In Part 1, we explored how Eastern Europe is often conceptually constructed as a dangerous, wild “other” in contrast to the “civilized” West, how the narrow views and outdated perceptions of Serbian “turbofolk” in English-language mainstream media are no exception to this narrative, and how the all-too-common Western homonationalist labelling of Eastern Europe as monolithically “homophobic” is reductive and shuts the door to open-minded engagement with Eastern European countries’ cultures and nuanced realities. In Part 2, we looked at queer aesthetic, gender dynamics and male objectification in major music videos and performances from the past decade by leading female artists of the genre. This time, we’re handing over to some academics for further insight.
“I really believe that many of these songs are made by gay people. If not, why would they be so popular at gay places in Serbia?” says one of the young Belgrade gay clubbers interviewed by Marija Grujić for her 2009 PhD thesis Community and the Popular: Women, Nation and Turbo-Folk in Post-Yugoslav Serbia. Grujić notes the “elements of gay visual iconography […] visible in the video production of turbo-folk” and comments that local gay men she spoke to during her research “simply explained to me that they liked to dance to the music of these singers.” She writes that “Discussions of turbo-folk music and turbo-folk stars are fairly represented on LGBT websites in Serbia, very often marked by some positive views on turbo-folk culture. […] Also, fieldwork carried out in the ‘Club X’, ‘Floyd’ and ‘VIP’ clubs, and a few other so-called gay-friendly clubs and cafés in Belgrade, as well as the club ‘Džoker’ in Novi Sad, revealed that turbo-folk music was frequently played at gay and lesbian clubs, and it was even a dominant music style in some of them.”
Analyzing the output of singer Jelena Karleuša, a gay and transgender icon, Grujić attests to the “rich elements of play with transexuality and androgyny” in her artwork and staging. “Dressed and made up so that she imitated the look of male transvestites, she often performed on the stage or in videos surrounded by either male gay-marked or transvestite bodies. Karleuša was one of the rare voices among turbo-folk performers who uttered publicly that homosexuals should have the right to be equal citizens in Serbian society. The gay-identified informants that I spoke to confirmed that they highly appreciated her public contribution to gay visibility, even though it was put in the form of entertainment and not in some more official public debate. Karleuša’s statements as well as many of her videos were highly regarded among the part of the gay population who frequents gay night clubs in Serbia and prefers turbo-folk music and foreign techno and pop music, particularly males. […] Karleuša expressed her support on a TV show called ‘Piramida’ on TV Pink (November 30, 2008). She said that if her hairdresser, and her stylist and make-up expert are gay, it means that gay people are around us, so we have to get used to the fact that they are citizens like anybody else.”
In Karleuša’s 2007 hit Casino – a drastic reworking of Israeli singer Sarit Hadad’s song Celebration – the singer fantasizes about seducing an affluent, presumably Western James Bond-like figure in a glamorous Montenegrin gambling venue. “You sit alone at a roulette table, holding a dry martini in your hand. […] And already I can tell I’ve never seen a guy like this before. Sexy, so attractive, so elegant; blue blood, the best foreign education, charming and gallant. Black tuxedo, I like the way you’re talking, I like the way you’re smoking. Irresistible, like 007, and thus I watch him and think: ‘Make me pregnant with a son, here under the casino lights. He will be a lucky child; everyone will see him, everyone will envy him. […] He will be a millionaire; he will be fatal to women, just as you are to me.”
Casino is at once a song about wanting to have steamy no-strings sex with an exotic foreign stud in a public setting, and about wanting to become not just a mother, but a mother to an illegitimate son. It’s an intriguing combination: explicitly patriarchal, explicitly accepting of the choice to bear a child out of wedlock with a foreign stranger, and explicit full stop. “While attending gay night clubs in Belgrade and Novi Sad, I saw in person how gay male visitors and drag queens were absolutely delighted by this song, dancing and singing to its lyrics with utmost delight,” continues Grujić. Quelle surprise: methinks this is less about gay men fantasizing about becoming mothers than a simple response to the song’s sexual liberation and the fantasy liaison it invites listeners to vicariously engage in, imagining themselves in the role of Jelena. (Fellow turbofolk singer Sandra Afrika also released a song about wanting to bear a male child – Neko će mi noćas napraviti sina, “Someone’s going to impregnate me with a son tonight” – in 2012.)
