This page is referenced by:
Kitsch Me, I'm Brena-slavian
By Bennett Shapiro
“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.
Lepa Brena has made a name for herself as a pro-Yugoslavian who identifies with Belgrade due to her career’s flourishment there during the 80s. Though Bosnian, Brena’s marriage to Serbian tennis player Slobodan Živojinović enables her to be identified as multicultural rather than nationalistic. This multiculturalism can be identified through Brena’s singing with an Ekavian dialect, a dialect native to Serbia; as well as her references to Serbian traditions throughout her lyrics while also not denying her Bosnian identity. Though explicitly identifiable as a contemporary vehicle of Yugonostalgia, in recent years Brena can be seen as attempting to downplay her ties to the former federation. In interviews Brena claims that her career was interrupted by the Yugoslav wars, and that her love of the former nation was never exaggerated nor any different from the love of any citizen to their homeland (Hofmann 24). When met with questions of the patriotic nature of“Jugoslovenka” Brena responds that “[t]his is a love song and it is not important if you sing it to the country in which you, your mother or your pet lives. The most important thing is that ‘pure emotion.’ That is what people miss” (Hofmann 25). It is clear that Brena is attempting to imbed a wedge between herself and Yugoslavia as a strategy to maintain her volatile and neutral audiences. Notably, while performing in Zagreb in front of 15,000 fans, Brena refrained from performing songs “Jugoslovenka”, “Mile voli disko”, and “Čačak” due to their patriotic or ‘problematic’ nature. Rather than acknowledging her once embraced ties to Yugoslavia she now claims that her career was “independent from any political system” (Hofmann 25). Brena that her music was never directly tied to “Tito or ‘the socialist past,’ but rather referred to it as just as a shared geographical cultural space” (Hofmann 25).
Though Brena attempts to distance herself from ties to Yugonostalgia, her archived appearance in film and media inhibit her from doing so. In 1982, the early days of her career, Brena appeared in the comedy Tesna koža (A Tight Spot), a Serbian picture featuring her song “Mile voli disko”. Notably, Brena performs alongside Yugoslav celebrities Siniša Pavić and Ljiljana Pavić. This early appearance gave way to the fame and notoriety that she holds today. In the film, Brena and her band (Sweet sin) perform in a kafana where Brena sings of the small, green Serbian village near the Morava river, nestled next to the disco. The chorus sings:
“Mile loves the disco, disco
but I the Sumadian kolo
To be close, close
The harmonica plays disco”
While Brena’s partner loves the disco Brena sings longingly for the “sumadian kolo”, which ties her to the Serbian cultural sphere. As mentioned previously, this song was one that Brena refrained from performing on her 2009 tour. This attempt to refrain from signing songs that evoke Serbian culture outside of Serbia reflects Brena's careful avoidance of politically sensitive material, and politics more broadly. However, it is obvious that Brena’s relationship with turbo-folk and newly composed folk music (NCFM) quickly became interlaced with assumptions about her national and political belonging.
Today, Lepa Brena is continuously recognized for her iconic career and symbolic status as a celebrity of Yugonostalgia. Brena is associated with a socialist time period with ties to the memory of her dedicated and devoted fans. Brena’s contemporary style of music transports her fans to a once known and now idealized time. Her ties to Yugoslavia are observable through her very own songs, videos, and origins of her career all of which are archived in multitudes of media. This unlimited access to cherished memories is what differentiates Lepa Brena from other turbo-folk celebrities.
Archer, Rory. "Assessing Turbofolk Controversies: Popular Music between the Nation and the Balkans". Southeastern Europe 36.2: 178-207. https://doi.org/10.1163/187633312X642103 Web.
Hofman, Ana. “Lepa Brena: Repolitization of Musical Memories on Yugoslavia.” Glasnik Etnografskog Instituta, vol. 60, no. 1, 2012, pp. 21–32. DOI.org (Crossref), doi:10.2298/GEI1201021H.
Lepa Brena - Jugoslovenka Lyrics + English Translation. https://lyricstranslate.com/en/Jugoslovenka-Yugoslavian.html. Accessed 23 Apr. 2019.
Petrov, Ana. “Yugonostalgia as a Kind of Love: Politics of Emotional Reconciliations through Yugoslav Popular Music.” Humanities, vol. 7, no. 4, Dec. 2018, p. 119. www.mdpi.com, doi:10.3390/h7040119.
Ugresic, Dubravka. "The Confiscation of Memory." New Left Review, vol. 0, no. 218, 1996, pp. 26. ProQuest, http://ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/docview/1301909066?accountid=7118.
