It’s no small secret that a fair percentage of Serbian turbofolk songs aren’t original but covers – predominantly of Greek pop music, but also of records by Turkish, Albanian, Bollywood, Israeli and even South Korean artists. After all, if you’re a poorly funded music producer and everyone in your country pirates music anyway, why bother writing a new song when you can take a big hit from another country and present it to your audience as something new? Until the past few years, this was pretty endemic, as attested to by this exhaustive list of “plagiarisms” of foreign songs by artists from Serbia and other ex-Yugoslav countries. (Note how much of Jelena Karleuša’s oeuvre consists of covers, including most of her big hits up to as recently as 2011.) Sometimes songs are barely changed apart from the language, other times they’re reworked until almost unrecognizable and given a very different theme and tone.
Well-known Western songs aren’t immune to being covered by Balkan acts – as Viktor Marković showcased in this 2012 Bturn article featuring covers of Queen, Led Zeppelin, Rammstein and UB40 by old-school luminaries such as Ceca, Indira Radić, Džej and Dragan Kojić Keba. Picking up where Viktor left off, I’ve rounded up another bunch of musical delights and atrocities for you to revel in and rubberneck. So, without further hesitation, let’s slip into a parallel universe where all your (least) favourite Western pop songs were actually performed by Serbian acts…
Shania Twain – That Don’t Impress Me Much (Ksenija Pajčin – Mene ne zanima to)
Killed by her boyfriend in a murder-suicide in 2010, former go-go dancer Ksenija came to fame in the mid-90s and released a series of albums culminating in a 2006 greatest hits compilation. Her version of Shania Twain’s 1998 classic is a direct adaptation into Serbian – even keeping the “I can’t believe you kiss your car goodnight” lyric, but changing “a rocket scientist” to “Nikola Tesla” and “Brad Pitt” to “Zdravko Ćolić“. Ksenija’s last single, released a few months before her death, was this collaboration with a young MC Stojan. Wikipedia eulogizes her thus: “While her vocals were not impressive, she garnered attention for her dancing and outfits.” See, Serbian and Western pop aren’t so different after all.
Nicole Scherzinger – Poison (Sexy Sandra – Krimi Boy)
Back in 2010, Pussycat Dolls frontwoman and X Factor judge Nicole Scherzinger launched herself as a solo artist with this song, written and produced by RedOne (responsible for hits such as Bad Romance and Poker Face) and chosen as the lead single from Scherzinger’s debut album Killer Love. In Serbia, Poison was covered in 2013 by C-list turbofolk singer Sexy Sandra under the title Krimi Boy, in an obvious attempt to cash in on the popularity of JK’s Krimi rad. Known more for her guza than her glas and fond of wearing skin-tight pedal pushers to show off her best asset, Sandra spends half of this “performance” with her back to the camera, relentlessly shaking her manimejker. Whether the song actually made her much mani is another question.
ABBA – Lay All Your Love On Me (Zana – Dodirni mi kolena)
Way back in time to 1982 for this one, when Belgrade new wave band Zana reworked ABBA’s brooding electro banger into something very different but just as effective. ABBA were winding down, but Zana were just starting out on what was to be a long career – over the course of several lineup changes, their music (d)evolved from new wave to pop to (inevitably) folk-pop. Dodirni mi kolena was in turn covered by Croatian singer Severina as a eurodance song in 1999.
Boney M – Rasputin (Mirko Gavrić, Anabela & Žile – Ljubi ljubi)
The German disco classic was cleverly interpolated in the chorus of this rollicking dance tune by Mirko Gavrić and friends in 2012. As the rest of the song is original, the Rasputin tribute comes as a surprise almost 90 seconds in. The accompanying TV performance of Ljubi ljubi was suitably ratchet, as the kids apparently say. (I am 31.) While Mirko has kept a low profile in 2014, singer Anabela competed in Pink Music Festival this April seemingly dressed as a herring, and most recently showed off her newly filler-enhanced lips in DJ Mateo’s Ljubav zna, released at the start of August.
Jingle Bells (DJ Krmak – Nova godina)
Baffling orange-haired irritant DJ Krmak assaulted listeners with a Serbian folk reimagining of beloved Christmas carol Jingle Bells in his 2009 hit Nova godina (New year). It’s a comical, challenging and frenetic sonic overload, made no less disconcerting by the inclusion of seemingly random sound effects such as barking dogs, trumpeting elephants and plates being smashed. Perhaps he got some new music software as an early Christmas gift and wanted to try out all the functions, like a 90s kid pressing all the buttons on their new Casio at once. (I was that kid.)
