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The Serbian Subculture of Turbo-folk

Words:

Edd Norval
June 22, 2022

Slavic culture has had a renaissance over the last half-decade. In a war against the homogenising effects of globalisation, in the midst of an international identity crisis, folk cultures from around the world have been gaining traction as a way of retaining one’s own national identity. In Serbia and general former Yugoslavia, Turbo-folk is regularly found booming out of Bluetooth speakers, held aloft by a younger generation trying to understand who they are.

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Stuck somewhere between ironic hipsterism resurgence and a genuine respect of the genre’s unique place in Serbian and slavic society, Turbo-folk brings together common elements of pop music - recognisable globally - with the nation’s own folk music. Named so by Rambo Amadeus, from Montenegro, whose title helped conceptualise the music style that gained its initial popularity throughout the 70s and 80s, reaching its zenith during the Yugoslav Wars of the 90s, where many of the tracks became quasi-political songs of resistance.


Perhaps spearheading this revival is also the kitschy and camp nature of the music’s lyrics and visuals, which have gone full-circle to ring true with today's sensibilities. Everything looked over-the-top and of its era, songs you might well expect on the Eurovision song contest if the lyrics weren’t about taboo subjects like sex, adultery and alcohol consumption. In a sense, the music juxtaposed the traditionally earnest characteristics of folk with the hyper-reality of pop, where every outfit, action and statement is accentuated for maximum effect.

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Take the genre’s best-selling artist, Lepa Brena, for example. The visuals are characterised by their 80s and 90s VHS-style quality, with shots of lip-synched singing from helicopter windows in glamorous dresses, whilst detailing the glory of the Yugoslavian landscape, a sort of pride in Slavic culture that has slowly eroded with the state’s dissolution and the increasingly fractured national and cultural identities that have subsequently emerged in its place.


Naturally, some of the singers are more associated with their particular homeland. Throughout Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Slovenia, there are many groups of people, many faiths, many allegiances. In this landscape, Turbo-folk can be seen to embody exclusive nationalistic sentiments. Just as America has its country music, the music of Turbo-folk glorifies the lawlessness of an era.


In the songs, criminals become Robin Hood figures to be celebrated, with many hyper-sexualised themes permeating the songs and videos, leading to the genre having a unique unifying effect between the regions, as well as facing bans from certain areas, radio stations and channels. They divide and unite, depending on who is singing what. Weaving together the oncoming cultural unification with mainstream US-influenced materialism, whilst engaging with folkloric elements from Slavic culture, Turbo-folk occupies a space in time where many people, given the vast changes that have come as a result of the collapse of Yugoslavia, will rue. A time that, with rose tinted glasses, people may recall as 'simpler'.

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That being said, the relationship to US country music runs deeper. Turbo-folk can be seen as a source of rebellion, a symbol of resilience against the forces of the UN and NATO, battle-cries during moments perceived by many in the former Yugoslavia to have dubious outsider motives. Decisions made about their land by people that have never understood it. Interestingly, because of its efficacy at uniting people, the genre has, over the years, been deployed as a sort of propaganda by successive governments to whip up fervour amongst its people.


The enduring popularity of Turbo-folk is testament to the thread that binds multiple eras of life in the countries that constitute former Yugoslavia - a point made most prominent when Billboard started a music chart in Croatia in 2022, with only two American artists appearing on there, as well as a handful of native music, the rest being constructed purely of Serbian Turbo-folk. Its legacy is not so much a legacy as it is an ongoing phenomenon, an evolving beast, a way for people to engage with a moment in time that - pre-Internet and pre-smart devices - nations had a national identity that was their own, with taste dictated not by manufactured pop from the US, but music that meant something to them.


In walking around with Bluetooth speakers, playing these hits from their parents' youth, kids of today in that part of the world are screaming out to reconnect with something that is exclusively theirs - nostalgic for a time they never knew. 

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