For some two decades now the 1980s have been a rich referential resource for culture-makers across ex-Yugoslavia (and globally, of course). Re-releases and reunion tours. Music echoing the ’80s sound. Documentaries. TV shows. Movies. Theater productions. Art retrospectives. Exhibitions…
Now that we’ve entered the temporal territory of 40th anniversaries of this and that from the era, it’s clear the “cultural virus of the 1980s” continues to afflict the region of former Yugoslavia.
Why is that? What is it about the Yugoslav ’80s culture that is so worth reviving and that is so inspiring decades later? And where do we go from here?
With Maša Kolanović, Martin Pogačar, Ljubica Spaskovska, and Mitja Velikonja. Featuring music by Bastion, Detective Spook, PMG Kolektiv, Svemirko, and Yugo Project.
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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 guide Peter Korchnak.
[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Kataklizma korporatizma” by Detective Spook]
This past February, Croatia Records re-issued the New Wave compilation album Paket Aranžman (Package Arrangement or Package Deal) on the 40th anniversary of its release in 1981.
Accompanying the re-release of the remastered album: broad cultural media coverage, analyses, and other events around the post-Yugoslav region and beyond, including exhibitions and documentaries.
This was not an isolated event. For some two decades now the 1980s have been a rich referential resource for culture-makers across ex-Yugoslavia (and globally, of course). Re-releases and reunion tours. Music echoing the ’80s sound. Documentaries. TV shows. Movies. Theater productions. Art retrospectives. Exhibitions…
Now that we’ve entered the temporal territory of 40th anniversaries of this and that from the era, it’s clear the “cultural virus of the 1980s” continues to afflict the region of former Yugoslavia. Why is that? What is it about the ’80s culture that is so worth reviving and that is so inspiring decades later? And where do we go from here?
Today on Remembering Yugoslavia: the persistence of the 1980s in post-Yugoslav culture.
A couple of notes before I take the trip down memory lane: first, the songs you’ll hear in this episode are courtesy of their creators and labels. Please buy their music on Bandcamp; all the links are included in the episode blog post at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Podcast.
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[MUSICAL INTERLUDE – “Testarossa” by Detective Spook]
PETER KORCHNAK: In order to properly assess the ongoing ’80s craze in the post-Yugoslav territory, let’s first look at the decade itself.
MITJA VELIKONJA: The ’80s were, you know, very curious times.
PETER KORCHNAK: That’s Mitja Velikonja from the University of Ljubljana. Having lived half his life in socialism, in Yugoslavia, and half in capitalism, in independent Slovenia, he has made it his academic business to study the cultural memory of socialism and Yugoslavia. I interviewed Velikonja extensively in Episode 30, “Mitja from the Russian Blocks and the Deficit of Yugoslavia.”
The Yugoslav ’80s: Economics and Politics
MITJA VELIKONJA: On one side, you know, there was [an] economic crisis, the political system was losing legitimation, you know, no one believed anymore, you know, in the politics as it was ruled at that time. They were starting to have ethnic and social tension. So on one side, Yugoslavia was collapsing.
[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Nervoza na srceto” by Detective Spook]
PETER KORCHNAK: Yugoslavia’s 1974 constitution culminated a series of decentralization reforms based on the concept of self-management with a twofold aim: to maintain the legitimacy of socialism and by extension of the communist party and the state, and to ease ethnic and national tensions, which were increasingly manifesting the inter-republican disputes.
But while outwardly maintaining its federal status, by the time Tito died in 1980, Yugoslavia essentially fragmented into a de facto confederation comprising six independent economies with loose mutual economic ties pursuing their own interests at the federal expense. This fragmentation only increased in the 1980s, eventually leading to a nearly total gridlock of federal decision-making.
The boom Yugoslavia had experienced from the late 1950s thru the 1970s was largely financed by borrowing: American financial aid and IMF loans. In the 1980s, a lot of these loans came due. The oil shocks in the 1970s and the resulting worldwide recession roiled Yugoslavia’s economy. The IMF imposed austerity measures which led to increasingly frequent strikes. Inflation grew throughout the decade reaching 1,000 percent in 1989. Official unemployment ballooned to 17 percent, with youth particularly affected, with rates as high as 60 percent; many large companies went bankrupt; wages were frozen and real earnings fell by a quarter by mid-decade; there were periodic shortages of electricity, petrol, and staple goods, even food. Divorces, drug addiction, and the perceptions of threats to ethnic or national groups from other groups increased.
Throughout its existence, Yugoslavia also strived to foster solidarity among its constituent ethnic groups and nations with the policy of equalizing the uneven regional economic development across the country. By the 1980s, it was obvious the equalization policy had failed. Thanks to the economic crisis, the disputes concerning the redistribution of political and economic resources from the more developed republics to the less developed republics and provinces with little to show for it intensified throughout the 1980s: the less developed republics with more federal power, Serbia, wanted more redistribution and greater centralization, the more developed ones with less power, Slovenia and Croatia, demanded decentralization and less redistribution. In time, particularly in the second half of the ’80s, the original disagreements about systemic-economic affairs turned into quarrels about mutual exploitation with ethnonational populist overtones.
The economic and political turmoil led to the crisis of the country’s and the system’s legitimacy. Already in the early 1980s surveys found dramatic drops in Yugoslavs feeling positive about the socialist system or the party and growing doubts the government could solve the situation. And as popular as they were, constitutional and market-oriented economic reforms launched in 1989 were too little too late. In 1990, the first multi-party elections in each republic, won by nation-oriented elites, triggered the country’s demise the following year.
The Apocalypse Culture of the Yugoslav ’80s
MITJA VELIKONJA: But on the other side, we could face this cultural and artistic renaissance. Together with the decline of Yugoslavia in economic, political, and social terms, you know, the culture erupted as such. So the situation was very—it’s always difficult to make comparisons, but I don’t know—like Weimar Germany in the 20s: so everything was falling apart but on the other side, there was a lot of pop culture, art was very progressive, you know, Charleston was danced, you know, there were feminists, gays, lesbians, a lot of things were going on.
PETER KORCHNAK: The thing to know about the 1980s, however, is that it wasn’t a single, cohesive decade. Rather—
MITJA VELIKONJA: There are two phases of the ’80s: This eruption of the popular and alternative culture of civil society in the beginning of ’80s, and, in the second half, this initiative was taken by those who in a way led to the destruction of Yugoslavia. At that time, cryptonationalists who quite quickly then turned to hardcore nationalist, so communist elites that turn to nationalism to remain in power. The real democratization of Yugoslavia started in the early ’80s, and then the initiative was taken by those who changed this initiative into the political party program.
PETER KORCHNAK: One way I’ve seen the period described is “decadent socialism,” in the works of Maša Kolanović. She teaches contemporary Croatian literature and culture at the University of Zagreb, studies socialism and post-socialism, and is also an award-winning author of fiction.
MAŠA KOLANOVIĆ: The term decadent socialism is not like terminus technicus. it’s more like a colloquial phrase, often used while describing the ’80s in Yugoslavia. And it’s describing this, I will say, schizophrenic years of Yugoslav period of socialism where, for example, the imaginary or Western consumption was part of the, I will say, mainstream agenda.
PETER KORCHNAK: In Czechoslovakia we could only dream of traveling to Western countries for shopping trips like Yugoslavs did to Trieste or Graz. Of jeans, readily available. Of albums by Western bands of all stripes or Yugoslav New Wave’s for that matter.
