On the Evolution of Turbo-Folk Divas
The last few decades have seen a significant shift in the genre of turbo-folk in the Balkans, most notably, the role and image of the women leading this genre in the industry. This shift is a direct reflection of the dramatic evolution in the region during the dissolution of Yugoslavia. We will be looking into one of the most popular turbo-folk singers of the moment, Jelena Karleuša and how her career reflects these social changes. Furthermore, we will examine the way female singers of this genre have evolved through the years by comparing Jelena to one of her predecessors, Lepa Brena. To understand how someone like Karleuša can be one of the most popular and influential female artists of the genre today, we must first examine the inception of turbo-folk and how the social changes the Balkans endured are reflected directly onto the portrayal of the women within the genre.
Turbo-folk reached its peak in the 1990s in post-socialist Serbia; this was a time of strong nationalist sentiments and war. The genre was seen as being an extension of Slobodan Milosevic’s regime, and therefore was mainly just ‘propaganda for the masses’ to reaffirm “patriarchal domination, control over female sexuality, [and] the silencing and re-appropriation of marginalized groups” (Jelača, “Feminine Libidinal Entrepreneurship”). However, even after the end of his regime, turbo-folk remained a popular genre but shifted away from its original themes and meanings. With this change in the ideology of the genre, there was a noticeable transformation in the representation of female singers as well. As of 2019, the leading figure of the genre is, as Jelača describes her, "a cyborg-goddess of post-socialism: a hybrid ‘base’ cultural figure who challenges the hierarchical premises of patriarchy, gender normativity, and naturalized feminine identity altogether” (Jelača, “Feminine Libidinal Entrepreneurship”). This is notably the most significant evolution the genre has gone under, from its traditional celebrities such as Brena to the dominant and aggressive Karleuša.
In the beginning, turbo-folk and its association to Milošević represented “rural-backwardness,” and the common themes of the genre included violence, uncivilized behavior, the male gaze, and drunkenness. In 1983 the Balkans would witness the rise of the first neofolk celebrity, Lepa Brena. Brena gained recognition when she participated in the Eurovision song contest that year with a folk song about “screwing some guy in the bushes” (Prolic, “Make a Dumbful Noise”). After her participation in this show and with the help of commercial radio, Brena quickly rose to fame and became an overnight hit throughout Yugoslavia. Brena, having had humble beginnings singing at truck-stop restaurants and kafanas, quickly learned what was expected of her and her music: her songs would help cement this idea of "rural backwardness" associated with the genre and reinforce the oppressive gender roles within this patriarchal society (Prolic, “Make a Dumbful Noise”). However, it is crucial to note that Brena was very clever in securing her title as “Yugoslavia’s biggest superstar” through the strategic use of tabloid journalism and a highly mediated celebrity image. She made sure to maintain an appealing public image and used her personal life as a means to preserve her success. While Brena rose to fame during a time that could be seen as oppressive for women in the industry, she was also very successful in using these traditional gender expectations to her advantage in order to secure her celebrity status.
In Brena’s 1990 music video for “Evo moga delije” she features the male role of her husband as a drunk who carries a bottle throughout the entire music video and even insults her. While Brena continued to uphold these societal constructs and the power dynamics between male and female, the world was changing, and the things that used to make turbo-folk such a popular genre in the Balkans were no longer at play. With the surge of women such as Ceca, it was clear turbo-folk had changed from its traditional “rural-backwardness” into something else. The article by Prolic described this new age of turbo-folk as “a phase of unparalleled decadence [...] the music got dancier, more aggressive, and somehow even more shallow.” (Prolic, “Make a Dumbful Noise”). This new post-socialist world left symbols of the socialist era behind in the “old world,” and to some extent, this included artists such as Brena herself. While Brena actively tried to “escape her image of the Yugoslav star,” her image was too closely associated with “Yugonostalgia” and her music too reminiscent of those nationalistic and emotional attachments to the past (Petrov, “Yugonostalgia as a Kind of Love”).
Unsurprisingly, this new technology-driven post-socialist world called for a new and different kind of diva to lead the genre into the modern era. These new divas would lead turbo-folk to become what it is today, “an abomination of taste so much so that it destroys culture proper” (Jelača, “Feminine Libidinal Entrepreneurship”). In his article, Prolic states that turbo-folk went from being a genre filled with “funny songs about cheating husbands into [...] a coked-up, synth-and-trumpet-laden celebration of sex, money, boob jobs, brand-name crap, and startling levels of vapidity” (Prolic, “Make a Dumbful Noise”). The women of this new era of turbo-folk were intimidating, dominant, and liked to “wield sexual and social power.” (Eurovicious, “Queer As Turbofolk”). So who better to lead this new wave of “cultural pollution” than Jelena Karleuša, represented everything a new turbo-folk diva should be. She would soon become the champion of challenging all the prevailing normative gender roles.
