Blogging Jesenská: Vukša Veličković, Serbia

Vukša Veličković

Serbia’s Guilty Pleasures: Who’s Afraid of Turbo?

The notorious music genre that became synonymous with Serbia’s nationalist regime of the 1990s has anything but disappeared. Turbo-folk continues to play the role both of hero and villain – as Serbia’s best known “brand” and as skeleton in its closet.

After several years of investigation, the Serbian authorities have issued an indictment against one of the country’s biggest music stars – Svetlana Raznatovic, who performs under the name “Ceca.” Charged with embezzling funds from a football club that she co-owned, and for illegal possession of firearms, the singer initially faced a sentence of up to 15 years in prison, but managed to strike a deal with the prosecution to repay parts of the sum under conditions of house arrest.

Many see Ceca’s indictment as a symbolic end to the era of “turbo-folk” – the infamous musical culture thatprovided the soundtrack to Serbia’s criminal-nationalist establishment of the 1990s. Ceca was the iconic figure of this movement, and her nationally-broadcast wedding to the Serbian paramilitary leader Zeljko “Arkan” Raznjatovic in 1995 became cemented as a literal example of the metaphorical marriage between Serbian pop culture and crime during the Milosevic era.

Turbo folk’s reputation as Serbian cultural menace par excellence is well-earned on multiple levels. Musically, it is viewed as an unattractive hybrid– a kitsch style created by the collision of Balkan folk and cheap Western dance beats, and further corrupted by what is seen as “oriental” flair. Turbo-folk’s lyrical emphasis on sex, money and fame is alsoconsidered suspect – and held responsible for spreading “moral disease” throughout Serbian society. From the political perspective, it has been argued that the music is thesheer embodiment of the nationalist ideology of Milosevic, as if created by his regime itself.

Fast forward a decade, however, and turbo-folk still holds a preeminent place on the Serbian cultural map, which seems largely unchanged.

While urban rock culture had not recovered from its 1990s limbo, turbo-folk has evolved, strengthened and expanded its dominance, suggesting that there might not beadirect link between it and the ideology of the Milosevic regime. Would Serbian mass culture be unmistakably different today if, in the 1990s, its ruling elite had been democratic, civic and anti-nationalist? Would turbo-folk be no more?

There is reason to think not. The “turbo” element that came to dominate the already massively popular folk music in Serbiain the 1990s had more to do with globalization and MTV than with Serbia’s political regime. Songs about quick romance and the fast life together with eroticized imagery can hardly be isolated from wider post-communist and, indeed, global phenomena. While the regime did indeed ostentatiously promote turbo-folk in the state-controlled mass media,both as escapism and for whipping up nationalist euphoria, it is unclear whether there was anything inherent in turbo-folk culture itself that appealed exclusively to nationalist or authoritarian sentiments.

In fact, if Milosevic’s regime did manipulate the public through turbo-folk, it was at the same time manipulating turbo-folk itself. The fusion of culture and power in Serbia in the 1990s was achieved through merging politics and entertainment into a seamless whole. Ultimately, it was not so much that folk superstars embodied certain politics, but that nationalist politicians became superstars in the way folk singers were.

Chat shows on Serbian television at the time would often consist of a popular actor or actress, a couple of turbo-folk singers and a regime politician. In one notorious episode of the prime time show Minimaksovizija on TV Politika in 1991, the archetypal turbo-folk star Dragana Mirkovic sits bewildered next to Vojislav Seselj – the leader of the then-emergent ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party. Much to the amusement of the studio audience, Seselj tells an obscene joke about piercing a Croat’s skull with a “bullet through the forehead”. However, the joke achieves the desired effect only in the context and proximity of the show’s complement of guests. Had it just been the politician alone “having a laugh”, the stunt would remain an example of warmongering political rhetoric. However in the presence of a popular folk singer, Seselj’s ultra-extremist discourse is both neutralized and legitimized, entering the terrain of entertainment: war and politics become part of the estrada.