Kolanović emphasizes the openness to Western consumerism in Yugoslavia wasn’t new. The country continuously developed its own form of socialism with market features; it had had an open-door policy since the 1960s; people went shopping (and smuggling) abroad, watched Western programs, listened to Western music, worked in the West… It was during the 1980s economic crisis that the phenomenon intensified.
MAŠA KOLANOVIĆ: But at the same time, you have this rise of, you know, nationalistics [sic] discourse, you know, national particularities of Yugoslavia. You have this also uncanny signs of the conflict, something was just kind of rotten in the air, as we can say.
So decadence, it’s kind of explaining all this, I will say, various heterogeneous events and discourses which were present in the 80s.
PETER KORCHNAK: In 1985, Pedro Ramet applied another term to this period that I like even more: apocalypse culture. On the one hand, socialism failed to live up to its promises and the economic and political crises led to an atmosphere of resignation, gloom, and pessimism.
MAŠA KOLANOVIĆ: The sense of [the] end was one of these, I will say, possible futures of Yugoslav socialism. Nobody actually was aware that it’s going to end like like that, it was not like so obvious, but people were kind of flirting with this idea of the end, but just kind of, I will say, tracing these signs of economical political crisis, which was evident in that period, especially after the death of Yugoslav leader, Jozip Broz Tito, where this type of cohesion was just not sustainable, I will say, anymore.
PETER KORCHNAK: At the same time or perhaps that’s why, in this traumatized society culture became an outlet for airing grievances, expressing alternative opinions, and exploring new discursive territories in order to make sense of it all. It is this inward-looking culture, absorbed in a quest for meaning in uncertain times, at the point where it experiences a crisis of confidence and senses some sort of an end is near, that Ramet calls apocalypse culture. Settled political formulas and social practices can no longer solve current problems and there is no consensus on how to move forward. So there arises a push for change from all sides in all kinds of directions.
Expressions of despair permeate the discourse; social criticism appears in various works; artists push envelopes to incite outrage… “This is characteristic of apocalypse culture and indicative of profound social stress,” writes Ramet.
You have punk bands and Laibach associating socialist with Nazi aesthetics. You have theatrical performances featuring nudity and music bands exalting sexuality of all kinds. You have the reevaluation in novels, essays, poems, screenplays but also in newspapers, nonfiction books, studies, or symposia of pretty much everything, including the country’s core myths: Tito (now dead), the Party, the National Liberation Struggle and the Partisan mythology, the Ustaše and the Četniks, brotherhood and unity, the Goli Otok prison camp…
Everything went, everything was touchable.
LJUBICA SPASKOVSKA: I never expected that people will talk about freedom and that they will associate freedom with the 1980s.
PETER KORCHNAK: Ljubica Spaskovska is a lecturer in European History at the University of Exeter. She is the author of “The Last Yugoslav Generation: The Rethinking of Youth Politics and Cultures in Late Socialism, published in 2017. She defines the last Yugoslav generation as people who were active in the so-called youth scene and infrastructure at the time, such as musicians, writers, journalists, activists, apparatchiks, politicians, and soldiers born roughly between 1955 and 1975 and who were of age by the end of the 1980s. This socio-political generation shared the experience of Yugoslavia’s breakup as their defining historical trauma.
LJUBICA SPASKOVSKA: I expected these journalists, musicians, rock musicians, punk musicians, to associate freedom with after, after the fall of socialism, because indeed, many of them were imprisoned, or, indeed, a lot of their lyrics were censored at the time.
But on the other hand, what emerged was that they had immense freedom, and that they had this also huge resources from the state, ironically, so from the League of Socialist Youth, that provided that infrastructure in terms of cultural centers, student centers, as well, the whole youth press, it was so critical in the 1980s.
It was almost schizophrenic, what was in this youth press and how, you know, this youth culture was developing, because it was a combination of the socialist aesthetics and right discourse around miners etcetera but on the next page, you would have, you know, punk photography, or you would have, you know, very, very strong critique of the regime.
A lot of these people were able to travel and they did travel. A lot of them told me they took advantage also of the European Rail Pass, there were daily flights to London. In that sense, I think, being also able to travel, I think, added to that intensity. Yeah, being exposed to, for the musicians, of course, to music trends, etc, but also for the activists because I interviewed also those in the LGBT, for instance, community in Slovenia, who for whom Berlin then played played a big role, and they could travel, you know, to encounter these activists for LGBT rights in Western Europe. So definitely, I think, the freedom of movement and freedom that they got through having the red passport was something very important.
PETER KORCHNAK: New Wave emerged in Zagreb and Belgrade in the late 1970s and flourished thru the first half of the ’80s. The Paket Aranžman compilation, featuring Belgrade bands Električni Orgazam (Electric Orgasm), Šarlo Akrobata (Charlie Chaplin), and Idoli (The Idols), wasn’t the first product of New Wave, as punk bands like Pankrti (The Bastards) and Paraf (The Initials) had birthed the scene in 1977. But its impact was perhaps most felt as the springboard of the movement, which became a prime example of apocalypse culture.
The sociologist Dalibor Mišina described New Wave as a “cultural reaction to the imperfections of new socialist culture,” and the “most consequential popular-cultural catalyst of socio-cultural and socio-political critique in Yugoslav society.” New wave, Mišina says, “was an expression of youth’s urban consciousness and a critique of the urban experience. [It] put (…) rock music on the cultural map.” They lampooned various aspects of the socialist system and talked about things or in ways that had been kept under the lid…
MARTIN POGAČAR: If we’re speaking of punk-rock or new wave this was a sort of like an organic opposition to the state. And it was never conceptualized as dissent or as would be some other initiatives in other socialist countries at the time. This was sort of like an intra-systemic critique through popular culture.
PETER KORCHNAK: Martin Pogačar is a researcher at the Ljubljana-based Institute of Culture and Memory Studies. You may remember him from Episode 6, “Yugoslavia as a Cultural Subversion.”
MARTIN POGAČAR: The 1980s cultural, artistic scene did in fact grasp the point that something has to be changed because Yugoslavia after all the years it existed after the Second World War, it somehow did get into an impasse in a way. And there were [a] variety of different options being thrown around as to what to do.
The alternative culture of the 1980s did have, if not answers then at least some ideas of what needed to be done with Yugoslavia, which I think they did recognize as a valid and valuable framework from where to go on. So it was not necessarily the artistic opposition, so to speak, that wanted to see the country fall apart. It was rather the refracting of sentiment through politics that did, in fact, lead to [a] situation where a lot of people saw Yugoslavia as a problem that cannot be solved.
PETER KORCHNAK: To be sure, New Wave was but one of the era-defining alternative culture trends; New Primitives and New Partisans made their own original contributions. In fact, New Wave itself wasn’t a musically coherent movement: it comprised punk, post-punk, synth pop, rock… At any rate, paradoxically, as you heard Spaskovska expound, these young critics of socialism were in large part directly or indirectly supported by the very state they criticized.
Paket Aranžman sold 20,000 copies over two printings. To put this into perspective, the same year Jugoton issued the Yugoslav superstar Zdravko Čolić’s new album in 300,000 copies.
