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

Speed Limits: ‘Kitsch’ and the Creation of Turbo-folk

The more horses you put to, the faster your progress—not of course in the removal of the cornerstone from the foundations, which is impossible, but in the tearing of the harness, and your resultant riding cheerfully off into space.’ FRANZ KAFKA

The word turbo-folk,’ a playful contradiction in terms, gives a Janus-face to the genre of music it names. Coined by musician Rambo Amadeus, it rings of mythic clashes of country and city, peasant and citizen; or, more contextually, of modernity come to the Balkans, East meets West. When seen as a product of these meetings, turbo-folk is charged with their contradictions—sometimes comically, but just as often with serious political consequences. Nonetheless, turbo-folk appears to promise respite from such politics, inviting listeners to take part in global sensations of pop and straining, thus, past its ties to its traumatic foundations. But here another impasse appears: it is these ties (the harness of Kafka’s parable, not its ‘turbo’-granting horses) that cohere turbo-folk, make it work. This is to say that the meaning of turbo-folk lies in its way of relating, however uneasily, its kitschy marginality to its globally-oriented pop aspirations. This makes the substance of turbo-folk hard to pin down (as tied up as it is), but it also makes the genre a locus for insight on how elusive forms of social tension and change can be mediated in the realms of pop culture.

It is through this ‘mediation’ that turbo-folk, to borrow Uroš Čvoro's helpful definition, should be read as an attempt to articulate a cultural language that speaks to the trappings of contemporary life in the [Balkan] region.” For Čvoro, the genre owes its privilege to “speak” as such to its being “the most popular remainder of the cultural heritage of [Yugoslav] socialism,namely its cultural network of “divergent and often contradictory” influences (4). Among them are the elements mentioned above: East and West, countryside and city, all of which the cultural apparatus of the Yugoslav state once worked to reconcile into a single “Pan-Yugoslav identity.” Music had of course featured crucially in this process, leading the state to encourage the production of certain forms of NCFM (Newly Composed Folk Music) or neo-folk, “folk music that was national in form, as long as it was socialist in content” (Čvoro 61). Even after the so-called fall of communism, this performance of ‘Pan-Yugoslav’ identity-formation would play out, in one form or another, as neo-folk developed into turbo-folk. For instance as neo-folk came under the control of Serbian nationalists in the early 1990s, the genre retained its “symbolic communication” of “profound changes in points of [Balkan] social identification,” though re-articulated in its new context as a “profound sense of loss” (Čvoro 62). Here, despite the inversion of feeling, the historically neo-folk process of ‘mediation’ persisted, staging a Balkan identity as a meeting of opposites.

However, with the latest transition in the region to neoliberal capitalism, Čvoro notes the increasingly vague or even neutralized politics of what is now called turbo-folk. Complicit in the cultural regime of Serbian nationalism while nonetheless responsible, in part, for ushering in the consumerism which prompted that regime’s retreat, turbo-folk appears to Čvoro as a “vanishing mediator,” writing that “with the influx and explosion of capitalism in Serbia,” turbo-folk was largely depoliticized and “reabsorbed into the social order as kitsch and perceived as a harmless form of popular culture” (60-61, emphasis added). This concept of the vanishing mediator is vital for Čvoro as he studies the forms in which the cultural politics of socialist Yugoslavia have survived in the form of turbo-folk. Acknowledging this, I would like to question this particular means of vanishing, or rather why turbo-folk was reabsorbed into culture precisely ‘as kitschduring the Balkans’ neoliberal turn. Could this process, as Čvoro implies, have been deceptive? Or could this most recent (re)kitsch-ing of turbo-folk have weakened its constitutive tensions, threatening to dissolve them entirely?

The dodgy category of kitsch has always underscored forms of neo- and turbo-folk, but to understand how this could have been, we should first define what kitsch is. For a number of reasons, the meanings of ‘kitsch’ are harder to pin down than even those of ‘neo-’ or ‘turbo-folk.’ For one, the term’s origins remain uncertain. Matei Cálinescu describes it as coming about “in the 1860s and 1870s in the jargon of [Munich] painters and art dealers […] to designate cheap artistic stuff,” either as a corruption of the English ‘sketch’ or from dialectal German terms meaning either ‘to make cheap’ or ‘to collect rubbish off the street’ (234). Given these plausible subtexts, the act of labeling an artistic product as kitsch appears as a top-down denunciation of that product as low or worthless, an act of gate-keeping performed by cultural authorities. This is ultimately how Cálinescu frames the term’s use, as “dismiss[ing] the claims or pretensions of quality of anything that tries to be ‘artistic’ without genuinely being so” (235). Indeed, certain forms of NCFM or neo-folk had been subject to exactly this kind of denunciation (and thus designation as ‘kitsch’) under a notorious tax enacted in 1970s Yugoslavia, “a 31.5 per cent tax on sales of comics, books, magazines and music that were deemed ‘kitsch,’ of generally lower value or not in accordance with the socialist principles of Yugoslavia” (Čvoro 45).

