Yugoslav Punk: An Introduction
Welcome to our OMEKA site for Punks and Divas in Southeastern Europe (REE 325). This site was curated by students at the University of Texas at Austin and Vladislav Beronja, the course instructor, in order to showcase our research on punk rock in socialist Yugoslavia during the 1970s and 80s. The essays and exhibits featured in the site address different aspects of the Yugoslav punk scene such as politics, youth culture, fashion, state censorship, and outside influences. In this introduction, we briefly outline the origins of Yugoslavia and we follow the history up to the emergence of punk in Yugoslavia in the 1970s and 80s. The purpose of this historical overview is to give you a brief impression of Yugoslav history and culture to better equip you to understand our more specific topics. Before delving into the material, we would like to disclose that this is not a comprehensive history of either Yugoslavia or Yugoslav punk music, since our research was limited to the sources that were available to us in English. However, we still hope that you find our website to be informative and a useful English language resource regarding the history and music of the area.
In order to better understand the Yugoslav Punk Movement of the 20th century, it is helpful to understand the environment in which it was born. For centuries, Eastern Europe had been a site of political unrest, but also of incredible cultural diversity and ethnic cohabitation. In 1912, Serbia and Montenegro had become independent, while the rest of the area was either part of the Ottoman or Austro-Hungarian Empire. The area was consumed by war until the beginning of World War I, when the empires that ruled the region for centuries, disappeared almost overnight. The Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed in 1918, and was succeeded by the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (1918-1939), which for the first time unified the region in a single state under the banner of South Slavic unity. At the start of Second World War, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was quickly dismantled and divided amongst occupying forces. The majority of the region was occupied by either Axis powers, Germany and Italy, or ruled by local, quisling regimes. As Carole Rogel writes, “each of Yugoslavia’s neighbors took a share of the country, generally claiming ethnic rights to the area they annexed.” The Second World War in Yugoslavia both highlighted and reinforced the ethnic and political divisions within the country, leaving behind a bloody and violent legacy. Josip Broz Tito, who led the anti-fascist and communist forces (the Partisans), and Draža Mihajlović, who fought for the re-establishment of the Serbian monarchy in the region, eventually surfaced as two leaders of the resistance. Ultimately, it was the Partisans, led by Tito, who emerged victorious, largely because the movement was able to recruit troops across ethnic and gender lines and refused to cooperate with the occupying forces.
After the end of World War II, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia became the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia, comprised of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Slovenia, and Serbia. Tito established Yugoslavia as a worker’s state, headed by the Communist Party (later renamed the League of Communists of Yugoslavia). Tito’s brand of communism “stressed brotherhood and unity” amongst Yugoslav nations “and found broad support among those who opposed the return to monarchy” (Rogel). Many Yugoslavs regarded Tito’s success of ousting the foreigners and occupying forces from the Balkans as a revolution. Once Tito secured his power, he ruled “with a strong hand, ever mindful of balancing the country’s political and national elements” (Rogel). All of these republics were recognized by the state and enjoyed a modicum of autonomy, which helped bolster Tito’s control.
At first, Tito was loyal to Josef Stalin of the Soviet Union, but in 1948 the two fell out. Yugoslavia’s expulsion from the USSR shaped its unique commitment to communist ideals, which is sometimes termed Titoism. Again, his party stressed “brotherhood and unity” based on the narrative of multinational and anti-fascist resistance during the Second World War. Tito went on to develop his own form of communism, which emphasized cooperation between nations through the Non-Aligned movement and valued a “socialist, but independent” Yugoslavia. The economic development pursued by Yugoslavia was a self-management system, as stated before, which made the country seem like a success story. For example, citizens in the state were allowed to travel to different republics to shop, work, and even study abroad. Yugoslavia’s citizens were also exposed to Western cultural trends and influences, like Hollywood movies, jazz, rock and punk music. This transnationalism and consumerism helped shape a different kind of communism in Yugoslavia. Although Yugoslavia was more successful than its Eastern European neighbors, there was still cultural unrest between the states of Yugoslavia due to a rise in ethnic nationalism.
