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Imagining cool: Dance music and club culture in Belgrade

Wrestling between the rock of  the “urbanities” and the neofolk of “peasant urbanities”: Belgrade’s club culture is an ongoing identity crisis.

by Vukša Veličković

Originally published in IWM Post, issue No 99. The article was written during “Milena Jesenska” fellowship at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna.

“Belgrade rocks!” states a recent New York Times article [1], just one in a series of many describing the buzzing atmosphere of Serbia’s capital. Almost a decade after it was bombed by NATO, the recent Western military target is now labeled the new Eastern European “capital of cool” [2], as stories are written about its vibrant nightlife, “the electric energy of youth and a nonstop music scene.” [3]

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“The Day of Fighting against Turbo Folk” – Do we listen to music or do we watch it? (Foto by “blandm”)

However, despite the occasional odd journalist impression that every once in a while rear from this corner of Europe, things get a little more complex. Underneath the casual hipness seen by Westerners, there are teeming and contested social forces that are not new, but have expressed themselves over decades of Serbia’s cultural life. As any protagonist of the local scene would acknowledge, the case of Serbia’s pop-culture is as problematic as it were during the 90’s authoritarian regime of Slobodan Milosevic. Only the circumstances have changed. Alongside various political and economic strains that have grasped the country since the October 2000. “democratic revolution”, the issue of its “non stop music scene” remains somewhat unresolved.

Music has a special place in the history of late 20th century Serbia – from the liberating sounds of rock and new wave in Tito’s Yugoslavia in the 70’s and 80’s, all the way to criminally infused turbo folk and the decline of Serbian urban culture in the turbulent 90’s. The long lasting conflict of modern and traditional Serbia, urban and rural, cosmopolitan and nationalist, can be followed through its music development. The social practices of electronic dance music in Belgrade nightclubs today, reflect the city’s ongoing “identity crisis”, halfway between a fantasized, metropolitan underground culture and the prevailing social realities of local mass entertainment.

In search for meaning: dance music

As John Cage once proclaimed, everything we do is music. From corporeal to the purely cerebral, inner contemplation to political activism, groundbreaking avant-garde experiments to cheesy summer soundtracks, in our bedrooms, in our streets – music is all around us. But what is exactly that we do with music? What is the way we experience and participate in certain sounds?
Analyzing various narratives behind modern dance cultures, from early disco through techno and acid house, Ewan Pearson and Jeremy Gilbert declare dance music as a “problematic territory”: deprived of any fixed meaning; it somehow stands “beyond the grasp of reason”, essentially opposed to the dominant model of Western metaphysics. [4] Bearing in mind today’s music is as much related to sensory and corporeal pleasures as it is stretching far within the areas of discourse and ideology, the two authors raise a simple question: why are certain sounds preferred to others, and what is the meaning we attribute to them? In other words, if music is everything we do, than music is never just music, but rather a specific set of relational experiences, connected to our own believes and values about the world. And if the sounds we move our bodies to are not so much lyrics and melodies anymore, but digitally processed beats, glitches and noises, than even more so.
Electronic dance culture has become a worldwide phenomenon, but despite it’s global ubiquity, the way people practice music is still firmly rooted in their local social structures. So far there have been various “Capitals of cool”: the ideologies of modern club cultures developed and evolved around particular cities like Detroit, Chicago, Manchester or Berlin. Due to specific sociopolitical circumstances in the past two decades, the social practice of dance music in a Balkan city such as Belgrade is worthy of the same scrutiny.

Dance to live: politics and music subcultures in Belgrade

Ever since the early 70’s, Belgrade had been wrestling between the predominantly rock culture of the ‘urbanities’ and the neofolk culture of ‘peasant urbanities’. In such a climate, music taste became a key indicator in defining social identity. The social importance of music paved the way for generating an urban “rock and roll culture that, at least in the minds of local fans, was on a par with the pop scenes of Western Europe.” [5] Local rock bands recorded their albums in studios of London, Paris and Amsterdam with top-notch producers, backed with high recording and promotion budgets. There was a stable music market, along with specialized music press and a palette of subcultural styles: the punks, the rockers, the new wavers, the “sminkeri” ['makeupers']… This was something that never existed in other East European countries, part of the Soviet bloc. There were no pop culture in Bulgaria, Romania or Poland before 1989. At the same time in Belgrade, as journalist Dragan Ambrozic put it, it was not only important which group you liked, but which particular records by that group. [6]

