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Feminist Perspectives on Turbo-folk
by Elizabeth Taber
Turbo-folk permeated Serbian media in the 1990s and has remained popular in the region ever since. It has undergone major transformations in tandem with changes within Serbian society and government. Turbo-folk has been highly controversial since its inception due in large part to the nationalistic nature of the music and its relationship to the Slobodan Milošević regime. It has been heavily criticized for its portrayal of gender roles in particular. However, turbo-folk has grown far from its oppressive anti-feminist roots in the Milošević regime and became a much more inclusive and progressive genre for women and the queer community. I am going to discuss a few feminist perspectives on turbo-folk, namely those of turbo-folk scholars Marija Grujić, Ivana Kronja, and Dijana Jelača.
Marija Grujić, in her thesis titled “Community and the Popular: Women, Nation, and Turbo-folk in Post-Yugoslav Serbia”, responded to the idea that turbo-folk is inherently sexist by examining the social and historical context together with performances by the female singers in the genre. Grujić found the claim of inherent sexism to be accurate and grounded in the nationalistic aspect of the music. She describes how when turbo-folk was introduced, it altered and emphasized what the standard of what a ‘respectable’ woman is. The women who came to be celebrities within the genre are emblematic of the ideology behind turbo-folk itself. For instance, Svetlana Ceca Ražnatović (hereafter referred to by her stage name, Ceca) became a wildly popular singer during the nineties and was heavily involved in turbo-folk’s development and popular performance. Grujić noted that “Ceca’s public image is calculated so as to establish her as a prominent representative of the Serbian community… images of her body [and] powerful images of gender abuses in her videos are interconnected with the overall tendencies of politicization of gender hierarchies in Serbian society”(198). Grujić finds these turbo-folk representatives to be a reinforcement of sexist ideology and beliefs. While there is a display of a powerful woman, she is powerful only within a traditional feminine role. She maintains her status of respectability by outwardly being monogamously devoted to a man and her family. Grujić states that “turbo-folk performances … do not really contain elements of clear social critique, as there were not enough signs for the audiences to read a subversive political message behind their performances, nor are there indicators that the performers themselves have such a concept of playing with political reality”(245). In other words, the audience would not find a political message about femininity or gender roles, only a display of expected femininity.
There are many examples of this lack of critique-- as many turbo-folk music videos are centered around some sort of love plot-- but Ceca’s “Dokaz” is notable in the level of toxicity within the displayed relationship. In this video, Ceca is now a mother and falls for a “dangerous man” type for the second time. When she catches him cheating on her for the second time, she kills the other woman as some form of ‘revenge’. In addition to a violent fight scene between the man and Ceca, the man is portrayed as a business-savvy womanizer type, while Ceca is a motherly, caring figure. This video exemplifies how the turbo-folk divas reinforced toxic patriarchal norms, especially in heterosexual relationships. The images of her are all exaggeratedly stereotypical displays of femininity that are limiting and destructive. The relationship was violent and antagonistic for Ceca, yet she takes her anger about the infidelity out on the other woman instead of him.
Many of these displayed gender roles are reflective of the paternalistic culture of the region. In order for the genre to become popular, it had to be emulative of the common societal practices of the time. The patriarchal structure of Serbian society was deeply entrenched in the national identity. Ivana Kronja, an author and professor at the University of Belgrade, shared similar opinions about turbo-folk as a chauvinistic genre in her article “Turbo Folk and Dance Music in 1990s Serbia: Media, Ideology and the Production of Spectacle”. Kronja asserts that turbo-folk was used as an ‘ideological weapon’ by the Milošević regime that dominated Serbia in the nineties. She described it as promoting a system of values that “aimed to establish the cult of crime and violence, war-profiteering, national-chauvinism and provincialism, together with the abandonment of morals, education, legality, and other civic values” (103). Kronja focuses on the monopoly of the media by the regime and argues that turbo-folk is a representation of corrupt Serbian leadership. The consolidation of power required hyper-nationalistic mass entertainment to sway the public into cooperation. Turbo-folk was used to persuade people into feeling positively about the regime. Utilizing nostalgia and traditional paternalistic values was an easy way to get the audience listening. Attractive, sparkly women were used to influence people by being role models for women and status symbols for the men who ‘attained them’. This is highlighted when Kronja states that “[a woman] is just a desirable object and goods. She is supposed to attract a man by her looks and to thrill him; her appearance has the aim of confirming the status of the man who has her around him, or to represent a potential status symbol in the man’s absence” (112).
