Queer As Turbofolk (Part VIII): Pain And Pleasure 1

Welcome to a Culture Wars Special of Queer As Turbofolk – today we’re debating the ethical implications of keeping hot guys in cages, racial objectification in Polish pop-folk, the teleology of Ceca, Cisleithanian privilege in 19th-century Galicia, and whether Macedonian crunk is cultural appropriation. Pull up an ethically carpentered chair for which the tree gladly gave up its own life and was replaced by 10 organically grown saplings by workers paid a living wage. Queer As Turbofolk operates a strict unsafe space policy which means anyone throwing shade, subtweeting or thinking ungood thoughts about Balkan pop culture is guilty of committing an orientalist microaggression and will be no-platformed or, for those not wearing platforms, de-štiklaed. Best take your shoes off before you come in.

Just kidding. I did invite Glenn Greenwald, Slavoj Žižek and Katie Hopkins in to discuss the new Ana Nikolić album (spoiler: it’s great) but they passed, so we’re shelving the Culture Wars edition till 2099 in favor of a broad look at BDSM in post-Yugoslav pop-folk. That’s right, this time we’re getting the whips and chains out – so strap yourselves in, lube up your lugholes, and don’t forget the safe word (učvršćivač). Let’s start with some boobs.

“Even if I was as flat as a plank, you’d still like me,” opens Severina, Croatia’s biggest pop-folk star, wearing a skin-tight latex fetish dress that prominently showcases her breasts. For this tremendous video, which revels in a bleak, unsettling tone and engages in a fascinating, highly theatrical dialog about the beauty standards expected of women, Seve has teamed up with lesbian Serbian rapper Sajsi MC (wielding a riding crop and attired in boots, a corset and a spiked collar) and renowned 74-year-old Serbian actress Seka Sablić. It’s great to see these three women (four if we include lyricist Marina Tucaković) – straight and gay, young and old, Croatian and Serbian – come together to talk engagingly and provocatively about the female body in a clip that doesn’t aim to please the straight male gaze and doesn’t feature a male love interest (or, in fact, any men at all).

The stark, claustrophobic video opens with industrial sounds and a distorted echo of the song’s main instrumental hook. In a grim factory setting, we see the trio of Seve, Sajsi and Seka oversee a bleak production line of identical girls, strictly and joylessly inspecting the girls’ bodies and performing quality control by subjecting them to various tests. The nameless, unsmiling girls are totally depersonalized and objectified, yet also totally desexualized – they may as well be car parts rolling off a conveyor belt or slaughtered pigs passing by on meat hooks, and this seems to be exactly what the video wants to say. Musically, the song is typically light Severina summer-hit fare, and her section of the lyrics (“I’m investing in myself”, “I like that I look beautiful when I look at myself”, “I don’t care [what you think], you didn’t pay for it”) can even be superficially read as a genuine celebration of “feminine libidinal entrepreneurship” , singing the praises of self-empowerment through cosmetic surgery and women being masters of their own bodies, but the disturbing overall tone and the contributions of the other two women place us firmly in darker territory. Seve’s second verse, describing her need for confirmation and approval from men (“I seduce young men […] ‘You’re the greatest,’ they say […] You have a crush on me”), is followed by Sajsi’s guest rap, which appears to criticize the sponzoruša phenomenon: “Smart and beautiful, blind to my own faults, not even a whole pharmacy can help me,” she raps. “No pink pill is strong enough; I’m a dangerous motherfucker […] I only live at night, I don’t want to work, I want charity; I’m spreading like an infection now, [my] miniskirt has become a micro-micro-miniskirt. My silicones take up a lot of space, stop me – I don’t know when enough is enough. You stare at me as you tell me how unladylike I am, [but] I know you’d jump off a bridge for me.”

“Sajsi MC’s appearance in ‘Silikoni’ is the latest example of challenging the straight male gaze that she has been doing for years, and it’s exciting to hear this kind of rap entering mainstream pop music,” post-Yugoslav rap expert Laura Wise tells me. “As in ‘Silikoni’, her message is usually subtle or wrapped in lyrics about clubbing in Belgrade, apart from a few overtly provocative moments such as the lyrics ‘I am a feminist, do you hate me? I am a lesbian, come on, hit me’ in the song ‘Papa’ with Riot 87, or writing ‘dyke’ in Cyrillic across her chest to mark International Day against Homophobia. In the song ‘Liz Taylor’, Sajsi’s previous venture with a Croatian artist, rap-duo Krankšvester, she commands men to ‘worship and begin’, and become as enthusiastic about giving oral sex as women are frequently expected to be.”