Yugonostalgia and Music: Identity Beyond Borders
Though cultural differences abounded among the member states of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, collective Yugoslav identity nevertheless existed and servered as a unifying force across the Balkan peninsula. Even in music, Yugoslav identity found unique expression, fusing practices of other nations in the West and the East with a wholly Yugoslavian sensibility. When Yugoslavia broke up violently in the 1990s, the music industry of the region fell into disarray as “musical preferences of the public changed due to the rising of belligerent nationalisms” (Petrov, “Yugonostalgia as a Kind of Love” 1). Neighboring states that once served with one another turned on each other in armed conflict and the people of these nations viewed each other through a lens of otherness. Culture of any sort from another nation could be grounds for dispute or confrontation, such as what occurred between Croatia and Serbia. Despite the loss of their country and its unified physical space, Yugoslavs continue to carry on national identity through collective reminiscing and discussions centered around Yugoslavia and the days before it dissolved into separate nations. Yugonostalgia as a concept encompasses a general sense of “‘nostalgia for Yugoslavia’ and for the lost ‘golden age’” (Petrov, “Yugonostalgia in the Market” 205). Specific individuals, groups, and music continue to serve the community as symbols long after the country’s dissipation. It is in this connection where the heart of the relation between music and Yugonostalgia lies. Music from pre-war Yugoslavia or the post-war region that invokes feelings of Yugoslavia, directly or indirectly, feed into the narratives of the people in the area coping with reality in the post-Yugoslav world. Presentation and representation of Yugoslav attributes through Yugoslav-identified music foster an environment for cultivation and dismissal of Yugonostalgia among those who feel an emotional attachment to the former Yugoslavia.
Music’s ability to manifest Yugonostalgia through internalized emotions and memories allows for the industry, artists, and listeners of Yugoslav music to connect feelings in the present to feelings of a past Yugoslavia. The connection of the peoples of the various states within the Republic allowed for the regional success and power of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. When Yugoslavia broke apart, decades of collective and shared identity between the peoples of the area broke apart with it. The music industry of Yugoslavia did not collapse completely, though, during the 1990s and the remaining elements of the sector orchestrated former Yugoslav stars into bridging the divides of newfound national boundaries after the breakup (Petrov, “Yugonostalgia in the Market” 206). The ties between the states under the Yugoslav banner allowed for music to reach audiences across the Balkans. These ties remained important for artists to succeed in dispersing their music following the separation of the states into countries. However, the process of performing and exchanging music involves the tense issue of politicization and national identities beyond just being Yugoslav and into the new national characters. Yugonostalgia in Balkan nations allows for Yugoslav artists to reach audiences across borders, but this comes with difficulty at times. An example of the tension present through the 2000s and 2010s between two neighbors involves Croatia and Serbia, with the former desiring to distance itself from the latter and its oriental, Eastern ways. When Turbofolk star Lepa Brena began touring in 2009, veterans and right-leaning conservatives in Croatia pushed to block her from performing in the country (Hofman 26). The fans and those who identified with a Yugoslav identity won in the end, but this example highlights the relationship of music, Yugonostalgia, and identity in the post-Yugoslav region. Two examples of Yugoslav stars and their songs will hopefully further illustrate the extent of Yugoslav imagery and iconography utilized to invoke feelings of Yugonostalgia among those who identify as Yugoslav.
Lepa Brena’s 1989 song “Jugoslovenka” displays an image of Yugoslav identity that evokes Yugonostalgia, while Brena herself carefully presents any connections to Yugoslav identity of her music in the post-war years to avoid politicizing herself or her music. “Jugoslovenka” consists of a verse sung by a male followed by Brena responding in the chorus twice, before the process repeats twice more. The chorus, sung by Brena and located below, provides an image of a Yugoslav woman with blue eyes, golden hair, and the spirit of a Slav:
My eyes are the Adriatic Sea, my hair is Pannonian wheat,
Wistful is my Slovene soul, I am a Yugoslavian.
(Oci su mi more Jadransko, kose su mi klasje Panonsko,
Setna mi je dusa Slovenska, ja sam Jugoslovenka.)
(Lyric Translate – “Jugoslovenka”).
The verses of the song ask, “where are you from,” “who gave you golden hair,” “where did you grow,” and further variations of this sentiment. With this simple structure and lyrics, the listener gathers that Brena is attributing herself, body and mind, to her Yugoslav identity. The music video, located below, features Brena dressed in a long flowing gown in a field of wheat, in a helicopter looking at the Adriatic, shots from around a coastal town, and the constant inclusion of the Yugoslav flag (Brena). The imagery presented in this video connects both to the lyrics of the song but to the desired effect of displaying the beauty of Yugoslavia. This song reflects the Yugoslavia of 1989, when conflict and tension in the nation peaked right before its descent in the next couple years. Since the 1990s, this song remains popular among Yugoslavs, while also receiving disdain from those who do not care for Turbofolk (such as Croatia which identifies Turbofolk with Serbia). Brena, born in Bosnia and Herzegovina and with ties to Serbia during her career and marriage, reflects a common trend of transnational identity from the Yugoslav region. Despite this Yugoslav identity, Brena “tried to escape her image of the Yugoslav star and rarely expressed any kind of longing for the past” (Hofman 24). Brena does this through the 2000s and 2010s by presenting her music that some interpret as Yugoslav love songs, that do not tie to a direct nation or period but to “former times,” “our time,” and “old times” (Ibid 24). Brena attempted to lessen the connection of her performances and music to Yugoslavia, but the audience still identified her and her music to Yugoslavia. The Yugonostalgia that listeners of her music have are not misplaced, as illustrated through the lyrics and video of this one song from her. The next example, from the mid-2000s, shows a post-Yugoslav take on Yugoslav identity in music with clear intent for Yugonostalgic effect.
