ERIC D. GORDY (University of California, Berkeley, USA)

On Urban Identity in the Global Palanka: Perceptions of Self Among Belgrade Rockers

Like most East European cities, Belgrade has a mixed urban and rural character, all the more so since its population has increased dramatically with the massive rural-to-urban migration which has taken place rapidly from 1945 onward. A change in emphasis on aspects of its character has followed the change of regime since 1990, with a rural and regional-oriented nationalist elite taking the place of an urban-oriented communist elite. The cultural consequences of this shift are apparent in every aspect of everyday life, but perhaps nowhere so clearly as in the field of music, where the rock'n' roll music which had once defined the youth culture of the city was shunted to the margins, its public presence replaced first by the "newly-composed folk music" (novokomponovana narodna muzika) popular in the provinces, and later by an eclectic dance/folk melange known as "turbo-folk".

"Novokomponovana" and "turbo-folk" became recognizable symbols of the change in the structure of control of urban cultural space. This was perceived by members of the globally-oriented younger generations as a tremendous loss. "Novokomponovana" came into use as a term of derision not only with regard to music, but with regard to a wide variety of social actors. Pyramid-scheme "bankers" became the "novokomponovana elita"; rural political bosses who enthusiastically promote the national program of the ruling party become "novokomponovani političari"; organized-crime boss Željko Ražnatović - Arkan confirmed his perceived cultural position in the new system by ostentatiously marrying the "queen of turbo-folk".

Rock 'n roll, in this environment, acquired the power of counter-identity in two respects. On the one hand, in contrast to its ascribed cultural value in most parts of Western Europe and America, it is perceived by Belgraders as high art, and implicitly opposed to "neo-folk" which is regarded as "Balkan" and "primitive". On the other hand, its limited audience and more limited range of venues qualifies it as a minority urban cultural formation in opposition to the semirural and omnipresent variations of "neo-folk". Its adherents respond to neo-folk with hatred and disgust.

The urban and international orientation of some Belgrade rockers is accompanied, often, by a sense of disjunction and unease. An international identity is difficult to maintain in an environment in which the local has become the defining principle, and isolation from other cultures is nearly compulsory. A local skinhead offers some self-criticism in an ethnographic report on skinheads, "what kind of skinheads are we, when we buy sausages at the farmers' market?". A wall on the building opposite my apartment in Belgrade keeps the Elvis myth alive for a new generation, featuring the following painted dialogue in English: "Kurt Cobain, 1967-1994," with the "1994" later crossed out and replaced with "still alive!" A local high-school student expresses bewildered fascination when I tell her that I have been listening of late to the music of folk-pop diva and brassiere exhibitionist Snežana Babić -Sneki, from her hometown of Pančevo, and not to the music of my own hometown of Seattle, which is what she listens to. In order for all of the communicators mentioned to maintain their attachment to the international culture they like, they find it necessary to reject various aspects of their own lived experience.

The rockers of Belgrade might be unique in the specific ways they have experienced the death of rock'n'roll, but they are not the only people to have experienced it. Essentialists like to claim that the Balkans are home to most of the cultural divisions that characterize global conflict--only more so, which is the reason for the region's recent misery. The essentialists are as wrong about history and politics as ever, but provide a nice mnemonic. Radomir Konstantinović was thinking specifically of Serbia when he said that "our experience is small-town", but the insight applies to an increasing number of localities. The unified "youth audience" of rock'n'roll, if it ever existed, has broken apart into ethnic, regional, and other specialized genres. In Belgrade, this cultural shift was accompanied by a specific political turn the dramatic consequences of which point out the particular value, as well as the overwhelming difficulty, of being cosmopolitan in a world that is increasingly structured according to the principle of ethnicity.

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© 1996 Kabi d.o.o.