by Branislav DIMITRIJEVIC
Therefore, the fight against a musical "mutant" composed of various musical traditions (contemporary Balkan folk, popular music of Serbian and Roma brass bands, Middle Eastern beats, Turkish and Greek pop music, contemporary electro-dance music) should be fought by the healthy and true Serbian folk. Recently, participating in a popular TV show "Latinica" on the Croatian TV, Miroslav Ilic recommended himself in that vein to the Croatian public. Emphasizing "sophisticated and selective" musical tastes among Croats, he joined the consensus of the Croatian music editors and critics who, if not publicly burning turbo-folk CDs, would definitively keep them far away from the official media space. Thus, Miroslav Ilic embraced the ideology of "the truth and reconciliation" in the form of advocating a return to the true values of the cultural taste that can overcome negative ideological and national connotations. In the end, we can always resort to the division of music to "bad" and "good", the one with tradition, which as such can always awaken positive emotions. Nevertheless, in the meantime, frequented café bars and night clubs in small towns in Croatia keep playing Jelena Karleusa and Stoja. It seems that the reconciliation through pop-folk has already started!
Such a collection of contradictory conclusions forces us to approach this phenomenon from a different angle. Because, isn't it true that the demonized turbo-folk was actually the only confirmation of a shared culture of the South Slavs during the recent wars? When, for example, a market seller at a Sarajevo market was asked why in the midst of a Serb bombing of the city he illegally sold Ceca's CDs, he offered a laconic retort: "Art knows no borders!" And truly, one of the greatest Ceca's hits at the time, "If you wee wounded, I'd give you my blood..." could be heard in the trenches of both sides, just like the return to "reality" of somewhat more urbanized/stylized vision of this topic in Srdjan Dragojevic's film "Pretty Village, Pretty Flame", where that role is taken by the nostalgic pathos of Index's [1970s Sarajevo pop band] song "Bacila je sve niz rijeku" ["She threw everything in the river"]. Therefore, if both sides listened to the same music, although it was performed by the widow of the Serb war criminal with most media exposure, why was the war in the former Yugoslavia fought? Isn't it true that the different perception of national cultural identities was one of the basic ideological motivations of all warring sides?
The boycott of Slovenian goods (tissues and underwear, as the greatest "tragic" character of the Serb political scene Vuk Draskovic would have it un his witty moments) as the first manifestation of the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia, was prompted culturally and politically by marketing strategies of the Slovenian economy, which in the middle eighties, for the first time after the German occupation in WWII, divided the Yugoslav territory into two zones, and in accordance with that division developed two different forms of advertising, one for the "pro-European" and therefore more sophisticated cultural space, and the other for "Orientals" whose cultural habits, according to Slovenian marketing strategists, made them unable to accept new visual codes of promotion of goods for more selective and sophisticated markets. Therefore, the declaration of independence of Croatia, which had to go together with the recognition of the independence of less suspiciously European Slovenia, was treated as the question of recognition of "many centuries of Croatian civilization" as a part of the European, non-Byzantine cultural space. The public fought against the siege of Sarajevo by confirming that the city was not culturally isolated from the universalist tradition of the modern art, which culminated by a performance of Beckett directed by Susan Sontag, or presence of global pop-music stars, such as the band U2. It could, therefore, be concluded that the war was fought not despite European identities of these nations, but precisely to confirm their European identity. Paradoxically, this trend also includes the Serbs, who are otherwise recipients of most non-European labels. Racism, and especially culture-racism with respect to Albanians and Muslims as the key manifestation of the Serb national policy, is reflected in the dominant criticism of turbo-folk. How come?
