Shprot: “Armenia Is Too Small For Me”
With cropped blond hair, a fiery tattoo around her bellybutton and fondness for using delicate moustaches in performances, Shprot — the distinctive singer that burst onto the Armenian music scene 6 years ago — is awfully hard to ignore. Her provocative videos, complete with black pleather body suits, pink wigs, and sometimes barely any clothing at all, have been a source of controversy and delight within circles in Yerevan and beyond. Comments left on her YouTube clips reveal the varied reception she’s received. “What a breath of fresh air she is,” reads one. “This singer brings shame to the Armenian culture,” says another.
Love her or hate her, Shprot, whose real name is Ani Tovmasyan, doesn’t mind. As far as she’s concerned, it’s not the clothes that make the man, or woman.
“We’re a conservative culture and we want to show that we’re good, modest people by what we wear,” she says to me in an interview over the phone from Yerevan.
“But your heart and soul have to be good first and then your clothing.”
Everything about Shprot is unconventional, at least as far as Armenian standards are concerned. Even her stage name, which she adopted from a foul-smelling Russian fish conserve packed in oil, sets her apart. Honest and brash, Shprot is a one-of-a-kind force within the cookie-cutter Armenian music industry that churns out sweeping love ballads set to R&B beats a mile a minute.
Her envelope-pushing antics and opinions, however, have sometimes set her back in Armenia, a country where homosexuality was decriminalized less than 10 years ago. At the 2009 Eurovision Song Contest Finals in Armenia, during which Shprot stepped out with a gender-bending “Victor/Victoria” getup, she alleges that behind the scenes foul play with her microphone cost her the performance.
“When I listen back, I have my head in my hands because I had been preparing that performance for months and they ruined it for me.”
Two years earlier, a scandal involving a video of her labeled “Armenian Drunk Singer” made the rounds on the Internet, causing a public backlash. At the time, Shprot was working as a waitress at a club and decided to let off some steam with a few friends after her shift. In the video, she is seen dancing and lying on a table with a bra top and short skirt while shouting and giggling in the process.
“When people like Paris Hilton do things like that in America, their ratings go up, but here it’s a different story,” she says.
Controversies aside, she’s more Ani than Shprot, casually telling her mother that’s she’s on the phone with this journalist, speaking fondly of meeting fans on the streets of Yerevan and sharing observances of the Armenian diaspora after a trip to Los Angeles.
Although she has been singing professionally for less than a decade, her foray into the music industry was a destiny that a law degree didn’t curtail.
After graduating from law school and faced with a bleak job situation in Yerevan, Shprot began working as a waitress to save money in hopes of putting together a music video.
Financial obligations to her family also played a factor after her soldier father died during the Karabakh war. After she got her finances in order, she took an old Armenian folk tune that her father used to sing to her as a child, called “Xorozs Taran,” and gave it a modern twist, becoming one of the first in Armenia to infuse rock and roll into traditional folk music. “Xorozs Taran” was soon followed by hits such as “I’m Thinking Positive” and “Yeghir Azat” (“Be Free”), an anthem for marginalized groups in Armenia, including the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community.
She followed her song, in which she sings about listening to your heart and not letting fear stop you from your dreams, with speaking openly about issues considered taboo to a in interviews.
“I would talk about sex and homosexuality, about issues that weren’t being openly discussed in Armenia,” she says. “I have a lot of gay friends and I understand them. Everyone decides for themselves who to live with and who to sleep with, what business is it of ours to go and interfere with their lives?”
These days, Shprot has been laying low, only emerging to work with Ernest the Best, an Armenian pop singer who she collaborated with on “Cherry Cherry,” a slick sugary electronic pop song in English with a visual feast of a video to boot.
If the beats and style remind you of another blonde pop star who is making rounds all over the world, you’re not far off. Shprot freely admits that Lady Gaga was an inspiration for the song’s look and style, but don’t compare the two songstresses to each other.
“I was around before she was,” Shprot says. Like Gaga, Shprot has plans to expand her presence throughout the world.
“Armenia is too small for me,” she says. “I feel as though my oxygen supply is being cut off and I don’t have things to do here anymore.”
Her intentions to liberate Armenians from conservatism are ambitious. People love her, hate her and love to hate her. They praise her because she’s different and admire her style. They call her “broken” in Armenian and tell her she’s a whore.
And while we both were on the phone, separated by thousands of miles, with English-Armenian dictionaries next to both of us, there was only thing I wanted to do — party with Shprot in the kitschy electro-pop loving clubs of Yerevan and beyond, a thought I have never once entertained in Los Angeles, where the night life is frankly, the right life.
Shprot isn’t an international superstar, although she reminds me of Madonna, who once famously said she wanted to rule the world on American Bandstand in 1984. Her music isn’t necessarily deep, her videos are cliché, but she’s mine. She’s my own personal eccentric Armenian Lady Gaga-esque pop star. She makes people look twice, whether it’s out of shock, disgust or genuine interest, and for that, she deserves some praise. In a culture defined by its need to hang on to what once was, Shprot is a breath of fresh air in a stale room, a catalyst to progress a conversation that’s long overdue, at least where entertainment is concerned.