Driving through a remote Austrian Alpine valley, turning on the radio and hearing 50 Cent. Dining in a restaurant in rural eastern Slovakia where Lily Allen is being piped in over the speakers. Partying in a huge beer tent in Germany in which thousands of people are swaying not to oompah music but to a band playing Robbie Williams covers: All things I’ve experienced in the past decade, and all things that rankle me.
Like it or not, Anglo-American pop music is our global sonic wallpaper – and I choose that word deliberately, in that it’s bland, uniform, and quite literally wallpapers over domestic music scenes by virtue of its greater marketing budget combined with cultural cringe, the widespread phenomenon of people in westernized countries (and those in the process of westernization) looking down on their own culture as parochial and uncool while embracing the newly imported, superimposed culture of the colonizer. As a result, in the absence of sufficient cultural protections like France’s radio quota for French-language music, local bands singing in a country’s native language or even in English soon find they can barely get mainstream radio airplay because stations are too busy promoting the latest Katy Perry single on hot rotation. Or as Miley didn’t put it: “Došla sam u ovo party, vreme da bih twerkala.”
Thankfully, quite a few countries in Europe – like France, as well as Italy, Estonia, Ukraine and much of the Balkans – have held onto thriving and distinct domestic pop scenes. This is of course also true outside of Europe – Japan’s J-pop and South Korea’s K-pop (albeit much of which, just like Anglo-American pop, is actually Swedish-written) are highly successful and have large domestic and worldwide fandoms. But while Serbian pop has yet to break out internationally or enjoy its own Gangnam Style moment (this Dado Polumenta Gangnam Style mashup notwithstanding), the country’s songwriters and producers are quietly and prolifically making some of the world’s best pop music – some of which I’d like to share with you now. Be warned though, you’re only going to like the following if you like pop to begin with, because Serbian pop is pop with the safeties off – so if you’re averse to ABBA, don’t like dance music, think Eurovision is eurrendous and go green at the thought of Gaga or Girls Aloud, I’m not going to win you over. (If you’d like to check out some awesome Serbian rock instead, I heartily recommend Ti’s new album Vidimo se, which has a lo-fi, Interpol-like sound.) With that said: BRING ON THE HITS.
sevdahBABY & Djixx, “Uvek mogu bolje”
I’ve known about sevdahBABY – the artist name of writer-producer Milan Stankovic, not to be confused with the other Milan Stankovic – since he competed in Beovizija, Serbia’s Eurovision preselection, in 2009 with the excellent electro song Previše reči. But it was only when his first full studio album came out this January that I became a fervent fan. Uvek mogu bolje is the joyous opening track to what’s quite simply an incredible album – one that brings disco vibrantly into 2014 with complete authenticity and credibility, as if Disco Demolition Night never happened and the genre had never been banished from the mainstream. I try never to compare Serbian acts to Western or “big-name” acts, but Daft Punk and Nile Rodgers are a good frame of reference here – this is an album that pioneers, surprises and delights at every turn, where the tracks flow seamlessly into each other, and that (rarely for dance/electronic albums) has a live feel. A lot of pseudo-Balkan music made outside the Balkans for a Western audience by artists like Balkan Beat Box, Shantel and Miss Platnum has an unfortunate hipster vibe – it’s very self-consciously music for the cool kids that orientalises the region, doesn’t reflect the music people in the Balkans actually listen to, and lets Westerners experience the “other” in a commoditised form through dancing to “gypsy” sounds. This album is the exact opposite of all of that – it’s progressive, uplifting, genuine dance music the way it used to be, straight from Belgrade, with masterful instrumentation and production, and which still manages to incorporate Balkan elements without them seeming tokenistic. If Western music critics paid any attention to non-Western music, they’d probably be calling this the disco album of the 21st century.