What Paket Aranžman didn’t achieve in sales it exceeded in impact and cult status. The compilation is considered one of the most important records of Yugoslav rock music ever. The 1998 book, YU 100: The Best Albums of Yugoslav Rock and Pop Music, lists the album at number two, behind the 1982 album of a Paket participant, Idoli. Their 1980 song “Retko te vidjam sa devojkama” (I Rarely See You With Girls) was probably the second song in Yugoslavia with a gay theme; the first one penned a year earlier by another New Wave protagonist Prljavo Kazalište (Dirty Theater). In 2015 the Skopje-based PMG Kolektiv covered the song with lyrics translated into Macedonian.
MITJA VELIKONJA: So the situation was very, very alive. A lot of things were going on, not only musically, but also when it comes to other elements of alternative and popular culture: from film, from the new literature, from the new independent media.
LJUBICA SPASKOVSKA: I think the 1980s should not be only reduced to the music, right. The cultural scene played a huge role, of course, but I think there were so many other aspects, including, you know, where they overlap, for example, in radio journalism, youth journalism, so journalism as well, but also all this other activisms, including environmental activism, conscientious objection, which was very prominent in Slovenia. There are many other strands of youth activism and the youth scene in the 1980s apart from music and art and culture that also deserved to be researched in more depth.
MAŠA KOLANOVIĆ: Now there’s like really lots of works we can speak about. You have this famous Dubravka Ugrešić novel Štefica Cvek in Jaws of Life when we have this young female characters in search of love, but at the same time consuming women’s magazines.
And then you have this movie by Rajko Grlić when you also have this, I will say, images of abundance. At the same time in this kind of a comedy movie, you have sentences where two characters are kind of commending what is going on—and just to remember, the year was 1984—when one character is saying, “It’s going to be rough here,” and people are just going away from Yugoslavia.
Also in the lyrics of New Wave bands, for example, Ekaterina Velika you have this song called “Amerika” when the lyrics are saying basically, everybody are just kind of going away from Yugoslavia, they want to go to America. The lyrics of new wave bands are kind of having this atmosphere of being, like explicitly critical about the situation but still, like, you know, promoting this you know, anarchistic liberal type of sensibility which was like, really I will say interesting for Yugoslavia in that period.
Or you have this also Slobodan Šijan’s movies like very dark comedies. You can just feel this kind of schizophrenic atmosphere in all these this types of cultural patterns back then.
PETER KORCHNAK: While proposals for change did circulate throughout the 1980s in the highest levels changes did not occur until late in the game and by then they took on a nationalist mantle. Meanwhile, even as the country came down with a nationalist fever, the youth of this era wanted to preserve Yugoslavia in an improved form.
LJUBICA SPASKOVSKA: The ethnonational, local, regional sense of belonging and identity did not exclude a sense of Yugoslavness or Yugoslav belonging. So these two identities were not mutually exclusive but indeed, they were complementary for a large part of this generation. For many of them, actually, the ethnic did not have the meaning that it came to have later. Sometimes city, regional identities, you know, being from Ljubljana or being from Belgrade, or from a particular part of Belgrade was much more important than being a Serb or a Slovene.
What was very stark and prominent is that there was a huge commitment to kind of freedom of speech, freedom of expression. This is something that I would say, marked this generation. So smashing whatever taboo was there, you know, either doing it through more visual video art, like Borghesia, or doing it through lyrics and music, doing it through journalistic articles. They thought that they had the right to critique the system and that’s the most normal thing. But not in a way to incite hatred. They thought they can make the Yugoslav system better, that it can become even better.
This generation was, I think, very idealistic as well. They thought they could never do lose the benefits that they had but only they could upgrade them. But they have to be admired, as I say, for their bravery and courage to speak against what was in different republican contexts different degrees of censorship and different degrees of that authoritarian control. For instance, sometimes bands or journalists were moving from one part of Yugoslavia to the other, because if something was published in Belgrade, you could not be prosecuted for it in Croatia, for instance. So they were using also the decentralized Yugoslav system to their own advantage. And of course, levels of repression or censorship, as I said, we’re different in different republics It was not a uniform, uniform kind of authoritarianism that they were critiquing.
MITJA VELIKONJA: The specificity of Yugoslavia was that it was always polycentric. Different scenes were appearing in different parts of Yugoslavia when it comes to [the] late ’70s and ’80s. You know, you had the Slovenian punk, you had the Zagreb and Belgrade New Wave, then you had Sarajevo’s New Primitivism, again, an extremely interesting music and cultural movement that erupted around ‘83, ‘84, ‘85. And you had darkwave industrial, alter pop, everywhere also, in other centers, like Split or Rijeka—not a big city, you know, but extremely vibrant, when it comes to subcultures.
LJUBICA SPASKOVSKA: So the 1980s in Yugoslavia were very particular, very specific period where a lot of things opened up, but also a lot of gaps and schisms emerged, of course, in terms of politics, all the ethnic entrepreneurs that decided to ride this wave of nationalism.
PETER KORCHNAK: New Wave broke mid-decade, with bands splitting up and forming new ones with different musical orientations, just as the wave of ethnonationalist discourses was forming.
The term “’80s music” typically conjures synth pop. A number of bands in Yugoslavia played this kind of music, including Denis & Denis from Rijeka, Videosex from Ljubljana, Beograd and Laki Pingvini (Light Penguins) from Belgrade. A lesser-known band named Bastion did their synth pop thing in Skopje. Fun facts: the Golden Globe winning and Oscar-nominated film director Milčo Mančevski wrote Bastion’s lyrics, in Serbo-Croatian. The song “Deca sunca” is about the titular children of the sun flying through the night and the day with power and dreams, but it also unsettlingly mentions witnessing suicide and predicts the arrival of unspecified refugees. Apocalypse culture, right?
Remembering the Yugoslav 1980s
PETER KORCHNAK: So that’s the 1980s.
What Kolanović, Pogačar, Spaskovska, and others from the lost Yugoslav generation—that is the Yugoslavs that never were—remember of the decade most distinctly is playing with friends outside their apartment blocks as children. Yugoslavia’s dissolution and the 1990s wars marked the end of their childhood.
And it was the beginning of remembering the 1980s.
MAŠA KOLANOVIĆ: In [the] last 30 years, we experienced really different ideospheres of speaking, thinking, feeling about socialism. And it was being, of course, produced in political and cultural discourse.
PETER KORCHNAK: A quick analytical note. The 1980s were of course the final full decade of Yugoslavia, socialism, and Yugoslav socialism. The memory of the 1980s is in most aspects pretty much inseparable from the memory of Yugoslavia and of socialism; so when we talk about one in a temporal sense we are talking about the other two as well. This also accounts for recency bias, whereby the most recent events seem more important. So even though they are or should be analytically distinct, for the sake of simplicity the three will be used somewhat interchangeably here.
Kolanović sees the cultural memory of socialism in Yugoslavia evolve in four phases over the last thirty years.
MAŠA KOLANOVIĆ: Immediately after the breakup of socialism and war in in Yugoslavia, we were in this part of rush revisionism where socialism was kind of reduced to this idea of totalitarian culture dictatorship where—especially Croatia, yeah, that was that would Croatian nationalists say, could not like, you know, maintain its own independence on so you can see that, for example, in history textbooks, where there is no single word about some, you know, positive values of socialism. And it was something commonly shared among, I will say, all former socialist countries in that period, you know. They just kind of buried the socialism.