Ch!pz – Ch!pz In Black (Maja Marijana – Kratak spoj)
A huge hit in the Benelux countries in 2005, Ch!pz In Black was the debut single and signature song of children’s pop group Ch!pz, a G-rated and annoyingly punctuated Vengaboys knockoff heavily promoted on Dutch TV. The Serbian version by pop-folk veteran Maja Marijana (here she is in 1992) improves on the original considerably, transforming it from overly slick commercial kiddy-pop into a joyous low-budget cheesefest. And the above performance is hilarious, not just for the dancing but for the guitarist in particular – who’s either drunk, high, or more likely just doesn’t care and isn’t being paid enough to take the performance seriously. He and his colleague play up to the camera throughout, while Maja mimes obliviously in the foreground. Bored-looking backing musicians employed to stand around and pretend to play instruments that aren’t even on the track are a staple of turbofolk TV performances – here, for once, they steal the show. Maja has since adopted a more club-oriented sound, as evidenced by 2013’s excellent Balkan Fiesta.
Lipps Inc – Funky Town (DJ Krmak – Danju radim ja na crno, a nocu bijelo)
Banja Luka native DJ Krmak may have lived in Austria for the past two decades, but his musical output isn’t exactly a testament to the feine wienerische Art; clearly, the land of Mozart and balls (and Mozart balls) has been unable to temper his effervescence. Whether releasing a live parrot on stage during a duet with Bulgarian chalga singer Reni or blacking up and donning an afro wig in the video for 2012 song Obama – a nuanced examination of contemporary race relations that contains the lyric “I’m not a racist or a nationalist, but…” – Krmak doesn’t seem to know the meaning of the word “excess”. (He probably thinks it’s a deodorant.) While the lyrics of this terrifying yet oddly catchy reworking of 70s classic Funky Town testify to Krmak’s glamorous lifestyle (apparently he wears Versace and drinks Bailey’s and Red Bull, hopefully not together), the video sees him posing as a doctor and enthusiastically examining the bodies of a gaggle of lithe young women with a magnifying glass. (Is that supposed to be hot? What’s his turn-on, blocked pores?) DJ Krmak, you are problematic.
Christina Aguilera – Genie In A Bottle (Trik FX – Noćas kada odu svi)
I never liked this innuendo-laden song due to the creepy way it serves up the teenage Aguilera’s sexuality on a plate, positing her body as pseudovirginal flesh for public consumption (see also: Britney Spears). It’s a rite-of-passage song of the type Western audiences have come to expect from young female singers exiting puberty, proclaiming their transition from butter-wouldn’t-melt child star to dead-eyed sex automaton (see also: Miley Cyrus). Worst of all, it doesn’t even showcase Aguilera’s great voice, unlike her later ballads. Fortunately, this cover of Genie In A Bottle by dance-pop combo Trik FX definitely rubs me the right way – and not just because of the shirtless guys galore in the video. Wisely abandoning the coy suggestiveness of the original, the srpska verzija is a more palatable and mature affair, with sober lyrics describing a breakup from the woman’s perspective. Trik FX later covered Kat Deluna’s 2008 single Run The Show, restyling it into their 2013 tune Kratak spoj (apparently a popular title).
Global Deejays – The Sound Of San Francisco (Indira Radić – Rodni kraj)
Indira Radić balkanized this international club hit in 2005, turning the “Paris, London, L.A….” of the original into “Ljubljana, Zagreb, Sarajevo…”, and discarding the California Dreamin’ sample in favour of wistful lyrics about separation from one’s hometown set to a warm, folksy melody line. That the video was shot in the unglamorous surroundings of New Belgrade, home to large numbers of people from other parts of the Yugosphere, adds extra pathos. A successful localization.
5ive – Slam Dunk Da Funk (Đogani – Skači)
The song that launched British boyband 5ive in 1997 was covered the same year by Serbian dance-pop group Đogani (still releasing and touring today). New lyrics were penned by songwriter-producer Marko Kon, the same afro-wearing Serb who went on to represent the country at Eurovision 2009. The whole thing couldn’t be more 90s.
Happily, the amount of cover versions released in Serbia seems to have decreased considerably in the past few years, as Belgrade’s successful writers and producers chart their own course and the genre formerly known as turbofolk metamorphoses into something excitingly modern and distinct, becoming more and more club-oriented while cultivating its own striking and heavily queer-influenced visual aesthetic. Given the beige state of Anglo-American commercial music at present, I’m only too thankful that contemporary Serbian singers aren’t covering One Direction, Lorde and will.i.am but instead putting out their own great records. These days, perhaps it’s Serbian songs that Western artists should be covering.