This is especially true of the earlier turbo-folk songs and performances, when kafana¹ culture was hugely popular and the Milošević regime was still in control. The roots of turbo-folk lie in the newly composed folk (neofolk) genre, and you can see how the neofolk ideology was passed along and utilized. For instance, in the video Čovek nije tica by Dušan Makavejev, a kafana scene is shown where a woman (“Fatima”) is singing (neofolk) and dancing; essentially, she is on display in this cafe full of rowdy men. Of course, a fight breaks out, and later in the video a man says how “They had a fight last Saturday. Three went to the hospital, five to the clink… and all because of Fatima”. This video is demonstrative of the objectification of women. Not only do they zoom in on and focus mostly on her body, there is no attempt to assign Fatima any sort of personality or preference on any one man. It is implied that she can be won through physical competition.
While many feel strongly that turbo-folk promotes chauvinistic principles, there are also those who have a more reparative feminist perspective. Dijana Jelača, author and professor at Brooklyn College, wrote “Feminine Libidinal Entrepreneurship”-- an examination of the possibility of more contemporary turbo-folk performers having the ability to break down some of the limitations and expectations imposed on women by the genre in previous years. Specifically, she focuses on the sponzorušas and their role in breaking down previously rigid gender barriers. The sponzoruša or “sponsored girl” is a term affiliated with the turbo-folk divas that dominate the genre. Jelača explains the paranoia surrounding turbo-folk and its roots in ultranationalism and argues that “[dismissed] as an embodiment of materialist patriarchy … a sponzoruša is often anything but; if submissiveness is a part of her performance, it is typically deployed towards the goal of gaining social power… Perhaps she is threatening to patriarchy precisely because the sponzoruša bursts the bubble within which feminine libido is normatively directed towards love plots and maternal impulses” (43). Feminine libidinal entrepreneurship is the idea that women can use their sexuality to gain power instead of simply a husband. Women in turbo-folk can use their own objectification to become powerful and subvert the “man’s world” that they are subject to living in.
One of the most prominent sponzorušas who has demonstrated this type of entrepreneurship is Jelena Karleuša (pictured below).
Karleuša has an intense look, one that is extremely feminine-- exaggeratedly so. She capitalizes on the fetishization of herself and her lyrics very outwardly express this. In her song “Gili, Gili”, she sings: “Who comes on to a woman this way? … If you love me, Love me to your last dinar.” Here the message is clear: Karleuša is pointing to her own status as a sexual object and performance and demanding capitalist gain from it. In fact, she has gained plenty from this type of performance and is more powerful because of it. In this way, she is the perfect example of feminine libidinal entrepreneurship in turbo-folk.
With time, turbo-folk is evolving away from its roots in the Milošević regime and becoming more progressive. Karleuša as one of the main figure heads in the a more modern, queer-friendly² turbo-folk. The blurring of gender norms within the queer movement gives female artists the opportunity to move past the heteronormative limitations previously imposed on them.
It’s important to remember where and why turbo-folk began and what made it so controversial in the first place. The strict control that the Serbian government previously had on its media outlets contributed greatly to the ideology expressed in the music. Reinforcing patriarchal gender roles was in the interest of the government and Serbian elites in order to gain nationalistic traction. Despite the authoritarian impetus of turbo-folk, the genre now has a much less stifled socio-political environment in which to grow into a more inclusive and progressive art form.
¹ “The kafana, as an institution of drinking, eating, dancing and socializing, has a long history of being a cult place for the Balkan people... for decades the kafana had a controversial reputation, with a significant gender-ambivalent, identity politics attached to it. The kafana was a place of everyday socializing and relaxation meant mostly for men. Traditionally, women were not expected to be there without a male escort, otherwise, they would have been taken as courtesans or just entertainers (which was almost the same), or just women of so-called low morality”(Grujic 94).
² For more reading on how turbo-folk has been increasingly more open to the queer community, read “Queer as Turbo-folk”, a five part article published in The Balkanist.
Slobodan Milošević, turbo-folk, chauvinism, Svetlana Ceca Ražnatović, nationalist, sponzoruša, kafana, feminine libidinal entrepreneurship, Jelena Karleuša
Dijana Jelača. “Feminine Libidinal Entrepreneurship: Towards a reparative reading of the sponzoruša in turbo folk”. Feminist Media Studies, 15:1, 36-52. 2015. DOI: 10.1080/14680777.2015.988391
Grujić, Marija. “Community and the Popular: Women, Nation, and Turbo-folk in Post-Yugoslav Serbia”. Central European University, Department of Gender Studies, 2009, www.etd.ceu.hu/2011/gphgrm01.pdf.