PETER KORCHNAK: This was the time, the Croatian historian Hrvoje Klasić told me back in Episode 10, “Croatia’s History Illness,” when white became black and black became white. Heroes from the socialist era became villains and villains heroes; the country of brotherhood and unity became a prison of nations; class was replaced by nation… The wars of Yugoslav dissolution, fueled by ethnonationalism as they were, and their aftermath provided the backdrop.
But even during the time that the dominant discourse denied the positives or even the existence of socialism, Yugoslavia, the 1980s, people found a way to keep the memory alive. For Martin Pogačar, who was born in 1977 in Slovenia, Yugoslav pop culture became a source of subversion.
MARTIN POGAČAR: When I was old enough to see how the new system was being installed and I kind of had a bit of a problem with that, because it was trying to just eradicate everything that came before and this for me was not really acceptable. This was, this kind of a trigger, I would say now, I didn’t really know back then, that got me into searching for stuff, looking for music and films from the former Yugoslavia.
This was the time of high school and it was a sort of opposition to Slovenian nationalism. It was always channeled through, at least for teenagers at that time through some kind of subversive use of Yugoslav pop culture. And this was really quite a formative experience. It was an expression of, “look what you’re making us forget,” and we didn’t want to forget that.
Because what happened clearly—especially I can speak for Slovenia after 1991—Yugoslav music and Yugoslav cinema were ostracized from the media. You could no longer hear any music that was not Slovenian or Western. This is where the subversion started because we kind of [were] using that music for fun, parties, and whatever, and even playing it— there was also a lot of bands that did play that kind of music— we saw that as an expression of disagreement with [the] nationalization of the country and also the limitation of cultural space.
PETER KORCHNAK: For Spaskovska, who was born in Skopje in the then Socialist Republic of Macedonia in 1981, coming of age went hand in hand with looking back at the culture of her childhood years.
LJUBICA SPASKOVSKA: Me and my friends were very much into kind of heavy metal and punk and, you know, so that whole 80s mainstream aesthetics was very much, I didn’t like it at all, neither me nor my friends. So we made fun of it. But slowly, we started discovering that Yugoslav scene. And, of course, it’s also about age, because you have to start understanding what they were singing about, understanding the lyrics, and that only happened in late, late 1990s, as a teenager, you know, you, you start singing the songs, and you start understanding that it’s much more than the music as well. Then we were going to the Student Cultural Center for these gigs, etcetera. So, this is how slowly me and my friends became introduced kind of through this older generation we got to know, we got immersed into this culture and heritage.
MAŠA KOLANOVIĆ: But very soon, like, in the like, early 2000, nostalgia for socialism appeared, because, you know, people just were remembering their own youth or their own self in that period. And also, since capitalism didn’t, you know, fulfill this promises of, you know, bright future, which will now come to present after, you know, we get rid of socialism, people were starting to remember all those good things in socialism, you know, such as, you know, secure health system, free education, you know, steady jobs…
Later on and now we are like witnessing this, you know, enormous commercialization of nostalgia. Capitalism found the way to turn nostalgia into one of the products of capitalism.
Especially after 2000, after this topic of war was kind of starting to fade in dominant Croatian literature, this new wave of you know presenting socialism took part [sic] and you have like pretty much you know, works of fiction coming from you know, writers such as Miljenko Jergović, Ratko Cvetnić, Goran Tribuson, of course Dubravka Ugrešić.
Some of them are being like nostalgic about the ’80s, such as Tribuson, are being kind of cynical or like Ratko Cvetnić where they’re just kind of you know, flirting constantly with with this idea that everything was like rotten and it was just kind of waited to be ended. Or you have also this you know, type of discourse, which Miljenko Jergović which is oftenly using in his, you know, work where like this narrator is kind of aware of all the historical events, not taking this particular emotional stance but he’s just kind of playing with, I will say, kind of the irony of the history per se. For example, he’s doing that in his novel, which is translated also in English and published in [the] States, Walnut Mansion (Dvori od oraha).
PETER KORCHNAK: This re-opening of the cultural space in what had been Yugoslavia unfolded on the backdrop of the death of two major representatives and symbols of late 1980s and 1990s ethnonationalism. In 1999, on my birthday in fact, the president of Croatia, Franjo Tudjman, died. And on October 5th, 2000 in Serbia, Slobodan Milošević was deposed in the so-called Bulldozer Revolution and in 2001 shipped off to the Hague to stand trial for crimes against humanity and war crimes.
LJUBICA SPASKOVSKA: After 1999, after the region, kind of more or less got back to peaceful movement and easier movement across borders a lot of these bands came touring. It felt like, you know, there was an interruption, and then suddenly, you know, this scene again, kind of was being revived.
[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Interplanetaren Megadrajv” by Detective Spook]
PETER KORCHNAK: The naughts were the decade when post-Yugoslav culture makers began to look back at the accomplishments of the antebellum period. In 2003, the documentary Sretno djete (Happy Child) borrowed its title from a Prljavo Kazalište song. Essentially an autobiography of the writer and director Igor Mirković, the film features interviews and period footage with many of New Wave’s protagonists. Happy Child was just the most famous of several documentaries about the music from the 1980s in this period. New Wave albums saw their first round of reissues in this decade, including Paket Aranžman in 2007, and a number of analytical works on New Wave were published as well.
The 2009 documentary from Serbia, Robna Kuća (Department Store), covered in its 29 episodes a range of Yugoslav-era phenomena, from Partisan films to sports victories, Sarajevo Olympics, Bijelo Dugme and other popular performers, to New Wave, which spanned three episodes. First feature films came out with storylines taking place in the 1980s, like Karaula (The Border Post) in 2006, which was also a co-production of five of the six ex-Yugoslav republics.
MAŠA KOLANOVIĆ: Starting, for example, in the mid 2000s, there was a new generation of historians and cultural analytics, who just move on their perspective for this totalitarian history, you know, big events and, you know, big actors of the history, more to everyday life, popular culture, where actually, this sense of, you know, memory of socialism became historically, research[ed]. And lots of I will say, good and relevant studies were produced in that period and are being produced right now with this new generation of intellectuals and academics and even students who didn’t live in socialism who were born way in the years after the dissolution of Yugoslavia, but their memories also kind of, you know, burden, I don’t know, maybe by the experience of the parents, and so.
We are kind of bouncing between these two extremes about you know, speaking about socialism, which is part of this radicalization of you know, public sphere especially, I mean, everywhere in former Yugoslavia and especially in Croatia. And I just think we have to, you know, go beyond this you know, extremes and see how was life for example lived in those years.
PETER KORCHNAK: The fourth phase of remembering socialism and Yugoslavia, particularly of the 1980s, has unfolded since the Great Recession.
MAŠA KOLANOVIĆ: We are seeing the return of political discourse about socialism, and that some, you know, important, I will say, values of socialism, the ones that I mentioned before, were being just politically put out on the table in this time of capitalist precarity and this feeling of unsecureness [sic] in every way.
PETER KORCHNAK: This is the period where the nostalgic discourse acquires emancipatory overtones.
MITJA VELIKONJA: What is extremely important for me is this political nostalgia, emancipatory nostalgia which is active, which is engaged, which criticizes the present from the perspective of [a] better past.
Nostalgia can be also [a] strong political force, for the criticism of what is going on today in Eastern Europe, and especially in ex-Yugoslavia, so against ethnonationalism and against neoliberalism.
