In conversation, she likes to characterise herself as a tragic icon of Serbian womanhood - a God-fearing Christian who loves her children above all else, struggling bravely against injustice. 'I am fragile and emotional,' she tells me. And, 'What doesn't kill me makes me stronger'. I ask Ceca what people in Serbia think of her now. 'That I'm a victim,' she says. 'A victim of my name and my huge popularity, and of my great love... that I was married to Zeljko. I'm not a criminal. I'm not a Mafioso. I'm just a woman who's fighting her way through life.’ - Higginbotham, 2Svetlana Vetlickovic, or simply Ceca, is a turbo-folk icon, known for both her revolutionary music and her infamous marriage to Zeljko Raznatovic. Originating as an ambitious kafana singer, Ceca rose to fame as part of the ethno-nationalist campaign waged by Slobodan Milosevic during the Yugoslav civil wars of the 1990s. Milosevic used the hyper-sexual, materialistic ideals espoused by turbo-folk as a cultural escapism from the depressing realities of Yugoslavia in the 80s and 90s (Cvoro 7). Because Milosevic used turbo-folk for this purpose, it’s clear that Ceca has a right to see herself as a victim. At the same time, Ceca’s role in defining nationalist Serbia throughout the 90s and into the early 2000s is unquestionably important. Through careful examination and analysis of her music and the ethnopolitical climate of Yugoslavia in the 90s, this paper will show Ceca was a victim of the politicization of turbo-folk, rather than an aggressor of Serbian ethnonationalism.
Turbo-folk itself has an interesting history, especially when its role in propagating ethnonationalism is taken into account. As Yugoslavia became more and more industrialized, folk music made its way into the mainstream, urban culture. As time went by and the genre evolved, it eventually reached a point where it became the dominant music archetype of Yugoslavia (Beronja). In many ways the evolution of folk into popular music can be thought of as a rags-to-riches story. From its rural and provincial beginnings, folk became popularized and modernized, evolving into the luxurious, sexual, almost gluttonous genre of turbo-folk. Ceca’s personal history is not too much different from this narrative.
Ceca grew up in a small Serbian village, where as a young girl she performed in the various kafanas. Incredibly enough, her big break came for her at thirteen years of age, when her talent caught the attention of Mirko Kodic, an acclaimed singer/accordian player. Kodic opened the doors for her. By age fifteen, Ceca debuted her first album, Cvetak Zanovetak, and went on to win at the Ilidza Folk Music Festival for the record’s eponymous track. Over the next few years, Ceca continued to rise in popularity and released new records as she moved from her village folk roots into the luxurious lifestyle and sound of turbo-folk. Part of her success was due to financing from her husband Zeljko Raznatovic, better known to many as the career criminal Arkan. Arkan provided Ceca with the means to launch her career to the next level, allowing her to become the super star diva she is today (upclosed.com, 1-3).
To understand why Raznatovic had the means to provide for Ceca’s success, it is important to understand the events in his life leading up to meeting her. Raznatovic was a career criminal throughout Europe, committing bank robberies and jewelry theft. After escaping from multiple prisons across Western Europe, Arkan returned to Yugoslavia and began organizing the Serbian Volunteer Guard (SDG) paramilitary group, known also as Arkan’s Tigers. The Tigers were responsible for many wartime atrocities, but were mainly motivated by criminal exploits. They murdered, raped, and pillaged throughout Yugoslavia, yet Arkan was widely celebrated in Serbia for his patriotism. As a result, he was very successful in politics; he was elected to parliament in 1992 and within a year had formed his own ultranationalist party, the Serbian Unity Party (The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, 1).
Despite having been elected to parliament, Arkan was still on the frontlines of the war in 1993. It was then that Ceca and Arkan met, when Ceca performed for Arkan’s Tigers on the front lines. According to her, “He was very cute, very handsome and very masculine. I fell in love with him instantly. I respect people who are fighters, who succeed in life, who don't give up - because life is a constant struggle” (Higginbotham 4). To Ceca, it did not matter whether Arkan was a criminal; he was a strong, handsome man with plenty of drive and ambition. They were married in 1995 in a wedding that reeked of Serbian kitsch and turbo-folk luxury.
