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

Turbofolk Does What it Wants

       The popular Eastern European music genre turbofolk is a conglomeration of many influences from varying music styles and cultures.  Turbofolk arose in the 1980’s and 1990’s in the Balkans during the rise of neoliberalism. The former Yugoslavia along with the rest of the world began to embrace the idea that there’s no such thing as common good, only enlightened self-interest. Turbofolk emerged as socialism dissolved, and the Yugoslav Wars followed, as people tried to cling to their roots and remain loyal, but changed with the times. The varying range of influences and their origins are frequently perceived as contentious, yet this genre remains popular due to its ability to be both controversial and mainstream in Eastern Europe. Turbofolk artists will mix nationalist ideals, traditional and western influences, queer commentary, religious allusions, and depictions of identity politics. Turbofolk has the amazing capacity to present satirizing or serious messages via seemingly contradictory topics and still remains one of the most popular music forms. Its ability to incorporate such a wide range of themes and cultures is possibly due to the contextual chaos that the Balkans faced. Turbofolk prevailed because the disorder or seemingly adverse messages were normalized due to the social context.

       In Turbo-folk Music and Cultural Representations of National Identity in Former Yugoslavia Uroš Čvoro unpacks the layers of identity presented in Turbofolk. He holds that “On the first level, turbo-folk is the cultural representation of nationalism - a realisation of the excess of nineties Serbia with all its contradictions… However a closer inspection of turbo-folk demonstrates that it is representative of almost exactly the opposite. Its primitiveness and backwardness became the means of resisting globalisation, and turbofolk became the soundtrack for a pan-Balkan transnational identity, deprived of all nationalist elements” (112). Turbofolk can be dissected in a myriad of ways due to being packed with meaning from various and seemingly incompatible contextual influences.

       Before delving into the complicated nature of turbofolk, context on jingoism in Eastern Europe will explain the atmosphere under which Turbofolk arose. There was and is to this day extreme controversy around nationalist ideals and music in the former Yugoslavia and the Balkans more broadly. Citizens from one country will claim certain music, clothes or traditions as theirs, and take great offense when another rebuttals that it in fact belongs to their nation. In Turkey people will claim a tradition is inarguably Turkish, while Croatians will swear it belongs to them, meanwhile Serbians believe it is theirs, so on and so forth.  An excellent example of this nationalist disputation is presented in the documentary “Whose is This Song.” Adela Peeva decided to trace the origins of one of her favorite songs. At first she is certain it was a Bulgarian song, but after visiting Greece, Macedonia, Turkey, Bosnia, Herzegovina, and Serbia she found that some form of the song was sung in every country. Everywhere she visited people proclaimed the song to be without a doubt from their country. This documentary depicts ethnic hatred and war and sheds some light on the grave misunderstanding between the people of the Balkans. Although this song is certainly not a turbofolk song it is relevant because it reflects the nationalist struggles that prevail and effect the genre. Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia claim cultural ownership over certain melodies, clothes, or traditions because it used to be part of a larger identity of the former Yugoslavia that no longer exists. All of these different people claim certain cultural expressions as their own but this is problematic due to international blending.

       The best way to understand the development of turbofolk as a whole is to analyze the content of individual songs from. Dissecting individual songs from Balkan pop and music videos will elucidate turbofolk’s varying use of controversial melodies, lyrics, and visuals. Croatia wanted to distance itself from Serbia so it did not have turbofolk, but Croatian pop. Both of these genres share a lot of similarities and can both be categorized under Balkan pop. For example, Severina a Croatian pop star wrote  “Dalmatian Girl” in 1993. Later in her career she became a popular turbofolk artist. Understanding this song and how it contributed to the formation of turbofolk and the political context of the time is relevant to a comprehensive understanding of the genre. “Dalmatian Girl” incorporates themes which could be considered contradictory. In the music video she is depicted as pure through her faithfulness to Madonna, her devotion to the region, and her feminine purity all of which perpetuate themes of re-traditionalization. But simultaneously, she subverts religiosity by singing of her love for a sailor. The color white she is wearing and comments on in her lyrics, could potentially play a dual role alluding to purity but also the white beaches of her home, and even the Croatian soccer team who wear white uniforms. The nationalist imagery is plain as the music video depicts beautiful scenes of the country and beaches, vintage film, old pictures and traditional clothing. She remained strongly aligned with her nationalist identity and in 2004 she released “Croatian Woman.” The song starts off  “I am transparent like the government founders.” At this time the new Croatia was only about ten years old and was searching for its social and political identity. The performers in her music video dance with flags which reference the fascist puppet state in Croatia during WWII, and additionally their costumes were similar to something the Ustashe soldiers would have worn. This is a bold allusion but the 1990’s were a time of historical revisionism and symbols from the fascist state were being reclaimed. The first president of Croatia wanted to have all of the people united. Whether they were communists or fascists, everyone was coerced to embrace the Croatian identity above all else. All of these vehement topics of nationalism and contextual violence are given safe discourse in this Croatian variant of turbofolk.

