Lepa Brena was the most popular and best-selling Yugoslav singer of the 1980s, Yugoslavia’s Madonna. She continues to personify Yugoslavia for many to this day.
Table of Contents
- Lepa Brena on the Remembering Yugoslavia Podcast
- Lepa Brena: A Biography in Brief
- Lepa Brena’s Music: Albums and Select Songs
- Lepa Brena’s “Political” Songs
- Lepa Brena in Pop(ular) Culture
- Lepa Brena in Academic Literature
- Lepa Brena in the Media
Lepa Brena on the Remembering Yugoslavia Podcast
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Long Live Lepa Brena! Podcast Episode Transcript (and More)
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PETER KORCHNAK: This is Remembering Yugoslavia, the show exploring the memory of a country that no longer exists. I’m your DJ Peter Korchnak.
Lepa Brena has already made a repeated appearance on this podcast.
[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Hej Slaveni” electronic version]
In Episode 7, “Yugofuturist Rock ‘n’ Roll,” with Petar Janjatović:
PETAR JANJATOVIĆ: A friend of mine who is a movie director from Zagreb (…) so he wrote on his Facebook, “I was in [a] packed Dom omladine Beograda and the audience was singing with the band, “Živjela Jugoslavija.” I have to left [sic] this brutal reality and went home and went on [the] internet, realizing that at the same moment in [a] packed Arena u Zagrebu Lepa Brena is singing “Ja sam Jugoslovenka” together with the audience.” Then he says: “I didn’t fight for that.” But this is our joke.
PETER KORCHNAK: Lepa Brena was the most famous Yugoslav singer of the 1980s, the Yugoslav Madonna if you will. Her popularity during the decade eclipsed that of the late Tito.
In Episode 20, “Rock’n’Retro”:
PETER KORCHNAK: As years go by, Yugonostalgia’s 20-year-long tour nears its farewell show and Yugoslavia’s dangers fade out. In fact, many popular acts, from Lepa Brena on down, have repositioned themselves as Yugoslav, express affinity to Yugoslavia, or reference that country positively.
PETER KORCHNAK: Or, most recently, in Episode 53, “I Am Jugoslovenka”:
“Jugoslovenka” (A Yugoslav Woman) is among the most famous pop songs of Yugoslav times. Not only that, Lepa Brena who recorded it in 1989 is the greatest and best-selling Yugoslav pop star, Yugoslavia’s Madonna or Tina Turner, if you will.
But just like the song encompassed all of Yugoslavia, Lepa Brena was more than a pop icon: she continues to personify Yugoslavia for many to this day.
Lepa Brena’s greatest hit nowadays both evokes nostalgia for those times and constitutes the starting point for a story of women’s emancipation through art in the former Yugoslavia and beyond, as told by Jasmina Tumbas in her new book, I Am Jugoslovenka! Feminist Performance Politics During and After Yugoslav Socialism.
If you think you can talk about Yugoslavia, particularly from the 1980s on, without mentioning Lepa Brena, well, think again. And so I figured it’s time. It’s time to dedicate some space on this podcast to Lepa Brena, the greatest Yugoslav music star of all time.
Now Lepa Brena herself will not be making an appearance today. Long story short, I do know that she, or rather her manager, received and considered my request for an interview but “if we’re interested we’ll get back to him” is as far as I got. However, on my last trip to Belgrade I went to see a play about Lepa Brena and that’s as good as it gets.
After all, Lepa Brena isn’t real. She’s an image, a fantasy, a simulation, a representation of herself that she, the media, and us, her audiences, have produced and re-produced over time. When you think of Lepa Brena, it’s the image of her that you see, or rather an image of an image. She exists in her music, of course, but also in photographs and videos that present and re-present her, or rather her image, over and over again, made up and clothed and surgically enhanced and airbrushed and photoshopped. She’s shared and layered to the point where Lepa Brena refers to previous references to Lepa Brena.
Similar to how on this podcast I’m interested not in Yugoslavia but rather in the memory of Yugoslavia, the discourse about Lepa Brena is in many ways more interesting than Lepa Brena herself. What Lepa Brena means rather than who she is, if you will.
In today’s episode of Remembering Yugoslavia: Long live Lepa Brena!
Before we start singing, I have some people to acknowledge. Thank you, Eva, Jessica, and others for supporting the show. I really appreciate your generous pledges on Patreon.
If you like the show, join Eva, Jessica, and many other sustaining supporters on Patreon or donate via PayPal. Visit RememberingYugoslavia.com/Donate today to ensure Remembering Yugoslavia’s long life.
[SOUNDBITE – “Jugoslovenka” by Inje]
PETER KORCHNAK: Born on October 20th, 1960 in Tuzla to father Abid and mother Ifeta, Fahreta Jahić grew up in Brčko, along with sister Faketa and brother Faruk. A good student, she was also tall and played basketball. It was her basketball coach who didn’t want to yell Fahreta! Fahreta! all the time and so he gave her the nickname Brena, a synonym for pretty girl (brena is also a wooden vessel village women used for carrying water from springs). At 17, she won the local singing contest “Young Builders” with a Kemal Monteno number and joined a band that performed at local dances and sporting events.
In 1979 Jahić moved to Belgrade to study tourism at the university and began performing in local kafanas, restaurants, and hotels, with the Novi Sad band Lira Šou which soon changed its name to Slatki Greh (Sweet Sin).
The following year she and the band released the debut album, “Čačak, Čačak.” In the title song she calls music from that area in central Serbia, “Šumadija rock’n’roll.” The song was to be shown on TV but ended up getting pulled due to the singer’s skimpy clothes. So she appeared on another program, whose grabby host added Lepa, or Pretty, to her nickname.
Lepa Brena’s style was a novel take on novokomponovana narodna muzika, newly composed folk music, which resembles the widely popular Serbian folk songs but made and arranged for the modern times. According to Milena Dragićević Šešić, a professor at the Faculty of Dramatic Arts in Belgrade, “Brena’s songs did not fit the overtly emotional kafanska prototype but were rather playfully romantic and humorous, with appropriate stage choreography that would develop as Brena’s performance career advanced to concert stages. Similarly, even though her early song repertoire featured Serbian, Macedonian, and Bosnian folk music, the arrangements increasingly adopted the conventions of zabavna muzika, entertainment music…[which] singled her out from many aspiring folk singers and ensured her early mainstream appeal.”
In 1982, Lepa Brena appeared on TV for the first time, as herself, in the popular film Tesna koža (Tight Skin). She performed the song “Mile voli disko” (Mile Loves Disco), which gave the name to her sophomore album in 1983. Because she preferred the Šumadija kolo, poor Mile was out. But the urban-rural contrast was to stay among the themes of Brena’s music.
According to Zlatan Delić, sociology professor at the University of Tuzla, Lepa Brena “adopted the contemporary Euro-pop sound to articulate familiar themes of village life and social pressures rendered by modernization.” Moreover, “as the Western pop (disco) is played on the quintessentially folk instrument (the accordion), accompanying the fast kolo-turned-disco dance, the rural-urban divide is symbolically bridged. as is the gender divide between male-identified pop music style and female-identified folk music style.”
By the way, I’ve embedded all the Brena songs I mention and many more in the episode blog post at RememberingYugoslavia.com.
Lepa Brena gained a major boost in popularity in 1983 when she competed in the Jugovizija contest, which selected Yugoslavia’s entry for Eurovision. Though the song “Sitnije, Cile, sitnije,” placed only 7th, that novokomponovana muzika appeared in the traditionally pop music contest was a big deal. The album featuring the song allegedly ended up selling 800,000 copies; the accompanying Yugoslav tour launched Lepa Brena into stardom. The Osmica magazine featuring Lepa Brena in a see-through top sold 600,000 copies; this was the only time she showed her breasts in public. And the heavy metal band Griva created a parody cover version of the song, which became the band’s first commercial success and launched them onto the scene.
Brena also made it onto the agenda of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Serbia. Serbian communists feared that Brena’s overnight popularity threatened the time and space in public media outlets dedicated to the reports on the work of the party and its functionaries. Alas.
Another album followed in 1984 and Lepa Brena’s image turned more provocative and sexualized. “In Brena’s songs and videos, female sexuality tailors to the male voyeuristic gaze, but since it does not transgress into vulgarity, it is also appealing to women and men alike, even children,” writes Delić. “The themes of longing, suffering, and disappointment in relationships receive a light-hearted treatment, ranging from romance to satire and parody.” When she highlighted “her attractiveness with [hot outfits] and alluring dancing” and sang about “desired female physical attributes” she embodied the female fantasy of “modern liberated women who enjoy sex and openly voice their desires,” which hinted at some degree of emancipation in both her music and the wider society. She was sexy yet badass, both protective and girl smart, subservient but loving… In short, writes Delić, “Brena’s strategy of subtle innuendo and suggestive eroticism are her tools, used to highlight, and at times critique, the prevailing patriarchal codes of a Balkan society.”
In 1984, Lepa Brena performed at the opening ceremony of the Sarajevo Winter Olympics and held a stadium concert in Timisoara, Romania, in front of some 60,000 people, which “was at the time among the most successful concerts of a Yugoslav musician outside their home country.”
More albums followed. In 1985 she also recorded a duet with the neofolk singer Miroslav Ilić. The song “Živela Jugoslavija” (Long Live Yugoslavia) over the years became a favorite target of cover versions and a Yugonostalgic party tune.
When I look at our sea / Our rivers, our mountains / All the beauty where I was born / And everything I would know to say / I wrote in my heart / long live Yugoslavia
The land of peace, the land of Tito / A country brave and proud / The wide world knows about you / We love you our mother / We will not give you up to anyone / Long live Yugoslavia
Marshal Tito was born here / A proud name of / The hero the whole world knows / Treasured is the land that has him / He will be remembered for centuries / Long live Yugoslavia…
“Although sexuality was the primary vehicle for crafting her image of naughty playfulness and tongue-in-cheek humor offset by revealing clothes and sexual innuendos, Brena also used her popularity to bolster the political cause,” writes Delić. “She symbolically merged her image with the established socialist myths and imagery. Her pro-Yugoslav orientation, expressed in her songs, videos, and public pronouncements, augmented her cross-ethnic musical appeal, and made her a harbinger of Yugoslav unity following Tito’s death.”
Also in 1985, the chant, “Mi smo Brenini, Brena je naša” (We are Brena’s, Brena is ours) is heard for the first time, at a concert in Mostar attended by upwards of 25 thousand people, echoing the obsolete slogan, “Mi smo Titovi, Tito je naš” (We are Tito’s, Tito is ours.)
Two more albums came out in 1986.
Also that year, her song “Vreme je naše” (The Time Is Ours) accompanied an anti-nuclear weapons number at the Dan mladosti (Day of Youth) slet event in Belgrade.
In 1987, Lepa Brena released the album Hajde da se volimo (Let’s Love One Another) and appeared as the protagonist in the eponymous music film. With this album and film, writes Delić, “Lepa Brena became the ultimate Yugoslav star, and the only female performer who commanded the entire Yugoslav mediascape – print, television, radio, music video, and film – right until the breakup of the country.” At the premiere she met the tennis player Slobodan Živojinović whom she married four years later. The movie spawned two sequels, in 1989 and 1990.
The 1989 album Četiri godine (Four Years), featured the song “Jugoslovenka” (Yugoslav Woman). In this call-and-response song, three men in succession ask her questions.
Montenegrin Danijel Popović, the guy who won that 1983 Jugovizija contest, asks,
Where are you from, beautiful girl / Who gave you the blue eyes / Who gave you the golden hair / Who created you so fiery
Croatian Vlado Kalember who represented Yugoslavia at Eurovision 1984 asks,
Where are you from, beautiful girl / Where did you grow up, spring flower / Where did the free sun warm you / When you dance so seductively
And Bosnian Alen Islamović, lead singer of Divlje Jagode and Bijelo Dugme, asks,
Where are you from, beautiful stranger / Where did you outshine the sun / Where did you drink honey wine / When you kiss so sweetly
To each man Lepa Brena twice responds in the chorus:
My eyes are the Adriatic Sea / My hair is the Pannonian ears of grain / Melancholic is my Slavic soul / I am a Yugoslav woman
““Jugoslovenka”…became…a hymn to Yugoslavism,” writes the sociologist Delić. “The song carried a reassuring and hopeful message about the country, celebrating the diversity and the unity of its peoples, reinforced by the presence of her male co-singers from different ethnic and religious backgrounds. The song’s optimistic vision of Yugoslav nationhood was graphically mapped through Brena’s physical body.” End quote. In other words, Lepa Brena became Yugoslavia personified.
This was reinforced in the video for the song, in which “she is portrayed as both a sex symbol and the “bearer” of the nation.” Her blonde hair rustles in the air as she looks down from a helicopter upon the land of beaches, mountains, rivers, villages, and cities. She walks through fields of grain. Yugoslav flags flutter furiously. But the most enduring image from that music video is of Brena sitting on a deck of a boat in the Adriatic beneath a fluttering Yugoslav flag.
This iconic image is the starting point of Lepa Brena Prodžekt, a play at Bitef Teatar, an indie theater in Belgrade. When you first enter the room, she’s already there on the stage, but with her back turned to you and, rather than on a boat, she is sitting on a slab that looks a lot like Tito’s tomb at the House of Flowers.
“I know why you insult me And I know how it hurts But I don’t know and I won’t find out If I’ll ever kiss anyone like you;
Wish happiness to others Since you and I have none And may what’s happened to us never happen to anyone
“I remember better than any of you. I remember the beginner mistakes, gigs in taverns and hotels, the first television appearances and popularity, every helicopter and every stadium…”
In other words, this is a memory play. Its co-author, Olga Dimitrijević, is a fellow Central European University alum who splits her time between Belgrade and Rijeka. In her official bio, she describes herself as “(still) a Yugoslavian playwright, director and dramaturg” who “explores the topics of social struggles and injustices, female friendship and solidarity, queer histories, limits of political imagination, and possibilities of a better world.”
I spoke with Dimitrijević at Bitef last May before the Lepa Brena Prodžekt performance.
OLGA DIMITRIJEVIĆ: I’m a Yugoslav still claiming that space of possibility that there is political identity of being a Yugoslav. That’s somehow very that somehow important for me to state because, especially in the circumstances when I’m emerging from something that is a common cultural space–or at least it was [a] common cultural space in the years that formed me as a person and as the author–I somehow still want to claim that space in order to also distance somehow myself from ethno nationalist politics that, first of all, destroyed practically the whole future in this part of the world.
Practically we are living the consequences of this politics and we are still deeply deeply buried in them. And I’m just strongly opposed to everything that they represent, which also means this kind of particularization of, you know, separate nations who all have their language, who all have their culture, and these cultures are separated and they do not touch each other, which is, of course, complete nonsense. Every attempt to divide them, every attempt to write a history of Serbian, Croatian cinema, whatever, become some kind of forgery of the past of that cinema. Every attempt to You know, claim that there is one particular language–Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, Montenegrin, whatever–it’s pointless and absurd. But that’s, you know, this strong, strong, strong, constant pressure that that kind of division must be finished also in the field of culture. Yeah, I’m just playing that position to be opposed to that.
PETER KORCHNAK: So that would go some way at least towards explaining why Lepa Brena was the subject of your, of the play that we’re gonna see. So tell me what she means to you.
OLGA DIMITRIJEVIĆ: Lepa Brena, well, many things, like you can see in the show. Many things in this long range of, you know, being this music star that I grew up with and listened to when I was a kid. And then, you know, we jump forward to this figure, this kind of symbol of– not only of Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, but also of all the transformations that happen in the society of what used to be the country nowadays. And in that image or symbol or figure in Lepa Brena, whatever Lepa Brena is, that’s the moment where, you know, affective level correlates and intertwines actually, with political level.
And that’s also how we came up with, with the concept of the show, because there is not one Lepa Brena, there [are] so many, Lepa Brenas.
PETER KORCHNAK: It’s five in the show.
OLGA DIMITRIJEVIĆ: And the these five also come from when we wanted to detect, okay, so which Brena is important for us.
PETER KORCHNAK: The play features five actors who in their monologues represent different versions or meanings of Lepa Brena.
OLGA DIMITRIJEVIĆ: We have the face of Brena, which is the face of Yugoslavia, like the face of the biggest Yugoslav star, the face of the woman whose one of the greatest hits is Jugoslovenka. The woman who still claims that kind of heritage.
PETER KORCHNAK: The Yugoslav woman is the first Lepa Brena in the play. She talks about her love for the country as an idea, what it stood for, and how her fame eclipsed the country’s.
“I loved Yugoslavia and I still love her…”
Lepa Brena performed a lot, often two shows per day. She even set a record of consecutive concerts.
Another album followed in 1990. Also that year, a limited edition Brena Barbie doll, issued in 30,000 copies, saw the light of day. There’s one on eBay right now, for $500.
And she also took a trip in a helicopter to the Levski Stadium in Sofia, descending goddess-like to sing in front of some 100,000 people, the biggest concert in Bulgaria’s history.
When “Živela Jugoslavija” began, according to the Lepa Brena entry in the Lexicon of Yugoslav Mythology, the stadium “exploded in ecstasy and we all understood the message from the TV screen: slaves in the neighboring darkness experienced our country as freedom and Tito’s name as its symbol.” In other words, while in her home country her music represented the East, for Bulgarians she served as a window to the West.
OLGA DIMITRIJEVIĆ: Then there is Brena of sexuality, and Brena of sexuality is Brena of every small gay boy, and there is a huge queer aspect to it: who was impersonating Brena as a kid and who was finding some way through to articulate the sexuality or this kind of freedom of sexuality through the image of Brena or through figure of Lepa Brena.
PETER KORCHNAK: Dimitrijević co-wrote the play with Vladimir Aleksić who plays the character of Živojin Živojinović in the iteration of the play that I saw.
“…and everything began when my mother once took me to Lepa Brena’s performance…”
Little Živojin became a drag Lepa Brena impersonator with both the troubles that came with it and the blessing of discovering and enacting who they were.
OLGA DIMITRIJEVIĆ: And then there is Brena of the buildings because there is this actually funny moment because she was so hugely popular that many many buildings built all over Yugoslavia were named after her.
PETER KORCHNAK: The red roof of these apartment buildings reminded people, most of whom were probably men, of a short skirt and the tall white façades of legs, and so because of their height and beauty they were nicknamed “Lepa Brena.”
