Academic journal article Journal of Narrative Theory

Turbo-Folk as the Agent of Empire: On Discourses of Identity and Difference in Popular Culture

Academic journal article Journal of Narrative Theory

Turbo-Folk as the Agent of Empire: On Discourses of Identity and Difference in Popular Culture

Article excerpt

"To put it simply, turbo-folk rules!"

- Mira S ?koric å, singer

Turbo-Folk is a cultural phenomenon which finds itself at the crossroads of numerous academic disciplines (from which I indiscriminately borrow for the purposes of this article), including musicology, anthropology, sociology, literary, media and urban studies, political science, history, and philosophy. What makes it such an intriguing object of study, however, is its absence from the maps of official academic "geography": turbo-folk has no academic history, theory, curricula, conservatories, institutes and archives, museum exhibits or public collections. Although recognized as a highly influential and most widespread cultural model in Serbia, it is persistently kept at the fringes of academic concerns. While exploring the complexities of turbo-folk, I have encountered diverse (and sometimes fascinatingly antithetical) definitions of the phenomenon: a) fake folklore-or, rather, "fakelore"-also labeled as kitsch or schund on the grounds of its utter lack of value, as an arbitrary blend of local (traditional) and global pop music idioms; b) "Anatolian howling," a derogatory term for the characteristic melismatic singing style associated with the Orient;1 c) a form of mass culture prevalent in socialist Yugoslavia/post- socialist Serbia; d) a subcultural phenomenon; e) camouflage of the harsh social reality through compulsive entertainment, a vehicle of legitimizing Serbia's war-profiteering nouveau riche; f) sole victim of the antiMilos°evicå "October Revolution";2 g) Serbia's dominant mainstream culture, as well as its undercover subversion; h) voice of the winners of postsocialist transitions; i) voice of the losers of post-socialist transitions; j) the only authentic contemporary Serbian pop music; k) major factor of political stability in the Balkans; l) music granted political power that, in reality, it never had; and m) simply a word that somebody invented and everybody else then adopted. This paper will address in more detail the concurrent and often contradictory interpretations of this music.

With the exception of the last, all of these definitions of turbo-folk come from academics, outside observers of the phenomenon (myself included) who have no part or interest in the production, distribution, and consumption of this music. There is no "official" academic methodology for studying turbo-folk, yet many people write enthusiastically about it. This suggests that turbo-folk claims a specific role and importance in Serbian society, as a symptom of its sharpest social divisions and most visible paradoxes. The purpose of this article is not to establish what turbo-folk "really" is, but to demonstrate the metaphorical use of this elusive term in the area still unclaimed by official academic protocols. The hyper-production of discourses and narratives of identity and difference built around the question what turbo-folk might be indicates its "true" purpose: in this grey zone of the production of knowledge, it serves as ideological shorthand in the processes of social re-structuring and re-stratification in changing economic and political circumstances, playing an active role in their politicization. The first part of the article thus outlines the historical background of the turbo-folk phenomenon, emphasizing its place on the fringes of official histories. The second part situates turbo-folk at the intersection of theoretical concepts of Orientalism and self-Orientalization, crypto-colonialism and self-colonization. The concluding part privileges the "global" perspective, which perceives turbo-folk as a mirror of the neocolonial processes of "thirdworldization" of small cultures which share a marginal position in the globalized world order.

Turbo-Folk in (and out of) History

In postwar socialist Yugoslavia of the 1950s, two groups of phenomena had a major impact on the relationship between society and tradition. First, with industrialization in full swing, many, predominantly young, people from the rural parts of the country moved to the cities to work or study. …

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