Unfortunately there's still a plethora of toxic people and institutions running amok in 2021. Fortunately friends and first-time collaborators Dorian Electra and Pussy Riot have teamed up to make a banger tackling that very subject.

Both artists are known for their vivid music videos, using their music to tackle social issues and playing with genre conventions. "TOXIC" features production by Dylan Brady from 100 gecs and veers wildly between caffeinated verses and a chorus full of guttural screams. Lyrically the song splits the difference between righteous rage ("Your balls meet my knee" ) and a biting sense of humour ("All my bitches told me, "Your boyfriend is a dickhead" but I loved your dick"). The video features copious amounts of fake blood, strobes and a showdown between Dorian and Pussy Riot's Nadya Tolokonnikova.

PAPER got the pair on Zoom to talk about how the song takes inspiration from Taylor Swift, the thrills of making art when challenged and what real censorship looks like.

When did y'all first meet?

Nadya: In 2017. Dorian is one of the best community organizers I've ever seen in my life. So they're always reaching out to new people and [are] really open to new connections. I was really excited to meet Dorian because I was like, "Oh, this is just another brainy artist that works with [the] pop genre," which is like pretty fucking amazing. They always come from concept first and it really speaks to me. And we're both ex-philosophy students. So it was a match made in heaven.

With the song "TOXIC" specifically, how long have y'all been sitting on that? When did that come together? How did that process happen?

Dorian: We did the session last January, after hanging out. We knew we wanted to do a song together. Nadya had been wanting to work with Dylan, and I had just been doing my stuff with Dylan, so it just was a perfect fit. I feel like you [Nadya] had lyric ideas and vocal melody already started for your verse. Then I was like, "Let's add a pre-chorus with some chords." Dylan just works so fast. It felt like everybody was very involved in the sound of the song and it came together really quickly, very natural and organic.

Nadya: Yeah. It was just a few hours. It just proves that you don't have to sing your own song forever to make it sound perfect. I met Dylan [at this session] for the first time. We were just hanging out for a few hours. I feel like we talked more than we worked actually, but the work came out great. So this is the fucking perfect balance, 'cause we got to hang out and also wrote a great song. At least, I love it. As a certified nerd, I came to the studio ready with the lyrics and melody for the verses. I remember Dylan's face when I showed him my screaming technique. I was growling and the next phrase he heard from me was "Yeah, I (think) something kind of like Taylor Swift-y vibes for the verses."

"I feel like ['TOXIC'] has a little bit of a cheerleader vibe to it. Like how Taylor Swift would do a lot of talk singing stuff like, 'Look What You Made Me Do.'" –Dorian Electra

Tell me more about the Taylor Swift vibes, because I didn't really really clock that reference. How are you drawing from her in that, in that moment?

Nadya: It's so non-typical for Pussy Riot to talk about relationships with boys in songs at all. We always sing about suppression. We sing about authoritarian governments. For me it was the closest I [could] get to a normal songwriter. When I think about this girly songwriter talking about her experiences, the first person that comes to my mind is Taylor Swift.

Dorian: I get it too, because I feel like it has a little bit of a cheerleader vibe to it. Like how Taylor Swift would do a lot of talk singing stuff like, "Look What You Made Me Do." And then [on "TOXIC"] it's like, "It sucks to be me. It sucks to be you." You know what I mean? I totally get that reference.

Hearing you scream for the first time in person like that, just totally raw and unfiltered was really impressive because it is really hard to do. I remember you telling me you're getting professionally trained by somebody who coaches people or something. I was like,"Oh my God, that's incredible." I need to! I tried to watch a couple YouTube videos on how to do it, but I'm so impatient. I was like, "Wow, that takes a lot of practice."

Nadya: Yeah, after we recorded "TOXIC" I took three weeks of lessons from this woman, Melissa Cross. She is a vocal college coach for Corey Taylor from Slipknot and pretty much everyone. Lately I haven't been training enough, just because I don't have any live shows coming, but it's somewhere inside me. So thank you for appreciating!

Talk to me about the "TOXIC" video.

Dorian: We shot during quarantine. Nadya edited it and directed it. I'm always so amazed by all of your editing and all this stuff. You can just do anything.

Nadya: [Laughs] Thank you! I really enjoyed the fact that we were able to make a video [that] has a plot. A loose narrative, but it has some sort of narrative. We managed to actually communicate with each other and build the plot without being in one space ever, because we were like super strict about quarantine. We interacted [in the video] through gestures and lights and similar camera moves. It was definitely a really interesting experience.

"I like when my art can be liberating for someone, especially for other artists." –Nadya Tolokonnikova

If COVID wasn't a thing and you were allowed to like be in the same space how do you think the "TOXIC" video could have come out differently?

Dorian: I mean, there could have been more elaborate sets or something, if we had more space to build stuff. We could have been like, actually physically present together.

I dunno, personally, I kinda liked the interesting challenges that doing it during COVID presented because it forces a little bit more of a DIY aesthetic, but I'm actually really into that. I feel like it can make things feel more raw and like more fun and also like more intimate in a way too, for artists. I personally have really enjoyed the challenges because it's getting me back to my DIY roots where it's just me and another person, my creative partner Weston Allen, doing the lights, shooting on everything on an iPhone and calling it a day. I feel like Nadya is also super DIY and we really share that in common.

Nadya: Yeah, I feel it just makes stuff more accessible. I think over-producing is a big problem of our civilization, especially the modern entertainment industry. It's fine if someone wants to make polished things, but the problem comes when other artists feel like they don't have enough budget to make these kinds of high-quality, polished, overproduced products, and they feel less just because they're not able to achieve that picture. Previously our releases were really high production value, but I feel good about showing people that in the industry, art is a game and there is no strict set of rules. You set these rules yourself. I like when my art can be liberating for someone, especially for other artists.