“Sajsi MC constantly critiques patriarchal standards by subversively using sexually titillating or provocative language,” Laura continues. “She makes sarcastic pleas for wealthy boys to ‘take’ her (Pokloni Se Hegemonu); refers to the scent of young men seeking online gratification (Bot); and in ‘Antifa Kučke’, rejects being the object of ‘wannabe Arkans’ who gaze at her in a ‘sterile’ way as they contemplate her surrender. This reference to the deceased 90s warlord marks how she intersperses her feminist commentary with challenges to a superficial, contemporary Serbian society in which the strong male figure still reigns, and the words ‘lesbian’ and ‘feminist’ are dirty ones. A scornful, satirical impression of snooty Beograđankas (Belgrade girls), her early song ‘Mama’ with Damjan Eltech was heavily criticised by panellists on an RTS programme, who disagreed that the song was satire, saying that Sajsi should be ashamed and the song banned. Sajsi calls Slobodan Milošević ‘sludge’ in ‘Pokloni Se Hegemonu’, and the song ‘Ajlajner’ with Minival, about going to raves, ends with the lines ‘and they were all trippin’ that it will be better, and Sloba [Milošević] dead in a shopping mall, [while] sipping drinks”.

“Misogynist references to Severina’s leaked sex tape have become commonplace among male Balkan rappers; unsurprisingly, Sajsi doesn’t lyrically slut-shame, making her collaboration with Seve more understandable than if Silikoni had featured Grasshopper (Istine gram), Krankšvester (Modna) or Cobran i Mlata (Svako Ima Svoju Severinu),” concludes Laura. “As mainstream Balkan rap is currently dominated, for the most part, by men rapping about women’s bodies and behaviour – save for Remi, Mimi Mercedez, Sassja and Eli Dzjen – it’s refreshing that such a high profile artist as Severina is featuring a lesser-known, woman MC to flip this narrative on its head.”

The analytically rich video ends with the fembots leaving the factory as Seve, Sajsi and Seka toast each other with red wine, before Seka – whose looks and youth have long since faded – slips to the bathroom for an emotionally charged soliloquy in which she desperately fantasizes about recapturing her lost beauty while applying lipstick in the mirror. Visibly and audibly distressed, she imagines herself once more being an object of desire and being undressed “like a doll”. “You’ve always wanted every part to be perfect,” she says, perhaps to herself, perhaps to an unknown lover. The solution? “Give me some plastic.”

I love Silikoni. With its deliberately disconcerting feel and color-drained palette, the video dares to make sexuality clinical and joyless – the points about women policing each other’s bodies, having a distorted relationship with their own, and being societally pressured to be “like everyone else, just following trends” are skillfully made. Also of note is the fact that the vibe between Seve, Sajsi and Seka is far from cordial throughout the clip, with the three seeming at times threatened by, at times in competition with each other – the few glances that pass between them are loaded and really interesting. They’re each cast in a separate role: Severina pro-sponzoruša, Sajsi anti-sponzoruša, and Seka something like the Ghost of Sponzoruša Future. As a package, the song and video aim to ask questions, open up a conversation and make people think, rather than lay down how women should or shouldn’t approach their own bodies. It’s an original, discordant, envelope-pushing critique of the physical expectations placed on women, and a thematic sequel to 2013’s Silikoni i kubici by Slađa Guduraš and Juice. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that so far it’s notched up almost twice as many dislikes as likes on Youtube, likely because of the knowingly creepy aesthetic, perceptions of the song’s subject matter as trashy, and maybe because people are taking the pro-enhancement lyrics at face value rather than as ironic commentary.

“By 2010 in particular, it has not been uncommon for pop-folk divas to fully embrace a sadomasochistic theme and style,” note Marko Dumančić and Krešimir Krolo in their 2016 paper Dehexing Postwar West Balkan Masculinities. “For instance, Dijana Janković’s song ‘Easy Man’ presents a woman scorned, berating her lover’s inability to resist cheap thrills. As she reflects on her contempt, the video features several latex-clad dominatrices who collectively administer punishment on a blindfolded man handcuffed to a bed. Rarely turning toward the camera to satisfy the male gaze, the dominatrices and their quest for justice appear to be the focus of the video.” I have little to add to this other than what a magnificently written, structured and produced song Lak muškarac is, one of my personal favorites and truly the crème de la crème of the genre; eschewing simple verse-chorus alternation, it employs an ABCD form and takes all of 1 minute 15 to build to the first chorus – which, when it comes, is truly worth it. Like many of the genre’s most standout songs, it’s the work of Atelje Trag, while the video is by the same director as Silikoni, Petar Pašić, affirming his status as the most visionary creative talent in the genre today. Also intriguing are the two metal sculptures of a giant rifle and bizarre pram introduced in the latter half of the video, which I interpret as monstrous representations of manhood and womanhood.