PETER KORCHNAK: Looking back at the times when music and film and culture was good and diverse nations lived side by side in peace and when people were more secure and safer and could travel more freely, sows, according to Velikonja “the seeds of social dissension” against “today’s ruling ideological constructions and political practices.”
In the political arena, things are changing in places. In Bosnia and Herzegovina this year, a non-majority party, lefty candidate won election as mayor of Sarajevo. In Croatia, in 2020, a left-of-center president was elected as well as the first-ever anti-capitalist member of parliament, and in the local elections last month, a green-left coalition candidate became mayor of Zagreb and in Split a center party candidate won.
MAŠA KOLANOVIĆ: New fresh players are in the arena, and I see you know, all those big narratives and promises are also shown as like non valid like also just one type of fiction you know, what capitalism actually brought people just kind of experienced by their self, you know, but losing jobs, you know, you know, shaky healthcare system. We also had these, you know, earthquakes in Croatia last year where where you know, the buildings are still not being you know, repaired. And so people are kind of, you know, re-articulating, I think, rethinking.
PETER KORCHNAK: So denial and revisionism of socialism. Nostalgia, later commercialized, for socialism. The study of everyday life in late socialism. And emancipatory, if not revolutionary potential of socialism as a political alternative, or socialism as a possible future.
Importantly, while these phases of remembering socialism and Yugoslavia developed one after another, they have overlapped, over time and over segments of society. Revisionism is still very much a problem, particularly on the right; entrepreneurs exploit nostalgia, specifically Yugonostalgia, for profit; and so on.
MAŠA KOLANOVIĆ: In the cultural production, it would be, for example, unimaginable 20 years ago to have some type of, you know, exhibition about socialism, but in last 10 years, we really had, you know, you know, socialist culture became kind of, you know, integrated into, you know, cultural heritage. And so, of course, we can speak, how it is being presented, what is omitted, what is put out there, but still. And then we have this more more perspectives and more books about you know, certain topics, and I think more and more, you know, the research of socialism is being like pretty much I would say developed now in former Yugoslavia.
From [the] Croatian perspective public speech about socialism is also very heterogeneous. You have, for example, you know, this exhibition in the Museum of Contemporary, you know, Art, there was a, like, big exhibition, I don’t know, now, it’s maybe like eight or nine years ago, about socialist modernism.
We had like quite a few evocation[s] of socialism and like 80s in contemporary post-Yugoslav culture.
[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Interplanetaren Megadrajv” by Detective Spook]
PETER KORCHNAK: The Croatian TV show Crno-Bijeli Svijet (Black and White World), whose four seasons aired from 2015 to this year, was the first such television product about the 1980s in Croatia. It, too, borrowed its title from a Prljavo Kazalište song, perhaps unsurprisingly since Mirković created and wrote the show. It’s well done, by the way.
The 2015 exhibition “The Eighties: Sweet Decadence of the Postmodern” dedicated prominent space to performance, photography, design, fashion, theater, literature, and other art forms in Croatia from “the golden era.” In 2017, the company Brandnewretro opened Zagreb 80s Museum in the city’s historic center, which recreates an apartment filled with period items. The Facebook group Osamdesete u Zagrebu (The Eighties in Zagreb), which was created in 2014 “for all children who were born and survived the seventies and eighties in Zagreb,” has nearly 40,000 likes. The Zagreb-based label Fox & His Friends has been releasing music rarities from the ’80s, such as on the compilation Socialist Disco: Dancing Behind Yugoslavia’s Velvet Curtain 1977-1987, since 2017. I could go on.
Elsewhere around former Yugoslavia, an upcoming book edited by Latinka Perović and Sonja Biserko will look back at various aspects of the 1980s. It is in his chapter on pop culture that Mitja Velikonja calls what we’re talking about “the cultural virus of the ’80s.”
In Serbia the exhibition Three Decades of New Wave toured the major cities in 2010. The 2017 documentary 250 Stepenika (250 Steps) looked at the world championship of the Yugoslav junior basketball team thirty years prior (we’re talking guys like Vlade Divac and Toni Kukoč). By the way, that same year Yugoslavia’s junior teams were world champions in football and handball as well. The Kragujevac-based band Vesele 80 (Merry 80) covers music from the decade.
In Sarajevo, the exhibition Yugoslavia 1989 looked at that year thirty years before from a variety of areas and angles. Despite the sad state of the 1984 Olympics facilities, the Olympics and their era are remembered in Sarajevo fondly, be it in museums or the market, where the mascot Vučko lives on. In Ljubljana, the 2016-2017 trilogy of exhibitions at the Museum of Modern art titled “The Eighties Through the Prism of Events, Exhibitions, and Discourses” focused on the decade and its legacy. The Sarajevo ‘84 restaurant is a nostalgic space of ćevapi, Cockta, and chochkes. Again, I could go on.
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MAŠA KOLANOVIĆ: All this type of various narratives, I think they’re all welcome because they are, you know, just putting focus on certain type of layer, popular cultural layer of socialism.
It’s cool in a way to kind of make this connection, especially with new generation who are, even though they were not born, not experienced the period, they’re like listening to that music, because it’s just good music, and some really, I will say, good cultural products from that period.
It’s part of this, I will say, larger craze about all this, you know, 80s new wave, you know. The protagonists, which were kind of, you know, young individuals and you know, nonconformist, in that period later became I will say, you know, the leader actors of the media scene, and now they, since they are now kind of infiltrated in the media, they had, they had, I will say, this privilege to speak about their youth and their pop pop culture, and they’re, you know, kind of mythologize this period.
Partly, there’s something a little bit kind of irritating in this, I would say, generational mythologization of everything. There’s like disbalance when speaking about socialism, where eighties are dominating the speech, you know, in our days, because, you know, one generation is particularly, you know, monopolizing, you know, their speech about, you know, their youth and their culture and their popular culture, you know, but maybe just because the protagonists of, you know, the previous, you know, years are not so— they’re now holding all the resources. The time passed by.
PETER KORCHNAK: Spaskovska too found that the last Yugoslav generation in large part continued the career trajectories they were on in the 1980s. Journalists tended to remain in that world except now they are at the helm of publications. Musicians kept making music—and selling out reunion tours. The youth organization functionaries stuck with politics, reaching in some cases the highest levels, like a former president of North Macedonia or the current prime minister of Slovenia. So the people who created, documented, and evolved the culture of the time in the 1980s continue to do so, except now from the positions of authority, money, and power.
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And, as Kolanović, Pogačar, and Spaskovska themselves show, the lost generation has been turning to the 80s as a way to explore the parts of their own biographies they didn’t understand at the time because they were too young.
The Yugoslav 80s: More or Less Forever
Put another way, if the last Yugoslav generation are today’s culture makers, the lost generation are the culture explainers. And perhaps even re-creators, as in the case of Bojan Bojko, the cofounder in 2016, of the Zagreb-based music label Više Manje Zauvijek (More or Less Forever), which he runs, as he puts it, out of “love and enthusiasm.”
BOJAN BOJKO: The philosophy behind our selection of artists, we actually have three criterias that they need to fulfill. First, we need to like the music. Second, they need to sing in their native tongues. And third, the band or the artist needs to be called or named in their native tongue. And apart from that, we are open to any any genre or any any style of music.
PETER KORCHNAK: And yet, the music Bojko and the other co-founder, Marko Vuković, like, with their 15 or so artists the label represents, sounds very much like the 80s synth pop.