“The potential for the turbofolk scene to foster liberal, cosmopolitan sentiment is demonstrated by turbofolk performers like Jelena Karleuša, Indira Radić and Seka Aleksić who have publicly supported gay rights, women’s rights and have critiqued aspects of the patriarchal nature of post-Yugoslav society,” outlines Rory Archer in his 2012 book chapter ‘Western, eastern and modern: Balkan pop-folk music and (trans)nationalism’, part of 1989 – Young people and social change after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Archer recalls how “Karleuša, writing for the Serbian tabloid Kurir in the wake of violence in Belgrade following the October 2010 Gay Pride Parade, produced a scathing article about the state of contemporary Serbian society – ‘in Serbia it’s normal for a child to see its dad slap its mother, but it’s not normal for two grown-up people [of the same sex] to love each other’. This article was republished in numerous highbrow media outlets and garnered vocal support from noted liberals like Biljana Srbljanović and Čedomir Jovanović.” The author also notes how, as the “first turbofolk singer to appear on the influential B92 talk show Utisak Nedelje (Impression of the week), Karleuša stressed the importance of mainstream (celebrity) figures in communicating liberal stances to a mass audience. She argued that the articulation of liberal views should not only be the preserve of intellectual elites in Serbia. By doing so Karleuša […] challenged the long-standing view of turbofolk performers as inert, conservative and depoliticised.”
Archer explores this topic in further detail in his 2009 MA thesis “Paint Me Black and Gold and Put Me in a Frame”: Turbofolk and Balkanist Discourse in (post) Yugoslav Cultural Space. He writes that folk and pop-folk singer Indira Radić — who famously stated that if a son of hers were gay, she would stand behind him — says that “her vocal support of former Yugoslavia’s gay community is linked to her own experience of prejudices associated with her turbofolk career and her rural background. She declares: ‘People who hate somebody because of their sexual orientation are enslaving themselves to stereotypes. I have myself often felt these [stereotypes], because they have hated and patronised me because of the work that I do. They have called me provincial, folkie [narodnjakuša]… they hate an image of me that they have created in their own head.'”
Continuing, Archer reports that “Jelena Karleuša also includes herself as a victim of prejudice, somebody who has ‘many times felt not accepted in this country’ (presumably due to her controversial turbofolk public persona), including herself with the gay minority on this basis, while defending gay rights on [Piramida]. While initially appealing to the Serbian public on a the basis of national flattery (‘our people [narod] always displays an inclination to accept and understand’), Karleuša later invokes the Balkan/Europe construct, attributing an ‘open mind’ and tolerance for gays as inherently European, and appealing for acceptance for gays so that Serbia can ‘finally be a part of Europe’. In contrast, she warns that ‘people who think like Saša [Pantić – homophobic actor] bring us back to the 19th, 18th and 17th centuries of Serbia’, thus evoking orientalist imagery of a less civilised past.”
Ivana Kronja, in her 2004 book chapter Turbo Folk and Dance Music in 1990s Serbia: Media, Ideology and the Production of Spectacle, describes “a hidden gay culture […] whose inﬂuence can be noticed in turbo folk and dance video clips, commercials, fashion photography, magazines and TV announcements at TV Pink.” While she notes that this inﬂuence is “particularly present in Pink products created by [Dejan] Milićević”, she also sees it as “imported from the West”. And although she writes that “young […] gay men are also present at the turbo-folk subcultural scene in some numbers […] usually working in Serbian fashion and show-business”, her view is that this confirms the genre’s inherent “hypocrisy”. Given that she was writing about 1990s Serbia in 2004, it’s hard to disagree here: pretty much all of the songs and videos I’ve showcased so far in this series of articles and will showcase in future parts are from 2005 onwards. Kronja correctly states that in the 1990s, “these musical genres and their total media presentation proved themselves to be one of the most powerful ideological weapons of Milošević’s regime”.
