Queer as Turbofolk (Part IV): Beef Platter

Merry Christmas, Srećna Nova Godina and welcome back to Queer As Turbofolk, reloaded with extra glitter and chest hair for 2015. I hope your holiday period was suitably festive (or at the very least tolerable) and you were showered with pokloni, ljubav and rakija. But even if your family were at each other’s throats, the turkey exploded, you received an unwanted visit from the Ghost of Turbofolk Past, and yet another night went by without a bearded man sliding down your chimney and disgorging his burgeoning sack, never fear – I have 14 Balkan studs in the starting blocks ready to get your 2015 off to a stonking start. That’s right: this time, we’re looking at the men of turbofolk. Awooga!

I’m leaving pop-rock and folk singers like Dženan Lončarević and Šeki Turković to one side in this article for obvious reasons (there’s pretty much nothing to say from a QAT perspective – it’d be like trying to do a queer reading of your dad) and focusing on the fine, fine fellas at the pop and dance end of the genre. Women have always tended to be turbofolk’s biggest hitters: while there were a fair few male dance-pop stars in the 1990s like Ivan Gavrilović, Knez and Nino, they remained somewhat in the shadow of female megastars like Ceca and the less problematic Lepa Brena and Dragana Mirković, both of whom had pan-Yugoslav appeal and were popular throughout the Balkans. This pattern continued during the 2000s, with songs by male stars generally being safer, rockier, folkier and blokier, while the big take-no-prisoners dance anthems were left largely to the girls, as we saw in Part 2. As of the past few years, male stars have made up a huge amount of ground – not just due to the emergence of a consonant-spewing coterie of hugely popular young male rappers, but because male singers are increasingly major dance-pop stars in their own right. As you can see from the above slideshow (best clicked through with one hand), many male genre stars are explicitly presented as sexual objects in a way not commonly seen in the West. (Imagine Michael Bublé in some of the poses above. I’ll leave you with that thought.) It’s one thing for female singers like Goga Sekulić or Ljupka Stević to be backed by nameless shirtless models and dancers in their clips, but quite another for male headliners popular with both genders to regularly appear shirtless or in only their underwear in promotional materials and be served up as objects of naked lust in their own music videos. Some of these men of turbofolk are clearly straight yet display certain homoerotic qualities in their performances and aesthetic that wouldn’t fly in the West, many are likely closeted and conflicted, while others seem very at ease with their gayness and maintain a merely notional heterosexuality in the public eye that enables them to be hugely flamboyant as performers without raising suspicion.

I’ll leave you to decide which category Saša Kovačević falls into. We saw in Part 2 how female singers are commonly shown wielding sexual power over a bevy of men in their music videos; by contrast, male singers are typically presented with a single girlfriend or love interest. This represents a wholesale upending of the Western paradigm by which promiscuous men are held as studs yet promiscuous women as sluts. One notable exception to this is Saša’s 2014 summer hit Noć do podne, the video for which (by his own production company SK Media) depicts him with an entire harem of 16 lithe young women in bikinis at his beck and call. So far, so heteronormative – if it wasn’t for the fact that Saša’s smooth, rippling, droolworthy, perfect chest (I’m a fan, as you can tell) is the focus of pretty much the entire first minute of the clip:

Viewed in the context of tabloid headlines like “Saša Kovačević: I’m not a homosexual!” and “Saša Kovačević: I only like girls!”, the thought process underlying this video is obviously ‘throw women at the problem’ – taken to a ridiculous extreme. Hey, he can’t be gej if he has 16 girls in his video, right? Noć do podne’s 12 million hits in six months (I was only responsible for 490,000) prove that seks sells, but rather than banishing Those Pesky Gay Rumours to the dustbin, the clip ends up making Saša look more like a reluctant cult leader or pimp extraordinaire than a convincing ladies’ man. In any case, his English-language dancefloor tune Nothing But The Faith, released regionally in 2013, is the superior song – and while he regrettably keeps his clothes on in this one, his attractiveness is again the main selling point.