       Even songs that were about ethnic cleansing and blatant violence still managed to find air time and created music videos. For example, the Balkan pop song “Cappuccino in Knin”  by Papageno and Nikita released in 1995 was made to honor Operation Storm, the expulsion of two hundred thousand Serbians from Krajna. The singers in the music video are dressed like medieval Croatians, they sing about their love for their country in traditional opera-esque styles on the countryside, and then all of the sudden they’re drinking cappuccinos in the city singing the word cappuccino over and over again to a poppy techno beat. This song, by being dedicated to this expulsion of Serbs, is an act of cultural supremacy. They’re claiming to be fully Croatian and proud yet cappuccinos come from Italy, and not Croatia. They condemn Serbians but then appropriate Italian culture confusing their message. Although this song has gotten a lot of criticism and is reprehensible it still hasn’t been taken down from YouTube or erased from the music scene. This is likely due to turbofolk’s ability to be used as tool to make serious social issues seem lighter. For example the handle dgigibao commented under the video on youtube saying “This is genocide against ears. Luckily the Krajina Serbs fled in time before this horror.” Even in the face of atrocity, music can be used for comedic purposes and this is very prominent with turbofolk.  

       Another turbofolk celebrity that appears as a controversial figure in the media is Lepa Brena. She is a Bosnian Muslim living in Belgrade and is married to a Serb; hence many consider her nationally suspect. In her video “I Dare You to Guess” released in 1990, she tells the story that she isn’t a gold digger but is looking for a nice guy. She says she doesn’t want diamonds, but she is wearing flashy clothes and jewelry. Although she is Bosnian the oriental undertones in her music are Turkish as well as the men’s clothing in her music video. Even though she is nationally suspect, even though she made contradictory commentary about consumerism, and even though she is complicating received notions of cultural appropriation between countries, she grew in her fame as opposed to depleting it.

       Although most pop stars do not outright identify as gay, lesbian, or queer a great deal of turbofolk subverts heteronormative values and is queer and feminist in nature. Especially after dissecting the cultural and historical context, one can conclude that not coming out but depicting queer aesthetics could potentially be more impactful because it is more digestible for the general population and can lead way for change. Turbofolk is used as a conduit to take seemingly vexed issues of sexuality and gender and give it a platform to exist safely. This demonstrates the normalization of contradictory messages in turbofolk, as well as its ability to be controversial and mainstream.

       For example, in Mia Borisavljević’s “Gruva Gruva,” there are scantily dressed women, but the men wear even less clothing and are depicted in more servile positions than women, thus sexualizing the male body more so than the female body and disrupting that specific power dynamic. Boki 13’s live performance of “Ne brini’s” is another example of queer turbofolk as the singer dresses half as a woman and half as a man. Western homonationalism often depicts Eastern Europe as homophobic when they’re merely expressing queer ideas in different, safe spaces. Eastern European music blurs the heteronormative boundaries by depicting different power dynamics. Euroviscious in their series on The Balkanist, explains a view point through which to analyze turbofolk: “Who’d a thunk that the country we superficially associate with nationalist warmongering, corruption and NATO air strikes would have quite possibly the world’s gayest pop music? Amazingly, I’m not talking about the sort of faux-lesbian antics designed to titillate straight guys that are the bane of Western pop culture… Serbian music videos feature just as many scantily clad men than women – if not more.” Although it may not be apparent to those who are unaware of the political context, the content of this music is empowering for the gay community and alludes to social issues, while still managing to be a fun escape from the drudgery of heteronormative oppression.