Igor Garnier & Minja, “Ako te sretnem”
While the sevdahBABY album overflows with sonic inspirations, fellow Belgrade-based producer Igor Garnier takes a less-is-more approach – and the results are sensual, moody and dark. Everything about this, from the song to the video, is very much a sequel to 2011’s superlative Biću tu, and it gets under the skin just as much. I like pretty much everything Igor Garnier has put out, and I also love how he sticks with Minja as a vocalist (just like sevdahBABY sticks with Djixx) because he knows what a good thing he has in her – the melancholy in her voice brings out the emotion in his songs perfectly. And the artful black-and-white video is something else: Belgrade at night has never looked more beautiful or romantic.
Maya Berovic, “Alkohol”
Maya, an upcoming young singer signed to Belgrade’s City Records, spoke recently in the press about the likely existence of prostitution in Serbia’s entertainment industry and how unlike many of her colleagues, she reached where she is today without participating in this or doing topless photoshoots she knew she’d later regret. And indeed, Maya’s videos have always reflected her relatively wholesome approach – while other female turbofolk singers shake their bums and showcase their bronzed and surgically enhanced bodies, Maya manages to be awesome and sexy while keeping her clothes on; this video is easily her most sexualised so far. Writer-producer Damir Handanovic, responsible for Maya’s previous big hitsDjevojka sa juga (Girl from the south) and Vjeruj ženi koja pije (Trust women who drink), wrote this song for Maya and gifted it to her for her birthday. Like its predecessors, it’s club-oriented and about going out, getting drunk and having a great time, even if you have a broken heart. It’s also the first Serbian song to tap into the emerging country-EDM genre – America’s own answer to turbofolk – and represents a highly effective Balkan riposte to chart-toppers like Avicii’s Wake Me Up and Hey Brother. Let’s not beat about the bush – if Calvin Harris, David Guetta or Avicii had put this out in English with Rihanna or Sia as the vocalist, it’d be a megahit.
Milica Pavlovic, “Alter Ego”
After a string of successful singles since 2012, most recently the catchy Alibi at the start of the year, Milica confirmed her ascent onto Serbia’s pop A-list with the release of her debut album in June. Unlike City Records stablemate Maya, Milica is all about the body and the look – but who can blame her with a body like that? It’s fair to say Milica occupies a similar niche in the market to the one Dunja Ilić did in 2011-2012 – and like Dunja, who famously recorded a music video for every song on her 2011 album, Milica has also been a busy girl in front of the camera, simultaneously releasing four new music videos on June 24, of which the above is one. If Alter Ego is up your street, check out upbeat summer song Dominacija, not least for the moment in the video where Milica rubs ice cubes into a shirtless guy’s abs. Chilly.
Selma Bajrami, “Tijelo bez duse”
Selma is back. And she’s not pulling any punches. This is old-school diva turbofolk at its finest – an uncompromising sonic juggernaut built for the dancefloor, it’s relentless, intense, hooktastic, and superbly produced and structured. Rather than a conventional verse-chorus structure, it comprises 4 hooks – the verse (A), two bridges (B and C) and the chorus (D) – arranged in the order A-B-C-D-A-B-D-C-D, giving the song a structure similar to that of Girls Aloud’s Biology. The stellar, heartwrenching lyrics are written from the perspective of a woman trapped in an unhappy marriage as she fondly remembers her former lover and ruefully describes how she has emotionally shut down as a coping method. “Not a day, not an hour passes that I do not wish you were beside me now. And do you know that when I sleep with him, I see you when I close my eyes? I don’t know why or when, but my life with him has become like a ruined city,” sings Selma. “Where is that woman? […] I’ll forever remain eager for your lips. I’ll become a shadow of the woman named Selma, but that will not be me. Love can’t kill a body without a soul.” Heavy stuff, and it fits the song perfectly: all the best dance music has sadness at its core. Written by Dragan Brajović Braja and produced by Atelje Trag, this is my favourite song of the year and I can’t praise it enough – every piece falls into place, from the stunning synths and killer beats to the way Selma imbues the melancholy lyrics with an almost frightening sense of loss and anger. In line with the “body without a soul” theme, the video sees Selma and her dancers reduced to purely physical objects, writhing with a listless, passionless sexuality.