Comprising of many changes in outfit, including traditional Serbian garbs for Arkan, the wedding was kitsch at its finest. For many, it was an overt breaking of the separation of church and state, the literal marriage a symbolic marriage of popular culture and the state. For Ceca, though, marrying Arkan was personal. For Ceca, the nineteenth of February 1995 was the day she married her love. Ceca famously proclaimed, “The only difference between us [Arkan and Ceca] and the royal couple is we love each other and are faithful to one another (Silber 1)." While her comment could be taken as nationalist pride, it is more indicative of a deep love and trust for her beloved.
While we could sit idly and condemn Ceca just for falling in love with a war criminal, it is clear that doing so would just continue to ignore the fact Ceca was a victim of ethnonationalism in the 90s. Did her music contribute to the raging ethnonationalism of the time? Undoubtedly. Kad Bi Bio Ranjen is just one example of how Ceca’s love for Arkan can be misconstrued as ethnonationalism.
If you were [wounded] I would give you my blood
both my eyes if you were blind
but in vain, for you are beautiful without a soul (Goldyloxx 1).
Her lyrics can be taken two ways; first, in the sense she is speaking to the soldiers of the Yugoslav civil wars, many of whom did lose their lives or return home wounded. However, I would proffer she is speaking to her husband, a man who did fight in the war. She worries for her beloved, and while the time in which the song was released did mean Kad Bi Bio Ranjen would be associated with war, the song is far more a love song than a war cry.
We can look to another song of Ceca’s to find her love for Arkan. Through the lenses of the turbo-folk desire, Ceca’s hit song Nije Monotonija, or It’s Not Monotony, can be interpreted as a just another kitschy, mass-produced-by-the-Milosevic-regime song, yet the song is more than that.
The symbolism in the video is clear; the tiger is a reference to Arkan’s Tigers, and the key line in the song, “Where are you in all of this?” (Adrienne 1) solidifies the point. Nije Monotonija is not just another turbo-folk song; it is a cry to Arkan. The longing the song expresses is not for a change in pace, but for her beloved.
Regardless of interpretation, Ceca's lyrics seem to be less motivated by ethnonationalism than her deep love for Zeljko Raznatovic. Yet, the most important evidence in this case remains: Ceca was and still is widely popular across the former Yugoslavia. Volcic and Erjavec point out Ceca was not only popular, but her name was the most popular search term on Google in Croatia in 2008 (2). Her music, while it may have originally been taken in the ethnonationalist sense before, has acquired a new meaning of pan-Balkanism. Volcic and Erjavec posit that this is because of the break from the social sphere Ceca took after the death of Zeljko Raznatovic (6). It was here that Ceca defined herself as a victim of Serbian ethnonationalism, while doubling down on this narrative, claiming she never sang the soundtrack of the Milosevic regime. “I don’t know what they’re talking about. I don’t sing songs about nationalism. I only sing about love. And besides, Milosevic has been gone for four years, and I’m still here” (6). While Ceca could very easily be lying in order to preserve her fame, it is far more likely she speaks truthfully about her music, especially considering the deep love she clearly held for Arkan, both before and after his murder.
Following Arkan’s murder, Ceca took a break from public life. Even the most supportive critics like Volcic and Erjavec argue Ceca’s absence from public life was for publicity. Yet nearly twenty years following the murder of Zeljko Raznatovic, Ceca still has not remarried. The narrative of Arkan as her one true love seems to hold true today as a result. Taking this into account, perhaps the Ceca narrative should be altered from the nationalist puppet to that of a more caring, loving wife and singer who was unjustly taken advantage of by the time in which she became popular.
Ceca’s music was, without question, funded by the Serbian ethnonationalist machine of the 90s, and it was thanks to key figures like Zeljko Raznatovic and Slobodan Milosevic that Ceca was able to rise to such heights in the popular culture. It’s important to take away, though, that while Ceca is a self-proclaimed patriot, “I am a huge patriot, and no one has the right to take it away from me. I love my nation, and my country” (Volcic & Erjavec 6), Ceca sang about love. Her patriotism should not color the interpretation of her songs. Ceca sang not about love of country but love of her husband who provided the inspiration for her many hit songs and records. Did all of this occur when Serbian ethno-nationalism was at an all time high? Was her music funded by the same machine that propagated rape and deaths camps only thirty years ago? Did her music have an impact on increasing the ethnonationalism of the time? A simple yes would answer all these questions. Yet did she fall in love with a man, and then sing about him and her love for him? Did Slobodan Milosevic use her love and her lyrics as analogue to the Serbian motherland to promote ethnonationalism? Following that, was Ceca used like a puppet by the Milosevic regime? The same answer applies to these questions: