Performing Feminine and Queer Agency in Yugoslav Punk
The music video for Borghesia’s “A.R.” begins with the lead singer slipping into a leather jacket and fastening his belt, opening a portal into the world of punk. The video continues with a heightened contrast between punk and the mundanities of everyday existence, visually inverting the images of punks in particular, as to signify the negation of the ordinary. It is an opposition, a dissent, and rejection of the society in which they live, effectively supporting Kapchan’s definition of performance as a “counterpoint to the unconscious practices of everyday life…stylistically marked with expressions of otherness” (479). In seeking to understand the difference between performance and habit, it is important to consider components of the genre as a subversion of hegemonic ideology. Through this essay, I will analyze several elements of punk as a response to normative structures, particularly emphasizing performances of gender and sexuality as an opposition to sociocultural and political structures in place.
Sladjana Milosevic's lyrics, in her 1979 punk rock hit, express her longing for a lover in Amsterdam. The lyrics separate the song from the usual catalog of subversive commentary and political criticism found in the male-led punk bands who take an active role in criticizing the state. Despite its departure from themes of political dissent common among Yugoslavian punks, the singer’s presentation of an identity remains consistent with the aesthetic of the punk genre, providing an interesting lens to analyze a concentrated performance of gender identity within the punk scene.
The music video functions as an exhibit of both fluidity and a restriction of gender identity in the Yugoslavian punk scene. Milosevic straddles both the femininity of the love song trope and the masculinity inherent in a male-dominated punk space. Because the lyrics themselves could easily fit with a different genre, it allows us to focus in on the expression of gender through performance and the way women in punk adapt to a more aggressive form of expression. In the video, the singer takes center-stage, and she is embracing a more androgynous identity. The message of the song—a lover claiming her desire to be reunited with the object of her affection, is made opaque by the all-white set, contrasted with the black-clad punk figures. The performance in the music video works to convey the punk essence more than the themes in the lyric. Milosevic’s presentation in the video focuses on the performativity of the punk aesthetic. It seems reminiscent of the sentiment expressed by Gordon in the article “The Female Body of Punk” when she recalls, “that’s why I joined a band, so I could be inside that male dynamic, not staring in through a closed window” (Kreilkamp). Milosovic uses the song to take part in the male sphere. She plays against hyper-sexualized femininity by adopting a more androgynous presence. Milosevic demonstrates the struggle Yugoslavian women have endured to evade the proscribed norms of gender identity, and punk provides an outlet for women to explore a more fluid identity.
She appears adorned in leather, with dramatic makeup and a streak of red hair dye in her spiky coiffure. She struts through the all-white background of the set, which may be associated with the stripped-down and minimalistic conventions of punk style. Throughout the performance, Milosevic commands the microphone in her hand. Her raspy vocal quality matches the disruptive sound produced by the instruments. While the performance itself contradicts the romantic notions usually attributed to female desire, the subject matter of the song itself illustrates how she remains confined by normative gender roles. She can express her lyrics through a punk style, but the message itself is not aligned with that usually found within subversive masculine punk space.
While Milosevic’s video performance does adhere to a punk aesthetic, in comparison to Borghesia’s “A.R.”, it is quite sanitized and subdued. “A.R” features a compelling use of both repetition and contrast that works to convey a direct attack on the mundane daily life and hegemonic norms of the state. Through the use of BDSM imagery Borghesia works to dismantle the values of the state—marriage, family, neighbor, good day, Homeland" saying "no thank you" through brutal sexuality. It stands in stark comparison to Milosevic's video which steers away from a sexual performance.
Within the “A.R.” video the interaction between the punk and the strange doll figure uses BDSM to emulate the relationships of power in socialist Yugoslavia. In Borghese’s interpretation, it is dressed in S&M style and licked in the face as a show of sexual domination. This performance illustrates another example of Borghesia’s aesthetic, which Crowley describes as one that “[emphasizes]denaturalization and excess." The doll then comes to symbolize the state as the submissive and is ultimately discarded over the edge. As Crowley asserts, “what is judged obscene or unnatural is not only a political matter but those ideological judgments become visible when the lines which have been drawn-whether consistently or not-are transgressed.” In this way, the strange baby figure symbolizes society’s expectations, and Borghesia rejects the relationship as a symbolic gesture to subvert the normative values of the state. In his vision, sex is queered and weaponized, and pleasure is liberated from mainstream ideas about sexuality.
In terms of musicality, “A.R.” also demonstrates how the music can add a sense of menace to the performance (Crowley). First, the lyrics draw on the effect of repetition, chanting a litany of mainstream values. The music continues to build in volume and intensity, which underscores the opposition to those standards and dismisses them with the finality of “no thank you. ” In combination with the video performance, “A.R.” assets punk as an alternative and disruptive force. It defines the individual punk body in opposition to the larger social body, and because punk is mostly DIY and grassroots, it becomes a place for people, especially youth, to exists authentically outside the constraints of the state.
Perhaps punks are creating their own forms of power by constructing this alternative space where gender identity and sexuality are integrated into the performance. They create a narrative that is both separate and in opposition to the dominant narrative. As Kapchan argues, “agency is implicit in performance” (479). Punk is the epitome of agency; it allows people to participate in an alternative space, where they are allowed to explore gender, sexuality, and opposition to the rules.
Crowley, David. “The Future is Between Your Legs: Sex, Art and Censorship in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.” Faktografiadotcom, 14 Nov. 2015, faktografia.com/2015/09/06/the-future-is-between-your-legs-sex-art-and-censorship-in-the-socialist-federal-republic-of-yugoslavia/. Accessed 7 May 2017.
Kapchan, Deborah A. "Performance." The Journal of American Folklore, no. 430, 1995.
Kreilkamp, Ivan. “The Female Body of Punk.” Public Books, 2 Nov. 2016, www.publicbooks.org/the-female-body-of-punk/. Accessed 7 May 2017.