Censorship in the Age of Punk: Yugoslavia 1970-1989

Punk music has always promoted a resistant, anti-establishment message. This can be seen in the British punk scene, with bands such as the Sex Pistols and the Clash, as well as those in the United States. The punk scene in Yugoslavia was no different when it formed in the early 1970’s. These pioneering bands wrote songs whose lyrics contained controversial messages that often criticized or otherwise negatively depicted the Yugoslav state. As is the case with most socialist nations, these critical messages were not looked upon favorably by the Yugoslav government. For this reason, censorship played an important role in the punk scene in the 1970’s and 1980’s. By examining the lyrics, performances, and visual media of bands in this region, we can uncover the ways in which the Yugoslav government censored bands during the reign of Tito, as well as the liberalization that followed his death. We can also see the ways in which the state sponsored censorship during Tito’s rule was perpetuated after his death in 1980.

The government found innovative ways to indirectly censor artist in various ways. To begin with, three topics were taboo for any group in Yugoslavia: questioning the Communist Party, speaking against Tito, and speaking of nationalist separatism; any mention of the aforementioned, were guaranteed to be censored. Secondly, the only two recording studios in Yugoslavia were owned by the State, and without a record deal it was pretty much impossible to get signed (Lydiya). Any band’s recording was conditional to the kitsch committee’s ruling on their material. The kitsch law was introduced in 1972, named, Law about Changes and Amendments to Republic Tax on Small Goods and Services. The kitsch committee would evaluate art, such as literature, films, music, magazines, videos, etc. and determine their artistic value. A 31.5% tax was placed on art considered to be at odds with socialist values (Čvoro, 45). Many artists resorted to self-censorship and ironic lyrics in order to get airtime. Panktri’s album Državni ljubimci (The State’s Darlings), used an ironic title aimed at criticizing the dependency between artists and the State. Another punk band from Rijeka, Paraf, had to changed their first album title, A dan je tako lijepo počeo (And the Day Started Out So Nicely), several times before releasing the album and they also used ironic lyrics as a tactic against censorship. Their song “Narodna pjesma” (National Song) to an unturned ear sounded like an anthem to the police force (Prtorić). The lyrics, “There’s no better police than our police,” were equivocal and ironically referenced police repression towards the youth subcultures (Crowley). As part of the state apparatus, the role of the police was clear in censorship; they were tasked with interrupting and stopping punk and New Wave concerts (Prtorić). Another example of censorship was the kitsch committee’s role in published media. Before Borghesia formed as a punk band, they were associated with and ran three issues on Punk in a Slovene literary journal Problemi (Crowley). When the second issue was presented to the committee for evaluation, the committee set to censor their queer aesthetic, language and images. The editors of the magazine decided to publish the issue with the censored material with black blocks as a public demonstration of State censorship. 

The media also played a critical role in censorship and smearing the youth movements. An example of such targeting is the “Nazi punk affair,” in which a newspaper accused three Ljubljana punks of being members of the Nazi party. The three punks wore pins that said, “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” with swastikas crossed out, and for this reason were accused of attempting to create the IV. Reich (Lydiya). It is clear that these people had no affiliation with Nazism. In fact, they were wearing these pins to openly reject Nazi ideas, and to keep such hateful ideologies out of the punk culture. The newspaper, which was directly regulated by the government, jumped at the opportunity to defame the punk community. The accused individuals were temporarily jailed for their “treasonous propaganda,” but were eventually released. Although the three punks were not permanently imprisoned for their actions, the message that was sent to the punk community from the Yugoslav government was grim and deliberate. The youth movements were no longer perceived by the State as passive counterculture but as a threat.

 

One of the bands that experienced  censorship is the Slovenian band Laibach. Laibach emerged in the early 1980s, following the death of Tito. Tito’s death caused Yugoslavia to move further into liberalization, but Laibach pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable by the system to the extreme. Laibach produced a very avant-garde style of music that referenced totalitarian themes in a way that highlighted the totalitarian elements of the Yugoslav system itself. The band faced one of the largest government backlashes due to their avant-garde style and what was perceived as anti-Yugoslav messages. This caused Laibach to be one of the most iconic cases of state censorship in post-Tito Yugoslavia.  In 1983, the government banned all public appearances of Laibach, and even went as far as banning the name Laibach, a German word for Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. Laibach also helped to create the Neue Slowenische Kunst art collective, which drew upon totalitarian aesthetic as a strategy of “overidentification.” Many of the symbols used by the band indirectly reference the swastika, which has led many critics to characterize the group as neo-nazis. Furthermore, they enjoy parodying Nazi propaganda in many of their videos, attracting  backlash and criticism to this day. One of their more famous songs is  “Life is Life” from their 1987 album, Opus Dei. In this song they portray an exaggerated version of a military anthem by playing dramatic anthem-esque background music. Many of the members wear military uniforms and make some standard military stances and poses. The somewhat absurdist and tautological lyrics add to the exaggerated, dramatic, and parodic style that Laibach fully embraces.