Watch Balkanika, Grand Narodna Televizija or RTV Pink today, or listen to Radio Skay or Cool Radio Belgrade, and it’s easy to forget how drastically the vibrant output of the past decade and especially the past few years differs from 1990s turbofolk, a fundamentally different kettle of fish. Certainly the examples I discussed last time on Queer As Turbofolk would have been technically, conceptually and ideologically impossible in the 1990s, as would Nikolija’s latest music video – released on October 3rd – in which, backed by 4 shirtless male dancers, she rejects a suited Marko Mićović in favour of a female love interest, leading to an implied lesbian kiss in an elevator followed by suggested sex. Musically, the track’s main hook is a repeated motif played on the zurna, an Ottoman-associated instrument used commonly in Bulgarian chalga but much more rarely in Serbian pop and turbofolk.
“Would Serbian mass culture be unmistakably different today had its ruling elite in the 1990s been democratic, civic and anti-nationalist? Would there be no turbo-folk?” asks Vuksa Veličković in his article Serbian guilty pleasures: who’s afraid of turbo folk?, written for Vienna’s Institute for Human Sciences and republished on bturn. His answer to this worthwhile question is one I wholeheartedly agree with: “There is reason to think there would still be a turbo-folk. The 1990s ‘turbo’ element that came to dominate the already massively popular folk music in Serbia had more to do with globalization and MTV than with Serbia’s political regime. Songs about quick romance and speedy lifestyle, combined with eroticized imagery can hardly be isolated from wider post-Communist and, indeed, global phenomena. The regime did ostentatiously promote turbo-folk in state-controlled mass media, as a means of both escapism and engagement in nationalistic euphoria, but it remains unclear whether there was anything implicit in the culture itself that would appeal strictly to nationalist or authoritarian sentiments. In fact, if Milošević’s regime did manipulate the public through turbo-folk, it was at the same time instrumentalizing turbo-folk itself. The fusion of culture and power in Serbia during the 1990s was achieved through the specific media practice of merging politics and entertainment into a seamless whole. Ultimately, it was not the folk superstars who embodied certain politics, it was the nationalist politicians that became superstars in the way folk singers were.”
In his 2012 journal article Assessing Turbofolk Controversies: Popular Music between the Nation and the Balkans, Rory Archer concludes that “the presence of queer aesthetics, pop-folk’s large gay fan base, and public support from certain performers like Jelena Karleuša and Indira Radić for Serbia’s beleaguered LGBT community, calls for a reassessment of the dynamics of the contemporary Serbian pop-folk scene, in particular the logic of condemning it a priori as entirely patriarchal in nature.” Veličković, in his article cited above, agrees: “The multiple layers of meaning inscribed in turbo-folk today imply a necessary re-evaluation of the existing paradigms that regard it solely as the cultural embodiment of Serbian nationalist-authoritarianism.” However, many of the academics I’ve quoted in this article are skeptical of turbofolk’s true subversive potential and its ability to change public attitudes, pointing to the physical attributes expected of female singers, and the fact that for all the genre flirts heavily with queer aesthetics and has many gay men working in creative roles behind the scenes, no performers are openly gay or lesbian. “Unlike some music stars from the global music stage, who have openly declared their homosexuality, no music star from the turbo-folk-scene has ever admitted to having homosexual preferences,” bemoans Grujić. This leads us nicely into the next article in this series, in which – having looked at the women of turbofolk in Part 2 – we’ll take a lecherous gawk at the roster of male turbofolk singers, all of whom present as robustly heterosexual in their musical and visual output despite indications this may not universally be the case. How queer can turbofolk truly be if no-one is out? Or, since people in homophobic societies are typically also blind to signifiers of homosexuality – they refuse to see gayness, don’t consider it as a conceptual possibility and don’t pick up on it the way Western audiences would be more likely to – does maintaining a notional heterosexual orientation in the public sphere simply act as a licence for singers to be as flamboyant as they like, as in the case of Liberace in America and Filip Kirkorov in Russia? An intriguing question. For now, here’s Aleksa Jelić performing his excellent disco single Floyd on Serbian TV in 2011. Vidimo se sledeći put.
Cover Photo: Make-up artist and drag queen Emper Atrizz prepares model Marko Mićović for a shoot.