       Turbofolk embodies contradictory views on gender and sexuality. Take for example the song “Sexy Biznismen” by Selma. In the song she sings “I hate the whole male gender” the specific use of male gender as opposed to just saying men, brings light to gender as a social construct as opposed to a natural state. Plus it highlights the frustration of being attracted to the male body, that often embodies sexist and patriarchal qualities. This music video which depicts women as cheerleaders, and dancers in tight dresses could be viewed as objectification and regressive, while others may see subversive lyrics marketed by sex which is progressive and inclusive of social realities. Still others may adopt both views and see it as simultaneously progressive and regressive. These multiple interpretations  represent the opposing nature of turbofolk.

Similarly, in Jelena Karleusa’s music video of “Slatka Mala” she dresses in a very dramatized manner and is accompanied by dancers in drag. This normalizing platform for trans and queer people to be more visible is bold, however she is probably able to do this as she has been known to only date men. Her live performance of the show is not implicit but explicit as she has “Love and Marriage” playing while pulling out a rainbow flag from a washing machine. These previously listed videos depict seemingly adverse ideas around homosexuality, transexual identities, women's empowerment and the objectification of men. Turbofolk is  progressive and subversive to patriarchal dominance in this context and gives substantial social commentary via artistic expression. Regardless of the perceived adversity, these songs are popular and prevail in the public sphere because of their dual purpose to be politically charged and pleasantly entertaining.

       Despite the extensive wars that persisted between eastern European countries, what is considered native and foreign is blurred due to the hybrid nature of the Balkans. Turbofolk is imbued with oriental influences, while adopting lyrical influences from western ideals, traditional ideals, progressive ideals, consumerist ideals, nationalist ideals and more. Turbofolk has persisted as a popular music genre due to its flexible nature and ability to appropriate copious styles. The incorporation of controversial topics and this mixture of popular motifs keeps turbofolk in the more prominent of music genres in Eastern Europe.


Works Cited

Beharic, Samir, et al. “Queer As Turbofolk (Part I): ‘Eastern Europe Is Homophobic.’” Balkanist, 13 July 2018, balkanist.net/queer-as-turbofolk-part-i-eastern-europe-is-homophobic/.

“Boki 13 - Ne Brini LIVE AMI G SHOW 2012.” YouTube, 6 Feb. 2012, youtu.be/Zy9tYIRAS6o.

Dgigibao. (2014).  Re: Nikolina Ivosevic NIKITA & Neven Palacek PAPAGENO - Kapucino U Kninu. [Video file] YouTube, 5 Oct. 2008, youtu.be/1f2U0H5lxJk.

“GOGA SEKULIC - SEXY BIZNISMEN - (OFFICIAL VIDEO).” YouTube, 10 Sept. 2011, youtu.be/AoOXyaPVVgI.

“JELENA KARLEUSA // Slatka Mala / All About Diva Show.” YouTube, 29 June 2015, youtu.be/ETCgxH86mhc.

Karleusa, Jelena. “Jelena Karleusa - Slatka Mala.” YouTube, YouTube, 29 Apr. 2008, www.youtube.com/watch?v=7XGrxLCBZoQ.

“Lepa Brena - Cik Pogodi - (Official Video 1990).” YouTube, 21 Mar. 2017, youtu.be/2V3PN-_EL7g.

“Mia Borisavljevic - Gruva Gruva.” YouTube, 16 Dec. 2012, youtu.be/uRn6jywewr8.

“Nikolina Ivosevic NIKITA & Neven Palacek PAPAGENO - Kapucino U Kninu.” YouTube, 5 Oct. 2008, youtu.be/1f2U0H5lxJk.

 Peeva, Adela, Slobodan Milovanovich, and P Pauwels. Whose Is This Song? Watertown, MA: Documentary Educational Resources, 2005.

“SEVERINA - DALMATINKA (OFFICIAL VIDEO '93).” YouTube, 13 July 2016, youtu.be/Rnvgz-5I1eQ.

“SEVERINA - HRVATICA (OFFICIAL VIDEO) (SEVERGREEN 2004.).” YouTube, 17 Jan. 2017, youtu.be/0PWImqyIcQw.

  Turbo-Folk Music and Cultural Representations of National Identity in Former Yugoslavia. By

Uroš Čvoro. Farnham: Ashgate, 2014. 209 pp. ISBN 978-1-4724-2036-7


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