BOJAN BOJKO: We didn’t do it on purpose, that’s for sure. We just like those bands and thought that we could work with them. It just happened that all of the bands, or most of the bands, had this similar sound that that one could hear.
I was born in ‘81. So I was, let’s say, a child in the 80s and I didn’t pay much attention to the arts because I was having fun, you know, now playing outside with friends and so on. But then later in the 90s, I started to discover everything that happened the decade before. I love a lot of pop music from the 80s, which was, I think, very, very good, and the production and everything was booming.
I mean, from every decade you can have something specific and feel good about it and love that. As I already said it was not intentionally that I picked the 80s as a sort of starting ground for my musical, whatever, art taste, but it just happened that maybe that period of time was with me when I grew up in the 90s, you know.
PETER KORCHNAK: In fact, the two started the label in order to put out Vuković’s band’s debut album. Since then, Svemirko has become well known and popular across former Yugoslavia and symptomatic of the revival of synth wave there.
BOJAN BOJKO: If you look at the music, yes, there are bands that sort of recreate the sound and the feel, and also the visual aesthetics of the 80s. Yugoslavia is not that big of territory, maybe 20 or 22 million people, which is not that much. The music scene is not that big. The bands that do those kind of 80s aesthetics, in their music and everything else, you know, those are maybe five or maybe 10 bands. That’s not that much.
I would certainly say Svemirko, who was first on those [sic] new wave of 80s revival, let’s call it like that. I don’t consider that an 80s revival band, I consider it as contemporary alternative pop music which happens to have connections with 80s style in music specifically.
Other labels, I don’t see, I don’t see any other label, like us, maybe Balkan Veliki from a North Macedonia. But basically, that’s it.
Yugo Project: Bratstvo i Jedinstvo in the Diaspora
[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Čuvam noć od budnih” by Yugo Project (Leb i Sol cover)]
PETER KORCHNAK: I found another generational example of keeping the dream of the 80s alive in the Yugoslav diaspora. Yugo Project is a band in Cleveland, Ohio that covers yugo rock songs.
DEJAN ŠARAC: My name is Dejan Šarac, and I’m still trying to figure it out who I am. I’m a lead singer in this band.
PETER KORCHNAK: Hailing from Knjaževac, Serbia, Šarac immigrated to the US in 2010 and works as a maintenance director in a healthcare facility.
ROBERT BARTULOVIĆ: Robert Bartulović, I’m on keys on the band. I’m actually born in France, but grew up in Bosnia, a little bit Croatia. I just kinda ran away from problems, like war.
PETER KORCHNAK: Bartulović came to the US in 1998 via Germany and works as a self-proclaimed “baby-blue collar guy” in a machine shop office.
IVAN MATIĆ: This is Ivo. Actually, it’s really Ivan Matić, but everybody calls me Ivo. I’m the drummer of the band. I am the elder statesman of the group. I was born 1967. But I was born in America. My parents emigrated to the United States in 1966—
PETER KORCHNAK: —from Serbia’s Šumadija region, near Kragujevac.
IVAN MATIĆ: I have my own small business, I’m [an] industrial mechanic, I repair heavy equipment. If it’s got nuts and bolts, I fix it, or at least try to.
PETER KORCHNAK: The youngest member of Yugo Project, lead guitarist Vladimir Bokun, was born in 1993 in Bečej, Vojvodina.
VLADIMIR BOKUN: I guess I was born during the time that our country was falling apart. So I never got to see the ugly side but obviously heard all the stories and also heard stories about how good life was before all that stuff happened.
PETER KORCHNAK: After living in Cleveland for 8 years, Bokun is now in London working towards his PhD in cytomegaloviruses.
The band’s marketing guy and manager Vanja Dimitrijević was born in 1976 in Zagreb.
VANJA DIMITRIJEVIĆ: I do remember Yugoslavia fondly as a country.
PETER KORCHNAK: Dimitrijević came to the US in 1997.
VANJA DIMITRIJEVIĆ: My great-grandfather was in prison during the Second World War. And then after the prisons got liberated, he came here to Cleveland.
A fun fact: I was here in 1979, with my family, and my great-grandfather wanted to actually kind of give my parents everything that they wanted, just to stay here. And at that point in time, my parents firmly said, “Well, screw America, Yugoslavia is the place to be.” And, you know, history. Twenty years after that, we came back to the beginning point. But at ‘79 nobody kind of knew what was gonna happen, and everybody kind of lived and liked Yugoslavia a lot.
PETER KORCHNAK: Yugo Project formed in 2018, growing organically out of a few friends jamming in a basement and others circulating in and out of bands.
IVAN MATIĆ: Everybody came in from different areas. And we all had this common interest to play.
PETER KORCHNAK: As to the band’s name…
VANJA DIMITRIJEVIĆ: When we were looking for a new name of the band, Yugo Project project kind of came up as a mixture of you know, Yugo car, which we dearly love and reminds us of our country, but is kind of a running joke. It goes like, Yugo always needs fixing, or you know, it’s always some kind of a project going on. So with the band, as we were trying to kind of meld everything together, it was like always a project to you know, keep up with everything, keep going on, and keep everything together. We were just kind of like now talking, hanging out after rehearsal, they were saying yes, like, “Oh, Yugo Project, that sounds about right.”
PETER KORCHNAK: The music that brought the guys of Yugo Project together was yugo rock, basically hard and pop rock from former Yugoslavia.
VLADIMIR BOKUN: Those are the songs that everyone recognizes. So usually, we’ll kind of when we started playing, we, you know, put, like an initial list of I don’t know, like, maybe 20 of those songs. And we started with that. But it was always easy to add those types of songs that everyone knew and everyone recognized and that we knew people wanted to hear live, because obviously, if you live in America, you don’t get a chance to listen to a live rock band playing these songs. It’s only in Yugoslavia that you still experience that. The choice was easy. We’re supposed to put all these songs together that everyone was used to hearing in their youth and start with that, and obviously, the result was good, people were enjoying that.
PETER KORCHNAK: Yugo Project’s first song was “Tišina” (Silence) by Bajaga i Instruktori (Bajaga and the Instructors), an uber-popular Yugoslav slash Serbian band formed in 1984.
[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Tišina” by Yugo Project (Bajaga cover)]
VANJA DIMITRIJEVIĆ: In my humble opinion, I think that there’s actually a part in the middle that Ivo and Vlado and bass player are going solo and I think you know, Bajaga would, pardon my French, probably pee his pants if he saw that, I mean it’s electrifying.
PETER KORCHNAK: The song came out in 1988. The bulk of Yugo Project’s 15-strong set list comprises songs from the 1980s, by bands from nearly every former republic, including Piloti and Galija from Serbia, Prljavo Kazalište and Parni Valjak from Croatia, Leb i Sol from Macedonia… There are also Riblja Čorba tunes from 1979 and 1993 respectively.
However, an important thing to note here is that, as in the case of the Više Manje Zauvijek label, rather than a deliberate choice in terms of playing music from a certain era, it’s all about the music the guys and their audiences love. It just so happens that the 1980s were a motherlode for all kinds of music, including yugo rock.
VANJA DIMITRIJEVIĆ: A lot of music that persists here in diaspora is folk music, and there’s people that really want to hear rock and roll. We actually have people from all former Yugoslavia coming, from everywhere, all corners of it.