Nadya, I listened to a podcast you did with Amanda Palmer where you described that you were working on an album where all of the songs were of different genres. And I know that you have plans for a "Panic Attack" EP of three songs. Are you still working on that album or is that kind of in the backseat for now?

Nadya: It's done. I have just one more song I'm working on, [that] I think I'm going to add to this album, but honestly it's been done for a while. I like to write stuff more than I like to release stuff. It's starting to get really unhealthy because I haven't released, I think, 70% of stuff that I've written in my life. I've been writing a lot and nobody knows about it except me and my collaborators.

So I have this album and as I hope it's going to come out in May, I really hope so, but because I don't have a label or anything like that it's just really up to me. If nothing goes wrong, then that's what going to happen. I also will have to shoot another music video for it, because the title track on the album was "RAGE." I kind of just went mad about all the political repressions in Russia and on a Friday [January 29] I decide that I'm going to release "RAGE" on Monday, which was not ideal for the standards of the music industry. We've been talking about this kind of shit a lot with Dorian because I was trying to figure out my relationships with agents, with publishers, with managers. They all ask for things to be delivered in advance and I always felt like it's really important for me [that] when I know it's time to release something, I want to know that it can be released in two days, even if those two days [are a] weekend.

I didn't regret it because I feel like that song released at that time, when so many people were arrested, really inspired many, many, many of my fellow Russians. But now I don't have the title track and the video so I have to come up with something else [for the album.] But you know, as Dorian [said], I really love challenges, so I'm actually excited.

Now we're going to release two more singles, which are going to be called together the "Panic Attack" EP, first "TOXIC" then, um, it was going to be "Sexist" on March 1 and then "Panic Attack" on March 11.

I really loved seeing the Russian activist community that you got to film in the warehouse for the "RAGE" video. It was so shocking to see that the government shut down the shoot and arrested y'all. I can imagine it would be traumatizing to suddenly be put into jail again for doing something very similar to what landed you there before.

Nadya: It's tough. It sucks majorly not even just because we were arrested. I've been arrested so many times the fact of the arrest itself doesn't bother me that much. What bothers me is the feeling that the track and the video is so special to me. The last time I felt about something that strongly, it was "Punk Prayer" in 2012, the song that brought us to prison for two years.

Those amazing 200, feminist, LGBTQ+, and anti-authoritarian activists came to the shoot and they all styled themselves and they just looked incredible. I was not expecting so many people to show up and I was so stoked about this support. This was like one of those videos where you spend $15,000, but if you really count how much videos cost for real, it would probably be like a $100,000 music video. So many people just donated work and donated or lent stuff. It was a place where so many brought the best that they can possibly bring to the table. And then the cops show up and they tell us, "Oh, you're making an illegal, illegal music video" because —

"Gay propaganda."

Nadya: Yeah. How can you say that somebody is making gay propaganda music video when the music is not even out, like they haven't seen the script. It was just bullshit because that's the easiest way to stop something from happening.

"I've been arrested so many times the fact of the arrest itself doesn't bother me that much." –Nadya Tolokonnikova

Dorian maybe you are in these circles online in American politics, but when Donald Trump got taken off of every social media platform, there were all these people online being like, "Oh, this is censorship." But it doesn't seem like it's anywhere near as serious as what you Nadya are actually going through. It doesn't seem really worth comparing.

Dorian: I don't really know what the right answer is. Obviously if somebody is inciting violence, that's one thing. I think a lot of people tend to think of free speech as a really cut and dry thing and think about it in terms of like "speech" speech that they agree or disagree with. But the thing about free speech is you have to allow speech that you disagree with. Unless it's somebody who's yelling in a movie theater and everyone's going to trample each other as they're running out and there's actually no fire, you know what I mean? I've heard arguments from both sides from leftists arguing different perspectives. I think it actually is complicated looking at the power that these private tech companies are being given that is new in our society and technology. We have to be aware of who has the power to make those kinds of calls and, you know, a form of censorship and the responsibility that companies have about the spread of information and, mis- or disinformation. So I think it is actually a complex issue, but I don't know. Nadya, I'd be interested in your thoughts on that too.

Nadya: I just think I would not compare these things. One thing is when a private company makes a decision about your account there, and it can be questionable! We can discuss it, but this is not as oppressive as like, you know, you literally being a citizen of the country whose only job is to suppress your voice and to basically destroy you and your friends and family. My ex-husband was poisoned. So I would not really draw this parallel. I feel Trump is still fine, he's not being devastated, he's not being thrown in jail or poisoned.

Dorian: Yeah.

Nadya: When the whole government apparatus works on suppressing your free speech, this is a much bigger issue for me. I'm coming just from my experience. So about ending a Twitter — it's a shock for me, but it's much better than two years in jail.

That's what's so interesting: people kind of collapse the language and they label everything as the same thing when the severity and the context is so much more important than we give it credit for.

Nadya: We definitely should discuss more transparency of big tech companies. I see why people would compare authoritarian governments with their companies, but I don't think it's a really valid comparison. I don't think this kind of act of censoring has the same consequences for people's lives. Not at all. Like I said before, they're just being banned from Twitter. It is not equal to being killed in front of the Kremlin.

But, I see people's points when they say, "We spend a lot of time and are creating content for this big tech [company]. So we should have more power to say what they're going to do and you know, kind of vote, like it happens in countries." I feel like in the end we should co-own these companies, because we are the workers. We're the ones who are creating content.

Photography: Kevin Ulibarri/ 3D art: Ksti Hu

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