OLGA DIMITRIJEVIĆ: So you practically have all over the place the tallest, the newest, the most beautiful building that appeared, you know, at the beginning of the 80s in some town or city would be named after Brena, so you have them in—
PETER KORCHNAK: Novi Pazar, Vranje, Podgorica, Zrenjanin, Foča, Niš, Zenica, Užice, Tuzla, Šibenik… Lepa Brena herself is said to have cut the ribbon on the Lepa Brena in Kragujevac; the party lasted all night.
OLGA DIMITRIJEVIĆ: So practically [the] story of Lepa Brena and the buildings is the story about socialist modernist architecture and different kinds of urbanism and how people used to think about the living and the living standard and communal living as opposed to what we have now, and how actually the shift that happened in that architectural aspect.
“To move into a Lepa Brena in the 1980s meant absolutely everything.”
PETER KORCHNAK: The transference from building to person and vice versa is hard to miss.
Lepa Brena is the only living singer to have a street named after her, in the village of Donja Rača near Kragujevac.
Brena is also the second most popular name in the Serbian countryside given to goats and cows. In 2017 in the village of Pejkovac, near Niš, a goat named Brena birthed four kids, double the average. Its owner said it was a sign of a good year to come.
Lepa Brena Prodžekt takes a dark turn when memory enters the 1990s. Lepa Brenas crumbled in the cities just like the country did in the war.
“And I only know one thing: When Yugoslavia fell apart, Lepa Brena fell apart too.”
In 1991 Lepa Brena released her final album with Slatki greh.
“No longer a suitable poster girl,” writes Delić, “Lepa Brena was stripped of her country, her megastar status, and her audiences who either fled the region or became divided by the brutal ethnic conflict. Suddenly, the singer became synonymous with the past, and she was politically discredited because, as a prominent public figure, she did not speak publicly against the wars.”
In her most controversial performance, in 1993, Lepa Brena appeared, in camo no less, before similarly clad Republika Srpska’s army troops in her hometown of Brčko. Ethno drag, Dimitrijević calls it in the play. Brena later defended herself saying she was essentially blackmailed to do so in order to keep her Bosniak parents safe.
After a few years’ break, Lepa Brena continued to produce music throughout the 1990s, releasing four more LPs.
Also in this decade, she and her husband went into business. They were representatives in Serbia and Montenegro of Red Bull and in Macedonia of Mercedes. In 1998 she co-founded with a former Slatki Greh collaborator the record label Grand Production which sold 20 years later for 30 million euros.
Which is to say, she’s a business woman as well.
“Thank you for coming in such large numbers, it’s really touched me, just seeing you, it brings back all those years that are behind us…”
OLGA DIMITRIJEVIĆ: At the same time, that’s the same woman who knows perfectly well how to do business and who swims perfectly in the waters of capitalism that we have here.
PETER KORCHNAK: And she swam pretty well in socialism, too, right?
OLGA DIMITRIJEVIĆ: She swam pretty well also in the capitalist waters of Yugoslav socialism. That’s exactly the thing because these two lines somehow coexist.
PETER KORCHNAK: Lepa Brena the business woman is played by Jasna Djuričić, whom you may know from the lead role in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s excellent Oscars entry Quo Vadis, Aida? Brena the savvy business woman reflects on her career in show biz, on having been analyzed and then some, on having stayed true to herself even as she became famous, a brand, and as times changed, and as she, the person, Fahreta Živojinović, remained separate from her persona of Lepa Brena, always in control and without an expiration date.
“I always knew how to keep a distance between me and Brena. We always understood each other very well. From here to there – me, from there to here – Brena.”
In 2000, Živojinović’s son was kidnapped by a mob group from Zemun, a Belgrade suburb. Brena paid the 2.5 million Deutsche Mark ransom and the family put all the business on hold and moved to Florida.
In 2003 a greatest hits album came out and five years later she returned to the former Yugoslavia in earnest with a new album and a tour. This is when she picked the Yugoslav theme back up.
The weekly Vreme wrote Brena
“was the first estrada star to translate the newly-composed folk music from the village into the urban environment, and the first to apply marketing tactics typical of rock bands.” The piece highlights Brena’s universal appeal: “Men liked her because she was a prototype of a Balkan beauty, tall, with long legs. Women identified with the “gentle woman,” whose beauty rested in her heart “and not in her body or her hair.” The working class who migrated from villages to cities recognized “the accordion plays disco” aesthetic. Teens liked Brena for the cheerful hits. Little girls saw in her what they wanted in their Barbie dolls: long-haired blonde with nice clothes. Today, everybody loves Brena because she is a symbol of a time that wasn’t so long ago or that great but remembered as the last moments before the catastrophe, when we were all happy, care-free, tall and blonde. Just like she was.”
Brena told Vreme that, though her career had its ups (in the 1980s) and downs (in the 1990s), “now I have invitations from every former republic and I plan to unify them with a tour for my new album.”
And in an interview for the Croatian portal Index, she said,
“If someone has the right to declare themselves as a Croat or a Serb, I have the right to declare myself as a Yugoslav. I am neither a Croatian nor a Serbian woman, I am a Yugoslav woman. Yugoslavia was special in many ways. I admit, I am Yugonostalgic. ”
In 2009, the compilation Dark Tribute to Lepa Brena featured 20 cover versions by electronic music artists.
I am using the cover version of “Jugoslovenka” by Inje with kind permission of Crime Scene Records, an independent & non-profit record label in Novi Sad specialized in experimental, dark, weird, and underground music from ex-Yugoslavian region. Follow them on Facebook and YouTube and buy their music on Bandcamp. All the links are in the episode blog post at RememberingYugoslavia.com.
[SOUNDBITE – “Jugoslovenka” by Inje]
PETER KORCHNAK: The tour for her 2011 album Začarani krug (Vicious Circle), which Lepa Brena described as “a true Balkan concept,” included 104 concerts in Europe and North America over six years. It included the biggest concert of her career in Prilep, North Macedonia, in front of some 200,000 spectators, and another helicopter descent to the show in Belgrade.
And in 2018, Lepa Brena’s most recent, 18th studio album, Zar je važno dal se peva ili pjeva (It Doesn’t Matter How You Pronounce ‘Sing’) returns Brena to the Yugoslav fold. Ana Petrov, musicologist and sociologist at the Faculty of Media and Communications in Belgrade, wrote that through the music and the visuals Brena essentially promotes “nothing less than the core ideology of Yugoslav socialism: the ideology of brotherhood and unity.”
The title song, Petrov continues, “is unequivocally a political statement,” essentially saying that the language of the peoples of some former Yugoslav republics is a single language. Meaning, since pevati is how Serbs pronounce the word for to sing, while pjevati is Croatian, the song communicates that, quote, “it does not matter which dialect you speak; we understand each other since we speak the same language. In this recontextualized sense, it can be seen as a message of reconciliation, of peace and love after the wars. Additionally, the video was filmed in Belgrade, Zagreb, and Sarajevo, which further highlights Brena’s strategies for promoting her new political message—the message of love among the people in the territory of former Yugoslavia.”
Lepa Brena continues to perform, and in the Zar je važno tour she doubled down on the Yugoslav connection.
In 2019, while I was in Croatia, a minor controversy broke out after her two sold out concerts at the Arena Zagreb. That she, a symbol of Yugoslavia, descended upon the stage from the ceiling in a giant five-pointed star wasn’t the worst of it.
During the performance of “Jugoslovenka” Lepa Brena busted out the flag of socialist Yugoslavia. Fans often wave Yugoslavia’s flags and banners during Brena’s concerts but for her to do so as well was new. Some crusty Croatian generals complained but nothing of significance transpired as they really are out of step with the times.
A three-part documentary completed Zar je važno’s Yugoslav trinity. In the film, Lepa Brena discusses her early life and that period in Yugonostalgic terms, saying “We were one common Yugoslav family.” Important moments and personalities in socialist Yugoslavia’s history get a mention. Her Yugoslav songs feature prominently, underscoring the film’s pro-Yugoslav atmosphere. The conclusion, quote, “Someone has said that Brena is the last Yugoslav.”
According to her Facebook page, Lepa Brena will perform in Banja Luka on the 30th of July and Zvornik on the 2nd of August. And she’s also advertising a big concert in Bucharest on the 10th of September; tickets start at 99 Romanian Lei, or 20 US dollars.
If you go, be aware that you’re making a political statement. According to musicologist Ana Hofman, whom you may remember from Episode 2, “The New-New Life of Partisan Songs,” because Lepa Brena as the biggest Yugoslav star represented the project of mainstream Yugoslav cultural politics, to attend her concert means to express support for that project and by extension for that disappeared country.
OLGA DIMITRIJEVIĆ: And then of course, at the end, there comes Lepa Brena of the song, of music and of the song, because if there wasn’t for the power, affective power of the song, none of this would be actually ever possible.
“Because the song is stronger than anything. It’s stronger than death.”
OLGA DIMITRIJEVIĆ: So we have these five phases of Brena, and then they somehow correlate to each other, at the same time they work together, and they must be opposed to each other in the meanings that they create.
PETER KORCHNAK: Has she seen the performance?
OLGA DIMITRIJEVIĆ: Yes, several times.
PETER KORCHNAK: Several times? So you’ve met her and–
OLGA DIMITRIJEVIĆ: Yes.