Kronja, Ivana. “Turbo Folk and Dance Music in 1990s Serbia: Media, Ideology and the Production of Spectacle”. The Anthropology of East Europe Review, Vol. 22:1. 2004 scholarworks.iu.edu/journals/index.php/aeer/article/viewFile/330/405.
“Dokaz.” Performance by Svetlana Ceca Raznatovic, YouTube, 1999, www.youtube.com/watch?v=W4LUCE7suIQ
Makavejev, Dusan, director. Čovek Nije Tica. YouTube, 22 Apr. 2010, www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=2&v=47p7czI-EZA
Photo of Jelena Karleuša. Spotify, i.scdn.co/image/08e60abac9bfaf705c36bb620b6fd21ea6cd49e5
Karleuša, Jelena. 1999. “Gili gili.” [“Tickle Tickle.”] Music Single. Serbia: Grand Production.
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Performance of the Nation in Turbofolk
…[H]istory may be half-made because it is in the process of being made; and the image of cultural authority may be ambivalent because it is caught, uncertainly, in the act of ‘composing’ its powerful image.
–Homi K. Bhabha, Nation and Narration
Rambo Amadeus’s musical work during the late 1980s positioned him as a prominent critic of turbo-folk among urban Serbians concerned about the decline of Serbia in light of Slobodan Milošević’s authoritarian-nationalist regime and the rise of a criminal elite (Gordy, 111-115). Combining “rap, folk, rock, and Communist nostalgia,” Rambo’s conceptualization of turbofolk and receptions to the genre becoming the mainstay of Serbian culture point to a greater phenomenon of associating musical taste to one’s social standing (Gordy, 116). This differentiation was already evident in the arrival of neofolk, the musical genre that paved the way for turbofolk’s ascendancy. Neofolk entered urban centers via rural peasant migrants in the 1960s and aroused opposition due to associations the genre with historical Turkish cultural dominance and Western hegemony. These same criticisms seem to apply in urbanite criticisms of turbofolk, albeit criticisms of turbofolk contain a political dimension that was not as evident in criticisms of neofolk. As mentioned previously, turbofolk was a signifier of Milošević’s regime, but it quickly fell out of favor with the regime when nationalist elites sought for a pure Serbian cultural signifier around the time in which Milošević’s regime undermined nationalist interventions abroad (Gordy, 153-154). The differentiated perceptions of turbofolk throughout time and the performances within turbofolk highlights questions about national identity, particularly concerning its mutability and unevenness as histories are manufactured and remanufactured. Although turbofolk is often perceived as lacking historicity, the variety of histories and experiences that turbofolk calls upon is important in understanding how Serbian national identity was and is constructed. In addressing how (re)construction of Serbian nationalism occurs via turbofolk, this paper will examine turbofolk music and reception to certain works in the genre.
Prior to examining the construction of Serbian nationalism through turbofolk, issues concerning analysis on the Balkan identity must be addressed. Although much of the literature in postcolonial studies address questions particular to colonized countries of the Global South, it can be argued that issues in postcolonial discourse are applicable to the Balkans with consideration to imperial rule from the East and West, as well as the tensions that have endured as a result. Much of the Balkans prior to the 19th century was ruled by the Ottoman Empire, which had a lasting legacy in how nations in the Balkans oriented themselves in light of increasing influence from Western empires (Bjelić, 489). With consideration to this, it is important to note that “the relationship of the Balkans to its ‘Ottoman heritage’ [is] as inseparable to its relationship to the West” (Bjelić, 489). These relations are often at odds with each other since the pursuit of identification with the West tends to marginalize signifiers of historical relations with the Ottoman Empire (Bjelić, 490). Marginalization is further reproduced in the othering of ethnic groups originating from the east of the Balkans (Bjelić, 490). This reproduction of marginalization from within a cultural group to those considered more ‘oriental’ outside of a cultural group is known as ‘nesting orientalism’, which appears in the reception and performance of turbofolk.
