MAKE A DUMBFUL NOISE
The Rise & Fall of Serbian Turbofolk
Originally published in Vice Magazine in November 2011. If you’d like to watch the documentary-cum-chaotic road trip that led to this article, I’ve put the link down at the bottom to avoid spoilers (and also to collect the pageviews in case you decide to bounce to the video version in lieu of reading).
Remember at the beginning of the 90s when normal people got into Garth Brooks and Time magazine was running articles called things like “Has Country Gone City?” It was a tense moment, but thankfully it passed and within months the greater American herd was back to enjoying the fruits of the non-rural US music industry. Like Shai.
Yugoslavia’s flirtation with country music did not end so well. Rather than segueing peacefully into rap or La Bouche, their vox populi ripped the nation apart and led to unfathomable acts of violence that will permanently ruin your eyeballs if you YouTube them at three in the morning.
After liberating Yugoslavia at the end of World War II, Marshal Tito embarked on your standard communist program of way-too-rapid modernization. Part of this was basic necessity. The Balkans had been kept as a strategic backwater by Western Europe since Roman times and included regions that, by the mid-20th century, still hadn’t discovered the maxi pad. But another part of it was fostering a new sense of national pride and proving to the outside world that his socialist Yugoslavians weren’t just a bunch of hillbillies with unpronounceable names and menses drizzling down their legs.
To this end, the Yugoslav central committee took the Balkans’ millennia-old tradition of folk music, cleaned out all the references to drinking and fucking in the bushes, stripped it of its ethnic specifiers, and presented the bland new result with the appropriately bland title of “newly composed folk music” (NCFM). The forced ethnic neutrality was especially important to Tito, as the component republics of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia had a historical propensity for killing one another in horrible and grandiose ways. Consider the fact that they’d just finished a war in which the Croatian Ustaše regime had committed such skin-crawling atrocities against Serbs that the Nazis had to tell them to chill out. Nobody wanted some old drinking song riling those chuckleheads up.
Tito died in 1980, and the cracks in his dignified, multiethnic Yugoslavia quickly started showing. In 1983, a Bosnian-born singer named Lepa Brena beat out the state-supported pop and NCFM groups to win that year’s nomination for the Eurovision song contest. Her entry was an actual-folk number about screwing some guy in the bushes, and it propelled her overnight into Yugoslavia’s biggest star.
Brena had come up singing in the truck-stop restaurants and kafanas along Serbia’s major highway (a kafana is like a bar, but shittier), where the racey, old style of folk had gained an underground following despite the state’s best efforts. Brena’s music painted a chilling portrait of rural backwardness in the SFRY, one drastically at odds with the party line. But while officials trying to secure the ’84 Winter Olympics for their country may have balked at such unflattering ditties as “Evo moga delije” (“Here’s My Hero”), the video for which features Brena’s husband as a beer-bloated Yugoslavian everylummox who insults her cooking and passes out in bed cradling a bottle of brandy; or her follow-up hit “Nema leka apoteka” (“The No-Cure Pharmacy”), which suggests that Yugoslavian dentistry is run by incompetents and general anesthesia is administered by having the hygienist show the patient her tits, they struck a chord with the Balkan hoi polloi.
Within a year Brena was playing shows to stadium crowds, and the M22 kafana circuit was bulging with imitators. Still unable to secure airplay from the state-controlled TV and radio, however, most budding “popfolk” singers sought support from the only members of their audience with any money — the Serbian mafia.
The late 80s proved a very lucky time to have a Serbian gangster as your manager. In 1988, mass protests in eastern Yugoslavia threatened the already-not-doin’-so-hot socialist state, and led future president Slobodan Milošević to break with the party’s taboo against nationalism. Openly declaring himself a champion for Serb rights, Milošević kicked off a long-pent-up eruption of ethnic pride throughout the SFRY, and soon everybody hated everybody else just like old times.