PETER KORCHNAK: What did she say? What were her impressions?
OLGA DIMITRIJEVIĆ: She likes it. Yeah, she likes it. Vladimir and I, in one moment of the process, of course, we somehow got in touch with her and she was informed, you know, there is some performance happening. But you know, whatever…
PETER KORCHNAK: She’s a superstar.
OLGA DIMITRIJEVIĆ: No, somehow also that connection was not developing so much. And in one moment, I don’t know, whose papers actually published the big article that this is happening. And then, after many attempts to meet, which were postponed for one reason or the other, then we managed to arrange the meeting and we went to her and then we presented her the concept. And we said, Yeah, we’re not making biopic and we’re not interested in biopic, we’re interested in what is Lepa Brena as a symbol and what does it mean to us? And how does it tells a story about Yugoslavia falling apart? How does it tell us a story about the lives that we live nowadays. And we had [a] really beautiful and substantial conversation with her about all of that. And at the end, she offered us, you know, all of her support when she goes to [the] media [and] announces the play that she will explain. And she actually summarized pretty well what we wanted to talk about in one sentence after our conversation, like, “No, this is not about me as Lepa Brena, this is a story about social, economical, and emotional aspects of the last 40 years of our lives.”
And she came to the premiere, and that was actually one of the most exciting moments in the theater in my life. Because you, you’re having a show about [a] living legend, and you’re having this kind of polemic show about [a] living legend and that legend, sits in the first row on the balcony with her, follower[s], her friends, family, there was 10 of people. And the theater is food. And it’s also a bit of experimental blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Everybody wanted to be there. Because it’s so, also in a way, outrageous, maybe. And you could feel that kind of permanent tension because you knew that every single person in the audience thinks at the same time while looking at the show, at the same time thinks, “What does lepa Brena think about this?”
PETER KORCHNAK Who is sitting up there…
OLGA DIMITRIJEVIĆ: Who is sitting up there. And that was really that was really something.
And no, after the show, we will also be giving some interviews together like together on the on the stage. She gave some really beautiful remarks about the show. And then she also said that she needs to come [a] few days later, in peace to, you know, see it again to think about it. And since then, I think she was here, three or four maybe even times.
PETER KORCHNAK: So how many times have you done the performance?
OLGA DIMITRIJEVIĆ: I have no idea. I really when was the premiere? Yeah, but premiere was at the end of 2019. So we practically just departed and it sold out practically constantly. But then corona happened, so everything stopped. And from the moment when theaters be reopened again. The show has its life. I really don’t know about the number, but it’s there once or twice per month for sure. And the audience is really not the problem for this show, the audience is constantly there.
PETER KORCHNAK: Yeah. You mentioned that you expect a full house again. On the night that Konstrakta is representing Serbia in Eurovision.
OLGA DIMITRIJEVIĆ: But in semi finals, and because we all know that she will be in the final.
PETER KORCHNAK: How long do you plan to keep doing it?
OLGA DIMITRIJEVIĆ: As long as the actors want that and as long as there is the audience that’s the main thing.
About the future of the show, also the corona was very unfortunate for this show because there was a lot of plans for, you know, traveling around, going to Canada and U.S., going to Scandinavia, going to various other countries. And now we’ll see what will happen.
But people are coming back and people are talking about it. And there is actually the interest around the show, which I would say somehow overgrows that people are coming only because of Lepa Brena. And the first thing they want to see, there is something more.
PETER KORCHNAK: In her review of the play in SEE Stage, Natasha Tripney, whom you may recall from Episode 48, “Yugoslav Cuisine,” and who was at the same performance I saw, wrote that “the format of five interlinking monologues allows the production to transcend the conventional bio-drama and reject linearity. This makes for a stronger, more multifaceted show, one not just about a person, a woman, but about how popular culture, memory, nostalgia and identity intertwine (or did in a time before the internet)…”
At the end, concludes Tripney, “as the various Brenas retreat to different parts of the stage to sit and simmer, “there is one final shift in tone, one voice speaks out above the others, raw, defiant, marked by loss but also hope.”
“Let us sing of a better world. Sometimes it costs us our lives, strength and nerves, and everything else, but maybe it is possible. Maybe.”
PETER KORCHNAK: “We are all Brena one way or the other, since we can hardly escape the Yugoslav past in which we grew up, or the post-Yugoslav present in which the meanings that are connected to this figure are still present, still apparently controversial, and still uniting divergent entities in newly divided societies,” writes Ana Petrov.
Lepa Brena’s life from 1980 on traces the history of Yugoslavia and its memory. Here and now, in peak capitalism where everything is commodified, Lepa Brena remains the bestselling ex-Yugoslav artist, continues to perform, and keeps singing her story. I can’t say I’m a fan but I am fascinated by the phenomenon.
And so, long live Yugoslavia and, whether she’s real or hyperreal, long live Lepa Brena as well.
[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Rainmaker” by Petar Alargić]
PETER KORCHNAK: Next on Remembering Yugoslavia:
TIHA GUDAC: He told me, “When I came to naked Island, I wasn’t afraid, because the only thing they could have done to me was kill me.”
PETER KORCHNAK: Goli Otok was a prison and labor camp where the Yugoslav regime sent its domestic opponents. The place of torture is now a ruin porn tourist attraction. What happened there and how is ex-Yugoslavia dealing with it? On the next episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, Goli Otok and its memory.
Tune in wherever you listen to podcasts and subscribe to make sure you don’t miss out.
[OUTRO MUSIC – “Jugoslavijo / Od Vardara pa do Triglava” by Horn Orchestra]
PETER KORCHNAK: That’s all for this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, thank you for listening…and singing along. Find additional information, song embeds, links, photos, and the transcript of this episode at RememberingYugoslavia.com.
Outro music courtesy of Robert Petrić. Additional music by Ketsa and Petar Alargić licensed under Creative Commons. Special thanks to Maja Pupovac and Bitef Teatar staff and actors.
Outro music courtesy of Robert Petrić. Additional music by Inje and Tony Music used with permission and gratitude. Track by Petar Alargić licensed under Creative Commons. Special thanks to Maja Pupovac and Bitef Teatar staff and actors.
I am Peter Korchňak.
- Delić, Zlatan. “Fantasy, Sexuality, and Yugoslavism in Lepa Brena’s Music.” In: Danijela Š. Beard and Ljerka V. Rasmussen, eds. Made in Yugoslavia: Studies in Popular Music. New York: Routledge, 2020
- Hofman, Ana. “Lepa Brena: Repolitization of musical memories on Yugoslavia.” Glasnik Etnografskog instituta, Vol. 60 (2012): 21-32
- Lepa Brena. Biografija.org https://www.biografija.org/muzika/lepa-brena/
- McMurray, Gillian. “Hyperreality in the 21st Century.” September 8, 2016
- Petrov, Ana. “From a Yugoslav to a Balkan Star and Back: Lepa Brena’s Public Figure in Transition.” Muzikološki zbornik (Musicological Annual) Vol. 57 No. 2
Lepa Brena: A Biography in Brief
NB: Information in this section is sourced mainly from Wikipedia.
October 20, 1960: Born as Fahreta Jahić in Tuzla, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia; grew up in Brčko.
- Moves to Belgrade to attend university.
- Sings in kafanas with Lira Show, which in 1981 changed its name to Slatki greh (Sweet Sin).
- Appears, with her band Slatki greh on TV show Pretežno vedro (Predominantly Bright) with the song “Čačak, Čačak.”
- Releases albums Čačak, Čačak and Mile voli disko (Mile Loves Disco).
- Appears in the popular comedy Tesna koža (Tight Spot).
- Participates with the band in the Jugovizija contest, a Yugoslav selection event for the Eurovision Song Contest. “Their appearance on Jugovizija caused controversy, since the competition was traditionally dominated exclusively by pop artists, and Lepa Brena belonged to NCFM. Although they did not qualify for the prestigious European competition, Lepa Brena and Slatki Greh won the contest, gaining even more popularity.” [Wikipedia]
- Releases album Bato Bato.
- Updates image into a more provocative, sexualized one.
- Holds a stadium concert in Timisoara, attended by 65,000 people, “what was at time among the most successful concerts of a Yugoslav musician outside their home country” [Wikipedia]
- Releases album Pile moje (My Little One)
- Releases 6th album Voli me, voli (Love Me, Love Me) and 7th album Uske pantalone (Tight Pants).
- Collaborates with Serbian folk music star Miroslav Ilić, recording the song song “Živela Jugoslavija” (Long Live Yugoslavia; see below)
- Becomes Yugoslav super star.
- Releases 7th album Hajde da se volimo (Let’s Love One Another) along with an eponymous film featuring her as the protagonist. The movie spawns two sequels.
- At the movie premiere, meets her future husband, tennis player Slobodan Živojinović.
- Releases 8th album Četiri godine (Four Years), which featured the song “Jugoslovenka” (Yugoslav Woman; see below).
- Appears in Hajde da se volimo 2.
- Releases 9th album Boli me uvo za sve (I Don’t Care About Anything).
- Appears in Hajde sa se volimo 3.
- July 24: Arrives to the concert at Levski Stadium in Sofia in a helicopter and sings for 90,000 (estimates range between 80,000 and 110,000). “Although Brena always presented herself as a professed egalitarian, somebody who is [of and for the people], her helicopter performance nonetheless hinted at her status as a goddess leading her followers.” [Delić, 2020] It is said to have been the biggest concert in Bulgarian history.
