Queer As Turbofolk (Part I): “Eastern Europe Is Homophobic”

You’ve read Lily’s How to write about the Balkans piece. Here’s my take on how to write about “turbofolk”.

Talk about Ceca and Arkan, the widow and the warlord, their televised wedding and her house arrest for illegal arms possession and massive embezzlement. About kafanas and nationalists, gap-toothed unsophisticates drinking their cares away and firing shotguns in the air as they dance to cacophonous oriental melodies warbled by barely-clothed gangster’s molls. About glamorous clubs full of silicone starlets and gun-toting mafiosi. Make it foreign and scary. Less civilized than our music and nightlife. Root it in the Milošević era, ignoring any evolution in the almost 15 years since, ignoring Yugoslavia’s preceding musical history, and ignoring comparable pop-folk genres that emerged in many European countries during the 1990s as musicians augmented traditional sounds with new technology. Most of all, emphasize your disdain for it. Postmodern irony and Western cultural supremacy demand that you look down on this giddy alien music and those who enjoy it, without considering classism, balkanism or social context.

Ignore the fact that Bosnian, Croatian and Romani singers are hugely popular in Serbia as you paint it as a still-intolerant nationalist nightmare. Overlook that a lesbian singer of Romani heritage won Eurovision for Serbia in 2007 with an uncompromisingly queer-themed performance. In fact, remain blind to the queer side of Serbian pop culture in general – even though it’s pretty hard to miss when today’s music videos, performances and concerts spill over with oiled-up orange muscle men, fierce divas, flamboyant drag performances and even rainbow flags, all to a soundtrack of sick synths and thundering club beats. Ignore the fact that Belgrade’s most prolific and successful music video director, whose work has helped shape the genre’s entire look, is openly gay, as are many of his industry colleagues. It’s not just in America and Britain that gay men historically shut out of other spaces find a natural home for themselves in the entertainment industry.

But what’s that cry I hear over the horizon? “Eastern Europe is homophobic” goes the chorus from the West – often hand in hand with “Eastern Europe is racist” – by people who may not have even been there or know much about the region and are prone to view it as a monolithic, undifferentiated whole. And while it’s true that what I like to call QUILTBAG people are worse off legally and in many cases socially in the eastern half of our continent than the western half (as can be seen from this map), something I by no means wish to trivialize or diminish, this strictly binary view ignores all kinds of nuances and differences on the ground, while not-so-subtly positing Western Europe as a rainbow paradise along the lines of “We’re civilized here, we even let our gays get married and appear on television, not like those backward peasants over there who persecute them”. Catherine Baker has written here about gay rights and Western homonationalism in relation to the Sochi Olympics, Serbia and Eurovision. Added to which, in any less-well informed discourse about “Eastern Europe”, the countries of former Yugoslavia plus Albania tend to be lumped together with the Warsaw Pact states, which not only experienced a very different implementation of Communism to the Western Balkans but also varied greatly to each other, with Hungary much more liberal than Poland, and East Germany and Romania far more claustrophobic and surveillance-drenched than either.

In reunified Germany, people even have the luxury of being able to stigmatize their backward post-Communist neighbours while keeping things strictly domestic. This August, I saw a comedy pilot on German TV where, as a skit, West German comedian Jan Böhmermann was filmed going about his daily business in the city while wearing a Hitler moustache. (Sew up my sides already, comedy pioneers.) The segment was introduced as follows: “What would it be like to have a Hitler moustache? A question that, apart from in East Germany, pretty much no-one has asked in the past 70 years.” Ascribing neo-Nazi sentiment solely to East Germans while erasing its existence in West Germany in the space of just two sentences – now that takes skill. And shocking arrogance. I find it grimly fascinating when people try to absolve their societies of all prejudice like this, even the very possibility of prejudice, by projecting it onto a convenient Shelbyville.

In relation to race, while out with friends in Germany, I once heard a young American comment that Eastern Europe was racist because there were “no black people there” (clue: it’s because they weren’t involved in transatlantic slavery, and from the end of World War II to the collapse of Communism were largely closed societies with very low immigration. Also, there are, just not very many). Similarly, in his broadly enjoyable travelogue Dawdling By The Danube, English writer Edward Enfield describes Vienna’s lack of diversity (!) and is bemused by how few people of colour there are there compared to London, wondering whether this is due to racism, before it is explained to him that Britain’s large non-white populace is tied to his country’s colonial history.