Filip Mitrović spends much of the video for his 2013 debut single Ljubavni parazit (by Kosta & Ivan Production) shirtless in an undefined white space. (Exactly how I store my boyfriends.) Intercut with these scenes, a story unfolds – we see Filip’s supposed ex-girlfriend being mistreated in a club by her macho new lover, while Filip’s friends console him about the situation. Filip’s erstwhile ljubavi then takes his burlier replacement back to her pad, where he promptly loses his shirt so we can be treated to indulgent shots of his muscular back and arms as he attempts to initiate seksitajm. But no! She’s not having any of it and throws him off, giving the camera a chance to linger on his handsome face and gym-toned chest and shoulders. Spurned, he storms out, passing Filip in the corridor as our hero minces to the rescue – the rescue in this case consisting of Filip losing his shirt again and consoling his now no-longer-ex with some hot tongue action. Take-home message: Filip is soft and sensitive and won’t give you a black eye like a macho bloke will. And we all know what that means. Folk singer Vesna Rivas certainly does – she outed Filip in an interview. In response, tabloid Svet ran the story “First-hand information: Filip is not gay!”, likely at the behest of Grand Production’s PR team. That clears that up then.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GTfQznoPQ5A

As if to distract from these rumours and the fact that Filip is basically Conchita with shorter hair, the videos for all of his subsequent solo singles feature him flirting, cavorting and making out with a female love interest. The video to 2013’s Antidepresiv ends – just as my dreams of him do – with a shirtless Filip being splattered in a mystery white substance (actually white and black paint), while the 2014 clip for Beli grad (by Kan i Lingus audiovisual stimulation) opens with Filip shirtless in bed and concludes with him unconvincingly catching a woman’s eye at a bar. In the choreography for TV performances of Beli grad, slight-framed Filip gets the full diva treatment, of a type normally reserved for female singers – two well-built male dancers flip him 360° through the air at 1:20, then he’s lifted up and chucked across the stage at 2:50. All that’s missing is the splits.

Released on December 27, the video by Toxic Entertainment for Filip’s latest single Brojim is the turbofolk gay prison fantasy you ordered for Christmas. Sitting at a street cafe with his latest girlfriend, Filip witnesses moustachioed corrupt cop MC Ina violently handcuffing a miscreant, and an intense glance passes between them (“Me next please!”). Before long, Filip finds himself wrestled to the ground by Ina and shackled up in an unconvincing jail cell (the bars of which wobble when he leans on them) with only warder Trajko and a piss bucket for company. As Filip languishes behind bars in a dirty undershirt (yet with perfect hair), treating viewers to eyefuls of chest hair as he bemoans his plight in song, his girlfriend secures his release by using her sexual wiles to trick Ina, and ultimately it’s the rapper who ends up in custody (also in a dirty wife-beater shirt, though not the same one) as Filip walks free.

One of the queerest music videos ever to have hit Serbian screens – no mean feat given the competition – is that for Daniel Djokić’s 2012 English-language single Like It Like This, directed by Dejan Milićević. The sensual clip is entirely focused on selling Daniel’s body as a sexual commodity, and it’s near-impossible to imagine any straight-presenting Western male pop star releasing a video like this that posits them so unequivocally as a piece of meat. The lyrics to the chorus feel like a message from Serbia’s gay turbofolk community to the world: “This is the only time we’re ever gonna like it like this. There’s no money in our pocket but we like it like this. We have nothing but the music and we like it like this. It’s the everlasting moment and we like it like this.”

Milićević’s sweaty video for Djokić’s 2010 release Shake Your Body, already featured in Part 1, covers similar erotic territory, while the lyrics are even more upfront. “I’m the sex you need,” growls Djokić (pronounced “jock-itch”) in the verse – “do those things to me, it’s my fantasy, baby, you’re everything to me”. The tone becomes directly imploring in the chorus, as Daniel sings “do it to me all night long […] let me know where I belong […] give me what I need.” (Where do I fill out the application form?)

On the surface, the brooding, urban clip for Dado Polumenta’s Ti, ti, samo ti by IDJ Production seems robustly heterosexual – it doesn’t get much straighter than a macho car repairman driving his devojka around the city in an expensive motor that he’s just fixed. But notice how, rather than the girl (or even the car), Dado himself remains the object of desire throughout: see how the camera lingers greedily on his upper body throughout the workshop scenes (which seem moments away from turning into something else altogether, as a greasy Dado grapples with his wrench wearing just an undershirt and overalls) and in the restaurant.  This is exemplary of the tricky balancing act many genre videos set out to achieve – the queer subtext must be subtle enough to pass over the heads of the straight audience, but explicit enough to maintain the interest of the gay male audience. Dado’s butching-up process over the past decade is also notable – this is how he looked at the start of his career – and perhaps a response to persistent gay rumours. (When drag queen Boki 13 commented that Dado was gay, Serbian online tabloid Alo photoshopped a handbag onto Dado as a visual aid when it ran the story). Polumenta’s latest much-publicized marriage lasted only a few months. (Dado, I’m open to offers. As long as I don’t have to wear an Orthodox wedding crown.) His latest releases are the enjoyable Gužva je u gradu from summer 2014, and this lacklustre duet with Nikolija which premiered on December 28.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZHwX9d4Th5k