 

Laibach_photo

Members of Laibach posing in front of their logo. 

Problemi, Revolucija je kurva

A set of photographs by Miki Stojković, featuring a man and a woman enaged in erotic play with a five-pointed star, a symbol of Titoism, published in the 1982 issue of Problemi. The title reads "Revolution is a whore."

Yugoslav punk was born out of feelings of alienation and boredom within the socialist youth, especially given the State’s mission to integrate young people into its ideology. Punk was a direct and aggressive action to end that boredom. Tito and his government took an active role in deterring punk youth especially towards the end of the 1970’s when punk was no longer seen as a counterculture movement but as a threat to Yugoslav ideology. Tito’s nation-building program focused on building a strong, collective whole, and neglected the liberty and expression of the individual. The punk movement was a backlash against this omission. Punk ideals promote self-empowerment and free thought, two concepts which were not the focus of nation building in Tito’s Yugoslavia. This relationship between the State and punk youth resulted in a resistance battle of youth pushing for their ideals in a Yugoslav reality that opposed them. For this reason, it is not surprising that Tito and his government took an active role in suppressing this movement.  As we have seen, this attempt to suppress the punk movement had a paradoxical effect, and the punk movement grew both in size and spirit. Following the death of Tito, punk bands in Yugoslavia no longer had to deal with state enforced censorship. Censorship still existed in the form of self-censorship and kitsch taxes, but punk bands were generally free to record and perform music with any message they wanted to promote. For this reason, many creative and critical bands such as Laibach and Idoli emerged, which shed light on the Yugoslav society from different and often contradictory perspectives.

 

Paraf, "National Song" from their 1980 album, And the Day Started Out So Nicely. 

 

 

Laibach's "Life is Life" from their 1987 album Opus Dei. "Life is Life" is a cover of "Live is Life," a 1984 hit song by the Austrian pop rock band, Opus. It is a good example of appropriation art practiced by Laibach and Neu Slowenische Kunst, the art collective associated with the band. 

Works Cited

Archer, Rory, “Assessing Turbofolk Controversies: Popular Music between the Nation and the Balkans,” Southeastern Europe 36 (2012) 178–207

"Biography." Laibach, n.d. http://www.laibach.org/bio/ Web. 03 May 2017.

Crowley, David. “THE FUTURE IS BETWEEN YOUR LEGS: SEX, ART AND CENSORSHIP IN THE SOCIALIST FEDERAL REPUBLIC OF YUGOSLAVIA."https://faktografia.com/2015/09/06/the-future-is-between-your-legs-sex-art-and-censorship-in-the-socialist-federal-republic-of-yugoslavia/03 May 2017.

Čvoro, Uroš. Turbo-folk Music and Cultural Representations of National Identity in Former Yugoslavia. New York: Ashgate, 2014. Web.

Gordy, Eric, “The Destruction of Musical Alternatives” in The Culture of Power in Serbia (2010), pp 103-165.

Kolstø, Pål. Media Discourse and the Yugoslav Conflicts: Representations of Self and OtherN.p.: Ashgate Publishing Group, 2009. Print.

Mikvlaž Komelj, “The Function of the Signifier “Totalitarian” in the East Art Field” in Retracing Images: Visual Culture After Yugoslavia, Brill, 2012

Lydiya, “Slovenian Punk: A Brief Introduction” http://www.maximumrocknroll.com/slovenian-punk/ October 28, 2014

Mišina, Dalibor. "“Anarchy all Over Baščaršija”: Yugoslavia's New Socialist Culture and the New Primitives Poetics of the Local." Journal of Historical Sociology, vol. 26, no. 2, 2013, pp. 169-199. 

Mišina, Dalibor. Shake Rattle and Roll: Yugoslav Rock Music and the Poetics of Social Critique. Ashgate Pub, Burlington, VT; Farnham, Surrey, 2013.

Pogačar, Martin. “Yu-Rock in the 1980s: Between Urban and Rural.” Nationalities Papers 36.5 (0): 815–832.

Prtorić, Jelena. "Anarchy in the E.U: The History of Punk in Yugoslavia." EUROPA VOX. N.p., 28 Feb. 2017. Web.

Tomc, Gregor, “We Will Rock YU” in Impossible Histories, MIT Press, 2001.

 

 

Censorship in the Age of Punk: Yugoslavia 1970-1989