In light of a more globalized cultural arena, with the Eurovision Song Contest as an important historical example in the Balkan context, these tensions are articulated even in the absence of turbofolk performance. In 2007, Serbia won its first Eurovision Song Contest as an independent country. Marija Šerifović represented Serbia during the 2007 contest and won with a performance of “Molitva,” a ballad that stood in stark contrast to the distinguishing sounds of turbofolk (McLaughlin). Although the song was performed entirely in Serbian, the instrumentation is akin to most Western pop ballads and lacks any ‘oriental’ melodies that might point viewers toward Serbia’s turbofolk traditions. In a news conference following the contest, Šerifović told interviewers that she “think[s] that a new chapter has opened for Serbia and not only in music” (McLaughlin). Furthermore, her successful performance resonated with various interests seeking to create a European Serbia. Considering these moments that occurred shortly after the 2007 Eurovision Song Contest, as well as the turbofolk performers who were active during this time and remained as successful musicians in Serbia and throughout the Balkans, this variance in presentation implies tensions between cultural signifiers of the East and the West. Explicit examples of nesting orientalism in response to turbofolk are readily found on the video streaming platforms, which can also be considered globalized cultural arenas. Blagojević’s findings in her study of responses to turbofolk videos on YouTube reveal the power of cultural signifiers in constructing and delineating terms of identity in the context of Serbian nationality (Blagojević). In the comments section of Ceca Ražnatović’s “Kukavica”, Blagojević found comments lampooning Ceca’s appearance and personal life that simultaneously drew on anti-Turkish sentiments: “she’s so ugly, like she’s Turkish;” “she lost her virginity with a Muslim. All Serbian women are whores” (Blagojević, 160). In examining the song itself, Ceca’s ornamentation of vocals called back to Turkish musical traditions while the instrumentation maintained a Western, ‘modern’ sound. The performances of Šerifović and Ceca appear to have elicited fairly different responses as a result of varying postures toward Turkish musical influence in their respective performances.
To complicate a strictly ‘East versus West’ angle on analyses of turbofolk, it is important to note that class distinctions also matter in analyses concerning nation-building. Although nationalist sentiments tied to turbofolk seem to be dominated by historical and cultural readings of the genre, particularly by non-elites with limited direct interests in ‘higher’ arenas of sociopolitical debates, local elites simultaneously played a role in shaping the liminality of Serbian national identity through promotion and disavowal of turbofolk. In the emergence of neofolk in Serbia’s urban centers, neofolk was inexplicably tied to rural identity according to urban elites: the dominant perception of neofolk, and later turbofolk, implied the “backwardness” and “violence” of the incoming rural-urban class (Archer 184). This connotation is represented in the kafana scene in the movie “Ćovek nije tica,” in which a female-presenting performer is singing to an audience of men. The men are shown with clothing that signified their peasantry status and are seen fighting in the middle of the performance before a police officer steps in to intervene. This scene highlights not only the director’s image of Serbia’s peasantry, but it also highlights the stereotypes of the rural class that urban elites use to justify the marginalization of culture tied to the rural class. During the early years of Milošević’s regime, Serbian state-run media promoted turbofolk as a means of ushering in nationalist support in light of wars abroad and sanctions targeting Serbia, as well as creating a space for an emerging criminal elite to flourish and obtain support by non-elites (Gordy 135; Archer 185). Mitar Mirić’s “Ne moze nam niko nista” embodied the nationalism of Serbia as it became a ‘pariah’ state in the global sphere during this era while also dovetailing with the need for diversion in spite of internal crises resulting from events abroad. Despite containing overwhelming references to Eastern musical traditions in the song’s vocals and instrumentations, the lyrics resonated with Serbians rallying behind the Serbian nation and Milošević’s rule: “Nobody can touch us, / We’re stronger than destiny / We can only be hated / By the ones who don’t like us.” As with much of popular turbofolk during this era, the lyrics appear as apolitical love songs but still contain nationalist subtexts, especially considering state involvement in promoting turbofolk. Using “Ne moze nam niko nista” as an example, tying turbofolk as a pillar of nationalism in Serbia presented nationalist elites with paradoxes in cultural values that eventually manifested in the decline of turbofolk as a vehicle for nationalism (Šentevska 420).The later years of Milošević’s presidency were characterized by a turn outwards, which was partially the result of internal unrest by nationalist intellectuals dissatisfied with the ‘oriental stains’ within turbofolk, seeking a ‘pure’ Serbian culture (Gordy 152; Archer 189).
Taking into consideration the historical, cultural, and political aspects of turbofolk performance, turbofolk is a culmination of a nation’s attempt to define itself against the backdrop of major political changes and crises. In Homi Bhabha’s “DiseemiNation: time, narrative, and the margins of the modern nation,” he asserts that “the people are not simply historical events or parts of a patriotic body politic. They are also a complex rhetorical strategy of social reference where the claim to be representative provokes a crisis within the process of signification” (Bhabha 291). Inserting turbofolk in Babbha’s analysis, we can assume that the genre is a “narrative performance” of Serbia, provided that its people consent to the usage of turbofolk as a signifier of Serbian identity. The evolution of turbofolk’s significance and representation is represented at the antagonisms of classes, ethnicities, and varying degrees of identification with the state, revealing the precarity of turbofolk’s position in Serbian culture.