In the middle of this mess, Brena released two patriotic songs that would go on to achieve Lee Greenwood-level thrall over the frothing masses: “Živela Jugoslavija” (“Long Live Yugoslavia”) and “Jugoslovenka” (“Yugoslavian Girl”). In the video for the latter, tourist-board-quality helicopter footage of beautiful walled towns and castles along the Croatian coastline is intercut with shots of jazzed-up youths racing through the streets of Belgrade carrying the Yugoslavian federal flag. The same flag that would fly from the back of Serbian tanks sent to shell these same monuments two years later.
As the federal republic dissolved, Milošević shored up Serbia’s power by consolidating control of the Yugoslav National Army and selling off state assets to pay the bills. The buyers in this fire sale were not always Serbia’s best and brightest (they’d all got the fuck out of town when bearded wackos calling themselves neo-Četniks started recruiting kids in the public square to take care of “the Croatian problem”), but more often than not its best-connected and most willing to shoot a man in the face in front of his wife and daughter while laughing. Similar scenarios played out in the breakaway republics of Croatia and Bosnia, but not quite as dramatically as in Belgrade, where the murder rate skyrocketed, and organized crime became the only solvent industry in town.
With the line between government and gangster completely blurred, and the country’s intellectual class having vanished abroad, criminals channeled their money and influence into their favorite music and overnight popfolk turned from funny songs about cheating husbands into “turbofolk”: a coked-up, synth-and-trumpet-laden celebration of sex, money, boob jobs, brand-name crap, and startling levels of vapidity.
“Turbofolk was first promoted on an RTS Channel 3 show called šoder lista,” claims Serbian music writer Sandra Rančić. “It was a satiric music-chart program, and they’d play these trashy videos where it’d be like a village with sheep and chickens running all over the place, then a half-naked female singer. So šoder lista had a very important role in the advancement of turbofolk culture, although I’m sure the creators didn’t intend for it to happen. They were just trying to make fun of it. But their plan backfired.”
This musical dumbshow wouldn’t have been so bad if it weren’t also the soundtrack for some of the worst war crimes this side of Africa. At the same time they were running the show in Belgrade, many of Serbia’s criminal elite were also running paramilitary outfits with colorful names like the White Eagles, the Ravna Gora Četniks, and Arkan’s Tigers. The latter group was named for Željko “Arkan” Ražnatović, an internationally wanted bank robber who decided to support the Serbian motherland by converting Belgrade’s biggest soccer-hooligan firm into his own private army then leading them on a four-year rampage through Bosnia and Croatia. His follow-up act would be becoming Serbia’s biggest turbofolk impresario.
Lepa Brena married a Serbian tennis star and ducked out of the country before her songs became the unofficial anthem of genocidal violence, but she remained a major influence on the next generation of turbofolk singers, most importantly a teenager from south Serbia named Ceca.
Ceca took Brena’s Dolly Parton-esque winks at sexuality and dragged them into full-on Samantha Fox territory. Even if early hits like “Cvetak zanovetak” (“the Nagging Flower”) and “Želim te u mladosti” (“I Want You While I’m Still in My Youth”) left a teensy space for the imagination, the videos she made for them did not. She also took turbofolk’s veiled support for the Serbian cause and made it 100 percent explicit, even traveling into Bosnia to do USO-style morale-boosting shows for the paramilitary units on the front lines. On one of these sojourns she played a gig for Arkan’s Tigers, where she met and fell in love with the 40-year-old married war criminal and father of seven. In 1995, the two were wed in a ceremony the Yugoslavian tabloids called “a Serbian fairy tale come true.”
Serbian culture does not place a high premium on subtlety, granted, but the marriage of Arkan and Ceca looked like what would happen if you hooked an eight-year-old girl’s brain to a make-thoughts-real machine and forced her to drink coffee. While Arkan fired off a variety of automatic rifles in a cartoonish-looking World War I officer’s uniform, his bride went through no less than four dress changes. This is, of course, after both were crowned by the patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox church.