Soon, the bloody break up of Yugoslav Federation was about to change everything. The emergence of nationalist-authoritarian regimes in Belgrade, Zagreb and Sarajevo brought a significant cultural shift throughout the region. In 90’s Serbia, war and culture became inseparably intermingled. Backed by state controlled media, turbo folk culture promoted the ideology and lifestyle of the new criminal elite, consisting of nationalist politicians, wartime businessmen and gangsters supporting the regime. Stylistically, it was a hybrid of Serbian neofolk musical idioms and the emerging dance culture of MTV, combined with symbols of western consumerism and glamour, as imagined by the “peasant urbanities”.
Turbo folk’s rise to prominence in the 90’s showed the degree of social and cultural recompositioning that would change the Serbian culture landscape for years to come. By the time its rock scene got utterly marginalized, harmless and depressive, the streets and clubs of Belgrade were occupied by the newly established “Diesel” subculture, made of vicious looking men with cropped hair, gold chains on their bare chest, and a preference for trainer sweat shirts tucked in a certain model of ‘Diesel’ jeans. Embodying the regime’s militant nationalist ideology, the Dieselers’ taste in music was obviously, turbo folk.

Yet, the wartime 90’s saw the rise of another subculture in Belgrade. First clubs were opened that featured only electronic dance music: “Soul Food” and “Industria”, the latter being immortalized in local club culture mythology.

“In those early days, there was a strange chemistry between completely apart social groups” recalls Gordan Paunovic, one of the pioneer Belgrade DJ’s and former Industria resident. During its glorious heydays, the club was frequented by an odd mixture of people: alongside the Dieselers were young fashionable kids, flamboyant men dressed in stockings and high heels, a congregation pretty much unimaginable today. Industria also witnessed the birthplace for Belgrade’s first superstar DJ outfit – Teenage Techno Punks, a trio of 18 year olds playing music for 18 year olds. Alongside turbo folk, the hard pumping techno of TTP became the soundtrack of a generation shaped in isolation, poverty and violence.

By the mid 90’s, the political potentials of club cultures were already recognized in other countries. In the UK during the Acid House era, clubbers who stood up for their “right to party” were challenging the dominant discourses of a rigidly purist society for the sake of individual and collective pursue of pleasure. On the other side, in an internationally isolated Belgrade, club culture represented not that much of a jouissance-type escapism, as much as a gateway to normality. Going to certain clubs, alone, was a political act. Under a repressive regime, the people were dancing for their right to live. But after the October 2000. revolution, once the “evil Babylon” was ousted, without its subversive edge, the Belgrade techno scene fell in the hands of an unstable local market economy, depending on mass, corporate-sponsored entertainment.

Silicone Serbia

Years of authoritarian regime have left their undistinguishable cultural marks in Serbia’s capital. The present case of “Silicone Valley” (an ironic reference to a fashionable club area in downtown Belgrade, known by its clientele of tough looking guys and women with enlarged breasts) points to a specific subcultural practice evolved directly from turbo folk, retaining some of it’s core style elements, but more suitable to new sociopolitical realities. As media theorist Ivana Kronja observes, Silicone Valley is “the dominant youth culture in Serbia today”. [7] Though rid of open displays of criminal preferences, it has nevertheless fully integrated turbo folk’s ideology of national-patriotism, mass consumerism and gender stereotypizations.

Yet, both the techno and Silicone valley subcultures have come surprisingly close to each other in their signifying practices – their members often frequent the same clubs, take the same drugs, use similar fashion codes and quite often enjoy matching music tastes. This paradoxical “symbiotic bipolarization” of youth cultural space corresponds to the bipolar shrinking of Serbian media landscape after 2000, currently split between two commercial enterprises – the populistic, ex-regime TV Pink, and the ex-revolutionary B92, both competing for the same mass audience. With most of the independent radio stations such as Venus, SKC and 94.9 well off the air, with no specialized press aside from one website [Popboks] and one low circulation magazine [Huper], little room is left for developing a competitive local music scene. Instead, this kind of media overlapping breeds new conflicts within the subcultures.

Imagining cool

Drawing on Pierre Bourdieu’s sociology of ‘distinctions’, Sarah Thornton states that club cultures are taste cultures [8], operating on the same hierarchical lines as “high cultures” do. In such a hierarchy, one’s social status depends on the amount of “right taste”, that is – subcultural capital, gained through complex relationships including knowledge, information and various media-communication channels.