While the communism popular in Yugoslavia seemed liberating due to its citizens’ ability to freely move across borders, indulge in Western goods, and even travel abroad, reformers still pushed for more liberties, and much of its success was an illusion. The economy was unstable, built upon large loans from western powers, and even though the government was comparatively more liberal, it was still admittedly a one-party system. Nationalist dissent and voices opposing Tito were still not tolerated. Reformers in the 1960s pushed “to liberalize the economic system,” “frequently argued for greater intellectual freedom”, and to “decentralize economic planning” (Rogel). These reforms did not come to fruition during Tito’s 35-year reign, however. While ruling, Tito was able to keep political, ethnic, and social differences between his republics at bay. The unified Yugoslavia he led did not fall apart immediately after his death, but “latent weaknesses […] coupled with major economic troubles and the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe in the 1980s would cause Yugoslavia to implode” (Rogel).
There was a host of outside influences that led to the birth of the Yugoslav Punk. The British Punk scene, which grew out of youth dissatisfaction with the British establishment, was particularly influential. The sound, fashion, and attitude of British Punk were quickly adopted in Yugoslavia. Much of the style was centered on the rejection of societal and cultural norms, as well as gender stereotypes. This was stylized as men wearing “traditional” women’s clothes, mixing and matching styles from different time periods, and adding accessories such as safety pins, leather, and chains to outfits. All of these factors resulted in the growth of the Yugoslav punk scene, which based its values in being anti-establishment, subverting mainstream styles through frequently outrageous fashion and behavior, and creating youth identities outside of the dominant framework of the state and its ideology.
It is too easy to forget that punk in Yugoslavia was not exclusively about politics. Much like other punk subcultures across Europe and United States, the movement fostered "alternative cultural practices, striving for individual self-expression, and spontaneous subcultural socializing" (Mulej). Values of non-cooperation and DIY, integral to the punk movement, allowed Yugoslav youth to imagine and produce alternative spaces for identity construction, outside of parental and Party control, even as they relied on the socialist state for funding and other resources. Mixing international and local influences, Yugoslav punk bands created their own specific sound and look, thereby domesticating and creatively adapting a Western genre to the local, socialist and Yugoslav context. For example, bands such a Idoli and Pankrti, appropriated symbols and language of the socialist state in an ironic and playful manner, setting their lyrics to energetic dub and ska beats or to the stripped, harsh droning of the electric guitar. The New Primitives and New Partisans, movements coming out of Sarajevo, sought to regenerate the Yugoslav multicultural community, while poking fun at the official ideology that was becoming increasingly removed from the problems and realities facing the country as a whole. By mid-1980s, parts of the punk scene in the Republic of Slovenia acquired a highly experimental, avant-garde style, ranging from the radical queer aesthetics of bands such as Borghesia to the subversive embrace of totalitarian art in Laibach and Neu Slowenische Kunst collectives. Active in the period that witnessed the death of Tito and gradual crumbling of state socialism, these groups formed tight associations with artists and philosophers interested in social and political change beyond the horizons of ethnic nationalism. As the essays featured on our website additionally demonstrate, Yugoslav punk also included prominent female bands and singers, contributing to the development of feminist ideas and remaking the image of a Yugoslav woman for a postmodern age. Bands such a Boye and Tožibabe, and acts such as Slađana Milošević, Xenia, and Denis and Denis, embraced punk as form of subcultural empowerment and self-expression, producing a uniquely “female sound,” which resonated all the more distinctly and defiantly in a scene that was for the most part male-dominated.
As a stylistically and musically innovative global youth culture, Punk defined the sensibilities and tastes of the last generation of urban Yugoslavs and left behind a lasting legacy. In this sense, Punk also served as a channel for Yugoslav youth of the 1980s to voice their rebellion, to participate in an increasingly cosmopolitan culture, and to assert their specific modernity and urbanity. Punk and rock musicians collaborated with artists and graphic designers; youth publications actively promoted Punk musicians (both local and foreign) and debated the cultural and political significance of Punk as a local and international movement. All this made Yugoslav Punk and New wave into a highly visible and self-aware subcultural scene across Yugoslavia’s major urban centers.
Mulej, Oskar. "A Place Called Johnny Rotten Square: The Ljubljana Punk Scene and the Subversion of Yugoslavia" in A European Youth Revolt: European Perspectives on Youth Protests and Social Movements in the 1980s (ed. Andresen, Knud and van der Steen, Bart). Palgrave, 2016.
Rogel, Carole. The Breakup of Yugoslavia and Its Aftermath. Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2004.