- Releases 10th album Zaljubiška (I’m In Love).
- Moves to the U.S.
- Releases first solo album Ja nemam drugi dom (I Have No Other Home).
- Appears in alleged military attire with Republika Srpska soldiers in Brčko.
- Releases solo album Kazna Božija (God’s Punishment, 1994).
- Holds the so-called “concert in the rain” at the Tašmajdan stadium in Belgrade, attended by 35,000 people.
- Releases solo album Luda za tobom (Crazy Over You, 1996).
- Co-founds the record label Grand Production.
- Releases final album with Slatki greh, Pomračenje sunca (Eclipse of the Sun).
- Goes on hiatus.
- Releases the comeback album Udji slobodno and goes on tour across former Yugoslavia. Explains the long time it took from the album’s announcement in 2006 to the release by saying she “sang to that united and happy Yugoslavia, that that state does not exist today, and that it is therefore very difficult to find suitable songs for it, but that [she] will do her best to create the best album [she] can.”
- Releases the album Začarani krug (Vicious Circle), “a true Balkan concept,” and signs a promotional agreement with the Russian oil giant Lukoil.
- Goes on tour promoting the album; the 104 concerts in Europe and North America, spanned six years and included the biggest concert of her career, at Prilep in front of 200+K spectators.
- Releases the album Izvorne i novokomponovane narodne pesme (Original and Newly Composed National Folk Songs), dedicated to her ailing mother and featuring songs her mother had sang to her as a child.
- Releases the album Zar je važno dal se peva ili pjeva (It Doesn’t Matter How You Pronounce ‘Sing’, see below).
- According to Petrov , Lepa Brena “decided to make the project explicitly pro-Yugoslav. She achieved that through her selection of new songs, her image and the visual solutions for the videos, as well as the discourse that she started to promote, all of which was engaged in the context of retro culture and the reconciliation paradigm after the wars and, moreover, the promotion of nothing less than the core ideology of Yugoslav socialism: the ideology of brotherhood and unity.”
- Tour concerts, many of which sell out, periodically arouse media interest, if not controversy in certain circles in Croatia, when the flags of socialist Yugoslavia appear in the audience and especially when Lepa Brena herself waves it during the performance of “Jugoslovenka” (A Yugoslav Woman).
- Sells Grand Production for €30M.
Lepa Brena by the Numbers
- Lepa Brena’s age: 60
- Lepa Brena’s height: 178 cm (5’10”)
- Lepa Brena’s estimated net worth: $25M [CelebrityNetWorth.com, accessed 1/23/2021]
Lepa Brena’s Music: Albums and Select Songs
NB: Analysis of Lepa Brena’s music and songs in this section comes from Delić, 2020 and from Dragićević-Šešić, 1994 as quoted/interpreted in Delić, 2020.
“Musically, Brena’s blend of disco, pop, and Yugoslav folk music…could be considered a proto type of the commercially most influential style that emerged from the Balkans in the 1990s, called turbo-folk – a hybrid of regional novokomponovana narodna muzika (newly composed folk music or NCFM) and Eurodance, which peaked during the Yugoslav wars.” [Delić, 2020]
“Brena’s songs did not fit the overtly emotional kafanska prototype but were rather playfully romantic and humorous, with appropriate stage choreography that would develop as Brena’s performance career advanced to concert stages. Similarly, even though her early song repertoire featured Serbian, Macedonian, and Bosnian folk music, the arrangements increasingly adopted the conventions of zabavna-pop music. In particular, Lepa Brena’s collaboration with songwriters…who skilfully adapted folk music for the entertainment purposes, singled her out from many aspiring folk singers and ensured her early mainstream appeal.” [Dragićević-Šešić, 1994]
“In Brena’s songs and videos, female sexuality tailors to the male voyeuristic gaze, but since it does not transgress into vulgarity, it is also appealing to women and men alike, even children.” [Delić, 2020]
Lepa Brena’s Debut Album: Čačak, Čačak (1982)
“Rich in elements of rural discourse, this album pointed to important stylistic changes in the development of NCFM: it adopted the contemporary Euro-pop sound to articulate familiar themes of village life and social pressures rendered by modernization.” [Delić, 2020]
Mile Voli Disko (1982)
“Mile voli disko” [Mile Loves Disco], 1982
Mile voli disko / Mile loves disco a ja kolo šumadijsko / And I the Šumadija circle dance da budemo blisko / So we can be close harmonika svira disko / The accordion plays disco
“As the Western pop (disco) is played on the quintessentially folk instrument (the accordion), accompanying the fast kolo-turned-disco dance, the rural-urban divide is symbolically bridged” as is the gender divide between male-identified pop music style and female-identified folk music style. [Delić, 2020]
“Dama iz Londona” [A Lady from London], 1983
Da mi kupiš Mile suknjicu od svile / Mile, if you were to buy me a silk skirt bila bi ko ona dama iz Londona / I would be like that lady from London
“While the female subject goes beyond the confines of her countryside upbringing to please the male who favors city girls – a stepping out of cultural norms that allows a degree of female emancipation her primary goal is ultimately to keep her man. The themes of longing, suffering, and disappointment in relationships receive a light-hearted treatment, ranging from romance to satire and parody. The fantasies of the female subject have now become Brena’s reality: modern liberated women who enjoy sex and openly voice their desires, which indicates a degree of female emancipation in folk-pop culture, and wider society as a whole.” [Delić, 2020]
“Duge noge” [Long Legs], 1982
“Again, the iconography was the key ingredient in her transformation: true to her stage name ‘pretty’ she highlighted her attractiveness with hot pants and alluring dancing, while singing about the desired female physical attributes.” [Delić, 2020]
Bato, Bato (1984)
“Dečko mi je školarac” [My Boyfriend Is a Scholar] (1984)
The female singer sends pocket money to her boyfriend who is studying away, so he can go for a night out at the movies.
Pile moje (1984)
“Mače moje” [My Kitten] (1985)
Mate moje, ne znam šta bih ja bez tvog / My kitten… I don’t know what I’d do without your bez tvog osmeha u očima / Without your smile in your eyes Hajde vrata razvali / Come on, knock down the doors ma stavi me na sto slatkih muka / Put me through a hundred of sweet pains
“The invitation to sexual intercourse is less guarded compared to earlier songs, although somewhat evocative of the humorously lascivious folk poetry commonly found in village singing traditions of the Balkans.” [Delić, 2020]
Voli me, voli (Love Me, Love Me, 1986)
“Miki, Mićo” (1986)
Po selu se pričal majstor si za žene / The entire village is saying you’re a handyman for ladies zašto onda Mićo ne svratis do mene / Why don’t you then Mićo swing by my place
“The female subject clearly voices her libidinal desires and her expectations, and flips the subordinate female position, which now takes center stage. Nevertheless, the singers character does not alter the conventional gender roles and their archetypal social structuring.” [Delić, 2020]
Hajde da se volimo (Let’s Love One Another, 1987)
As of this album, “Lepa Brena became the ultimate Yugoslav folk star, and the only female performer who commanded the entire Yugoslav mediascape – print, television, radio, music video, and film – right until the breakup of the country in 1991.” [Delić, 2020]
“Sanjam” (I Dream, 1987)
In the video, Lepa Brena has to complete various tasks, like levels in a video game, that make her appear like a sexy yet badass woman, in order to rejoin her band. Here the band members rather than her lover(s) are the most important men in her life. [Delić, 2020]
Četiri godine (Four Years, 1989)
“Čuvala me mama” (My Mom Kept an Eye on Me, 1989)
“The simple and lively pop melody, and the feel-good choreography of a street party, soften the more serious message of the lyrics: “You’d want me for one night, and then bye-bye baby… my mom was so right.” The song criticizes male chauvinism and reaffirms the role of a mother as the guardian who protects her daughter’s chastity from prying men. The song was the local prototype of “girl power”: smart girls follow their mothers’ advice and prefer to have a good time with their friends rather than fall for bad boys.” [Delić, 2020]
“Robinja” (A Slave Girl, 1989)
The song “appears to reaffirm the stereotypical image of a subservient woman, through the combined effect of the chosen location [Istanbul] and the storyline featuring a “captured” woman. The lyrics and the video suggest this is a memory, the recollection of a relationship in which she was willingly submissive, and she still yearns to be loved by her tormentor. Throughout the song she pro claims that she loves the man and would remain his slave even if he were to kill her. Although the lyrics and visuals do not promote the enslavement of women, they do highlight female subservience to men through the metaphor of submission. Brena does not directly challenge stereotypical gendered roles, but she does tacitly tease them out and question them approach arguably determined by the NCFM genre codes, with their origins in male-dominated social spaces. In short, Brena’s strategy of subtle innuendo and suggestive eroticism are her tools, used to highlight, and at times critique, the prevailing patriarchal codes of a Balkan society.” [Delić, 2020]
Lepa Brena’s “Political” Songs
“Živela Jugoslavija” (Long Live Yugoslavia, 1985)
“Živela Jugoslavija” Tekst / “Long Live Yugoslavia” Lyrics
