Moscow Likes Michael

But Russians prefer heavy-metal rock and their own sappy pop

GLASNOST and the collapse of communism aside, Moscow is still not a chosen stop on the global concert tours of Western rock stars.

Concert organizers are confronted with a discouraging combination of lingering state bureaucracy and the chaos of Russia's ``cowboy capitalism.'' Record piracy is so widespread - 2 out of every 3 compact discs made in Moscow's only CD factory are pirated - that the giant record companies see little gain in bringing their acts here. Unscrupulous promoters have promised megastars from Madonna to the Rolling Stones who never show up, leaving Russian fans in the lurch.

So when the news came that Michael Jackson was bringing his Dangerous World Tour to Moscow there was an understandable skepticism among Russian rockers. Only when the King of Pop arrived at Moscow's Metropol Hotel in an armored limousine, accompanied by a police escort with screaming sirens, did disbelief start to lift.

Over the next couple of days Russian television caught the singer hiding behind his mirror sunglasses and floppy black hat, dashing out of antiques stores and marching with an elite Army unit. (The tour has been beset by bad publicity in the United States because of charges filed in Los Angeles by a boy who says Jackson sexually molested him. The singer denies the allegations.)

Moscow's 85,000-capacity Luzhniki stadium was at most only two-thirds full when the concert date rolled around last week on a rainy Wednesday. After a two-hour wait, Michael Jackson made his appearance, popping out from under the stage, showered by golden sparks from above. From the opening number, ``Jam,'' to the closing two hours later with ``We are the World,'' Jackson worked his way through a standard array of his hits.

The Russian press savaged the show the next day, complaining about everything from the delayed start to Jackson's curious failure to acknowledge to the crowd that he was in Russia. According to reports, ticket sales were so slow that the promoters gave away thousands of passes in a vain effort to fill the stadium.

The steep ticket prices - an average ticket cost about $30, a little less than an average monthly salary - was one reason for the poor turnout. But a lot had to do with the tastes of Russian rock-and-roll fans.

``Michael Jackson is not a big deal here, in general,'' says Boris Zosimov, president of Biz Enterprises, a private entertainment firm engaged in concert promotion, record production, and publishing. ``He's 10 times less popular than Metallica,'' the American heavy-metal band.

The firm's survey of Moscow State University students showed that heavy metal and hard rock are by far the favorites here. Metallica, Guns and Roses, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Depeche Mode, and Nirvana were the top bands, with the soft pop of Michael Jackson ranking No. 6.

Even then, says Mr. Zosimov, ``Michael Jackson is not popular because of his songs but because of the aura around him, the videos, his mysterious style.''

Heavy-metal acts have dominated the concert scene in recent years. Zosimov organized what has been the largest concert so far here in December 1991, just after the failed hardline communist coup. More than half a million screaming Russian youths gathered at a Moscow airfield to hear Metallica, AC/DC, the Black Crowes, and others.

``That was a production,'' says Zosimov, who got his start organizing cultural events for the Young Communist League (Komsomol), the youth wing of the former Soviet Communist Party.

The appeal of groups such as Metallica lies partly in the fact that they were, until quite recently, officially banned. ``It was underground, it was different, very heavy,'' recounts Zosimov. ``It was the opposite of what we could see on our [TV] screens and hear on records.''

In the old days, ``rock-and-roll was considered to be ideologically harmful,'' says Arthur Matikyan, a former high official of Goskoncert, the Soviet state organization that had the monopoly on organizing musical events.

Mr. Matikyan recalls the years of the early '80s as ``the most terrible time for music.'' With the arrival of Mikhail Gorbachev and glasnost, Matikyan managed to organize the concert of the British reggae group UB-40, selling them to the authorities on the basis of UB-40's left-wing politics. Billy Joel's 1987 tour was the first to be given Western-style promotion.

But until 1988, before a Western band was allowed to play, ``the Ministry of Culture required the words of the songs, then had them translated and approved by officials,'' Matikyan says.

The breakthrough came in June 1989 when Pink Floyd gave the first big rock concert by a Western band in Moscow.

``When they allowed Pink Floyd, and I got a phone call from the Foreign Ministry saying they would give me support to organize this, then we understood that now we could do what we want,'' Matikyan says.

Still, the Russian rock-and-roll scene is dominated most of all by local acts, for the most part Russian popular music that combines sentimental lyrics with a simple beat.

Zosimov, whose company has organized the airing of a number of hours of MTV on Russian television, says the popularity of this music is solely due to the lack of developed taste.

``I hope this terrible Russian pop music will die,'' says Zosimov, who admits his own teenage daughter prefers it. ``I dream about it.''

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