Openness and seclusion

During the Soviet regime, it was considered natural in Estonia to regard seclusion as ideal. The political norm, even in its milder forms, required the denial of influence by any of the models of mass culture of advanced Western capitalism — even though it was not possible to reject all the representations thereof and music fans found the forbidden possibilities on their own. Therefore, Estonian rock music, when it first emerged, appeared, so to speak, outside the law. Such music could not be legalised, it remained underground which rendered it ideologically dubious. Rock music was not allowed to become a cultural institution.

A counterattack was launched in the 1970s headed by the group that is considered the most monumental of Estonian rock bands — Ruja. Ruja stood for more than just epigonic mentality — the band started a dialogue with international rock culture and attempted to add its own tradition to it. Ruja reflected several of the various ideas which had emerged abroad in the 1960s. These ideas represented rock music as a form of youth rebellion, rock as a musical experiment, rock as world reformation and a generalising force, as an extract from the ‘grand narrative’. All these trends showed signs of uncompromising idealism and thus limited the sphere of influence of rock music. Such limitation was the result of political pressures but also of the fact that, by the end of the seventies, Ruja had strayed quite far from the mainstream of pop music. Nevertheless, several of the attitudes established by Ruja — having undergone some compromises by then — became the basis for a certain legitimisation of rock music in the 1980s. According to the rules at the time, being seen by the public also meant being subjected to a certain degree of control.

This change took place at the beginning of the next decade through the Tartu Music Festival held every spring. The Music Festival was rather a closed event — often there would be as many participants (musicians, journalists, the jury) as there were people in the audience. The defensive purposes of the event were emphasised, with the ‘defensive’ having two meanings here. First of all, the festival was supposed to hinder the repressive behaviour of the state and, secondly, it had to protect musicians from the consumers, the commercial nature of the market. The aesthetic foundation of that event was the belief that the entire meaning and value of music is determined by the relationship of the artist with the cultural text created by him or her — the audience finds in music only what has been put into it. This attitude had some political implications and it had to be believed by all the power structures afraid of the unforeseeable consequences arising from pop music. They were being convinced that the lyrics are the key to the music and if the lyrics are subjected to strict control, the influence of music is restricted as well.

The music itself emphasised such seclusion even further – none of the musical experiments here depended on fashion or market pressure and neither did they interact with what was happening elsewhere. Quite often people were happy with the situation as it was because it implied that their music reached further than the images, theoretical speculations and myths of rock music of the world. It seemed to be music that was free in its isolation. Thus Estonian pop music appeared to be able to perceive and decide what was the most important — the sounds. In real life they did not have much choice.

Thus it was possible to remove all the excessive and contradictory elements from pop music. Now pop music denoted culture as an agreement. The fact that it had something in common with music that was considered more dignified, ‘more important’ and more culturally justified and merged with classical music, folk and jazz was a valued quality. Pop culture had to be a structure which could be subjected to technical measurement. To be regarded as valuable, it had to place emphasis on structural complexity, classical forms and technical virtuosity.

The Estonian pop aesthetics of the 1980s, which disintegrated after our regaining of independence, could not help but exclude a number of features inherent in the nature of rock music. First the utopian urges of rock, the mutiny of sounds and readiness for opposition — all of which had been part of Ruja’s arsenal — were ousted. Even punk was perceived merely as a message, just literary and not musical resistance and it is not surprising that this mode of expression was more easily accepted into Estonian literary history than the history of our music. Another distinctive feature of Estonian rock music was its reluctance to embrace the physical aspects of rock — physical ecstasy, outward styles and images were toned down and, therefore, entire musical genres where emphasis was placed on such aspects (heavy metal, disco) stayed out of the spotlight. Also, rock music (with a few exceptions, like Singer Vinger) was not capable of critical self-perception, self-irony or understanding its impermanent nature. Instead, the music produced was extremely general, accepted by the people, and belonged to a safe tradition, as demonstrated by the blues-based Ultima Thule, probably the leading Estonian rock group since the demise of the Tartu Music Festival.

Naturally, the attitude adopted in the eighties contradicted everything that accompanied the opening up of the society at the beginning of the 1990s and the establishment of an open market. On the one hand, this was characterised by an invasion of international norms of pop culture represented, for instance, by the popular festival Rock Summer and, on the other hand, by a destructive crisis on the Estonian music market where the small number of consumers coupled with their scant purchasing power subverted all reminiscences of the secure, idyllic times of the Tartu Music Festival.

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