Kad pogledam naše more / When I look at our sea naše reke, naše gore / Our rivers, our mountains svu lepotu gde sam rodjena / All the beauty where I was born i sve što bi reci znala / And everything I would know to say u srcu sam zapisala / I wrote in my heart živela Jugoslavija / long live Yugoslavia
Zemljo mira, zemljo Tita / The land of peace, the land of Tito zemljo hrabra, ponosita / A country brave and proud širom sveta o tebi se zna / The wide world knows about you volimo te naša mati / We love you our mother nećemo te nikom dati / We will not give you up to anyone živela Jugoslavija / Long live Yugoslavia
Tu je rodjen marsal Tito / Marshal Tito was born here naše ime ponosito / Our proud name k’o heroja ceo svet ga zna / The hero the whole world knows blago zemlji što ga ima / Treasured is the land that has him pamtiće se vekovima / He will be remembered for centuries živela Jugoslavija / Long live Yugoslavia
Analyses of “Živela Jugoslavija”
“Although sexuality was the primary vehicle for crafting her image, Brena also used her popularity and attractiveness to bolster the political cause. She symbolically merged her image with the established socialist myths and imagery, centered on brotherhood and unity and president Tito. This union provided the much needed cohesive imagery endorsed both by mainstream politicians and audiences, especially during the growing ideological crises triggered by Tito’s death in 1980. The sentiment was best illustrated in the duet performance of the 1985 song, “Živela Jugoslavija” (Long Live Yugoslavia) with the leading neofolk singer Miroslav Ilić.” [Delić, 2020]
“Jugoslovenka” (A Yugoslav Woman, 1989)
“Jugoslovenka” Tekst / “A Yugoslav Woman” Lyrics
Odakle si lijepa djevojko / Where are you from, beautiful girl Ko ti rodi oko plavetno / Who gave you the blue eye Ko ti dade kosu zlačanu / Who gave you the golden hair Ko te stvori tako vatrenu / Who created you so fiery
Oči su mi more Jadransko / My eyes are the Adriatic Sea Kose su mi klasje Panonsko / My hair is the Pannonian ears of grain Sestra mi je duša Slovenska – My sister is the Slavic soul Ja sam Jugoslovenka – I am a Yugoslav woman
Odakle si lijepa djevojko / Where are you from, beautiful girl Gdje si rasla cvijece proljetno / Where did you grow up, spring flower Gdje te grije sunce slobodno / Where did the free sun warm you Kada pleses tako zanosno / When you dance so seductively
Odakle si lijepa neznanko / Where are you from, beautiful stranger Gdje si krala sunca bjelilo / Where did you outshine king sun (?) Gdje si pila vino medeno / Where did you drink honey wine Kada ljubis tako sladjano / When you kiss so sweetly
Analyses of “Jugoslovenka”
Catherine Baker (2016)
During Yugoslav times, this [Pannonian] plains-[Adriatic] coastal duality had also been available to refer to the whole of Yugoslavia: a 1980s song by the emblematic Yugoslav pop-folk singer Lepa Brena, “Jugoslovenka” had described the female personification of Yugoslavia as having the Adriatic Sea for eyes and the Pannonian corn for hair. Again, an existing nationhood narrative—this time the binary feminine-gendered landscape—was reconstituted to stand for Croatia rather than Yugoslavia.”
Zlatan Delić (2020)
“Even though Brena successfully represented and constructed Yugoslavism through her songs, she actually embodied the phantasm* of Yugoslavism (phantasm is not synonymous with illusion, but rather a scenario that helps to create a subject and hide its deficiency which disturbs the subject’s existence; it is always just a screen that conceals something quite primary). This was how Brena held onto the Yugoslav dream amid the erosion of communal ties and the impeding carnage at the turn of the 1990s.”
“The 1989 song “Jugoslovenka”…became another pop hymn to Yugoslavism. The song carried a reassuring and hopeful message about the country, celebrating the diversity and the unity of its peoples, reinforced by the presence of her male co-singers from different ethnic and religious backgrounds. The song’s optimistic vision of Yugoslav nationhood was graphically mapped through Brena’s physical body.”
“In the video, Brena is portrayed as both a sex symbol and the “bearer” of the nation, perched on the boat deck holding a Yugoslav flag Indeed, women and women’s bodies are often used for transmitting [aspirational] messages about nationalistic projects. In Brena’s “Jugoslovenka” video, both the lyrics and visuals directly determine the value of the female subject in the national metanarrative – her beauty blonde hair, blue eyes, fair skin) and her sexuality (tantalizing dancing, lips that sip the honeyed wine, a fiery spirit), all converged around the idea that she is a natural representation of being a Yugoslav.”
“…women are often required to carry the “burden of representation” and when women are constructed as the symbolic bearers of the collectivist identity, they represent a lineage, family, nation, race, or religion, and as such they function as symbolic social capital. (indirectly quoting Yuval-Davis, Nira. “Rod i nacija: Tradicija i tranzicija.” Treća Vol. 5, No. 1 (2003): 208-34) [T]his capital does not belong to the women themselves, arguing that an image of a woman in an advertisement, such as a political propaganda leaflet, is an image that a society wishes to represent to us rather than what we actually (think we) see. (indirectly quoting Iveković, Rada. “(Ne)predstavljivost ženskog u simboličkoj ekonomiji: Žene, nacija i rat nakon 1989.” In: Branka Arsić, ed. Žene, slike, izmišljaji. Beograd: Centar za ženske studije, 2000)
“Jugoslovenka” in Pop Culture
“It is an unofficial anthem of the former SFRY and Lepa Brena’s greatest hit. It brings us back to more better times, so in many people it evokes nostalgia. The lyrics are about a girl of innocent and strange beauty who is in fact Yugoslav. The song is often played and sung today, which speaks to its success and great popularity. Although Yugoslavia no longer exists, the continues to live and will remain for a long time one of the biggest music hits in this region.”
- The Serbo-Croatian-language Wikipedia page: “Today’s commentators and analysts consider [the song] Brena’s contribution to the preservation of the fragile and ill but liberal ideas of Yugoslavia and the common Yugoslav state.”
- The Serbian-language Wikipedia pages: “Lepa Brena was proud of the country where she lived and she really reflected the spirit of Yugoslavia.”
- The Croatian Wikipedia contains no descriptions of the song.
— Aleksej Demjanski (@ADemjanski) January 24, 2017
“Zar je vazno da l’ se peva ili pjeva” (2018)
Ako smo nekad bili / If we used to be Isti nemir, ista želja / The same passion, the same desire Zar je teško da se voli / Is it really difficult to love one another Barem kao prijatelja / At least as friends
Ako smo nekad bili / If we used to be jedna ljubav, duša jedna / The same love, the same soul zar je vazno da l’ se peva ili pjeva / Does it matter if we say peva or pjeva kad umirem što te nema / When I am dying without you
Analyses of “Zar je vazno da l’ se peva ili pjeva”
Ana Petrov 
“[T]he dialect issue is relevant in order to understand the language politics that Lepa Brena is playing with here. Standard Croatian and Bosnian are based on Ijekavian, whereas Serbian uses both Ekavian and Ijekavian forms (Ijekavian for Bosnian Serbs, Ekavian for most of Serbia). From this perspective, it is clear that, in conflicted post-Yugoslav societies, the fact that a speaker’s ethnical background could be identified just by the dialect that they use, can be troublesome. To put it bluntly, it is not unimportant if you say the word ‘sing’ as ‘peva’ (Ekavian) or ‘pjeva’ (Ijekavian). Behind the difference in what seems to be a simple language choice or a word-play lie serous politics of national identity in post-Yugoslav spaces. Hence, the song is unequivocally a political statement: the statement of a promulgation of the language of the peoples of former Yugoslav republics as being one. In other words, the song’s message is: it does not matter which dialect you speak; we understand each other since we speak the same language.
Having the historical circumstances in mind, the song can be interpreted as provocative, because the difference in how the words are pronounced could, in fact, be of the highest importance for somebody during and after the war.
In addition, despite having a clear political message, the song is in fact allegedly just a love song. Certain parts could be understood as an emotional message given by a woman to someone she loved. The lyrics…say that ‘many years have passed, we should let it go, and “let us love each other,” which is the title of Brena’s greatest hit, as well as the title of her movie series from the 1980s. In this recontextualized sense, it can be seen as a message of reconciliation, of peace and love after the wars. Additionally, the video was filmed in Belgrade (Serbia), Zagreb (Croatia), and Sarajevo (Bosnia and Herzegovina), which further highlights Brena’s strategies for promoting her new political message—the message of love among the people in the territory of former Yugoslavia.”
Zlatan Delić 
The song “features her former Hajde da se volimo film collaborators, and references their past experiences of friendships. A verse line “If we were once the same love, one soul, does it matter in which dialect we sing?” poignantly captures the song’s message, with a reminder that life is too short, and a plea for people to let go and reinstate love and friendship, because it will be too late once they “close their eyes.””
Lepa Brena in Pop(ular) Culture
Iris Andrić & Vladimir Arsenijević (ur.) Leksikon YU Mitologije, Zagreb: Postcriptum, 2005.
NB: This is a translation by me of the entry for Lepa Brena in the Leksikon YU Mitologije.
Lepa Brena’s name would mark the final decade of our country. Critics and small-town people were amazed and the masses flocked to her as if in a daze, like to no one else ever before.