There’s an early episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where a society purifies itself of all negative emotions and attributes by creating a creature to absorb them all. The race achieves perfection and transcendence at the cost of birthing a monster of pure misery and hate – one that they, now-enlightened, promptly abandon to a life of pain and isolation. I’m reminded of this whenever the West is lazily held up as a glitter-filled snow globe of harmony, prosperity and diversity, by means of pointing a post-colonial finger at the rest of the planet for being not quite as sparkly, accepting and gay-fabulous as we are in oh-so-civilized Western Europe (where France mass-deports Roma back to Romania, British TV shows demonize immigrants, and boatloads of Africans are left to drown in the Mediterranean Sea) and North America (which has 99 problems and, unlike the Netherlands, a ditch ain’t one). When rich countries paternalistically chastise large swathes of Africa, Asia and the Middle-East for quite simply not being as modern and developed as they are, this conveniently ignores the fact that in many cases we’re primarily responsible for this state of affairs in the first place, having variously occupied, colonized, exploited, raped, warped, dismantled and completely wrecked their societies. To varying extents, our gleaming Emerald Cities of dollars, diversity and disco, our liberal beacons of tolerance and freedom in Western Europe and North America, are built on the backs of their wealth, their resources, even their labour.

We also happily overlook the fact that many of these countries’ laws against male homosexual activity are a legacy of the British Empire, that their enthusiastically anti-gay brand of Christianity is a Western import (first via Europe then America) that has both displaced and been syncretized with indigenous beliefs, taking hold in the psychic space where traditional practices were trampled out of consciousness with the upheaval of European domination, and that in North Africa and the Middle-East, many of the repressive regimes that aren’t exactly très au fait with human rights in general, let alone those of women and woofters, are ones we prop up and keep in power because the corporations and capital that control our legislative chambers, the profiteers that perniciously pull the strings of our puppet politicians, care more about secured access to these countries’ fossil fuels and other natural resources than about the welfare of their people. Here in the West, where women couldn’t vote a century ago (or until 1990 in parts of Switzerland), where rape convictions are appallingly low, where people of colour are stigmatized at best, shot at worst, and where QUILTBAG people still face all kinds of hurdles – like being kicked out of the army, kicked out by their parents or kicked to death in central London – we’ve so recently decided that The Gays Are Awesome(TM) that we’re keen to not only export this realization to the rest of the world but to roundly condemn entire land masses for not having grokked that “gay is good” when we’ve only just had this epiphany ourselves. Which is to say: just get with the gays, Rwanda! It’s 2014 already!

All of this is a very long prelude to me grabbing you by the scruff of the neck and plunging you face-first into the gay, gay world of Serbian pop culture in the coming parts – into a lurid technicolour fantasy land where queer subtext is sometimes implicit but often right on the surface, and male objectification is endemic. Who’d a thunk that the country we superficially associate with nationalist warmongering, corruption and NATO air strikes (thereby forgetting its Yugoslav, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian history) would have quite possibly the world’s gayest pop music?

Amazingly, I’m not talking about the sort of faux-lesbian antics designed to titillate straight guys that are the bane of Western pop culture. While American and British music videos and advertising bombard us with images of semi-dressed nubile young women on a daily basis, to the extent that those of us not aroused by these images have come to accept them as our society’s wallpaper, Serbian music videos feature just as many scantily clad men than women – if not more. I think the region’s Southern European macho culture enables this considerably: lingering shots of shirtless hunks and glistening musclebound torsos are a common and acceptable sight in media, and are not interpreted as “gay” as they typically would be in the West. Gleeful male objectification is common and real: at the last Serbian concert I went to, in a diaspora venue, the male singer of the house band let women queue up to squeeze his butt and be photographed with it after his performance. An hour later at the same event, headliner Jelena Karleuša pulled a guy out of the audience and stripped him down to his underwear on stage. In the West, these kind of shenanigans would be too gay to fly (for much the same reasons that American men won’t wear speedos or tight jeans).

Meanwhile, our female pop stars are constantly objectified for commercial gain, being variously expected to pout and pose in minimal clothing (of the “two Band-Aids and a cork” variety), dress up in all kinds of S&M apparel, spray cream out of their lady lumpsdrape themselves in reptilia, and partake in questionable prison chic and “sexy victim” shtick. With the exception of a couple of acts like LMFAO and Robbie Williams, who used to regularly whip his clothes off back in the 1990s (admirably but perhaps regrettably), this simply doesn’t apply to male pop singers in the English-speaking world, who are rarely physically objectified to any remotely comparable degree. Or can you imagine Justin Timberlake and Bruno Mars snogging mechanically and passionlessly on stage during an awards ceremony solely to generate titillation and headlines, Jason Derulo writhing in a ball gag in his latest clip (at least it’d stop him singing his name), Brad Paisley taking up twerking, or Justin Bieber spraying cream out of a giant phallic eclair? (Don’t answer that.)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8jHpjXpIXFc] Now that I’ve set the scene and whetted your appetite, in the coming parts, we’ll look at a selection of flashy and flesh-filled music videos ranging from superficially heteronormative to overtly queer, hear what academics have to say on the intersection of Balkan pop-folk and queer culture, and also sample some Croatian videos that mirror the Serbian trend. For now, I’ll leave you with this clip by gay Serbian hip-hop artist Damjan Loš, entitled “Don’t Touch My Faggots”. Vidimo se!

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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.