Tijana Dapcevic’s 2005 song “Everything is the same, only he is gone” establishes a general view of each former state of Yugoslavia relating to their ways of life after Tito, utilizing major Yugonostalgic iconography for listeners or viewers. “Everything is the same, only he is gone” consists of an alternation between a verse sung by Dapcevic playing the part of one of each of the six former member states of Yugoslavia and the chorus with Dapcevic in military attire singing the lyrics included below:
All is the same, only he’s gone, Brega brought Dugme back together,
Summer is hot, winter with a lot of snow, All is the same, only he’s gone.
(Sve je isto samo njega nema, opet Dugme okupio Brega,
Leto vrelo, zima puna snega, sve je isto samo njega nema.)
(Lyric Translate – “All is the same only he’s gone”).
Beginning with the chorus, Dapcevic includes not only the title line of the track but also the Yugonostalgic lyric: "All is the same, only he's gone", where 'he' references Josip Broz Tito, the father of Yugoslavia and President until his death in 1980. Referring to Tito in a post-Yugoslav song is telling of the intention of the song, but in examining the verses, this song further illustrates a Yugoslav intent. Six verses represent six nations who once belonged to Yugoslavia: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Slovenia, and Serbia. Dapcevic’s inclusion of each nation and depiction of each through lyrics and visuals in the video create a holistic, encompassing look at the region not as separate nations with no common ground but as former peers who share a past. Ana Petrov elaborates on this point, saying, “The remembering of the past can happen through the emotional engagement of sharing the same culture, so that the collectivities are made in a concrete space, at a certain time, as a result of listening to the same music or discussing the same issues, watching the same film or consuming other Yugoslav product” (“Yugonostalgia in the Market” 204). This video allows for Yugoslavs or Yugonostalgic audiences to connect with the larger narrative again of the Yugoslav state through a song the portrays the duality of Yugoslav collectiveness and post-Yugoslav nationalism.
Music representing Yugoslav identity in the post-Yugoslav region contributes to the collective ideology of Yugonostalgia, allowing for those who identify as Yugoslav to maintain a sense of connection to the country that they loss. Brena’s “Jugoslovenka” and Dapcevic’s “All is the same only he’s gone” both exemplify this connection to the memories of Yugoslavia through the employment of lyrics and imagery that recall Yugoslav locales and iconography. When the Yugoslav states broke up, a large portion of the citizens of the states wished for independence from the collective Federation. The desire for national sovereignty did not reflect the wishes of all and this meant that citizens of Yugoslavia who hoped for it to remain lost their country and their home. Music, today, serves as one tether for Yugoslavs back to a time when they felt peace and functioning existed. Beyond the personal experience, the internet provides a place for Yugoslavs to interact and discuss this music. The comment sections of YouTube contain the thoughts and memories of Yugoslav’s in the region and abroad, whether they fled the fighting during the 1990s or from other reasons. Ana Petrov says that “Virtual Yugoslavs appear regularly in the comments on links with any Yugoslav related content. They often promote the Yugoslav idea by pointing to the music as the heritage, or as many interviewees put it: ‘All we have left is the music’” (Yugonostalgia as a Kind of Love 13). The discussion of a reunification of the former Yugoslavia is not an easy one, if a conversation could happen at all. The matter of the people who lost their home, their country, and their connection to the place they grew up in is a matter necessary of discussion, for their sakes at the very least. Yugonostalgia indicates that there still are lasting effects from the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s that are unresolved and unaddressed. Further analysis and study into this phenomenon may shed light into the problems that occurred leading to this and the possible solutions for these Yugoslavs without Yugoslavia.
Brena, Lepa. “Lepa Brena - Jugoslovenka - (Official Video 1989).” YouTube, YouTube, 6 Mar. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=gsKn5KX6XnU.
Dapcevic, Tijana. “TIJANA DAPČEVIĆ - SVE JE ISTO, SAMO NJEGA NEMA (OFFICIAL VIDEO 2005).” YouTube, YouTube, 23 May 2018, www.youtube.com/watch?v=FAUmPQxsimQ.
Hofman, Ana. “Lepa Brena: Repolitization of Musical Memories on Yugoslavia.” Glasnik Etnografskog Instituta SANU, vol. 11, 2012, 21-32.
“Lepa Brena - Jugoslovenka Lyrics English Translation.” Lyrics Translate, lyricstranslate.com/en/Jugoslovenka-Yugoslavian.html#songtranslation.
Petrov, Ana. “Yugonostalgia in the market: Popular music and consumerism in post-Yugoslav space.” Muzikoloski Zbornik, vol. 53, no. 1, June 2017, 203-215.
---. “Yugonostalgia as a Kind of Love: Politics of Emotional Reconciliations through Yugoslav Popular Music.” Humanities, vol. 7, no. 119, Nov. 2018, 1-16.
“Tijana Dapčević - Sve Je Isto Samo Njega Nema Lyrics English Translation.” Lyrics Translate, lyricstranslate.com/en/sve-je-isto-samo-njega-nema-all-same-only-he-gone.html.