“If certain aspects of a female singer’s body overcome the limits of masculinist imagination, in a sense that the body has been shaped in accordance with such imagination, but transcends its limits, if the body communicates with gay audience and makes it visible, then it additionally undermines the hegemony of masculinity” (Mitrovic 145).
In the fast-paced world of music, the parameters of certain genres have the tendency to change with time. The landscape of turbo-folk specifically has transformed and adapted greatly since the early days of its conception, especially in terms of audience, aesthetics, and intent. A particularly interesting facet of turbo-folk is its accommodation of queer people and their identities. What began as a music genre used for propaganda by the Serbian government, has grown to become a somewhat safer, more inclusive space for queer listeners and aesthetics.
To truly appreciate turbo-folk’s modern adoption of queer aesthetics today, it’s important to consider its background and beginning. When turbo-folk first arose to popularity in Serbia, it was developed by the Serbian government as a nationalistic genre of music that “glamorized and promoted the Serbian political elite” after the Yugoslav wars (Lena 137). It combined traditional folk music with the sounds and aesthetics of popular music, while also “[fueling] ethnic cleansing in the region” (Lena 136). Its purpose was originally to eliminate the threat of anti-state ideals by urbanizing traditional folk music. Consequently, it was overproduced and overplayed, thanks to the endorsement of nationalistic groups. Examples of turbo-folk’s political uses include performances at rallies “mixed with populist political propaganda,” (Lena 137) and the wedding of turbo-folk diva Ceca and her paramilitary husband being replayed “outdoors for days at top volume” (Lena 137) in order to antagonize neighboring countries. As time went on, however, the political side of turbo-folk diminished, and it is known today more for its pop aesthetics and visuals.
Politics were not the only way turbo-folk was meant to influence the general public. The ideals promoted by the visuals and performers of turbo-folk endorsed a patriarchal view, particularly towards women, and a Western-influenced consumer culture. Female performers were at the forefront of the genre, and were meant to be portrayed as “an ideal to be emulated,” as Belgrade-based playwright Biljana Srbjanovic explains, with their “bleached blonde” hair, and “lips and breasts swollen with silicone injections” (Lena 138). Not only does an appearance like this glamorize Western models of affluence and vanity, but it also panders to the male gaze and feeds into the patriarchal idea that women are simply objects of men’s sexual desire and attention. Such ideals played a large part in the genre because that was the sort of lifestyle that was “enjoyed by the new Serbian ruling class” (Lena 137). Listeners of the genre, which consisted of working class citizens, were meant to idealize this sort of consumer culture. The fact that multiple radio stations played nothing but turbo-folk helped to ingrain those ideals into the audiences.
As time went on, however, the general public subscribed less and less to the government’s uses of turbo-folk as propaganda. The rejection of the intense nationalistic purposes caused turbo-folk to eventually shift from “the antithesis of progressive politics” (Cvoro 19) to a progressive platform for minority voices. This signaled the beginning of turbo-folk culture adapting to its listeners, as opposed to following what the government wanted to promote, which became important for queer people who listened to the genre.
The LGBTQ+ community was eventually integrated into the world of turbo-folk in a few different ways. Marijana Mitrovic explains that the queer community accepts turbo-folk due to its “potential to act subversively with regard to patriarchal moral” (Mitrovic 145) and therefore are allies to it. It’s quite fitting that LGBTQ+ listeners would endorse the ideals of a musical genre that objects to the very patriarchy that has oppressed them. That endorsement goes both ways in many cases, as well. Turbo-folk stars not only appeal to the masses with their popular music and images, but some also stand up for the LGBTQ+ community and become queer icons as a result. Mitrovic discusses how Jelena Karleusa publicly supported the Pride Parade “and attacked its opponents using excessive, lascivious language, unbecoming to a lady and at the same time, employed very convincing argumentation, unbecoming to a ‘folk singer’” (Mitrovic 145). Karleusa not only showed her unwavering support for the gay community, but also managed to vex the patriarchy at the same time, so it’s no surprise that she has become a gay icon. Her support also extends to her social media. On Instagram, she once posted a video of herself in concert, surrounded by rainbow flags, with the caption: “GAY RIGHTS ARE HUMAN RIGHTS!” (@karleusastar). This kind of enthusiastic acceptance of the queer community by a turbo-folk star cements the place of LGBTQ+ people in the genre, and includes them in an undeniable way.
