From scary divas to anonymous topless men, it’s time for some turbofolk therapy.
Technology. Global connection. Social media. What’s it doing to us? There are examples littered throughout science fiction of characters who lose their minds due to information overload. Robots that fritz out and start emitting smoke after absorbing too much data. Telepaths driven insane by being unable to block out the thoughts of everyone around them, their consciousness drowned out by the background noise of other people’s calamities and mundanities. The Total Perspective Vortex from the Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy – which, as an ultimate punishment, exposes the victim’s mind to the full unimaginable scale of the universe, showing them how utterly insignificant they are by comparison. Back in the real world (or what passes for), I scroll through Twitter – the platform so many of us have a love-hate relationship with, feverishly hitting refresh like addled lab rats licking at sucrose droppers – and cat memes and platitudes sit uncomfortably alongside beheadings and global geopolitics. What does it mean? Can our minds cope? I make a cock joke, retweet an atrocity, and everything is fine again. It’s fine. Just like on the TV news, when the perfectly coiffured anchorwoman segues from a report on the latest mass shooting somewhere in America (how many children’s tiny skulls shattered this time?) to a cute animal story or a fluff piece on Kanye’s new hairstyle. It’s fine. The world is fine.
This phenomenon was in evidence again the other weekend when two examples of how LGBT identification can intersect with violence unwittingly juxtaposed themselves in my Twitter feed. In Belgrade – the wild East, if you will – a German participant of a conference organized by lesbian human rights group Labris was attacked in the city centre and required emergency surgery. Over in the civilised West, meanwhile, a UK police tactical unit proudly posted pictures of its members wearing rainbow laces on their boots in support of LGBT rights, while clad in gas masks and wielding assault rifles. So there you go. Protest for gay rights in Russia and OMON will beat you up (or stand back while others do), but get on the wrong side of the UK police and they’ll metaphorically or physically kick your ass with their rainbow-laced boots. Be foreign or gay in Serbia, and you risk a kicking from some thug the government let off the hook because the country’s most powerful politician is himself a former football hooligan. Speak out about corruption and the police will turn up in your bedroom. It’s quite the world we live in. Enter art. Art can help us make sense of the world and its madness. Time for some turbofolk therapy – that’s what I say. This time, we’re looking at videos by the genre’s biggest female performers of the past decade. Videos that portray them as imperious hypersexual figures surrounded by objectified bodies at their disposal. And so without further ado, let’s begin today’s treatment with an intimidating, lesbian-themed music video full of women in fetish masks.
“It’d be a shame, a really big shame, if you didn’t accompany me to the toilet,” sings Nikolija, presumably not looking for someone to hold her handbag while she reapplies her makeup in the mirror. Catchy and impactful, Ćao zdravo was one of 2013’s biggest songs in Serbia, and the video is notable for how it toys with gender expectations, with singer-rapper Nikolija adopting an aggressive masculine role throughout, even going as far as lip-synching Teca’s guest rap (the man himself doesn’t even appear). Unsmiling and unglamorous, she’s a threatening sexual huntress with a group of pliant, feminine women on leashes at her mercy, their faces and voices hidden behind what look like gas masks. Had a slightly different artistic approach been taken, this clip would be easy to classify as faux-lesbianism for the male gaze, but titillating men is clearly not a priority here – there’s a distinct lack of femininity and little in the way of glamour, flesh or colour, plus the sexuality is cryptic and hinted at rather than overt. Most strikingly of all, there’s a cold, blunt intensity to the whole package that I find incredibly compelling.
