passed, and performers are beginning to feel the lack of themes and meanings that they could express in their work. Stepan Burban, aka Паліндром (Palindrome), ironizes on this in his new song Літній час (Summer Time) – to him, “there’s something wrong with writing songs for supermarkets about bayraktars.” It seems this crisis of ideas worries not only Stepan: the topic of the future of Ukrainian music is already being actively discussed by music commentators, and every new Ukrainian track that sounds something like the phrase “enemies on knives” causes irritation to listeners. The question hangs in the air: what’s next?

The war continues, and the fatigue from it is understandable. However, our artists are in a stalemate because they cannot begin to completely ignore it. And even if they avoid the war in their work, they will be detached from the current cultural context and lose the therapeutic influence they have on society. Because music is something that relieves stress, allows you to explore and reflect.

Now Ukrainian performers need to learn to understand the war in a more complex and more complex way and create poetic images to replace straightforward patriotic manifestos and not be afraid to reflect on the emotions that hurt everyone.

For example, this is what Anton Slepakov (Vagonovozhatye) and Andrii Sokolov did on the music compilation warнякання (warumbling) in March of this year. Or oh, deer! and KAT on their “war” albums back in 2017. 

Step three.

Use a historic chance for Ukrainian music.

Trying to predict what Ukrainian music will be like after the war is something in the spirit of Arestovych. However, it is important to express an opinion – we are on the threshold of a new round of the development of Ukrainian culture, which, despite the difficult economic situation in the country at war, is starting right now. For many years, our cultural borders with Russia were uncertain and blurred, and now we are finally building them, working on restoring our own identity and gradually integrating Ukrainian music into the European space. Although at a disproportionately high price.

But the work of artists and music journalists has not yet begun, because the long-standing problems of Ukrainian music have not gone anywhere. They should be tackled after our victory and under the proper conditions created by the state.

Why did mainstream MOZGI or AGON gather thousands of fans at their performances or millions of listeners on streams before the Russian invasion? And why, at the same time, did Palindrome, Stas Koroliov, The Unsleeping, Vagonovozhatye and others remain in the shadows, having an average of no more than a hundred thousand views of their clips on YouTube? It’s not just about the eternal opposition between the mainstream and the underground. Each artist has their own target audience, which does not necessarily overlap, but Ukrainian independent music can gather many more listeners and fans at concerts than before. The problem lies in the lack of formation of the aesthetic tastes of the Ukrainian audience. After all, most Ukrainians are still not used to perceiving something more complex and serious in music than a simple and understandable pop hit.

This does not mean that after MONATIK’s stadium performance, people should tear off his merch and rush home to listen to the new album of black metallers White Ward on a record. It is necessary to develop and support popular music. In this, we already have positive results, the activities of the ENKO label and their artists, Alyona Alyona, KALUSH, and Skofka, but we must continue to take care of the evolution of the audience’s tastes. So, artists like Люсі (Lucy) and ТУЧА (TUCHA), who perform intellectual pop music, have a better chance of being heard.

Eventually, it is also necessary to create conditions for the integration of all valuable Ukrainian music into our musical discourse, regardless of genre or scene. So, the music industry of Ukraine is not focused exclusively on pop music. So, the indie group Blooms Corda, having released a new album, did not play it for several hundred fans in a Kyiv club, but presented the album live at a large popular festival organized with the support of the state.

So, that independent original bands can promote their music to a wider audience and, for example, receive more private or even public music awards for it. So, that it doesn’t happen like with the representatives of the Ukrainian underground of the 1990s, Svitlana Nianio and Ihor Tsymbrovskyi – they received recognition from state institutions 20 years later after their active activities, when they played at the Am I Jazz? festival in 2020 with the support of the Ukrainian Cultural Fund and the Ukrainian Institute.

We do live in turbulent times. And they, given their brutality and uncertainty, pose new challenges to our musical community. For example, the need for new Ukrainian music, which could be a qualitative and therapeutic reflection of everything that is happening in the country and, at the same time, a powerful tool of cultural war. Challenges create opportunities. So, let this step-by-step instruction be useful to everyone who wants to change Ukrainian music for the better because there are many of us. And the work is uncharted territory.

Translator: Tetiana Roshko

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