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Assessing Turbofolk Controversies: Popular Music between the Nation and the Balkans

In: Southeastern Europe
Author: Rory Archer1
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  • 1 Centre for Southeast European Studies, University of Graz
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This article explores controversies provoked by the Serbian pop-folk musical style “turbofolk” which emerged in the 1990s. Turbofolk has been accused of being a lever of the Milošević regime – an inherently nationalist cultural phenomenon which developed due to the specific socio-political conditions of Serbia in the 1990s. In addition to criticism of turbofolk on the basis of nationalism and war-mongering, it is commonly claimed to be “trash,” “banal,” “pornographic,” “(semi-)rural,” “oriental” and “Balkan.” In order to better understand the socio-political dimensions of this phenomenon, I consider other Yugoslav musical styles which predate turbofolk and make reference to pop-folk musical controversies in other Balkan states to help inform upon the issues at stake with regard to turbofolk. I argue that rather than being understood as a singular phenomena specific to Serbia under Milošević, turbofolk can be understood as a Serbian manifestation of a Balkan-wide post-socialist trend. Balkan pop-folk styles can be understood as occupying a liminal space – an Ottoman cultural legacy – located between (and often in conflict with) the imagined political poles of liberal pro-European and conservative nationalist orientations. Understanding turbofolk as a value category imbued with symbolic meaning rather than a clear cut musical genre, I link discussions of it to the wider discourse of Balkanism. Turbofolk and other pop-folk styles are commonly imagined and articulated in terms of violence, eroticism, barbarity and otherness the Balkan stereotype promises. These pop-folk styles form a frame of reference often used as a discursive means of marginalisation or exclusion. An eastern “other” is represented locally by pop-folk performers due to oriental stylistics in their music and/or ethnic minority origins. For detractors, pop-folk styles pose a danger to the autochthonous national culture as well as the possibility of a “European” and cosmopolitan future. Correspondingly I demonstrate that such Balkan stereotypes are invoked and subverted by many turbofolk performers who positively mark alleged Balkan characteristics and negotiate and invert the meaning of “Balkan” in lyrical texts.

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