"I did not invent turbo folk. I simply named it," in his 2005 song called "Turbo Folk" says Rambo Amadeus, jazz-rock and avant-garde composer based in Belgrade, Serbia, who is often considered as the father of the genre. When thinking about this statement, we actually find ourselves in the middle of an intensive debate in the Balkans. Was turbo folk phenomena consciously created, promoted and exploited by the regime of Slobodan Milošević, i. e. by the cultural and economical elites close to him, in order to establish an escapist soundtrack to cover the wars and robberies of the 1990s? Or was it simply an expression of cultural taste and desires of the masses that could finally have its moment of pathos, after the state-controlled culture fell apart with Eastern European socialism in 1989?
Most probably – it was both. As almost every other mass culture phenomena, turbo folk has its regressive and exploitative side, but liberating and subversive one as well. We can see how in Maja Miloš’ film CLIP (2012) Serbian kids embrace the dominant mainstream music genre in the Balkans and its sang models of behavior (promiscuity, alcohol, exhibitionism, violence, kitsch), while at the same time making it a liberating experience for their bodies, a paradigm that enhances their sex and enjoyment, their independence, and, after all, annihilates the misery of their poverty and the dictate of “socially reasonable” conformism. That said, we can certainly debate whether Maja Miloš is true to the real situation and honest in her worried approach, or whether she is exploitative and unfair when she presents the working class Serbian kids as peculiar population with uncontrollable hedonistic zeal: they do everything that bourgeois class wants to do (filmmakers in Serbia usually fall under this higher class), but has good moral and education that prevents it from doing? Therefore, bourgeois filmmakers can envy these ‘other’, working-class turbo folk kids, for having the opportunity to set themselves on fire.
This complex set of questions is also at the center of the turbo folk ambivalence, and it is perfectly visible in the careers of the turbo folk parents – Rambo Amadeus and Marina Tucaković. A little bit of context: during the period when Serbia was a part of the socialist Yugoslavia (1945-1991), all broadcasting companies were publicly owned. Therefore, culture in general was developed with an enlightened aim to educate the masses, which meant it was mostly a compromise between high- and lowbrow culture, shaped by the editors and editorial boards. Although SFR Yugoslavia had a sort of market socialism, at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s even more free market came: private music production and broadcasting companies, discotheques and clubs, right-wing populism and nationalism in the political sphere… “I was listening to the radio then,” once said Rambo Amadeus in an interview, “and 90 percent of the stations were playing some terrible folk music. The lyrics were stupid, the music simplified. So I decided to experiment with this folk market boom and make some folk songs that were even more stupid. I sold them to some of the emerging folk performers and waited to see what would happen.” This experiment wasn’t something Amadeus had never tried before: in the early and mid-1980s, he was mocking the folk music by taking its worst lyrical banality and typical melodies and adding to it gothic rock style, hard rock riffs, funky and disco rhythms, etc.
At the same time, the most prominent Serbian pop rock lyricist Marina Tucaković was also making folk parodies while living on the safe side of avant-garde pop band she was a part of. Marina and Rambo were probably counting on the idea that, in the still-socialist Yugoslav 1980s, they had an educated urban audience that would understand those obvious examples of camp, of playful postmodernist approach towards the kitschy substance of folk they actually despised.
But free market has no understanding for subtle aesthetical questions, although it is very good in irony. The 1990s came, the society in the Balkans became confusing, and Marina Tucaković and Rambo Amadeus soon became known as the mother and father of turbo-folk: they wrote some of the biggest hits of the genre and collaborated with numerous folk stars who sold hundreds of thousands of their silly folk songs that mixed completely foolish lyrics with oriental melodies, disco, techno and funky. Evergreen music, traditional folk, pop and rock, all saw their demise from once dominant, promoted and respected genres. So in order to make money, other disappointed rockers followed Amadeus and Tucaković examples, taking the turbo-folk extravagance to an unimaginable degree. It was life during wartime and everything could be sold: heavy metal riffs in the middle of an otherwise typical Balkan-style folk song about love; hip-hop and accordion; euro-dance groove under the scenes of rural life; AC/DC introduction to “Thunderstruck” slightly deformed to fit the recognizable melodic decorations of the traditional Balkan singing… Music videos were filled with bright colors, eroticism of all sorts, fires, horses and tigers, expensive cars and expressionist-style shots… (Well, you’ve seen the videos of Rihanna, 50 Cent, Beyonce, Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, Shakira… Imagine a cheap, low-fi version of it, and you’ll get the picture.) One of the prominent Belgrade costume designer said she would put a typical homosexual iconography in a video just to see where is the line she would be warned not to overstep – there wasn't any. These guys were buying everything and had no criteria – as long as it is colorful.
To this day, not much has changed in terms of style. But the two things did evolve: the economic impact of turbo folk and the attitude of cultural elites towards it. Nowadays, turbo folk is probably the best Serbian exported good, it is popular in all ex-Yugoslav states, as well as in Bulgaria and Albania – who all, of course, besides Serbian, have their own turbo folk stars. Performers earn a lot of money by touring not only Balkan states, but singing at the discotheques for the Balkan immigrants in Western Europe, USA, Canada and Australia. There is a TV-channel that plays exclusively turbo folk videos (of course, it has ‘Balkan’ in its name). Turbo folk CDs and DVDs are sold on every gas-station from Slovenia to Greece and Turkey. It connects Balkan nations extremely well, in spite of the fact that most of them have a strong nationalist sentiment and officially don't like each other. An although an article on the phenomena you’ll find on Wikipedia is basically right when it describes the right-wing and left-wing critique of the genre, it seems that many Balkan leftist today defend turbo folk for the same reason conservatives attack it. There is an emerging leftist theoretical scene that sees turbo folk as grass root style and emphasizes its subversive sides: attack on patriarchal values, support for independent women, anarchic hedonist desires, sexually liberal views (including LGBT themes and characters in songs and videos)… On the other hand, it is still a type of the mass culture par excellence and, therefore, very often the proponent of the dominant patriarchal and capitalist ideology, only sometimes covered in ‘liberal’ sheets.
Because this ambivalence is at the core of turbo folk, the fact that main characters of Maja Miloš' film are so deeply involved with it makes their complete social habitus raise ethical and political questions that are not easy to answer. Are these kids the victims or are they a part of the problem? Do they accept or challenge the dominant ideology, and in what way? And if the bourgeois filmmakers also listen to turbo folk and embrace some of its values, why do they put the moralistic blame on working class? Yet, one thing is doubtless: these questions are relevant for the Balkans as they are relevant to any other place where you are inclined to think of the impact dominant values of the society and its mass culture have on adolescents.