IVAN MATIĆ: What’s funny is the age difference in the crowds. We have people in the audience there of older generations who watched these bands when they were former Yugoslavia play live and then you have their kids that listen to the songs that are 30 years old, and they’re digging it, and it’s like they know it through their parents, growing up with it, so…
VANJA DIMITRIJEVIĆ: The music the band plays transcends ages, eras, it’s fun for everybody. What new country—now that Yugoslavia doesn’t exist anymore—what new country you come from, people don’t care. They just come together with the music. There’s really no hatred or animosity or anything like that.
DEJAN ŠARAC: When we play, I mean, doesn’t matter who comes from where, like Croatia, Bosnia, and Serbia, we all get together and music definitely keep[s] us together and it’s just fun.
PETER KORCHNAK: In his 1995 essay, “Twilight of the Idols: Recollections of a Lost Yugoslavia,” Aleš Debeljak writes about his devotion to yugo rock. “I sought an authentic way of being that would bring me close to people who could understand joy and sadness without a lot of unnecessary words. (…) [It] afforded me the rare chance to live in a multicultural society long before that term was co-opted as the official protective coloring of the politically correct.” End quote. Though the childhood in a common state is lost forever, Debeljak and millions of other ex-Yugoslavs continue to listen to Yugoslav rock because that music is, quote, “a magic formula that secures our passage to that refuge among the eternally young landscapes of the spirit in which we will always be at home.”
IVAN MATIĆ: We’ve had people that have nothing to do with former Yugoslavia at all come up to us saying, “I don’t know what you guys are saying, I don’t know what you guys are playing but it kicks, you know, the proverbial ass. And the crowds just, you know, the crowds are fantastic.
VANJA DIMITRIJEVIĆ: Everybody is into it, everybody’s dancing, everybody’s having fun. And you know, everybody can recognize rock and roll, the riffs and the beats and stuff like that. So you don’t have to understand the words, really.
PETER KORCHNAK: Do you ever see the flag of former Yugoslavia at your gigs?
ROBERT BARTULOVIĆ: Hell yeah.
VANJA DIMITRIJEVIĆ: So yeah, that’s Robert saying, “Hell yeah,” and this is Vanja, yeah. So yeah, last at our last gig there was a kid that showed up actually, that drives a Yugo to this very age, so actually, yeah in Cleveland, believe it or not. He has a legit Yugo 65.
The kid drives it everywhere. Our last gig here in Cleveland that same kid brought you know Yugoslavia flag and we hung it up. Actually, the funny story is that the owner is actually Croatian so then we hung up Yugoslavian flag next to Croatian flag. Nobody minded it. Everybody was having fun. It’s all good. I mean, it’s like all, you know, music unites everything I think. Yeah, there’s sometimes naysayers and stuff, but everybody that comes there, we don’t ask who you are, you know, where you’re coming from. We don’t ask, everybody’s enjoying themselves.
We came from all over the place, and they are hungry for something that all connects us, and which is the music in this point.
PETER KORCHNAK: Yugo Project continues to be a cover band but they recently ventured into new territory: original songs, though still in the same yugo rock vein. I played one of them, “Vreme je,” (It Is Time) in Episode 26, “Diaspora Voices Part II,” where it fit the theme of leaving. The song was in fact inspired by Bokun’s departure for London just as the pandemic was hitting. Thus far, “Vreme Je” is the band’s one and only released original track but they have a few more ready to go.
[SOUNDBITE – “Vreme je” by Yugo Project]
PETER KORCHNAK: Though the pandemic and Bokun’s relocation put a damper on Yugo Project’s activities, the guys are sticking together, like brothers, they say. Most importantly, their work and, let’s say, attitude also point to another reason for the 80s to remain relevant.
VLADIMIR BOKUN: We never emphasize enough that despite the diversity among us and our audience, we always try to promote putting those nationalistic differences aside and going back to the times where didn’t really matter as much where you were from. And it’s always an important topic, because actually today I was watching a show from back home where they were talking about how this issue is just as present now as it was during the war of like, Croatians hating Serbs and Serbs hating Croatians and so on so forth. But we never had a problem with that except for those few exceptions. That’s also an important like encapsulating feature of our band, like the uniting factor, I should say.
VANJA DIMITRIJEVIĆ: I think there’s a word for that, Vlado, it’s called bratstvo-jedinstvo, brotherhood and unity, that’s what Yugoslavia was founded on. And I think that’s what we try to kind of keep up. I mean, maybe it’s unknowingly but that’s what the end product is in the end.
MITJA VELIKONJA: This was the true essence of Yugoslavia: not a political system, not economy, everything was going down but, you know, this cultural civil society element.
PETER KORCHNAK: Mitja Velikonja, the Yugonostalgia expert, again.
MITJA VELIKONJA: And this in a way survived. Yugoslavia survived, in terms of culture, in terms of friendships, in terms of different ties, not only old ties, but also new ties beyond the political frame as such. Today, even nostalgics don’t dream anymore, political nostalgics don’t dream anymore about the resurrection of Yugoslavia, third Yugoslavia or whatever. But they are dreaming about the reconstruction of today’s society along the lines that functioned back in Yugoslav times. And this multicultural element, you know, and especially popular culture, alternative culture was one of them.
PETER KORCHNAK: Kolanović, too, underscores the generational turnover isn’t the main driving force behind the continued revival of the 1980s. It’s the bigger cultural space, shared and enjoyed with people who speak nearly identical or very similar languages, until it was no more that the 80s continue to offer.
MAŠA KOLANOVIĆ: It was also like the last coherent popular cultural, I will say, you know, event. After that you know, all these scenes disintegrated into you know, particular scenes. There was also like a cultural gap, you know, especially in communication with Serbia you know, you know, in the 90s. Just later like you know, literary festivals and exchanges and the concerts and so we’re kind of you know, kind of make a new connection with the scene. But that was kind of the last common popular cultural event, that is also why bring so much nostalgia as well.
We all speak more or less the same language, we understand each other very well. And I think the language is kind of, you know, base to open the dialogue and to connect better, you know, and also the music and films and TV shows…
PETER KORCHNAK: So the gaze locked upon the era when all these now-independent nations were all together in a common space expresses and increasingly manifests the desire to replicate those connections. I won’t say it’s a natural phenomenon but it certainly reminds me of nature’s tendency to favor diversity.
At any rate, in 2009 Tim Judah coined the term Yugosphere to describe this phenomenon of people across former Yugoslavia reconnecting along cultural and social lines. Says Mitja Velikonja, “These creators should be credited for the fact that the post-Yugoslav cultural space has outlived its former Yugoslav political space.”
And that speaks less about the 1980s and more about the current times in these so-called independent countries. Socialism (the good parts anyway) and Yugoslavia (the brotherhood and unity part anyway) versus neoliberalism, even illiberalism, and ethnonationalism; looking to the future versus the glorious past.
As Mitja Velikonja writes: “The cultural and artistic reflections of the Yugoslav 1980s offer a politically relevant radical otherness to the (dis)functioning post-Yugoslav state today; they say that if there was an alternative inside and outside the state framework then, there is or there could be one now.” End quote.