One of Karleuša’s early hits was “Gili gili” (1999), a song that reflects this new wave of female agency and the “feminine libidinal entrepreneurship.” In this song and the vast majority of the songs that make up the genre today, Karleuša sings about how she seeks a man not as an object of desire, but as a means for economic security. The recurring themes of “love” that used to be predominant of the genre were replaced with this new “overt and unapologetic erotic investment in material prosperity, often at the expense of love.” (Jelača, “Feminine Libidinal Entrepreneurship”). The women ambitious and hypersexual figures who were often labeled as “gold-diggers,” and this was fast becoming the new standard of the female agency threatening the patriarchy.
Additionally, part of this new standard included a change in the way these divas treated controversy. Brena herself had a few controversies throughout her career, but even when Brena was slightly controversial for her songs allegedly involving “Yugoslav and socialist content,” she would make an effort to distance herself from the controversy. One of the songs titled “Jugoslovenka” was controversial for referencing nationalistic and patriotic themes, but Brena claimed that this song was in fact just a love song from “a woman to someone she loved” (Petrov, “Yugonostalgia as a Kind of Love”). While traditional turbo-folk singers such as Brena might have tried to maintain a “spotless reputation,” Karleuša and her contemporaries embraced the idea of a career based on scandals in order to conform into the new celebrity model.
Unlike Brena, Karleuša often played with controversial aesthetics to differentiate herself. In her 2008 music video for “Slatka mala,” she embraces the “queer aesthetic” parodying heteronormative stereotypes and portraying female solidarity, even including back-up dancers dressed in drag. These creative choices led to Karleuša being referred to as a “tranny” and to the questioning of her womanhood. However, Karleuša was very aware of these criticisms and her “trashy” image, but instead of negating it, she embraced it and made her entire career on self-referential themes. Similarly to Brena who would use her personal life to keep her celebrity status, Karleuša would use these criticisms “for the purpose of grabbing further public attention” (Jelača, “Feminine Libidinal Entrepreneurship”). While both women took two very different approaches to their careers and their public image, they understood the role they had to play and how they had to conform to these expectations of turbo-folk divas in order to continue prospering in the industry.
Finally, in her most recent work “Bolis i ne prolazis” released in 2017, Brena unsurprisingly features a music video and lyrics about two star-crossed lovers. The video follows in the tradition of all of Brena’s older work; the video even includes flashbacks of the couple in a series of scenes that feature a huge “1988” to make the nostalgia of the video more evident. As the video progresses, it becomes your standard heteronormative love story, in which the woman longs for an unavailable man, further feeding into the patriarchal stereotypes. This is just another instance of Brena being very much aware of her image and her role within the turbo-folk genre and using her already established celebrity and the public expectations to give the people what they want.
As for Jelena Karleuša’s most recent work, it is only a feature in Milgram’s new single, “Marihuana.” In less than four months, the controversial video featuring overly-sexualized women wearing marihuana leaf masks has gathered close to 12 million views on youtube. Karleuša makes references to her image and continuously addresses herself as a “young, rich and pretty” queen. It is this kind of self-representation by Karleuša that has supported her career till this day, and as Jelača states the “lasting popular appeal [of turbo-folk is] potentially rooted in the promise of upward mobility that might [...] reposition its female audience away from precarity and a lack from social power” (Jelača, “Feminine Libidinal Entrepreneurship”). It is precisely this idea of the “post-socialist feminine libidinal entrepreneurship” that threatens the patriarchal standards that portray women as “objects of male pleasure, never as subjects of pleasure in their own right,” that has allowed for the widespread popularity and continuous support (Jelača, “Feminine Libidinal Entrepreneurship”). Throughout her career, Karleuša has found the key ingredients that have made her the iconic figure she is today, appealing to different audiences for different reasons, but powered by controversy.
The evolution of turbo-folk the last three decades can be seen through its shift from traditional gender-normative female singers such as Brena, to more dominant, commanding, and autonomous diva figures like Karleuša. However, it is essential to note that this evolution within the genre corresponded to the social changes the countries in this region experienced. While a figure like Karleuša is still a leading figure of the genre, without Brena, such a reality would have never been a possibility for Karleuša and her contemporaries. In many ways, Brena not only was the first turbo-folk celebrity but also a pioneer who paved the way for the women in the genre. Despite how different their music and image might be from one another, they are both women who knew the industry and the expectations they had to fulfill in order to make it. At its beginning, turbo-folk was associated with the rural life and reinforced this idea of “rural-backwardness,” but today turbo-folk has a close association with the life of the “rich mafiosi” and glamour (Prolic, “Make a Dumbful Noise”). Still, the genre is still constantly being described as ‘trash,’ ‘backward,’ most recently, ‘pornographic’ and “unquestionably aligned with the patriarchal order” (Jelača, “Feminine Libidinal Entrepreneurship”). However, these women were able to gain female agency within these restrictive social contexts, managing to build successful careers in ways that reflected the transformation of the Balkans.
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