As a phenomenon that in cultural analyses is fully identified with the previous political system in Serbia, turbo-folk has almost become a shorthand for the ideology and practice of the former regime, together with crime and corruption, unlike, for example, ethnic cleansing, mass murder and deportation. Turbo-folk is increasingly being ideologically recognized as a threat to values that should be promoted in the new democratic movement, and especially a threat to the concept of urban and cosmopolitan culture that implies a European identity and favors a mix of classical and pop-rock music. Even the commercial breaks of broadcasts from the soccer world cup are now reserved for chamber quartets and electric guitars, instead of folk beats, as in the past. From the status of total ideological "exposure" during the nineties, turbo-folk has encountered conservative resistance that aims to erase this phenomenon as a part of undesirable "Turkish" aspect of the Serb identity that must be uprooted. This was announced even in Milosevic's parliament when, in the ranks of the then opposition, Pavle Aksentijevic, among others, created discourse that illustrated cultural downfall of the Serb nation by pointing out similarities between the music of Dragana Mirkovic [turbo-folk singer] and certain Iranian pop songs.
After a while, turbo-folk was seen as a part of "Teheranization" of Serbia, rather than a part of contemporary European multicultural trends. Namely, it is essential that the discourse that demonizes turbo-folk as pop-cultural kitsch uses the same ideological premises as the one that Milosevic used when coming to power in the second half of the eighties. This discourse is based on cultural-racist resistance to cultural influences that are in general recognized as malignant tissue in the healthy body of the true Serb tradition. The cultural matrix promoted by the anti-Milosevic opposition-in-power may be illustrated by a quote from the "Memorandum" of the popular movement "Otpor" published just before the fall of Milosevic in 2001. The "memorandum" says the following: "In the Balkans and in Serbia we encounter two ancient and conflicting tendencies, two trees growing from totally different civlizational and historical roots. The first root we shall refer to as Asiatic, not because of the continent that it originally hails from, but because of the mentality of Ottoman sultans (sic!) and Islamic Jamahiriyas; in Serbia it dates back to almost five centuries of Turkish occupation and is powerfully strengthened by the ruling ideology of quasi-socialism". Vladimir Markovic, who quotes this passage in his paper "Two paths from Ljotic" ["Od Ljotica dva putica"], published in the Belgrade magazine "Prelom", concludes that cultural-racism of this text follows the tradition of the leading twentieth century ideologist of the Serbian Orthodox Church, bishop Nikolaj Velimirovic. Among other, in 1939, Velimirovic wrote the following about Serbs: "We are children of God and people of Arian race, for whom the fate has reserved a special role, that of a chief protector of Christianity in the world. We are a part of the great Slavic family that has through many centuries kept sentry on the gates of Europe, so that tribes of weak races and lower religion would not disturb Christian Europe in its peaceful development and progress".
A similar ideological construction brought Milosevic to power - emphasizing the arch-example of the Kosovo battle in 1389, always interpreted as the defense of the Christianity in Europe - and now it is obviously included in the removal of the traces of Milosevic's ideology and their placement in the dust bin of history. In general, the similarity of arguments of those who brought Milosevic to power and those who now want to totally break with his legacy is astounding. Because, both of them share the central idea of European Serbia defending ungrateful Europe from an Ottoman invasion; both of them are members of Serbian bourgeoisie who dare not look themselves in the mirror for fear of seeing themselves in at the Gazimestan rally in 1987. And turbo-folk is precisely the sign of this Asiatic mentality, damaging influence of "inferior races and cultures" and identification with "the ruling ideology of quasi-socialism". It is a paradox that cultural-racism and anti-Communism are two types of discourse that were equally acceptable under Milosevic and today. And both of them bring us closer to Europe, instead of pushing us away from her.
However, what has so far been the most serious criticism of turbo-folk? In many articles and books written about this phenomenon, local authors and authors form abroad base their theories on one fundamental assumption: turbo-culture was a medium for promotion of lowest cultural, that is uncivilized habits, and as such the key lever in promotion of chauvinism, violence, criminal acquisition of wealth, patriarchal social order, misogyny, and all other aspects of the cultural and moral downfall that created conditions for the policy that was implemented through bombing of cities, murders in camps, rapes etc. Consequently, turbo-culture was interpreted as highly specific for Serbia and as an absolute opposite of the open global culture; thus it became an audio-visual representative of the official Serbian policy. Such theories are most frequently illustrated with excerpts from songs by more or less popular folk music performers (in which no attempt is made to differentiate between turbo-folk and "classic" pop-folk music), whose purpose is to illustrate both the stupidity of the song writer and backwardness of views expressed in his/hers songs. At the same time urban culture, and its ‘tragic" fate in the nineties is described as alternative, emancipating, as a part of a global family that strives for peace and cooperation between people and abandonment of backward relations in the society.