Another male star who butched up considerably and had a much-publicized wedding is Saša Kapor. Bobbing along on turbofolk’s B-list since his successful appearance on the 2008-2009 season of folk talent show Zvezde Granda (his post-show single C’est la vie is quite the disco tune), it was only with 2013’s Hotel Jugoslavija that he broke out as an A-lister, a position he cemented by becoming one half of a turbofolk power couple with fellow Zvezde Granda alumnus Nikolina Kovač. Their April 2014 wedding, expertly timed to coincide with the promotion of Nikolina’s debut single Nisam dobro and Saša’s collaboration Oči plave, was extensively covered by Grand Revija, the official magazine of Grand Production, the record label and production company to which both acts are signed. Saša’s transformation in preparation for his ascent to major star status consisted of him being demulleted, leathered-up, and deprived of his eyebrow piercing (the mark where it used to be can clearly be seen in the Hotel Jugoslavija video; the “before” pic is in the slideshow above). The couple has – at least for media purposes – an unfortunate-looking baby who seems to know what the game is, and they’ve told the press they plan further children. In approximately none of their promotional materials and appearances do they appear a genuine couple, with Nikolina always striking the sexiest possible pose for the camera (she knows what the game is too) and Saša just trying to look convincing. No relationship inaugurated with a wedding cake this comically phallic can come to a good end…

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NJNQK5NFrRY

Whether posing coyly in his tajti-vajtis, giving himself a sensual rubdown for the camera, or gyrating blindfolded in leather trousers, muscle-bound mincer Bojan Bjelić is one of those ostensibly heterosexual Balkan stars who – like Vasil Zafirčev, Aleksa Jelić, Krum and Sebastian Podgornik – is so flamboyantly, theatrically gay that as a Westerner I’m amazed local audiences accept him as straight. His campy 2008 video for Čipka crvena, by Visual Infinity, is based on homoerotic Hollywood film 300, and – perhaps to distract from the humdrum song – is just as chock-a-block with shirtless action, opening with slow-motion shots of Bojan pouring water over his naked bronzed chest and ending with a low-budget battle sequence between Bojan’s cohort of hunks and some masked baddies. I think Bojan would have liked ancient Greece.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x1wwSYm3Vs0

(If you want more of Bojan, I recommend his 2013 summer hit Jedino moje, which is a banger and a half – perfectly constructed modern turbofolk with massive beats, hook after hook, just the right amount of folk elements and best-in-class production.)

Eurovision audiences are already familiar with androgynous blond moppet Milan Stanković, whose 2010 entry Ovo je Balkan was memorably and accurately described by British satirist Charlie Brooker as sounding “like someone pulling a bull’s head off inside a giant metal pipe”. Locals also know Milan for his hits Fejs (about the perils of romance via Facebook), Solo (about Milan’s endless attempts to fend off the ladies), dark, synth-heavy floorfiller Mama (about being an irredeemable bad boy who regrets falling short of his mother’s standards) and most recently Od mene se odvikavaj, one of Damir Handanović’s best pieces of songwriting. The refreshingly simple clip, by Ljubba and Stanković’s own team, features Milan shirtless in a hoodie, singing against a moody night-time backdrop.

Trash-press headlines Milan has generated in recent years include “Homosexuals confirm: Milan is not gay!”, “Sweet Serbs: Milan Stanković appears in British gay magazine ‘Gay Times’”, and “Milan Stanković: They’ll think I’m gay even if I’m caught having sex with a girl!”. OK, he’s probably gay, but I wouldn’t be hugely surprised if beneath all the metrosexual styling he’s actually straight. Stranger things have happened; for some reason he doesn’t trip my gaydar anywhere near as much as many of his industry colleagues do. Milan continues to enjoy success, and overcame a terrible choice of outfit to win the public vote at the inaugural Pink Music Festival in April 2014 with his song Luda ženo.