The wedding was broadcast on state TV, sealing Ceca as the new queen of Yugoslavian music, and making the marriage of turbofolk with organized crime about as literal as it gets.
The same year, Pink TV — a bottom-denominator television station whose initial programming slate consisted of turbofolk videos and unlicensed American action movies — went on the air. Following the war’s end, Pink took over the role of spreading Serbian influence abroad from the Yugoslav Army, spawning satellite stations across the Balkans and muscling out the various regional music scenes through sheer relentlessness.
With the nation reeling under heavy international sanctions and Milošević limiting the internal discourse to state TV’s bare-faced lies and Pink TV’s mind-ruining pabulum, Serbia entered a surreal national hallucination. Soldiers returning from the Bosnian countryside found their home country just as lawless, and soon practices once frowned upon, like weapons smuggling, enormous breast implants, and fucking old guys for money, became viewed as completely acceptable enterprises.
In Belgrade, Ceca’s career blossomed, and turbofolk entered a phase of unparalleled decadence. The music got dancier, more aggressive, and somehow even more shallow, with songs like Jelena Karleuša’s “Gili gili” (“Tickle Tickle”) being fairly transparent descriptions of sex, and Viki Miljković’s “Koca Kola Marlboro Suzuki” literally just a list of brands. Despite its rural origins and despite often accidentally reinforcing the idea of Serbian backwardness (Suzuki?), turbofolk’s association with the lifestyles of the rich mafiosi in control of the cities gave it an air of de facto legitimacy and made it, for lack of any alternative, the main avenue of glamour and success in Milošević’s Belgrade. It was like the entire country had turned into a creepy, alternate universe where all the authority figures are horrible Ralph Bakshi dog-men, all the women are gold-digging Ralph Bakshi cat-bitches, and a monster like Arkan can buy a second-tier soccer team and push it to the top of the league by threatening to kill the opposing team’s players (which happened).
This farce reached its peak during the 1999 NATO bombing of Belgrade, when stars like Ceca were asked by Milošević to stage free “Fuck You, Clinton” b/w “Kosovo Is Serbia” concerts in the city’s public squares — ostensibly to show the West that the Serbs weren’t scared of their missiles, but more realistically as your basic human-shield maneuver.
A year later Arkan was assassinated, Milošević bulldozed out of office, and the golden age of turbofolk came to an end. Ceca went into a year of traditional mourning for her husband, and Prime Minister Zoran Đinđić declared war on the Serbian mafia. Naturally this lead to his own assassination, but the cooling effect on turbofolk culture and the wanton criminality that paid for it was already underway. As the country mellowed out and began working toward membership in the EU, the old gangsters became legitimate businessmen and former turbofolk stars started calling their music “turbopop” or even just plain old “pop.”
The nail in the turbofolk coffin came in 2003, when Ceca was placed under arrest for embezzling money through her and Arkan’s old soccer team, and for having a cache of assault rifles hidden in her basement. (PS: The officer who carried out the gun raid was the dad of Ceca’s old rival Jelena. How catty is that?)
There are still a handful of self-identified turbofolk stars like Goga Sekulić and Maya Marijana fighting over Ceca’s throne. But despite the best efforts of tracks like “Seksi Businessman” and “Panties” to resurrect the genre, turbofolk’s body lies a-moldering in the grave, an important lesson to all of us from the mists of Serbian history: Dumb music kills.
Hi again! Thanks for bearing with me on that. Here’s the video I helped make about Turbofolk that inspired this article — Around the Balkans in 20+ Days (Part 2/5) — you notice that “Part 2/5”? That isn’t just clickbait! There are in fact four other parts of this rakia-fueled road trip through the remnants of old Yugoslavia. You don’t necessarily need to watch them in order, but — hell, you don’t necessarily need to do anything. I’m not your mom. Just get out there and have some fun — but Hey. Be safe.
On a slightly related note, if you wanna be a mensch and help an old key-clicker like me out, I would be most gracious to accept any donations care of this here venmo account, thomas-morton-5. God bless and keep you.