Old Beats, New Verses: 21 Newly Composed Essays on Turbofolk

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.


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