MOSCOW, Russia — Plenty of pop stars get away with lightweight repertoires about cute boys, fast girls and fun parties.
But that stuff just doesn’t fly in Uzbekistan, where if you’re not singing about the virtues of your glorious national and spiritual traditions, you’re not singing at all.
A handful of Uzbek pop stars learned that the hard way last Tuesday, after government-controlled culture watchdog Uzbeknavo in the Central Asian country slammed their music as “meaningless” and banned them from performing live.
Singers Dilfuza Rakhimova, Otabek Mutalhozhaev and Dilshod Rakhmonov, along with groups Ummon and Mango, found themselves out in the cold after the state agency responsible for licensing cultural acts concluded their music failed to properly extoll the motherland, the Central Asian website Fergana News reported.
“Their songs do not correspond to our nation’s cultural traditions, they contradict our moral heritage and mentality,” the agency said in a statement, according to Fergana News. “We should not forget about our duty to praise our motherland, our people and their happiness.”
Several other artists were reprimanded and told to “eliminate shortcomings” in their creative work by July 1.
That’s a tough break for the musicians, but it’s nothing strange for most people in the former Soviet Republic, who have been ruled with an iron fist by President Islam Karimov since before the collapse of communism in 1991.
His regime consistently ranks among the world’s most brutal and repressive dictatorships, with an “atrocious” human rights record replete with “endemic” prison torture, persecution of religious believers and the silencing of expression, Human Rights Watch says.
Karimov has been particularly criticized for his violent crackdown on protesters in the city of Andijan in 2005, when witnesses said hundreds were killed.
But the government doesn’t rely on guns and muscle alone to keep its citizens in check. Propaganda has proved quite useful, too. Experts say the authorities regularly lean on cultural and entertainment icons to pay their patriotic dues by spreading the good word about Uzbekistan.
Under the watchful eye of Uzbeknavo, the powerful licensing agency, entertainers such as Ummon — “They’re like Justin Bieber for Uzbekistan,” explains Alisher Sidikov, Uzbek service director for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty — are entirely at the state’s disposal.
That’s because licensing is everything: a crucial nod that allows entertainers to record, perform and even travel abroad — albeit with strings attached.
“You can go out and perform, but during your concert you still have to say a couple words about Uzbekistan’s prosperity and greatness,” Sidikov says. “You’re obliged to preach a little bit.”
“They put it this way: ‘Pay your country back,’” he added.
Performers are especially vulnerable around official holidays. In this case, Uzbeknavo was making preparations for the 22nd anniversary of Uzbekistan’s independence day on Sept. 1 when a committee convened to give Ummon and others the boot.
It’s part of what experts say is the state-enforced symbiosis between Uzbek cultural and political authority.
In a region plagued by ethnic strife, a surging drug trade and the creeping influence of radical Islamism, culture counts for a lot.
Sarah Kendzior, a researcher and frequent commentator on Central Asia, points to the roots of Uzbekistan’s nation-building experiment after the Soviet collapse.
Among Karimov’s first actions to shore up support, she said, was to recruit anti-Soviet nationalist poets into his political cadres — a sign of moral authority in a society where poetry plays a major role.
Those who refused his advances were eventually banned.
The regime has since turned its focus toward the young, largely through sponsoring entertainers and youth organizations such as Kamalot, hoping to consolidate the next generation of patriotic citizens.
Modeled on the Soviet-era Komsomol youth group, Kamalot offers an array of state-friendly activities, from sporting events and summer camps to quiz contests on, of course, Uzbek history and culture.
But Uzbekistan is not the Soviet Union: It lacks a unifying ideology, a dilemma analysts say leaves the regime grappling for a rationale for imposing discipline in a vulnerable region.
“It’s part of a general trend of policing morality and trying to enforce a very bland, conservative idea of what a good, young Uzbek person should be like and how they should behave,” said Laura Adams, a Harvard sociologist who studies Uzbek society.
That idea remains ambiguous, she adds. But one thing is certain: Karimov’s daughter, Gulnara, remains largely off the hook.
The glamorous socialite has pursued her own musical career, releasing steamy music videos under her stage name “Googoosha” and rubbing shoulders with a variety of international celebrities — with nary a trace of the blue-blooded patriotism her father’s regime typically demands.
She’s also faced a raft of corruption allegations and charges that she wields an inordinate amount of influence in her father’s country.
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Connected as she is to the regime, Karimova has escaped the fate of others such as Yulduz Usmonova, Uzbekistan’s leading pop star.
Although nominally loyal to the Karimov administration, Usmonova was forced out of the Uzbek music scene several years ago, reportedly for falling out with the government.
“Usually, we don’t know the whole story,” Sidikov, the Uzbek service director, said.
“Perhaps she neglected orders to sing at some party for government officials,” he added. “It’s a difficult business.”