A mere year after her arrival on the scene, she’s breaking all records. She goes from a caricature of an entry to the scene to mainstream superstardom (Brenomania), becoming both a one-of-us and a larger-than-life figure, using Western-style promotion tactics.
When at a stadium in Sofia, she, like Mick Jagger, walks to the stage on the hands of the audience and sings “Živela Jugoslavija,” 100,000 people explode in ecstasy. When she intones, “Tu je rođen maršal Tito, naše ime ponosito, k’o heroja ceo svet ga zna…,” the applause is so loud we’ve never heard it before. We all understood the message from the TV screen: slaves in the neighboring darkness experienced our country as freedom, and Tito’s name as its symbol. Without coercion, without anyone else’s prompting, they thought it on their own.
Later, at home, she sang, a little bit out of conviction, a little bit out of calculation, and quite a bit out of desperation, “I am a Yugoslav”, but believing in the song less and less.
Brena was at her peak when the country she belonged to with her own substance collapsed. Lepa Brena—the greatest estrada star of the SFRY history.
In 1985, for the first time the chant, “Mi smo Brenini, Brena je naša” is heard (in Mostar, at a Veleža stadium concert attended by 25-30 thousand people) in an echo of the slogan, “Mi smo Titovi, Tito je naš.”
Lepa Brena in Academic Literature
Delić, Zlatan. “Fantasy, Sexuality, and Yugoslavism in Lepa Brena’s Music.” In: Danijela Š. Beard and Ljerka V. Rasmussen, eds. Made in Yugoslavia: Studies in Popular Music. New York: Routledge, 2020
“Lepa Brena’s carefully crafted image of naughty playfulness and tongue-in-cheek humor, offset by revealing clothes and sexual innuendos, ensured a fan base that included both adults and children. At the same time, her pro-Yugoslav orientation, expressed in both her songs and videos, and public pronouncements on Yugoslav society, augmented her cross-ethnic musical appeal, and made her a harbinger of Yugoslav unity following Tito’s death in 1980.
Her image of an empowered and financially successful woman offered an aspirational ideal of economic mobility, as well as an escape from the accelerating economic and political crisis. If Tito embodied the Yugoslav ideology of “brotherhood and unity” in the decades past, this symbolic investment arguably shifted from Tito to Lepa Brena in the influential 1980s pop culture.”
“Through juxtaposing and fusing rural-urban lifestyles and musical idioms, Brena mediated the lingering antagonism between rural and urban cultures, and in that process influenced the conceptions of middle-class cultural identities. Brena also provided the recognisable template for turbo-folk music to emerge in the latter 1980s.”
“Female turbo-folk singers’ “enactments of gender roles and depictions of desired femaleness help explain, retrospectively, Brena’s lasting impact on Yugoslav popular culture, Her career both consolidated and questioned gendered social norms, with song lyrics that lend themselves to a feminist interpretation.”
“Generally, the representations of female subjects in Brenas songs contain sexual innuendos, where intimate or sexual proposals are delivered as sassy suggestive rhymes. Female subjects [in her songs] usually voice[d] their sexual advances through humorous quips. But as her career developed, Brena’s songs became less frivolous, although at times with more explicit sexual content.”
“Brena’s characters also tries to break away from rural stereotypes of a peasant girl by coupling her beauty and humble social origin to create an aspirational image of an urban girl.”
“The politics of representation in Brena’s image construct a fairy tale about a beautiful Yugoslav girl who can be anything, ‘from a perky girl to a serene, elegant [and] mature woman, from a witty athlete to an irresistible seductress: a multitude of images at once, all that you ever wanted to be.'” (quoting Dragićević-Šešić, 1994)
“In most songs, the female subject not only wants a macho-man and a player, but longs to marry such a man and to be accepted by his family. As with the patriarchal representations of the female subject in NCFM, such constructions of narrative subjectivity fit ‘a scopic regime thoroughly oppressive to women rendering them… victims of a dominant male gaze’.” (quoting Mulvey, Laura. “Vizuelno zadovoljstvo i narativni film.” Razlika 3-4: 331-47, 2003)
“Filmed across Yugoslavia, her music videos also served as tourism advertisements for a socialist country that looked like it was living the Western capitalist dream.”
When Yugoslavia broke up, Lepa Brena’s “media and concert career practically ended overnight, her legacy seemingly obliterated amid the collective paranoia of nationalism and ensuing violence. In Lacanian terms, after the phantasm of Yugoslavism collapsed, she was faced with the traumatic encounter with the Real: no longer a suitable poster girl, she was stripped of her country, her megastar status, and her audiences who either fled the region or became divided by the brutal ethnic conflict. Suddenly, the singer became synonymous with the past, and she was politically discredited because, as a prominent public figure, she did not speak publicly against” the wars.”
“Because Brena never estranged herself from her patriarchic community and its core values, she was able to achieve what most singers or entertainers (male or female) could not: her message resonated truthfully with the public, allowing her to become the people’s star, an achievement that brought her professional prestige, public respect, and personal wealth.”
“Lepa Brena’s wartime controversies notwithstanding, she seems to be intrinsically committed to the idea of Yugoslavism, as evidenced in her well-received post-war return to the concert stages in Croatia (Zagreb) and Bosnia (Sarajevo) in 2009, and her playing an active role in net working the interethnic cooperation through her Grand Production venture.”
Hofman, Ana. “Lepa Brena: Repolitization of musical memories on Yugoslavia.” Glasnik Etnografskog instituta, Vol. 60 (2012): 21-32 [pdf]
The association of Lepa Brena with Yugoslavia is more than explicit. She represented a Yugoslav mainstream culture policy project and was in fact the biggest Yugoslav and the first big Balkan star. Her public persona embodied multicultural Yugoslavia in all aspects of her public appearances.
Her repertoire was mainly based on newly-composed folk music but also included elements of different genres of the so-called “entertainment music, rock, samba, and tango. Her discography includes several patriotic songs, which became extremely popular, including “Živela Jugoslavija” (1985) and “Jugoslovenka” (1988) – she was the first newly-composed folk music performer who introduced a patriotic content in her songs. Lepa Brena managed to mobilize wider audience that consisted of people who did not particularly consume such music before.
In contrast to the other folk performers, who were widely popular but who mainly performed in the smaller concert halls and clubs (particularly in Slovenia and Croatia), she held concerts in the biggest arenas across Yugoslavia, as no performer of this genre has ever done before. During her career, she recorded 18 albums, shot 5 movies and 2 TV shows, and became the most popular public figure in Yugoslavia and the first one having a Barbie Doll made after her. As a symbol of socialist Yugoslavia, she opened the Winter Olympic games in Sarajevo in 1984.
She was also extremely popular in other Balkan countries where she served as a specific “window” to the West and a sign of the level of liberalization and democratization. She was one of the most important Yugoslavian entertainment industry export product in the East, and a mark of success of the Yugoslav liberal-socialist project, being the first Yugoslav star who performed successfully in concerts abroad.
In that way, intersection of Brena’s public persona, her musical (self)representations and (class, ethic, gender and other) subjectifications, as well as active public utilization of all these aspects unravels a complex relationship between emotional, social and political attachments with the Yugoslav past.
As she promoted her comeback, in 2008 and 2009, she tried to escape her image of the Yugoslav star and rarely expressed any kind of longing for the past. In her interviews to different media, reference to Yugoslavia was always indirect.
She usually avoided conversation about socialism and avoided terms such as socialist or Yugoslav, instead using more neutral phrases such as “former/old times.” She was particularly careful not to give any reason her statements to be interpreted as Yugonostalgic and also tried to distance herself from expressing any political or engaged stance, particularly explicit patriotism or nationalism: “I loved Yugoslavia like a German loves Germany or a Japanese loves Japan. That was the love, which everyone should have for their own country. This kind of love I have for Yugoslavia.”
Being recognized as one of the main symbols of Yugoslavia, she attempted to reclaim her association with the political system. Comparing Yugoslavia with the EU enabled her to legitimize her stance on Yugoslavia as a good project.
When asked what the lyrics of “Jugoslovenka” meant to her today she replied: “This is a love song and it is not important if you sing it to the country in which you, your mother or your pet lives. The most important thing is that ‘pure emotion.’ That is what people miss.”
She avoided exposing a nostalgic attitude which she obviously saw as inappropriate and (maybe) potentially harmful for public perception of her and her career in general. In this respect she stressed that her career was independent from any political system; she never mentioned Yugoslavia as a political entity, Tito or “the socialist past” but rather referred to it just as a shared geographical and cultural space. She presented her attitude toward the Yugoslav past as longing for the time marked by peacefulness, stability, and traveling in light of the current post-socialist insecurity, volatile social climate and restriction in mobility. She tried hard to avoid any politicization of her words and any connection with the socialist past that can have political connotations.
The reactions of people discussing and attending her concerts opened a space for mediation between various (and contested) interpretations of the past, particularly for the narratives potentially subversive in the mainstream discourses. Her music was predominantly used as a strategy of reconciliation and mediation in the post-Yugoslav conflict. Namely, many people expressed the stance that the painful memories of the war should be left behind as a kind of victory of the future over the past. Narratives of the tolerance, “good old values,” and free travel as the benefits of the socialist era were put in the framework of universal democratic values.
Yugoslav musical production was generally perceived as being of better quality both in terms of music and production. Its multicultural character was emphasized as extremely important attribute, which made it more creative and artistic in comparison to the current national music productions.
