Turbofolk originated during a time of war, destruction, and chaos during the violent breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. It was aligned with the nationalist and exclusionary Milosevic regime in Serbia, and was often used and disseminated by government authorities as propaganda. Years later, a new chapter for this seemingly unusual and politically fueled music developed. Turbofolk emerged with a contemporary identity that discarded its nationalistic and ethnic themes by joining electronic, synthetic sounding music with folk music, or “the people’s music.” It soon became a gathering factor around the Balkans as it provided a sense of unity for women, LGBTQ, and youth. The new genre proved to be more than just music, it became part of a broader cultural construct. Yugoslavia was “caught aesthetically between socialist realism and Western postmodernism,” and turbofolk established an overwhelming spectacle that disregarded the post-war ideologies that the regime had put into place through style and presentation. From 2000s and onward the genre of turbofolk incorporates sensual and provocative elements that ultimately disrupted the patriarchal paradigm and challenged gender stereotypes in the Balkan region, as well as in the United States.
The prevalence of eroticism in turbofolk aimed to abandon the nationalistic, crime-ridden morals and traditionalistic values that the post-war regime had put into existence. Performers of turbofolk addressed social ideologies through how they dressed and the manner in which they presented themselves, and turbofolk style became an overwhelming spectacle of erotic and pornographic elements that have become iconic throughout the postmodern world. While people were pushing the boundaries of societal norms, traditional values did not waver. However, certain turbofolk artists brought the erotic fantasies people possessed to life with leather face masks, gloves and skimpy garments. Pornography was becoming exponentially more popular during this time, and its users were discovering desires they did not even know existed, such as sadomasochism. The turbofolk style embodied these desires of domination and submission, and nipple tassles, whips and leashes were extremely prevalent in many performances. Turbofolk is well known for its provocative and progressive nature, and part of the reason that it was mass-consumed could be due to the fact that its style tapped into the erotic desires of many. The mass consumption of turbofolk was made possible during this time of violence, destruction and chaos because the producers maintained the order of the regime while establishing an overwhelming spectacle of social ideologies through sensual style and visual presentation that appealed to the desires of those who consumed it. In many turbofolk performances we see forms of domination from females with shirtless men who are tied to chairs while the main performer struts around professing his or her frustrations. This message that is being conveyed through these types of turbofolk performances highlights a common frustration that both men and women possess: “being attracted to men but emotionally damaged by their behaviour one too many times” (Tunić 2014). However, the “laws against male homosexual activity are [an]...enthusiastically anti-gay band of Christianity [which] is a Western import” (Beharic 2014). Turbofolk challenged and attempted to breakdown this anti-gay construct that was still extremely prevalent in Western societies. Through style and expression of turbofolk culture, Yugoslavia ended up paving the way for the disintegration of the traditional gender norms and what is deemed to be acceptable.
The formation of the punk scene in Yugoslavia was a shifting point in the region for sex and gender roles, and the emergence of turbofolk had quite the same effect, but seemingly on a larger scale in terms of gender. Turbofolk was a new genre that was fiercely dominated by women such as Ceca, Jelena Karleuša, and Indira Radić to name a few. This new scene was followed by a strong lesbian presence and was hyper-feminine while still being hyper-masculine. For the first time, women became the focal point of performances while men were mainly used for aesthetic in the background; just as women are to rap music videos, men are to turbofolk music videos. A patriarchal system was an integral part of just about every culture throughout the world; the idea of women being inferior to men ran rampant, even in the post-modern Western cultures. Female domination was a challenge to patriarchal paradigms and turbofolk became an outlet for these challengers of homophobia and patriarchy. The performance style challenged these societal ideologies, and women on the frontier of this emerging genre disrupted traditional gender expressions. The women who pioneered and broke the barriers of this genre inspired a wave of people to be their true and authentic selves, not only at their performances, but also in their daily lives. These leading women challenged others to break boundaries and make people uncomfortable, because without doing so, no real societal change would have been seen. These women centered bands were respected by a good following of people, and with the increasing popularity of turbofolk and its culture, it was almost impossible for one to ignore that there was a movement happening. The fans of turbofolk were not concerned with whether or not these performers were male or female, because this genre created a space of expression for everyone and anyone who was not in the realm of “normal.” Turbofolk, however, was also for those who maybe did conform to gender stereotypes but were accepting of those who were not. The status of women did not solely change with the rise of the turbofolk culture, but gave inspiration to similar movements that began to happen in the United States, the United Kingdom, and throughout the Balkan region which did create a significant rift in societal norms.