This way, taste in music reveals itself ideological by its very nature, becoming the means by which clubbers “imagine their own and other social groups”. [9]
The bearers of Thornton’s subcultural capital in Belgrade are the so called “influential minorities”, or the city’s self-perceived underground elite [artists, DJ's, PR managers, occasional journalists, city faces, "the ones in the know", etc], “cool people” who share discriminate music tastes, while considering the majority of clubbing population a mass of “urban peasants. However substantial it may or not be, this capital fails in its own self-legimitisation: with no proper media to articulate it, its “authenticity” seems provisional, or in the eyes of the “mass”, downright fake. In such an atmosphere, violent conflicts are often the outcome, as with the case of a recent VIP – but nevertheless, all-entry – event in club “Plastic”, when the resident female DJ from the local “underground elite” was physically attacked and entire portions of the club demolished in a violent outburst from the ‘Silicones’.

This kind of events are usually left out of the official Western stories, apparently not fit for the “Capital of cool” narratives. What the Western media representations of Belgrade’s “vibrant nightlife” really signify today is the global ubiquity of an overcommodified pop culture. Drained of meaning, searching for it’s long lost soul, the raw, “uncorrupted” subcultural experience, this time in remote corners of its backyard – the gloomy Balkans. However, the Western reflexive quest for authenticity doesn’t do much justice to the subculture in question, leaving the unpleasant reality intact behind media images.

With few competing clubs, even fewer upcoming artists, almost no independent labels, and a take-the-money-and-run business logic of big sponsored events, it’s fair to say that over the years, Belgrade contemporary club culture failed to challenge the dominant Serbian social and cultural discourses, while at the same time it has missed the chance for articulating its own subcultural ideology. In the eyes of Western passersby it may appear as the “Balkan Berlin”, but in reality, it is still waiting on the true winds of change. By the time they arrive, the “Capital of cool” may have cooled down completely…

NOTES:

[1] Sherwood Seth, Belgrade Rocks, New York Times, October 2005.
[2] Scurlock Gareth, Europe’s Best Nightlife in Buzzing Belgrade, November 2008.
[3] Sherwood Seth, Belgrade Rocks, New York Times, October 2005.
[4] Gilbert Jeremy, Pearson Ewan, Discographies: Dance Music, Culture and the Politics of Sound. London, Routledge, 1999.
[5] Gordy D. Eric, The culture of power in Serbia: Nationalism and the Destruction of Alternatives. Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999. p. 108
[6] Collin Matthew, This is Serbia Calling: Rock’n'roll Radio and Belgrade’s Underground Resistance. London, Serpent’s Tail, 2004. p. 11
[7] Kronja Ivana, New Urban Trends in Serbia, 1990-2004: From Urban Life to Popular Culture and Vice Versa. Ethnologia Balcanica, Journal for
Southeast European Anthropology, No. 10, 2006. p. 7
[8] Thornton Sarah, Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital. Cambridge, Polity Press, 1995. p. 3
[9] Ibid. p. 10

LITERATURE:

Collin Matthew, with Godfrey J. Altered State: The Story of Ecstasy Culture and Acid House. London, Serpent’s Tail, 1997.

Collin Matthew, This is Serbia Calling: Rock’n'roll Radio and Belgrade’s

Underground Resistance. London, Serpent’s Tail, 2004.

Gilbert Jeremy, Pearson Ewan, Discographies: Dance Music, Culture and the Politics of Sound. London, Routledge, 1999.

Gordy D. Eric, The culture of power in Serbia: Nationalism and the Destruction of Alternatives. Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999.

Hebdige Dick, Subculture: The Meaning of Style. London, Routledge, 1979.

Kronja, Ivana, The Fatal Glow: Mass Psychology and Aesthetics of Turbofolk Subculture. Belgrade, Tehnokratia, 2001.

Kronja Ivana, New Urban Trends in Serbia, 1990-2004: From Urban Life to Popular Culture and Vice Versa. Ethnologia Balcanica, Journal for
Southeast European Anthropology, No. 10, 2006.

Kronja Ivana, Politics, Nationalism, Music and Popular Culture in 1990s Serbia. Beograd, Slovo, vol.16, No.1, 2004.

Thornton Sarah, Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital. Cambridge, Polity Press, 1995.

Todorovic Milan, The Underground music scene in Belgrade, Serbia. London, Brunel University, 2003.

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