“Brena represented a Yugoslav mainstream culture policy project and was in fact the biggest Yugoslav and the first big Balkan star. Her public persona embodied multicultural Yugoslavia in all aspects of her public appearances...” - Ann Hofmann
Lepa Brena was born Fahreta Jahić in 1960 in Tuzla, Bosnia and Herzegovina to a muslim working class family. With eighteen albums, five movies, two television shows and her own barbie doll, she serves the Balkans as their first and most prominent celebrity. Most notably, Brena’s music and stardom has been identified as symbolic of the former Yugoslavia. Brena, a self proclaimed Yugonostalgia celebrity, is closely affiliated with former Yugoslavia due to the emergence of her career prior to the collapse of the socialist nation in the early 1980s. At this time, citizens underwent dramatic political shifts, devastating inflation, and high nationalist tensions between nation states. Brena’s music was able to transport some listeners to a simple and sentimental Yugoslavia, while others found this kitsch style of music representative of Yugoslav national unity that was threatened by the rise of nationalism. Brena’s impact on Yugoslavia’s popular culture established her relationship with Yugonostalgia in the period after the breakup of the country. Yugonostalgia refers to a post-war Yugoslavia, describing those born before or during the breakup of Yugoslavia who are left with the emotional attachments or voids inspired by the loss of many in the wars of the 1990s. Yugonostalgia may possess both positive and derogatory connotations. Positives includes: reflections of the cultural solidarity, the nonalignment movement, and appreciation of common Yugoslav culture like music, dancing, and homelife. More often, the derogatory aspects of Yugonostalgia are associated with questioning and undermining of sovereignty of Yugoslav successor states. From this perspective, Lepa Brena’s continued success and fame has been greatly influenced by her identity as a contemporary figure of Yugonostalgia. Brena was able to utilize her pre-war emergence as a means of galvanizing nostalgic fans in a post-war era. Brena’s person has been identified by hundreds of thousands as a symbolic vehicle which transports fans to a former home.
Lepa Brena’s recognition is closely intertwined to her musical career as a turbo-folk superstar. Turbo-folk, originating in the 1990s in Serbia, is claimed to have arisen from “Yugoslav novokomponovana narodna muzika (newly composed folk music; henceforth NCFM)”, a development originating in 1960s due to the rapid growth of industrialization and urbanization (Archer 179). This type of music embodies an oriental tone with a mix of electronic sounds and kitsch folk music. Themes include love, family, trials and tribulations of immigrant life, and regional belonging (Archer 183). Audiences are generalized to be a combination of peasants and the sophisticated urbanites; more specifically, typical listeners are considered to be immigrants of Yugoslavia or those with ties to urbaninity and rural life. While sentimental and reflective to some, opposition and conservatives consider turbofolk's impact on Serbian culture to be detrimental. “Turbofolk has been accused by numerous Serbian and foreign authors of being a medium for the promotion of the lowest cultural habits, a key lever in the promotion of chauvinism, violence, criminal acquisition of wealth, a patriarchal social order and other aspects of the ‘cultural and moral downfall’ of 1990s Serbia” (Archer 185). This dichotomous view of turbo-folk as a real and relatable representation of Serbian homelife versus a monstrous, lowbrow cultural phenomena leaves little room for more nuanced approaches.
Brena’s embrace of Yugonostalgia can be witnessed in her most popular single released just before the dissolution of Yugoslavia in 1989, has been identified as a Yugoslavian anthem: “Jugoslovenka” or “Yugoslav girl”. At the time, “Jugoslovenka” functioned as a pillar to unify and uphold the Yugoslav identity while nationalist tensions were high between different republics. Brena personifies herself as if she was comprised of the nation, described in the lyrics: “My eyes are the Adriatic Sea, my hair is Pannonian wheat, my sister is my Slavic soul, I am a Yugoslavian woman” (Oči su mi more jadransko, kose su mi klasje panonsko, sestra mi je duša slovenska, ja sam Jugoslovenka). This excerpt exemplifies the patriotic overtones within Brena’s early work where she sought to galvanize fans through depictions of the unified Yugoslavia as a beautiful, seductive woman. Her music video takes place in the countryside where the camera flies over head in a helicopter displaying Lepa Brena waving alongside rippling grasses and trees. This swaying countryside then changes to the Yugoslavia flag blowing in the wind, as if the grasses of the countryside and the flags shared a similar agenda of alluring their viewer. Brena flys over this glorious countryside (in the helicopter) with her hair blowing in the wind, the sun shining on her face, and her arms held up securing her braid from being taken by the breeze. Her glowing demeanor appears as if she were relaxing at home rather than flying overhead in a helicopter. Brena is then depicted in the fields baring a bundle of flowers and later along the coast in a blue dress, both personifying her as not only a member of the Yugoslav federation, but as an embodiment of it. The chorus follows:
“Where are you from, pretty stranger (girl)
where have you been stealing sun's shine
where were you drinking honey wine
when your kiss is so sweet”
In the lyrics, Brena responds to this ballad-like chorus claiming that she owes her entirety to Yugoslavia, and that her person is merely a reflection of Yugoslavian unity. This song reads as an exposé of the relationship shared between members of the former Yugoslavia and their attached feelings which resonate with many lives. Dubravka Ugresic, a Croatian writer, borrows a term form Andreas Huyssen to describe this phenomenon: ‘musealization’ (Ugresic 29). Ugresic claims that “...when we are witness and participants in a general trend of turning away from stable, ‘hard’history in favour of changeable and ‘soft’ memory (ethnic, social, group, class, race, gender, personal, and alien)... bears the ugly name of musealization” (Ugresic 29). This concept reflects a deemphasizing of authentic history, transforming it into a commodified, wearable, and adoptable history. The posting of “Jugoslovenka” in the 2000s Youtube may be seen as a musealized effort in which Brena’s contemporary song is captured as a vehicle of Yugonostalgia. Since Brena’s singing and acting career were central to Yugoslav culture, her close ties to Yugoslav multiculturalism and Yugonostalgia musealization can also be witnessed as she hosted the Sarajevo Winter Olympics of 1984. Here, Brena’s person loses physicality, she transcends her human dimensions and takes form as a personification of Yugoslavia that is no more.