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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.