Twenty Years of the Contemporary in Czech Popular Music

Article excerpt

It is now nearly twenty years since the chinking of keys on Wenceslas Square sounded the death of a whole era in Czech history. In line with developments in the surrounding East European countries, the chain of events set off by the demonstrations in November 1989 led to the fall of communism and the establishment of a democratic society. With a new social and political order came new orders of values. The diktat of ideology gave way to the diktat of the market with all its positive and negative aspects.

In dimensions, profile and character, the Czech popular music scene after 1989 has been radically, even diametrically opposite to the situation preceding that year. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that contemporary Czech popular music can be dated from this social transformation, while before 1989 we are talking of what now seems ancient history.

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Give me back my enemies

Following the Velvet Revolution, once banned or exiled protest singer-songwriters suddenly played to packed audiences in the biggest Prague venues. Underground and alternative artists started to give an unprecedented number of concerts, and LPs by bands from the weirdest of subcultures, which had previously eked out an existence just for a narrow circle of initiates, sold in incredible and unheard-of numbers. The former impressarios of Czech pop music, who had been willing to show loyalty to the communist regime and had often been directly involved in its political organs and offices, were temporarily in retreat (F. Janecek, L. Staidl, K. Vagner, the Hannig--Hons tandem and others). But only temporarily. Some "timeless" icons of Czech pop culture were too deeply engraved in the memory of the people and so they soon returned to the scene and have lasted "forever": Karel Gott, Helena Vondrackova, Michal David ... The majority public is tolerant and actually doesn't even want to hear some rather damning pieces of information from the past lives of these icons.

Conversely, as time went by there was a relative decline in interest in folk balladeers, underground and alternative artists. The popularity of these genres started to succumb to the operative principles of the mass media and pop culture. Only artists who while retaining a distinctive poetry still knew how to appeal to a mass public (J. Nohavica) stayed in the limelight. The role of rebel protest singers just couldn't be sustained, despite all efforts. In one of his songs the satirist and song-writer Jiri Dedecek cried, "Give me my enemies back!"

Boomtime

The biggest change, and a permanent one, related to infrastructure. There was an end to the monopoly of the "only permitted" institutions in the fields of publishing/recordings, radio, television, advertising and so on. There was an unprecedented boom in private media. Magazines: 1990 Rock & Pop, 1991 Folk & Country, 1996 Trip 2 House (in 2000 re-titled Tripmag and in 2003 Xmag), 2001 Ultramix (today Filter) and others. These were only some of the specifically musical magazines, but many such publication sooner or later closed. Today, music journalism enjoys the greatest interest (if we can really talk of interest at all) in non-musical magazines--the general social political and cultural weeklies like Reflex, Respekt or Tyden [Week]. Unfortunately, interest in criticism, analyses and studies gradually faded away, while the tabloids and tabloid treatments of the music scene started to sweep the board and continue to do so.

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There was a boom in music clubs (Rock Cafe, Bunkr...), which ended in their closure and limitation because of excessive noise. There was a boom in recording companies.

Before 1989 we had only two recording firms in the Czech part of Czecholsovakia. These were Supraphon and Panton, which released records under strict stare and communist party control. …

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