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ARCHIVES  Danyliw Seminar 2017

Maria Sonevytsky

Bard College, US

Maria Sonevytsky is currently Assistant Professor of Music (Ethnomusicology) at Bard College. She completed her Ph.D. in ethnomusicology at Columbia University in 2012. Her book Wild Music: Sovereign Imaginaries and Popular Music in Post-Soviet Revolutionary Ukraine is forthcoming on Wesleyan University Press. In 2018, she will join the ethnomusicology faculty at the University of California, Berkeley.



Wild Music: Ethnic Intimacy, Auto-Exoticism,
and Infrastructural Activism


This paper investigates the nexus of aesthetics and politics in the output of the pop star Ruslana, who was the first post-Soviet Ukrainian popular musician to achieve broad international recognition and commercial success. Her 2004 Eurovision Song Contest-winning song “Wild Dances” drew on the indigenous culture of the Western Ukrainian mountaineers known as Hutsuls, who have traditionally represented a kind of quintessential Ukrainian ethnos. Positioned on the borderlands of southwestern Ukraine and marginalized by contemporary Ukrainian politics, they are nonetheless

romanticized for their vibrant folk traditions and legendary independence; in the post-Soviet era, Ukrainian popular musicians have often used Hutsul influences in attempts to invent a particularly Ukrainian language of “ethno-music.” In “Wild Dances,” Ruslana’s erotic and auto-exotic portrayal of Ukrainian femininity and rurality was received variously by Ukrainian publics, but nonetheless came to stand for Ukrainians’ wish for allegiance with the conceptual “West” in the tumultuous Orange Revolution period. To Hutsul mountaineers, whose “wildness” was said to inspire “Wild

Dances,” the song generated conflicting responses, including an effort to censor sales of the album.


Ruslana’s post-Eurovision career, however, saw a redefinition of wildness away from its Hutsul particularity. This article traces the transformation of Ruslana from when she was a marginal figure of post-Soviet Ukrainian estrada, to her emergence as a global “ethno-pop” star, to her rebranding as a political activist with ambitions to transform state policy and redefine Ukrainian futurity. The paper focuses on three songs that outline this trajectory: “Znayu Ya” (2002), the ESC-winner “Wild Dances” (2004), and “Wild Energy” (2008); it concludes by examining her role in the Maidan Revolution and subsequent return to the Eurovision stage in the wake of Jamala’s 2016 ESC victory.


I argue that, from her earliest success as a “wild dancer,” to her later rebranding as a social activist invested in “wild energy,” Ruslana’s stardom has mirrored transformations in Ukrainian politics between the Orange and Maidan revolutions, as the internal logic of Ukrainian statehood has shifted from a concern with ethno-nationalism to one with civic identity. Through an ethnographically-situated account of the circulation and political resonance of “wildness,” the paper examines how pop music has the capacity to express desires beyond the bodily or affective and towards the political. I argue that “wildness” is a critical term for understanding contemporary Ukrainian popular culture, as the ethnic intimacy that addressed an ethno-nationalist domestic public morphed into a tantalizing auto-exotic display for international consumption, and finally into the pragmatic patriotism of the Maidan era. Conceptually, as it cuts across and yet binds together contested desires for governance, wildness amplifies the conflicting historical inheritances that have shaped a clamorous decade of Ukrainian revolution. Drawn out of the space where geopolitics meet pop music kitsch, wildness proliferates: as a problem of representation, a symptom of postcolonial desire, or as the citizen’s wish for the fragile state to make bold and reparative investments in its territorial resources.

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