We’ve seen female pop singers with men on leashes many times before – in Kisski’s Nashi parni molodci (the Russian answer to turbofolk if ever there was one), Rebeka Dremelj’s Vrag naj vzame and Melissa Lopez’s Point Of No Return. A feminine diva turning the tables and objectifying men with a coy wink to camera has almost become a standard trope in pop music. What we haven’t seen before in a mainstream video is a threatening, masculine woman doing the same with women, without a trace of coyness, flirtatiousness, or “lads’ mag lesbianism” (of the “two blondes eating bananas in a bubble bath” variety). This is what’s so great about Serbia’s divas – they’re not afraid to be scary. With a few exceptions like Pink, Gaga and Beyonce, big-name Western female pop stars play predominantly disempowering and subordinate roles like naughty schoolgirl (Britney – who was accused of copying Ćao zdravo in her video for “Work, Bitch”), gangster’s moll (Rihanna), perpetually drunk, easy party girl (Kesha, Miley), saucy goofball minx (Katy Perry) and sex kitten (Christina, Mariah, everyone else) – roles that play up to patriarchal paradigms rather than challenge them. By contrast, Serbia’s roster of leading ladies – bronzed, toned and megaboobed though they may be – seem freer to adopt forceful roles and be genuinely commanding and intimidating. From JK to Goga, Nikolija to Ana Nikolić, many of the biggest turbofolk divas are simultaneously hyperfeminine and hypermasculine: they’re dominant, uncompromising personalities that overtly wield sexual and social power on screen and stage. Many videos feature them with hosts of attractive, scantily-clad men at their beck and call, like a Balkan subversion of U.S. hiphop videos where male rappers seem permanently surrounded by available female bodies. And while I’m no fan of the Dunja Ilić video in which she suicide-bombs a wedding, or the one which opens with real footage of a nuclear weapon test and ends with her petrol-bombing someone – as both tastelessly go too far in their effort to shock – their existence illustrates a point. The force of personality exhibited by the women of turbofolk not only contrasts with Western pop but also with the pop-folk of neighbouring countries: for instance, Bulgarian chalga singers like Gina Stoeva, Emanuela and Alisia are a much more suppliant, conventional bunch. In the fantasy world of chalga, the men are the gangsters while the women are decoration – whereas in much of contemporary Serbian pop-folk, it’s the other way round. This is the case too in Nikolija’s eponymous follow-up, which sees her flirt with Milan Stanković in a club before ending the night on the roof accompanied by a group of masked shirtless thugs who seem to answer to her.
Turning the clock back, I judge 2005-2007 to be the period when turbofolk really shook off its tarnished 90s past and started making a case for itself as a dynamic, progressive, provocative art form on its own terms. It’s from here on in that the genre’s sound and look started to become more experimental, club-oriented and queer. For my money, the best example of an incredibly impactful turbofolk video featuring a threatening, hyperfeminine diva is Jelena Karleuša’s Upravo ostavljena from 2005 – a chaotic, unnerving leather-clad fever dream that opens with a minute of shouting and sirens before the melody begins, as a tattooed JK (wearing a mask, arm-length gloves and enough makeup to qualify for Harun Yahya’s sex cult) strikes poses to the beat. It’s unsettling, outside-the-box and evidently not designed for the straight male eye.
Dejan Milićević, the prolific gay director responsible for the above, also created the clips for Goga Sekulić’s Gaćice and Seksi Biznismen, as featured in the VICE Guide to Turbofolk (“What’s it about? Besides a sexy businessman?”). Both songs posit Goga as a husband-stealing predator.
Released the year after Seksi Biznismen, Selma Bajrami’s Promjeni se is a rollicking dancefloor tune with another fast-paced Milićević-directed video. The song and clip go together perfectly: a furious Selma sings “I hate the whole male gender” as anonymous topless men throw shapes behind her, a contrast that highlights women’s and gay men’s common frustration of being attracted to men but emotionally damaged by their behaviour one too many times. In 2010’s Voli me do bola, one of many genre videos where none of the men have shirts on, Selma taunts a well-muscled stud roped to a chair.