While this kitsch tax may seem to have banished NCFM from the sphere of ‘official’ Yugoslav culture, we know from the discussion above that the state’s engagement with neo-folk was much more understated and strategic; our definition of kitsch should develop accordingly. On this point, Ljerka Rasmussen’s essay on the initial commodification (and thus codification) of Balkan folk musics into NCFM is key. According to Rasmussen, notions of kitsch—temporality, novelty, bricolage—had been built-into the Yugoslav media’s market-invention of NCFM, which in paradoxically naming a ‘newly-composed folk music’ implied its “lack of historicity, stylistic coherence, and aesthetic/artistic attributes” (242). Like Rambo Amadeus’s assemblage of ‘turbo-folk,’ the term gestures deliberately to similar paradoxes in the make-up of Yugoslav identity or, in Rasmussen’s words, to its own newly-composed regions, democrats, and heroes” (242). The effects of this gesture, which according to Rasmussen has created more discussion about what NCFM “stands for” than about what it is, finally lead her to treat NCFM ‘style’ as primarily “an economic category,” and “the [wider Yugoslav] market-place as a space where subcultural ‘qualities’—local music, identities, and meanings—are laid out as aesthetic experiences” (243). Perhaps this tightly-controlled form of commodification, through which Rasmussen sees folk kitsched into neo-folk, prefigured the vanishing mediation which Čvoro sees operating on and around the surface of turbo-folk: with the advent of the new market landscape of neoliberal capitalism, neo-folk was kitsched to an even higher degree.

We can learn a lot about turbo-folk’s commodity kitsch from Viki’s 1994 music video for “Koka Kola, Marlboro, Suzuki,” whose title alone spells out the kind of ‘network of influences’ or market-bricolage through which the genre constructs itself and its audience. On first viewing, this bricolage working on both levels of music and text might be overwhelming. The hard zooms on farm equipment, the campy on-screen performances, and the aggressively kitschy synthesizer melody might seem to refuse any kind of depth in which a ‘mediating function’ could vanish. But this depthlessness, or naïveté if you will, is precisely turbo-folk’s most radical feature. From as early as the 1920s, observers of kitsch have observed that its “emphasis on the external,” on its own surface qualities, “has the advantage of being sincerein the sense that through “[this] pure externality, the audience encounters itself” (Kracauer 326). Viki herself seems to confirm this view, as she sings amid the play of commodity images that[this] is life, not advertising.” Once more then, turbo-folk stages its meta-historical, identity-forming encounters of opposites on the virtual field of market culture (here, asWestern’ commodities flood an idyllic Balkan countryside); and as these encounters are staged, they vanish into their own signs as kitsch, as an aesthetic translation of historical anxieties over constructed, rootless identities.

Of course, this ‘pure externality’ by which kitsch enables the ‘audience to encounter itselfbecomes uncanny when we consider the fundamental historical trauma which turbo-folk cannot mediate through kitsch: namely, the violent Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. This limitation becomes more problematic when dealing with turbo-folk idols like Ceca, whose involvement with Serbian nationalist politics is well-known, even forming an important facet of her celebrity. According to Čvoro, “Ceca’s enduring popularity can largely be attributed to two key aspects […]: the highly personal ‘confessional’ aesthetic of her lyrics and her femme fatale image.” As a result, “Ceca’s career has become inseparable from her private life, and her music is perceived as a form of personal narration of history,” in effect translating her notoriety into a form of cultural authenticity (59). However, as noted by Zala Volčič and Karmen Erjavec, Ceca’s image has become increasingly depoliticized in the media sphere “despite the traumatic past with which her music is associated,” a transformation seemingly consistent with the kitsch-ing discussed above (104). While this undoubtedly signals a promotion of amnesia towards the (recent) past,” could this strain for amnesia signal to us, paradoxically, the latest staging of a time-worn process?

Works Cited
Călinescu, Matei. Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1987.

Čvoro, Uroš. Turbo-folk Music and Cultural Representations of National Identity in Former Yugoslavia. Ashgate Publishing, 2014.

Kafka, Franz. The Zürau Aphorisms. Schocken Books, 2006.

Kracauer, Siegfried. “Cult of Distraction: On Berlin’s Picture Palaces.” The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays. Harvard University Press, 1995.

Rasmussen, Ljerka Vidić. “From Source to Commodity: Newly-Composed Folk Music of Yugoslavia.” Popular Music, Vol. 14, No. 2, May 1995, pp. 241-256.

Viki. “Koka Kola, Marlboro, Suzuki.” YouTube, YouTube, 9 July 2014, www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bzx7DRJmv5g. Accessed 24 April 2019.

Volčič, Zala, and Karmen Erjavec. “The Paradox of Ceca and the Turbo-Folk Audience,” Popular Communication: The International Journal of Media and Culture, vol. 8, no. 2, April 2010, pp. 103-119.

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