Benefit concerts make for strange bedfellows. A few hours into Amnesty International's nearly endless show at Brooklyn's Barclays Center last night, a tall man with silver hair named Kerry Max Cook walked onto the stage to talk about the death penalty. Cook served 22 years on death row in Texas after being wrongfully convicted for the rape and murder of a 21-year-old woman named Linda Jo Edwards; he was released in 1997. During his time in prison the state of Texas executed 144 people. Cook, a prominent anti-death penalty advocate, told his story—on the one hand the obscene horrors of death row, on the other his small measure of good fortune in being able to speak for the executed—smoothly and without the aid of the teleprompter that earlier had tripped up celebrities like Bridget Moynahan, who wore a fedora.
At the end of his speech, Cook introduced his 13-year-old son in the audience. The boy, a visible sign of redemption for a man whose 20s and 30s were completely erased, stood up before 19,000 people and pumped his fist. Then his father stepped back to the microphone and said, "It's my pleasure to introduce the band Cake."
Somewhere in here, amid a succession of activists, random Hollywood creatures and a Spotify spit-out of bands, were wedged Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alyokhina (formerly) of the feminist collective Pussy Riot. The two Russian punks were imprisoned for nearly two years by Vladimir Putin after performing a punk song called "Mother of God, Chase Putin Away" at Moscow's Cathedral Christ of the Savior. The Barclays show was headlined by the Flaming Lips, but "Pussy Riot"—with a special introduction from Madonna—was no doubt the main attraction. Earlier in the day, Amnesty International had held a press conference for the two women in the bowels of the arena.
The organization clearly sees Pussy Riot as both ideologically aligned with its goals and a unique opportunity to amplify its signal, especially among younger people. The de facto logo for the concert—shrewdly timed to coincide with the launch of Putin's Olympic charade in Sochi—was a man with a guitar slung across his torso raising both of his arms (like either Billie Joe Armstrong or, uh, Richard Nixon) and wearing a balaclava, the neon variety of which is the most iconic part of Pussy Riot's unofficial uniform. On the web site of Amnesty USA there is a tile that reads "Take Injustice Personally" and features a photo of protesters in candy-colored balaclavas standing in front of signs that say "FREE PUSSY RIOT."
American activism, at least on a wide scale, is splintered and weak. Pussy Riot, on the other hand, is succinct, strong, daring, and visually compelling. What Occupy Wall Street more or less wasn't—organized, accomplished, media savvy—Pussy Riot is. Nadya and Masha are what Occupy needed: charismatic personalities with identifiable faces. This is, of course, the tension that makes the Occupy movement divisive to this day, even among activists. It has no scalps because that might not have been the point. Pussy Riot's singularity and ambition are positive when viewed through one prism, but negative through another.
Among those that might see it the second way are, well, Pussy Riot. Hours before the concert, anonymous members of the collective posted a letter to Livejournal announcing that Nadya and Masha—who a rapidly increasing number of Americans now know as "Pussy Riot"—are no longer members of the group. Though expressing support for the two, the letter noted that Nadya and Masha have "forgot about the aspirations and ideals of our group — feminism, separatist resistance, fight against authoritarianism and personality cult." They went on further to criticize the benefit show itself, calling it an "extreme contradiction to the very principles of Pussy Riot collective."
"The spectators to our performances are always spontaneous passers by," they wrote. "And we never sell tickets to our 'shows'." When I paused for a second outside of Barclay's on Wednesday night, I was swarmed by scalpers thrusting Ticketmaster printouts at my chest.
Not long after Cake left the stage, Madonna waltzed on, proudly displaying a cane and wearing an airdropped-from-2012 black Comme Des Fuckdown beanie on her head. "Thank you for making 'pussy' a sayable word in my household," she said, displaying an acute lack of self-awareness considering the other word Madonna recently revealed to be acceptable in her family. Among celebrities at least, Madonna was early in her support of Pussy Riot—during a concert in Moscow in 2012 she wore a balaclava and stripped to her bra to reveal "Free Pussy Riot" scrawled on her back. But in Brooklyn she was disinvested and clearly cognizant of the group's commodification, even as she participated in it. While she narrated the struggle that Nadya and Masha had endured, Madonna was interrupted by scattered boos from audience members appalled at the injustice. "Boo," Madonna said drolly. "That is right. Boo." Later, when she said that Pussy Riot "must be commended for their courage and fearlessness," she paused: "That's a 'yay.'"
She eventually brought Nadya and Masha to the stage, along with their translator. Of the two, Nadya is the commanding presence. Masha, shorter and with long, light hair, is withdrawn and seemingly shy, perhaps uncomfortable with becoming a celebrity. Nadya, though, was born for this role. She boomed into the microphone, spitting Russian and pacing across the stage, walking to the lip right in front of the audience to punctuate a point. She looked chic in a long white shirt printed with a large, black cross underneath a black blazer. Madonna was wearing what New York rapper and fashion plate A$AP Rocky wore two years ago; Masha was wearing the sort of outfit you might see him in tomorrow night.
Their speech, molded into English, was perhaps understandably generic. "Freedom is not a given," Nadya said. "It is something we need to fight for and stand for every day." And later: "We demand freedom for all political prisoners." This was the language, too, of the speeches read off by the actors and performers in between sets—before a crowd of 20,000, one has to aim broad. With Nadya and Masha, though, the emotion of their words mattered more than the English dutifully recited by their translator. They ended their moment in a froth and with a scream: "RUSSIA WILL BE FREE-YA."
From where I was sitting, the two were on the stage off my right shoulder, the entire audience off my left. As Nadya and Masha yelled, I couldn't help but notice out of the corner of my eye a vendor walking through the general admission rows in plain view of the stage, carrying a bucket of beer on his head, Budweiser and Bud Light logos easily visible even from several hundred feet away.
Just as inartfully as a man who served 22 years on death row in Texas ceded the stage to Cake, a disembodied voice quickly announced the arrival of Imagine Dragons after Nadya and Masha finished. You probably know their smash hit single "Radioactive," which sounds like what it feels like to force out a turd. The song is "political" in the vaguest sense that it sketches out some sort of brave new post-apocalyptic world. But in its exuberant optimism, the song skips over the revolution itself, if it even considers one. Politically it cuts against Pussy Riot's entire existence, but even with sets by Lauryn Hill and Tegan and Sara still to come, "Radioactive" was positioned as the night's exclamation point.
As anyone who caught Imagine Dragons on the Grammys knows, "Radioactive" is pure testosterone. Half a dozen men bang on all sizes of drums, including a huge taiko one that lead singer Dan Reynolds beats with truly amazing force. This is how we celebrated an "all-female separatist collective" on Wednesday night.
"We count ourselves as being inspired by Pussy Riot," Reynolds said at one point. "Thank you for standing up for human rights. Now, let's have a good time."
Update: This post has been edited to more clearly reflect the fact that Kerry Max Cook was wrongfully convicted.
[Photo of Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina via Getty, photo of screen inside Barclays Center by Jordan Sargent]