I wasn’t going to include Željko Joksimović in this piece until 3 separate Serbians told me he was secretly gay. This perhaps sheds new light on his anti-trans comments to Macedonian auditionee Fifi Janevski in 2013 as a jury member on X Factor Adria, a story which made it into English-language online media like HuffPost and Buzzfeed. Željko, a mentor for the show’s Over 27s category, also sent gay Montenegrin singer Slavko Kaležić home at the Judges’ Houses stage of the contest, only for him to be signed and return to the show as a guest act to perform his debut single some weeks later.

Željko’s track record at the Eurovision Song Contest is extensive – he co-hosted the event in 2008, finished 2nd in 2004 and 3rd in 2012 performing self-composed folk ballads, and also entered twice as a songwriter, notching up a 3rd place for Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2006 with Hari Mata Hari’s Lejla and a 6th place in 2008 as the composer of Jelena Tomašević’s Oro. Even his breakthrough single in Serbia way back in 1999 was a cover of that year’s German Eurovision entry. Željko hasn’t always been the earnest balladeer, though, as his early pop and eurodance singles attest. If you’re used to his sombre folk stylings, you might be surprised to see him bopping away in a tight top and plastic trousers in the video for 1999 single 9 Dana, or rocking an earring in each ear and a pair of tinted glasses in the clip for Amajlija from the same year. Željko made a surprise return to dance-pop in 2013 with club hit Ludak kao ja.

I left you with Aleksa Jelić at the end of the last article, and now we return to him. Whether descending from the studio ceiling on a wire to sing his 2014 single Disco & Funk, performing showstopping drag routines on Saturday night TV show Tvoje lice zvuči poznato, or recording the official song for the banned 2012 Belgrade Pride event and appearing near-naked in its music video, Aleksa seems wonderfully comfortable in his own skin. Despite that, like everyone else above, he nominally identifies as straight for public purposes, something he’s had to repeatedly reassert to the press, as he’s perhaps the one case where the public sees through the front. Signed to the Serbian state broadcaster’s in-house record label PGP-RTS, Aleksa isn’t strictly a part of the turbofolk scene, but his music nevertheless incorporates folk elements from time to time – as in disco-folk number Beli jablan, his 2008 attempt to enter Eurovision, notable for its high-kicking dance routine. He’s also performed in drag as turbofolk singers Ceca and Nataša Bekvalac. A highly accomplished dancer who has lived abroad, Aleksa made another attempt to enter Eurovision in 2007 with Beli grad, while the unlikely video for summery ballad Smisao sees a shirtless Aleksa snogging a girl on the beach. But it’s the lyrics to Idemo u grad that resonate the most and perhaps tell us the most about his inner life. “I have one life, one wish, one dream – for everyone to love each other [… and] to forget all differences and divisions. […] Only pink clouds are above us today, and the sun paints the sky rainbow. A carnival of love passes through the heart of the city. Let’s go to the city.” I hope for Aleksa’s sake and for everyone else that Belgrade truly is like that one day.

Club kings In Vivo (the name stands for “Igor and Neven live”) have notched up an impressive string of decent, self-composed dance-pop hits over the past few years. Neither of them has ever struck me as remotely gay, but what I’m interested in is how they’re unquestioningly accepted as a handsome male dance-pop duo – a two-member boyband, if you will – in a way not commonly seen in Western pop music. If they were an American or British act, I can’t help but feel there’d be all kinds of snickering and finger-pointing, and they’d regularly face interview questions about whether they were a couple. In this wonderful German article in Viennese magazine Biber, straight Austrian-Turkish writer Teoman Tiftik bemoans how his white Austrian friends tell him to “stop being gay” if he does so much as put an arm round them, while he and his male friends of Turkish heritage are happy to kiss each other on the cheeks, hug and sit close together, sometimes with a hand on the other’s knee or massaging each other’s necks as they discuss politics and football. Tiftik writes: “This bodily contact has nothing to do with homosexuality. It’s part of how you treat good friends. If you like people, you touch them, look them in the eye and hug them.” This healthy, normal homosociality is part of what I love about Balkan and Southern European cultures, and it’s something sadly absent in the unhealthily ‘low-touch cultures’ of the West – where males grow up learning to police their own behaviour and that of their peers, with the result that grown men are often emotionally immature and illiterate, afraid to be affectionate towards each other, touch each other or even discuss their feelings for fear of being labelled “gay”. Regular touch and strong same-gender relationships are vital for emotional health, yet for all the news stories about homophobia in Eastern Europe, gay panic attitudes are such a prevalent part of the Western male mindset that they constrict straight men’s behaviour in a way not seen in Southeast Europe.