In the clips for Seka Aleksić’s big hits of 2010 and 2011 – Tamo gde si ti and Soba 22 respectively – not a single man is afforded the dignity of a shirt. In the sensual video for the former, directed by fashion photographer Miloš Nadaždin, a sultry Seka marauds majestically through what appears to be a fantasy version of a men’s steam room or gay sauna, inspecting a row of anonymous male bodies. In the latter, directed by Vedad Jasarević of Creative 4D, a regal Seka enjoys a milk bath while being attended to hunky male servants wearing eyeliner. Later, she faces off against a bronzed, topless hunk in a ring of fire. Both videos boast an unmistakably gay aesthetic.
Not to be outdone by Seka, Goga ratcheted up the BPM in 2011 with throbbing dance track Muška lutka (“Male Doll”). In the video, once again directed by Dejan Milićević, Goga paws at a coterie of male models clad only in briefs (and in one case a bow tie) playing the titular dolls.
Our sordid saunter through the history of Serbian shirtlessness takes us next to Sindi’s Telo gori. In this performance on RTV Pink’s Sunday night show “VIP Room” – which claims to be the biggest primetime music show in the Balkans – Sindi flirts with a gaggle of hard-bodied hunks who take their turns to strut down the studio catwalk.
Model Marko Mićović, the first to interact with Sindi in the video above, turns up again shirtless, pumping iron and dripping with sweat in 2012’s Balkan Bachata – an English-language turbofolk song designed for international audiences and released in German-speaking Europe and across the Balkans. In the clip, Belgrade-based Slovenian duo Clea and Kim flirt with a selection of barely-clothed studs in a gym.
Marko appeared again in Mia Borisavljević’s Gruva Gruva, quite possibly the hottest turbofolk video of all time. I’m not going to disappear down a pseudo-intellectual rabbit hole trying to analyse this one – it’s a bunch of buff young male models sprayed orange, larking around on a catwalk wearing nothing but Serbian-flag boxer-briefs, shoes and socks, and inspired post-Ottoman kitsch in the form of fake moustaches and sequined caps. What’s not to love? This video more than perhaps any other shows how comfortable the genre is with male objectification. The aesthetic is unmistakably gay, and yet the video plays with, subverts and reappropriates tropes of national identity. It’s full of flags and national symbols, yet is blisteringly homoerotic and explicitly recasts the country as one where men are sex objects and women pull the strings. Either that or at the time of shooting, the economy was under such strain that the poor lads couldn’t afford clothes and had to come in their pants – which I’m sure is what more than a few people did upon first viewing.
Last but not least, the queerest turbofolk video by a female artist has to be 2013’s Etiketa, in which singer Ljupka Stević is backed by 4 shirtless male dancers wearing high heels, nipple tassels and rubber tights. In the second half of the clip, Ljupka becomes literally entangled with her androgynous male twin – a male model styled to look just like her. The gender-bending on display reflects the song’s lyrical theme of how, when a relationship ends, we leave part of ourselves in the other person and carry part of them in us – an indelible stamp. Men dancing in high heels seems to be in fashion at the moment, as evidenced by Ukrainian boyband Kazaky and the gay French trio that reached the final of this year’s Britain’s Got Talent dancing to Beyonce numbers in stilettos.
All of the above examples make it pretty clear that turbofolk demands reassessment both outside and within Serbia and the Balkans. The still-common view of the genre as nationalist noise for the lower classes doesn’t square well with its reality as a homoerotic fantasy land – pioneered in full mainstream view by gay male directors and creatives – where divas call the shots and gorgeous male models are paraded like beef cattle, for audiences to drool over their rippling flesh in various scenarios. It’s exploitative without ever being seedy (again, unlike Bulgarian pop-folk, which often crosses into cheap and vulgar near-pornography), and I love it. Things have changed a lot in the past decade, and the genre as it stands today demands to be discovered by an international audience, especially a gay audience; I’m surprised it hasn’t yet truly. Here’s to the continued blossoming of turbofolk’s bold queer aesthetic. Now where can I get a pair of those seksi underpants?