Twenty years later, the armed conflicts and political repression of that era are no more. With Ratko Mladic in the Hague and Serbia on its way into the EU, Serbia’s political landscape has instead been fully circumscribed by the larger world of mass entertainment, with its tabloids and “Big Brother” TV. The iconography of turbo-folk is swiftly spreading across local borders, to neighboring Croatia, a case not so much of switching sides as of shifting meanings in mass culture.

What critics of turbo-folk fail to acknowledge is that within this “corrupted” cultural concept there is space for asserting multiple – and often conflicting – ideas and practices. Analyzing the case of Bosnian Muslim turbo-folk star Sinan Sakic in the Belgrade newspaper NIN in 2006, journalist Zoran Cirjakovic reflected on the “orientalist” cultural discourse of today’s liberal Serbia, emphasizing the complex and sometimes controversial roles that turbo-folk artists can maintain in different socio-political environments. Sakic is dismissed both by Serbian liberal circles and Bosnian Islamists – by the former for being too Oriental and Islamist, by the latter for being too liberal and essentially anti-Islamist. Describing the diversity of Sakic’s audience at a concert in Belgrade’s Tasmajdan park, Cirjakovic found in turbo-folk the expression of multi-ethnic and multicultural tolerance – the very same values to which Serbia’s liberal elite aspires.

On the other hand, in her performance This is Contemporary Art, staged in Vienna in 2001 (with singer Dragana Mirkovic in the leading role), Serbian artist Milica Tomic dislocated turbo-folk from its status as a local genre and placed it into the larger international art scene, stressing how the music “has paved a way for globalization to enter isolated and excluded Serbia”. Renegotiating dominant cultural narratives, Tomic’s performance drew on turbo-folk’s potential for inter-cultural dialogueby providing a rare occasion for the Serbian diaspora in Vienna to “become visible in Austrian public life”.

Yet turbo-folk’s capacity for asserting disparate and “subversive” values is probably best captured by turbo-folk itself. Commenting in the daily tabloid Kurir on the violence during the Belgrade Gay Pride festival in 2010, Ceca’s unofficial successor, Jelena Karleusa, surprised everyone by publicly denouncing the discourses of homophobia and Serbian nationalism. The fact that a turbo-folk star – and an icon for Serbia’s transgender population, for that matter – wrote a series of articles infused with liberal and anti-nationalist ideas might come as a surprise, but Karleusa’s subsequent appearance in a prime time political talk show alongside members of the Serbian liberal elite turned her into everyone’s favorite guilty pleasure. It further underpinned turbo-folk’s peculiar position in Serbian culture today as simultaneously the dominant mainstream and its own subversion.

Over a decade since the political upheavals of 2000, the notorious musical genre that became synonymous with Serbia’s nationalist regime has anything but disappeared. Turbo-folk continues to play the role of both hero and villain – it is the best-known Serbian “brand” and, at the same time, the skeleton in its closet. Typically labeled as a form of oriental backwardness, it is likewise regarded as a feature of westernization, trans-Balkanism and globalization. Seen through feminist spectacles, it bounces back as a transgender subversion. Defined as mainstream Serbian culture, it appears simultaneously as its obscene undertext, hidden in underground clubs virtually absent from the mass media.

The multiple layers of meaning inscribed in turbo-folk today require a re-evaluation of existing paradigms that regard it solely as the cultural embodiment of Serbian nationalism-authoritarianism. Its continuing vitality and, above all, alignment with the zeitgeist might not be entirely the fault of the now-deposed regime. Ceca may be under house arrest, but even before she struck her deal, a new league of celebrities and “erotic queens” had taken the stage to replace her. And the picture looks oddly familiar. One might think that Serbia is still living its turbo-folk.


Vukša Veličković is a Serbian writer, journalist and cultural critic. He is Creative Director and Editor-in-chief of Bturn magazine and contributes frequently to, among others, Prestup magazine and He is also a performing artist and the author of two novels, Gužva (“Crowd”) and Vrt Uzivanja (“Garden of Pleasure”). In 2008, he was a Milena Jesenská Fellow at the IWM in Vienna.

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IWM, 2011. Copyright © 2011 by the author & the IWM. All rights reserved. This work may be used, with this header included, for noncommercial purposes. No copies of this work may be distributed electronically, in whole or in part, without written permission from the IWM.