There used to be a rule in the British advertising industry that beer adverts always had to show three or more men drinking together in a pub rather than just two, in case viewers thought they were gay and the brand was thus tarnished by this association. In Vivo follow no such rule, and the video for their best song by a mile – the dark, heady Život unazad from 2013 – doesn’t even feature a female love interest, instead focusing on the relationship between Igor and Neven, as one rescues the other from suicide. Towards the end of the clip, the duo lose their shirts and we’re treated to lingering shots of their sweat-beaded torsos as they take turns attacking a punching bag. The video ends with a poem about two halves of a soul finding each other again in the next life, reborn into a better world. And the lyrics to the chorus are touching: “I would live this life back again, love you better, take greater care of you. I would live these few years back again, with you, forever again.” Their latest song, ballad Sad kad nema nas, premiered on December 22.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KIb0Lnsngo4

Another massively popular male pop duo secure enough in their heterosexuality and masculinity to go around wearing bright pink suits are the wonderful Flamingosi, made up of Serbian entertainer Ognjen Amidžić and Montenegrin actor Marinko Madžgalj. Some of you will no doubt recall the early Simpsons episode where Homer reluctantly has to wear a pink shirt to work – and is singled out for it by his colleagues – after all of his white shirts are accidentally stained pink when Bart puts his red hat in the wash at the same time. Flamingosi have no time for gay-panic anxieties like these, as evidenced in the clip below. Imagine a mainstream Western pop duo called The Flamingos made up of two straight men who sing carefree songs in pink suits. Hard, isn’t it?

While pretty much all Flamingosi songs are great – not turbofolk, but real uplifting summer music with a distinct sound – I’d like to single out 2007’s Ti i ja, in which Ognjen and Marinko compete for the affections of Macedonian singer Karolina Gočeva only to end up sharing a prison cell, and November 2014’s catchy Big featuring Nevena Božović, a shameless promotional clip for a Novi Sad shopping mall.

Finally, Boban Rajović – turbofolk’s resident action man and bald love god – has never really tripped my gaydar (though I wouldn’t rule it out), but like In Vivo and Flamingosi, he’s able to get away with things that straight-presenting male pop stars in the West simply couldn’t. The 43-year-old Danish singer, the son of Montenegrin émigrés, ditched Copenhagen for Belgrade in 2000 to pursue a pop career in former Yugoslavia, and as can be seen in the above slideshow, he likes getting his kit off in promotional materials. For his 2013 single Interventna, Boban recorded probably the most ambitiously overblown video the genre has ever seen – a three-and-a-half-minute action movie by iCodeTeam that sees him go postal on a group of gangsters, dispatching them with a samurai sword amid a sea of CGI explosions to save the woman he loves. It’s epic but a little tongue-in-cheek, and stays on the right side of tasteful throughout; there’s no gore, and you can tell Boban’s having fun playing the all-action hero. He certainly has the body for it, as can be seen during the second verse, when his huge arms and shoulders are out on display. It’s all a far cry from his earlier hit Mus od čokolade (Chocolate Mousse), which saw him wearing hipster glasses while brandishing a keytar.

The follow-up video for song Baraba sees Boban on the run in the UK, trying to pull off a luxury car heist while escaping the clutches of the Metropolitan Police (portrayed here with unrealistic competence). Made by LV productions London, the clip opens with pectastic scenes of Boban sitting shirtless in bed, following by shots of his bulging boxer-briefs as he climbs into his clothes. The song itself is excellent, boasts a brooding brass bassline and killer chorus, and sounds totally unlike anything else in the genre.

Next week on Queer As Turbofolk, following on directly from this article: in or out? Should gay singers in the Balkans risk public opprobrium and career freefall by revealing their orientation, or is it safer and smarter for things to stay the way they are? Could popular openly gay turbofolk singers act as role models and help change the culture in a way politicians and laws struggle to? And as democracy threatens to roll back more and more under Vučić, will the genre continue on its present progressive course, or are nationalistic themes at risk of creeping back in? I hope you’ll join me again.

eurovicious

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.