So what Martin Pogačar in the 1990s experienced as subversive continues to be so. The continued popularity of Yugoslav music today may not be just an expression of nostalgia but also a resistance strategy, a reaction to the imperfections of the current reality. Pogačar has argued that, “Yugoslav rock—and primarily Yugoslav New Wave—has lost little cultural value and subversive charge, and (…) it has retained much of its potency and appeal. If during the 1980s Yugoslav rock was the prime outlet for system critique, during the 1990s it became the prime outlet for post-socialist new-state system critique. Today New Wave presents an outlet for the recomposition of musical preferences, as well as a vehicle of ‘nostalgia as opposition’ to the post-1991 socio-political orientations of post-Yugoslav societies.”
Of course, the 80s revival, or if you will, nostalgia for the 80s, is a global phenomenon.
MITJA VELIKONJA: Simon Reynolds, a fantastic scholar and musical critic and art theoretic [sic], wrote a fantastic book in the early 2010s, and it’s entitled Retromania. So he says, from the 90s on, you know, we are facing this re-decades: everything is going back, from, you know, popular culture, Hollywood films to the fashion to alternative at the end. So this is a global phenomenon, this turn to previous decades, not that far away, not to, I don’t know, 20s or 30s but, you know, nostalgia or retro always refer to the recent past, you know, it’s not about, I don’t know, Victorian times or things like that.
PETER KORCHNAK: Re-issues. Re-mastering. Reunions. Rehabilitations and revitalizations. Velikonja again: “The eighties are suddenly the closest cultural, aesthetic and artistic inspiration, worthy of new use in completely changed circumstances after the end of history.” End quote.
Or it could simply be, as Chuck Klosterman says, that what we think of as nostalgia for the 80s is merely a function of constant repetition so that the only reason we think of something as good is that we’ve heard it so many times we conclude it must be good. Anyway—
LJUBICA SPASKOVSKA: And I can see it here in Britain as well and in the West. It has to do perhaps something also with the whole entire malaise, or how do we say, of post capitalism. This is not a scientific— I haven’t done any research on this. But there is something about that culture. And also, it’s very much as you say, how media [are] responding to this. So for instance, the BBC has all these shows about here, the 80s or even early 90s, you know, what was the most popular movies, the most sold albums in so and so year, etcetera. So, I think it’s very human to look back, right, and to reflect. So for an older generation, I think that’s completely natural and expected.
What puzzles me more is why a younger generation, also in the Balkans, in the former Yugoslavia, so people who have absolutely no connection whatsoever with the former Yugoslavia who were born in the 1990s, why they show an interest and even you know, display signs of Yugonostalgia. Again, it goes to this— goes back to the definition of nostalgia as not a statement about the past, but very much a state about the present. So, I believe, you know, the Yugoslav heritage and also that culture and that retro turn is used as a way to critique what’s in the present.
PETER KORCHNAK: Alongside the re-issue of the re-mastered 40th anniversary edition of Paket Aranžman, which by the way sold out in record time, the successor to the major Yugoslav label Jugoton re-issued 40th anniversary editions of the debut albums of Paket Aranžman bands, Električni Orgazam and Šarlo Akrobata, as well as the debut album of the legendary Zagreb band Haustor. Accompanying these re-releases was the documentary New Wave 40 Years Later. Elsewhere, the exhibition New Wave in Belgrade: Paket Aranžman (1981-2021) at the Kalemegdan fortress presented period photographs of the scene. And again, articles upon articles marked the anniversary and the re-issue as well.
So, there’s the 1980s. There’s the revival of or nostalgia for the 1980s. For Kolanović and others the whole phenomenon doesn’t come without issues.
MAŠA KOLANOVIĆ: When you are just, you know, mythologizing then you’re kind of omitting you know, some other aspects of the period, but that’s why you know, you have to just check out other resources.
Mythologizing is just one particular side of the story of the period. Just saying everything was cool, and we were had the great music is kind of, you know, putting some other problems and some other experiences under the carpet. If I will teach my students about the 80s and just, you know, teaching them about New Wave, you know, it will be very small niche, you know, to perceive the whole, the whole period, even though it will be is good and valuable.
There is something which is just reducing and reducive [sic] in this you know fetishization these products, cultural products, you know, from this era.
What I maybe miss in all this narrative is more politically profound questions, which are now burdening citizens of you know, especially workers in today’s time, and I think the works from socialism, such as Black Wave cinema, was, I will say, exposing those questions, I will say more profoundly.
PETER KORCHNAK: In commenting on the latest re-issue of Paket Aranžman, Karlo Rafaneli underscores the mythological or even prophetic qualities of the Yugoslav New Wave that Kolanović alluded to. But, placing apocalypse culture of the Yugoslav 80s on “an untouchable nostalgic pedestal” and highlighting the uniqueness of the fruitful period, he says, diminishes the chances of the current creative generations to create something authentic and original themselves. “By turning the legacy of New Wave into a kind of scripture, we lose just the potential for change and the shock of the new that it brought.”
And, finally, Aleksandar Dragaš proposes it’s time to stop romanticizing New Wave because, well, they had it easy, supported as these artists were by the state, by peace, by a larger market. We should instead be focusing on supporting the pop culture of today.
[BACKGROUND MUSIC “Barbara” by Detective Spook]
PETER KORCHNAK: In declining my invitation to come on the show, the creator of Happy Child and Black and White World, Igor Mirković, wrote he was fed up with the 80s and talking about the 80s.
When I compare the production of the 1980s, specifically music, in Yugoslavia with that in my native Czechoslovakia, I see how culturally deprived we were. It’s not only the fact that 50 percent of the albums listed in the Rolling Stone magazine’s ranking of greatest albums from ex-Yugoslavia 1955-2015 are from the 1980s. It’s the new and varied genres and styles and movements. It’s the freedom to say pretty much whatever in the lyrics (I mean, censors in Slovakia had the title and lyrics of a popular song changed from “black flower” to “white flower” because black was too dark and depressive).
It had been a long time since I made new musical discoveries so I enjoy listening to the 80s music from Yugoslavia. I also use the songs as language lessons. But after working on this episode for so much longer than I had planned, well, I’m going to play me some Dubioza Kolektiv, Repetitor, or The Beat Fleet, and live in the now.
PETER KORCHNAK: That’s all for this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, thank you for listening. Find additional information, song embeds, links, and the transcript of this episode at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Podcast.
Outro music courtesy of Robert Petrić. Additional music by Detective Spook and Yugo Project. Songs by Bastion, PMG Kolektiv, and Svemirko played with permission and eternal gratitude. Buy their music!
Special thanks to Billie Addleman, Ema Pavlović, Martin Petkovski, and Maja Pupovac as well as Flora Pitrolo and A Colder Consciousness Records, Mirko Popov and PMG Recordings, and Bojan Bojko and Više Manje Zauvijek.
I am Peter Korchňak.
- Bousfield, Jonathan. “40 Years After the New Wave: The Story of the Music that Changed Yugoslavia.” Calvert Journal 2/1/2021
- Glavonjić, Zoran. “Kultni muzički album ‘Paket aranžman’ 40 godina posle.” Radio Slobodna Evropa, 3/6/2021
- “Izložba “Postanak – Riječki novi val” u Galeriji SKC.” Rijeka2020.eu, 5/3/2021
- Jakovljević, Branislav. Alienation Effects: Performance and Self-Management in Yugoslavia. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2016
- “Novi novi val.” SEE Cult 1/31/13
- Ramet, Pedro, ed. Yugoslavia in the 1980s. New York: Routledge, 1985
- Žižmond, Egon. “The Collapse of the Yugoslav Economy.” Soviet Studies Vol. 44, No. 1 (1992), pp. 101-112