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On March 21, 2017, a YouTube channel calling itself “Kremlin Official” uploaded a video called “Putin Covers Radiohead’s ‘Creep.’” It shows Vladimir Putin, then Russia’s Prime Minister, edited to sound like he’s singing that song’s disturbed lyrics. Other sounds included are mic feedback, an awkward clap, and some “freestyle” primal screaming from Putin.
It’s pretty funny on its own, but perhaps weirder still is the source of this edit. On December 10, 2010, Putin appeared at a charity fundraiser in his hometown, St. Petersburg. At one point, the host asked him to come onstage and perform something. Then he played some opening notes on the piano and sang the American standard “Blueberry Hill.” If you liked him singing “Creep,” watch him trying to sing Louis Armstrong’s jazzy improvised lyrics in his thick accent. “Come climb the hill with me, baby!”
“For You Were My Thrill …”
It’s a little funny, a little weird, and rather charming. That’s right, charming – not a word one usually associates with this man. Before going onstage, he said, “I can neither sing nor play but I very much like doing it.” Putin was taking lessons in music and English at the time, so it’s easy to guess why he seemed nervous. However, this was a special concert for kids with cancer and eye diseases, and they must have been delighted to see the PM sing a child-friendly song.
If they weren’t delighted, the rest of the world sure was, which goes to show how times change. 2010 was when Putin went viral for his shirtless pictures and macho propaganda. The first sentence The Daily Mail wrote about this event said, “Is there no end to Vladimir Putin’s talents?” The ABC News headline ran, “Vladimir Putin: Prime Minister, Action Man, Crooner.” The world seemed amused, even infatuated, with this 60-year-old statesman who hunted Siberian tigers and earned a black belt in judo, and they believed that the Russian people just adored him. The impression he gave us was that he wasn’t Russia’s most powerful man because he had the right friends, or a silver tongue. He was Russia’s most powerful man because he was the most powerful man in Russia.
“I Don’t Care If It Hurts … I Just Want Control …”
Seven years later, Putin is a much more divisive figure. I don’t just mean in the US, where people are increasingly concerned about his government’s role in Donald Trump’s election. On March 26, 2016, tens of thousands of people protested in about 100 hundred Russian cities. Sure, it wasn’t directly against Putin: they accused PM Dmitry Medvedev of corruption and called for his resignation. But the demonstrations, the country’s largest unsanctioned one in years, were largely against corruption within Russia’s government, which must include Putin. The idea that the Russian people unilaterally loved their strongman president turned out to be a myth. Many of them think he’s a creep and a weirdo after all.
Meanwhile, Putin’s struggling to make Russia, and himself, look more powerful than they are. Seizing Crimea, sending forces to Syria, and moving troops around the country’s borders made Russia seem big. However, these moves don’t change that the country’s economy has been diving for years. His actions are all posturing, attempts to put off what looks like an inevitable retreat. You could see this attitude from the beginning: what did all that shirtless horseback riding really do for his country? It was propaganda meant to boost his people’s spirits and show the world that Russians are badass. And as the Russian population and the world are starting to get, it was all BS.
“What the Hell Am I Doing Here?”
That’s why Kremlin Official’s remixing of Putin’s singing is artistic, or at least more meaningful than a joke. Beneath the man’s tough façade might be something scared and fragile – the “freestyle” screaming is his internal scream. The wailing is soft and high-pitched, a stark contrast from his manly image. But of course, men who brag about being manly are the people most insecure about how others perceive their manliness. Meanwhile, the video’s corruption reflects the corruption Putin enables within his government. Perhaps the channel, which has no other YouTube activity, is meant to seem like an official from the Kremlin exposing Putin for who he is.
The song choice isn’t just a meme, but a strong artistic choice. Putin’s as helpless to make Russia more powerful as Radiohead’s weirdo is to win his love interest. He laments, “I wish I was special … I wish I was … special.” But in the end, he’s just … well, a creep. It’s amazing that Putin got Russia on the international stage at all, but from his own stage he knows he doesn’t belong here. And someday, he’ll have to say to the US as his guise disappears, “Whatever makes you happy.”