Another way in which LGBTQ+ aspects have been introduced to turbo-folk is through performance and visuals. Uros Cvoro explains that turbo-folk performers often find themselves “drawing on and performing queer aesthetics,” which could specifically apply to the use of drag in some turbo-folk music videos. Drag, which consists of men dressing up as women, is a prevalent form of performance and expression in the gay community. Drag elements can be found in a few turbo-folk music videos, including Jelena Karleusa’s video for “Slatka Mala” from 2008. In the video, we see what appears to be three men dressed in drag who are singing and dancing, which gives an otherwise seemingly heteronormative music video an element of inclusivity towards the gay community. The lyrics “She does the same things as I do” might be touching upon drag elements as well. This part of the song could simply be referring to another woman, but the implementation of men in drag blurs the interpretation of these lyrics. It could be a nod to drag queens ‒ who typically use female pronouns when performing ‒ explaining that they are performers just like Karleusa, and should be respected as such. The presence of drag at all in a popular music video provides representation to the queer community, which fights back against the homophobic views of Balkan patriarchal society.
In recent years, turbo-folk has become much more musically accommodating to queer people, and has challenged the typical heteronormative habits of the popular music scene. One example of this is Daniel Djokic’s music video for “Shake Your Body.” The video shows him half naked and oiled up while he sings into the camera in a sultry and seductive way. The concept of men being sexualized in music videos is quite common in turbo-folk, as it is seen in other popular videos, such as “Soba 22” by Seka Aleksic and “Balkan Bachata” by Clea & Kim. The men in these videos are objectified and used as if they are props. It is interesting to see the attention being divided between the sexes, rather than the sexualization being solely directed at women to appeal to the male gaze. This doesn’t exactly combat heteronormativity, as there are still beautiful women in these videos. It does, however, adjust the parameters of the consumption of turbo-folk ‒ and accommodates the genre to queer people ‒ rather than catering mostly to the sexual desires of straight men.
The music video for “Dragi” by Bozo Vreco is another example of queer accommodation in turbo-folk. The video shows the male singer with painted nails, dressed in a long, flowy skirt, and then later, a floral dress, which would typically be seen as women’s fashion. This sense of androgyny is not typically endorsed or accepted by the rigid rules of patriarchal society, but it is a concept that is seen most commonly in the LGBTQ+ community, and featuring it on such a public scale helps to normalize the expression of it. Additionally, the male singer of this love song is seen laying in bed, looking off into the distance longingly. Later, we find him gazing upon another man and eventually joining him. There are multiple shots of the two men embracing each other sensually and passionately, as lovers do. This overt demonstration of same-sex love and attraction is important, because, first of all, it offers a sense of representation to LGBTQ+ people that they might not find in other medias. Second of all, it clashes with heteronormative views. The singer or the music video’s director could have easily put a woman in the video or kept the singer by himself for its entirety. However, the people involved chose to portray a same-sex love story, and they did so without fetishizing it or playing into any cheap queer stereotypes. This music video is a clear indicator of the way turbo-folk has adapted to not only include, but also represent LGBTQ+ people.
Turbo-folk has undoubtedly come a long way, especially since the 1990s, when it was dominated by politics. Used then as a tool by the Serbian government, turbo-folk was implanted into the minds of its listeners in order to romanticize the elite class and encourage nationalistic ideals. In recent years, however, the public rejection of a government-sponsored music genre caused turbo-folk to adapt into what it has become today: a popular style of music that not only allows for objection to the patriarchy, but also embodies a safe haven for the LGBTQ+ community. With its stars advocating for gay rights and its music videos appealing to queer interests, turbo-folk has transformed from a government-issued tool into an inclusive ally for the queer community.
Cvoro, Uros. Turbo-Folk Music and Cultural Representations of National Identity in Former Yugoslavia. Routledge, 2016.
Lena, Jennifer C. Banding Together: How Communities Create Genres in Popular Music. Princeton University Press, 2017.
Mitrovic, Marijana. (2011). The “Unbearable Lightness” (of the Subversion) of Nationalism: Bodies on Estrada in Postsocialist Serbia. Glasnik Etnografskog instituta SANU. 59. 145-6. 10.2298/GEI1102127M.