On the other hand, the words of one of the first and greatest hits of classic turbo-folk ever, performed by the duo of Ceca and Mira Skoric, "Don't count on me", talks about resistance to limits imposed by the patriarchal society, about possible emotional and economic independence of young women, and thereby has precisely the emancipating role. Similar songs, as well as the overall image of turbo-folk stars such as Jelena Karleusa, actually demonstrate how exaggerated stress on the construction of the female body as exclusively the object of male desire, ultimately poses a threat to that desire and press open cracks in the patriarchal social order. Also, criticism of turbo-folk analyses the role of music video in promotion of backward and amoral ideas. It is insisted that the iconography of turbo-folk music videos promotes violence, misogyny and celebrates external symbols of easy acquisition of wealth. However, precisely such iconography is representative of the global pop-cultural scene; an average music video shown on MTV shows as many if not more "women treated as objects", golden chains on muscular bodies, and in general everything that is recognized and condemned as banal, sub-intellectual and unsophisticated, all of it actually motivated by its ability to provoke and challenge "safe" value systems of the civic order. Such iconography actually offers evidence that turbo-folk is nothing but an indication that Serbia is increasingly adopting Western values, not the other way round.
The subversive potential of turbo-folk is to be found in the fact that this phenomenon represents a "fatal" imitation of global trends in popular culture but is, both by its critics and by its fans from abroad (in which we can include one Bruce Sterling, the best known cyber-punk guru), treated as in opposition to those trends. Criticizing theories (mostly originating with the Western European left) that recognized the official Serb position in the nineties and especially during the NATO bombardment as an alternative to dominating neo-liberal ideologies, Slavoj Zizek claims that "we have learned the lesson that the alternative between the New World Order and neo-racist ideologies that oppose it does not really exist - the New World Order nurtures monsters that it fights against". And really, let us take a look at the cultural picture of Serbia under Milosevic. Isn't it true that precisely the policy of isolation and failure to adopt European standards resulted in the situation in which Serbia became the spot for the most voluminous and unrestrained consumption of global (that is mostly American) popular culture? Isn't it true that the decision to ignore valid standards, such as copy right, resulted in a veritable avalanche of recent media content from abroad landing on the local TV screens, which any huge global media company can only dream of? Isn't it true that Marija Milosevic and her mom [Mirjana Markovic; Slobodan Milosevic's daughter and wife, respectively] defended themselves by saying that TV Kosava was not a propaganda-political TV station but a compilation of entertainment programs, most prominent of which were American TV series, films and music videos?
All production and marketing strategies in the Serbian popular music both emulate and worship global trends in music, dance, fashion and design. Ceca did start as a girl who sang at a local music festival in Ilidza "I am a cheeky flower", but is today the greatest popular music star that cannot be compared to any folk music performer, but only to stars such as Madonna, Kylie Minogue or Brittney Spears. ("We shall apologize to Miss Spears," Miroslav Ilic reacted in the above mentioned "Latinica" to the remark by certain Vesna Pezo, allegedly the only turbo-folk singer in Croatia, that her clothing and her behavior is no more provocative (read tasteless) than that of Brittney Spears.) Before the big Ceca's concert at Marakana soccer stadium, we've seen confessionals, serials, all sorts of mechanisms already seen in the global popular culture, as well as European tradition. The story about Ceca and Arkan will become nothing but another chapter of tragic fates of famous people that were especially popular in the Austria-Hungary; we shall have a new "big tragedy" similar to that of [Crown Prince] Rudolf and Maria Vetsera [who mysteriously died together in the castle Mayerling in 1899].
The global identity of turbo-folk is easily recognizable, but our intellectual and upper middle class elite cannot come to terms with the fact that someone like Ceca has left such an impact on our cultural space. The same applies to the political option she represents while singing about love. The Party of Serb Unity, at the time of Heider and Le Pen, is also a product of civilized Europe.