In another example of the increasing trend for S&M shtick in Serbian pop-folk videos and performances, Nikolija brought a mock-up of a fetish club to the stage – complete with cage and writhing male and female dancers clad in sexy but primetime-friendly fetishwear – for this 2015 performance of Kako posle mene on Prva TV’s “Fantastic Show”. It’s not the first time Nikolija’s team have incorporated fetish themes: her breakout single Ćao zdravo featured masked dancers on leashes, as you may recall from Part 2.

(If you enjoyed that and think you can handle Nikolija’s latest single Niko kao mi, an invigoratingly intense, psychedelic four-minute audiovisual overload which one reader diplomatically described to me as “too much” and another as “like having a seizure on MDMA” – knock yourself out. It’s the frula line that truly makes it; rarely has a local folk instrument been incorporated into such an uncompromisingly modern song to such great effect.)

Dunja Ilic’s Luksuzni apartman, another of my all-time genre faves for its dark minor-chord sensuality, sehnsucht-drenched vocals, driving eurodance beat and extended, synth-heavy instrumental breaks, recalls an S&M encounter in the titular luxury apartment. “Tonight, I’d like to tie your hands and walk on your chest in high heels,” begins Dunja, not one to beat about the bush. “Tonight, nowhere exists for you apart from my bed – and there’ll be marks on your back. […] Tear my dress. […] You and me, a luxury apartment, just you and me all night.” After a long instrumental outro, Luksuzni apartman closes on a melancholy note with a final, ambiguous lyric separated from the rest of the song: “Bruises on [your] neck; my final mark”.

Another star not just singing about tying people up but actually doing it is Ružica Veljković, who strips two hunks to their jeans and ropes them to each other in the fetish-friendly 2015 spot for Bezobrazno blizu by DM Sat video production. During the middle-eight, the two bare-chested models sensually smear paint over Ružica’s clothed upper body – which doesn’t stop her from stealing their car at the clip’s close, leaving the lads all trussed up with nowhere to go.

Sejma Bajrami went one better a decade ago in the sexually-charged 2004 clip for Žena sirena, which features three oiled-up young muscle men shackled to posts and to the wall respectively, ready for Selma to have her wicked way with them. “I was born with the body of a siren, hot blood runs through my veins. Only one question remains: are you a man or aren’t you?” Selma is ready to find out. “Let it hurt me. […] This night will be crazy, you’ll remember it…”

There are acres of supple manflesh on show in the video for Orient 9295 by Belgrade-based Slovenian duo Clea & Kim, who we last encountered all the way back in Part 2. Shot in Vienna’s largest gay sauna, the opulent 19th-century Kaiserbründl, and featuring both the sauna’s resident dancers and dancers flown in from Belgrade, the clip immerses viewers in a fantasy world of steam baths, glitter-covered divas and masked go-go boys in gold hotpants. When Balkan pop-folk acts are shooting their videos in gay saunas, is there really any need for me to write these articles? The English-language lyrics again channel themes of female libidinal entrepreneurship: “Buy me a golden ring and sexy underwear. Give me a fashion show, I’ll make you wanna stare.”

“At its heart, BDSM is about getting outside of yourself,” writes the insightful and entertaining Karley Sciortino in Vogue. “BDSM is about love, trust, respect, and mutual enjoyment. I wish I could put that disclaimer on every book, film, and music video that’s using kink to get attention right now! […] BDSM is not about ropes or whips—it’s about using those tools to practice a power dynamic. It’s about psychology. Without that, you’re really just having normal sex, except one person is tied up.” Or if you’re Selma, three. Jokes aside, I totally agree with this assessment. Kink without chemistry, without playfulness and without the right mutual understanding of roles and desires can be frustratingly unfulfilling at best, disastrous at worst – there’s nothing grimmer than being tied up and totally bored, or soullessly spanking someone while wishing you were somewhere else. Choose your partners wisely, respect their boundaries and your own, remember the safe word (something easier than učvršćivač), steer clear of gay saunas cos they’re well dodgy innit, and keep communicating. And maybe put some turbofolk on in the background for the perfect soundtrack to spice things up. (This is why I’m single.)

More kink next time. Until then, don’t forget – ti si fetish moj.

Thanks to Dragan Krstić and Nick Nasev for additional insight and language support.

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A professional translator and proofreader for 10 years who speaks English, German and Dutch, eurovicious is passionate about Central and Eastern Europe, post-communist pop music, and Polish and Romanian cinema. Self-employed since 2012, he writes critically on popular music for Balkanist and Sofabet, and maintains Spotify's most popular Balkan music playlist.