Discourses of Yugoslav transnationalism/multiculturality and mobility were thus placed in the broader frame of Europeanization discourses, which also revealed the intentions to legitimize new links with the past and Yugoslav legacy.
The discourses of transnationality of Yugoslav musical scene and its strong market potential were predominantly built on the genre of Yugoslav “entertainment music” and particularly Yugoslav rock. Folk music production was not seen a part of Yugoslav legacy, but more as an “eastern product” of the so-called “Yugoslav orient” (Serbia, Bosnia and Macedonia). In “eastern” republics it was very often perceived as a foreign imposition of the oriental, Balkan part of the socialist Yugoslavia.
In Brena’s case, the fact that her music was associated with the Yugoslav past assigned an additional potential to newly-composed folk music to be used as a cosmopolitan and multicultural genre in rebellion against national culture politics. The audience perceived it as a shared musical form, a practice that embodied their everyday cultural consumption in Yugoslavia.
Lepa Brena in the Media
“Poslednja Jugoslovenka” (The Last Yugoslav (woman)), Vreme, 6/19/2008 [pdf]
She was the greatest and unprecedented star of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
That the end of Yugoslavia coincided with the end of Brena’s popularity is another proof that this woman was for many one of the symbols of Yugoslavia.
She was the first estrada star to translate the newly-composed folk music from the village into the urban environment, and is the first to apply marketing tactics typical of rock bands.
Men liked her because was a prototype of a Balkan beauty, tall, with long legs. Women identified with the “gentle woman,” whose beauty rested in her heart “and not in her body or her hair.” The working class who migrated from villages to cities recognized “the accordion plays disco” aesthetic. Kids liked Brena for the cheerful hits. Little girls saw in her what they wanted in their Barbie dolls: long-haired blonde with nice clothes.
Today, everybody loves Brena because she is a symbol of a time that wasn’t so long ago or that great but remembered as the last moments before the catastrophe when we were all happy, care-free, tall and blonde. Just like she was.
[An appended interview with Lepa Brena]
Q: For many people when they recall Yugoslavia the first association are Tito and Brena. How do you see this country from today’s perspective, in the sentimental as well as in the market sense?
A: I was very familiar with the former Yugoslavia, in a both sentimental and market sense. My career lasted nine years: from 1982 to 1991. (…) I liked that we had six republics and two provinces, a stable currency, and a president who led a phenomenal foreign policy. We had open borders, passports, and no one asked us for a visa. (…) I know it was much more peaceful, though maybe I was too young to understand the circumstances at that time.
Similar to the former Yugoslavia, today we have a united Europe. (…) We are still focusing on the past while the world has taken great strides forward.
When Yugoslavia broke up, I could not work anymore here so I went abroad. But now I have invitations from every former republic and I plan to unify them with tour with my new album.
“Lepa Brena: Nisam ni Hrvatica ni Srpkinja, ja sam Jugoslavenka!” Indeks, 12/8/2008
Lepa Brena: “If someone has the right to declare themselves as a Croat or a Serb, I have the right to declare myself a Yugoslav. Yugoslavia was special in many things. I admit, I am Yugonostalgic. ”
“Lepa Brena: The Last Icon of Brotherhood and Unity,” Elevate, November 2013 [pdf]
Lepa Brena and her band Sweet Sin were the best-selling and most sought-after performers in the history of former Yugoslav music back in the 1980s. They were the subject of social analysis, as they represented a unique social phenomenon, but also the last icon of Yugoslavism, memories of happy days in the socialist country that it was prior its collapse and which was home to a working class with a desire for joy.
She was the first to sense the arrival of the era of consumerism – a consumer society to replace one made of workers.
[S]he brought the newly reworked folk music to urban environments, to halls and stadiums, and magnetically attracted the masses of the wider public that were unaccustomed to seeing scantily-clad singers in live interaction with the audience.
No one anywhere in Yugoslavia prior to her, nor later, managed just a year later, in 1982, to sell [as many albums]. Nor had any previous singer been discussed at a session of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Serbia. Brena’s popularity was discussed in 1983 primarily because of the fear that her overnight popularity threatened the treatment of reports on the work of the party and functionaries in public media outlets, in terms of both allocated space and time.
No one prior to her had been so in-demand and so present in the media. Nobody in the entertainment world of Yugoslavia had previously made such smart business moves. [S]he is also the only living singer to actually have a street named after her while she was still alive, in the village of Donja Rača near Kragujevac. She (…) sang in the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Sarajevo.
After Tito, her likeness became the most powerful embodiment of the idea of Yugoslav and a carefree life.
[In 2013] she released her 20th album, celebrated 35 years of her career, delighted the public with two more spectacles where – just like at all of her concerts – the spirit of togetherness could be felt. That’s because it was never important to her or those who love her where people come from, and Brena actually says that in the lyrics of one of her latest tracks, when she asks “is it important that I sing (peva) or sing (pjeva)?” And that’s how that is still done by one of the most beloved Yugoslav ladies of all time.
“Lepa Brena: Jugoslavija je bile EU prije EU,” Moj Kotor Varoš, 10/25/2016
Lepa Brena: “I loved Yugoslavia.”
“LEPA BRENA ISKRENO: «Posle raspada Jugoslavije nisam bila dobra u Srbiji, Bosni, Hrvatskoj… jer sam bila Jugoslovenka»,” Slobodna Bosna, 12/7/2016
Lepa Brena: “[In 1991] Lepa Brena was expelled from this area. No one needed me anymore, and I wasn’t any good for anyone. I was targeted as the biggest Balkan star, which was as popular as Tito. Everyone wanted to drag me through the mud and erase my name. I was no good in Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia because I was a Yugoslav. For me Yugoslavia was a cosmopolitan country whose president was worshiped by the whole world.”
“Lepa Brena: Nisam Jugoslovenka, te zemlje više nema,” Večernje Novosti, 2/27/2017
The celebrity singer who never concealed being Yugonostalgic and yearning for those times, said that between 1991 and 1995 she realized how many people loved to throw in the mud of someone who was successful.
LB: “I won’t say I’m a Yugoslav because that country no longer exists. All of us who lived in Yugoslavia loved each other and we were delighted to go to Ohrid, Montenegro, Bled, Croatia to the sea. I like this area, this people and customs. I was afraid during the period of nationalism and chauvinism because I’m a pacifist and a cosmopolitan and I always liked and respected everyone’s religious and national affiliation.”
“Lepa Brena: U Jugoslaviji smo imali manje para, ali smo bili sretniji i mirnije spavali,” Klix, 4/26/2017
Lepa Brena is an icon of Yugoslavia, a brand and a symbol of a time.
The star and the symbol of the former Yugoslavia with a light smile on her lips and spark in her eyes speaks of the “golden age” of socialist Yugoslavia in which he grew up.
LB: “In the country we called Yugoslavia we slept more peacefully, we had less money and we wanted a lot, but it was nice and we were happy. For most people who lived in Yugoslavia those times were happier. People today lost their soul, nobody looks no one else in the eye. Everything has lost some charm because it’s all available now, and quickly.”
With the breakup of Yugoslavia, LB lost her market. “From 1991 to 1996 I was banned in our entire area because I liked being a Yugoslav, even though they were all so proud of the same thing up until that time. Suddenly they all began to declare themselves along religious and national lines, and I could not change. I am what I was in the sixties when I was born.”
“LEPA BRENA ŠIRI BRATSTVO I JEDINSTVO: Folk diva na turneji po Americi raširila zastavu SFRJ i zapevala Jugoslovenku!” Kurir, 4/15/2018
At a concert in Toronto, Lepa Brena grabbed a Yugoslavia flag from an audience member in the front and displayed it on the stage, to the delight of the arena.
Lepa Brena: “There are several moments that were really disastrous for all of us, and for me, personally, it was the breakup of Yugoslavia, because Lepa Brena was collateral damage.”
“Zastava SFRJ osvanula u krcatoj Areni: Kada je Brena zagrmela sa “Jugoslovenkom”, svi su pali u trans!” Telegraf, 10/20/18
During the “Jugoslovenka” song she performed at the Zagreb Arena, a flag of Yugoslavia appeared in the audience.
- Baker, Catherine. Sounds of the Borderland Popular Music, War and Nationalism in Croatia Since 1991. London: Taylor & Francis, 2016
- Delić, Zlatan. “Fantasy, Sexuality, and Yugoslavism in Lepa Brena’s Music.” In: Danijela Š. Beard and Ljerka V. Rasmussen, eds. Made in Yugoslavia: Studies in Popular Music. New York: Routledge, 2020
- Dragićević Šešić, Milena. Neofolk kultura: Publika i njene zvezde. Novi Sad: Izdavačka knjižara Zorana Stojanovića, 1994
- Hofman, Ana. “Lepa Brena: Repolitization of musical memories on Yugoslavia.” Glasnik Etnografskog instituta, Vol. 60 (2012): 21-32 [pdf]
- Lepa Brena,” Wikipedia (English and Serbo-Croatian editions), accessed January 23, 2021
- Petrov, Ana. “Yugonostalgia as a Kind of Love: Politics of Emotional Reconciliations through Yugoslav Popular Music.” Humanities Vol. 7 No. 4 (2018): 119
- Other: mass media outlets as cited