This superiority of female turbofolk icons led to a different type of audience than normal. They attracted queers, the brunt of the LGBTQ community, and youth because these radical and iconic women were challenging the heteronormative society in which they were suppressed. In an industry run and dominated by men, women created this movement so that all marginalized groups had a voice, and felt as though they had someone who understood their struggles and were advocating for them. Because these turbofolk stars were so popular and had gained such a large following, the struggles that the LGBT community faced on a day-to-day basis were becoming more known throughout society. It can be difficult to know the challenges that others face when you are not on the receiving end, but turbofolk was so rambunctious in conveying their message that it was almost impossible for spectators to ignore it. Listening to loud, up-beat music in “a language you understand with themes and performers you can relate to” (Eurovicious 2017) with people who have faced similar struggles can be extremely cathartic. In times of strife, many people feel that they are alone and know one understands the struggles they are facing, but turbofolk changed that. Turbofolk shed light on the fact that many different people and groups are facing a lot of the same challenges and provided an escape from their depressing lives. The emergence of turbofolk gave marginalized groups such as women, youth and the LGBT community a “healing sense of shared identity” and an avenue of hope to “achieve catharsis and transcendence.” In addition to the unity that turbofolk created, “the pain-infused lyrics allowed young women and gay men to reprocess past personal traumas in a context of empowerment, release and social support” (Eurovicious 2017). The movement surrounding the turbofolk culture began the healing process for those who had been put to shame or rejected by the rules and norms of society, many of which belonged to marginalized groups or who had loved ones a part of these groups and could not withstand seeing them suffer any longer. The turbofolk fan base was accepting and open to those who were different, those who wanted to see societal change, and most importantly, those who were accepting of “different.”
There are a number of female led bands in the turbofolk scene that have topped the charts from the genre’s origin in the 1980s up until today. The stylistic choices and presentation of performance through the media has changed with the years, but the message has remained the same while still evolving with each generation. The sexualized and female dominated nature of the genre has only become more flamboyant. The turbofolk genre has and will always remain an outlet for those who feel as if they do not fit in with what society has deemed to be normative. The style of Serbian turbofolk is notably “queerer” than the representations of this genre in other countries because marginalized groups saw that they had a chance for change with the chaos that was taking place on the home front. These post-communist societies in the Balkan region had notable combatants of homosexuality and this over exaggeration of queer in the realm of turbofolk was astonishing and uncomfortable to the people who lived in these communities. However, the community of heterosexual mainstream audience and the queer friendly culture of the fans made it possible for this over-exuberance to happen. In recent years, turbofolk has amped up the vulgar display that is shown in their music videos, while also introducing elements of US hip-hop to emulate the wealth and glamor associated with the West. The global expansion of democracy by the U.S. has inconsequentially forced the ways of the West onto certain lands, and the genre of turbofolk has run with it. It has come about through styles of dance, videography, makeup, hair and dress, but the message and style remains intact; turbofolk is still a dynamic and provocative art form regardless of other cultural influence. Women are still dominating the field and it remains a welcoming space for all. These women who have dominated the field for 20 years such as Ceca, Jelena Karleuša, and Indira Radić all bring different elements to the scene with their differing physical attributes, performance styles, and messages but still find a way to represent turbofolk through their originality and progressiveness. For instance, in Ceca’s music video “Nije monotonija” she lovingly plays with a tiger cub which was the same year she married a warlord named Arkan (Eurovicious 2017). This is relevant because he was the head of the Arkan Tiger’s paramilitary group, giving a great parallel to her political beliefs and affiliations. She was not one to shy away from bringing politics into her music, and this could be said about other influential performers as well. This was the reality at the time, and in essence it was one of the goals of turbofolk: to be authentic and aggressive against “normal”. Another example of an influential women in turbofolk is Indira Radić. She left Bosnia and moved to Serbia during the violent Yugoslav wars that killed thousands of people. She then released her very first album, “Prize and Punishment”, which was interesting due to the state Yugoslavia was in in terms of politics and warfare. Furthermore, icons such as Jelena Karleuša, have charged U.S. stars such as Lady Gaga as “copying” her eccentric style in dress and performance which exhibits what turbofolk is. In her music video, “Krimi Rad”, she deploys every aspect that turbofolk envelops. She is highly sexualized, provocative, and dominant over the males in her video. Being dominant over the males in this video is important because it shows that women too can be icons and lead the way to changing aspects of norms of the time. The nature of her outfits envelop the physical aspect that turbofolk has portrayed since its shift in the 2000s. In “Krimi Rad” she wears fishnet tights, incredibly high heels, wigs, bustiers, and flashy diamonds that speaks to the queer audience. Through these physical aspects, Jelena invites a following of people into the genre of turbofolk to express who they are through dress and her sexual nature. All of these music videos bring in different elements of turbofolk to culminate into one expansive, but inviting genre.
Even though some think that the genre has strayed from its origins and is now more similar to the music from the West, it can be argued that Western cultures have adopted certain elements of turbofolk and incorporated those pieces into the music that they produce. These artists like Lady Gaga are rumored to have taken specific ideas and characteristic of dress and performance style from popular female turbofolk artists. From her ridiculously extravagant outfits, to her arguably iconic performances, some say she represents the United States version of a Balkan turbofolk star. Being queer, over the top, allowing everyone to be who they are, and pushing the boundaries of societal norms was and is the aim of turbofolk.
Since its beginnings in the 1980s, turbofolk has progressed and become exceedingly vigorous in its fight towards female empowerment and queer performativity. Although it had quite the unorthodox beginning, it transformed with the society developing around it and its future became auspicious. The following and support that has grown with the creation and development of turbofolk has spread throughout the world, and the genre continues to grow and adapt with social progression that marginalized groups are striving for throughout the Balkan region. Turbofolk is thought of as a genre, but is more a social movement and “cultural concept” that spans across the entire globe, and possesses a culture that is accepting of all people, whether you are a part of the idealistic “norms” that society has put into place, or not. It is an escape for many underrepresented communities to showcase who they really are and have fun listening to upbeat and quirky music while simultaneously taking strides towards social change.
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