Opinion on Yugoslav pop music among Serbia’s intellectual elite oscillates between breathless adoration (in 1990s, when it was a sign of being “educated” against the onslaught of the ovelry maligned folk and turbofolk) to disgust (currently liking EKV, let alone Bijelo Dugme, is considered a sure sign of pseudointellectualism and/or smarm) and back to ironic appreciation (Zdravko Čolić and Bajaga).
As Yugopop was the soundtrack of my pre-teen years I (almost) have no opinions about it due to its ubiquity: I know the lyrics of most songs, I dance to them and belt them out at weddings and parties, but I could not for the life of me talk about their merits, demerits and cultural significance, beyond Yugopop’s importance for Yugoslav soft power in the countries of the “Eastern Bloc” (especially Romania and Bulgaria) as well as Hoxhaist Albania.
However, there are VIS Idoli, the one of a handful of bands from the era which I consider truly outstanding on a global level (the others are Laibach and Denis i Denis), and whose story, too long and convoluted like those of large bands with a lot of strong characters tend to be, refracts tensions in SFRY’s society: between socialist focus on obedience to social norms and individualism of western pop cultural avant-garde, between loyalism to the SFRY and its taboos of loyalty to its constituents nations and their traditions, traditional titillation and outright queerness (homosexuality was an uncomfortable subject in SFRY and was outlawed until 1994 in many of its parts).
VIS Idoli was a Warhol-esque project by a group of Belgrade’s artists and wannabe-artists in their early to mid 20s which they used as their platform, to tests the limits of the system, first within Belgrade’s socialist bourgeoisie and then throughout the country. Although its members engaged in various projects before, the band proper was formed on March 1, 1980, just two months before Tito’s death, with Vlada Divljan, Srdjan Šaper, Zdenko Kolar, Boža Jovanović, Nebojša Krstić in the band proper, and artist Dragan Papić as the artistic/media brains behind the project. They went for a wholesome, preppy look (a bit like early Vampire Weekend) and played with presenting themselves as model youths of late-SFRY era.
In the first post-Tito summer of 1980, Idoli played their playful pop at gigs with fellow new wave acts, like Šarlo Akrobata and Električni Orgazam, but started with their subversions out of the gate.
Their first single, released in May 1980, included „Retko te viđam sa devojkama“ [“I rarely see you with girls”], which is regarded as one of the first songs which openly addresses homosexuality in Yugoslavia. This art-pop tune, reminiscent of the Talking Heads, combines feverish paranoia with sly self-parody of a boyband of slightly foppish youths.
The second single, released in 1981, was Maljčiki, inspired by socialist-realist Soviet music and its stereotypes of hardened industrial workers. It was a clear joke: there you had SFRY’s toffs cosplaying as industrial workers poking fun at the proletarian mythology of the USSR (as well as Socialist Yugoslavia). Although the single was allegedly condemned by the Embassy of the USSR in Belgrade, it heralded an era of Yugopop’s obsession with the USSR (continued by Bajaga in late 80s), a strange development considering the strained relationship between the SFRY and the USSR ever since 1948 and imprisonment of people who were seen as too pro-Soviet in brutal camps like Goli otok.
However, their masterpiece, considered by many as the best album made in SFRY, was “Odbrana and Poslednji Dani” (Defense and the Last Days), released in 1982. This concept album, loosely based on a novella by Borislav Pekić (a famous self-exiled dissident writer), poked at the myths of SFRY, ranging from the country’s cultish devotion to Tito, strained relationship to religion and, again, queerness.
The “controversy” surrounding the album started from its cover art, based on a fragment from an Orthodox fresco depicting St Nicholas, which allegedly led to Idoli having to publish it in Zagreb, rather than in Belgrade (to avoid it being labelled as a Serbian nationalist provocation). One of the songs, “Poslednji Dani” (Last Days), was supposed to an homage to Tito and was to be titled “Maršal“ (the idea was allegedly dropped due to an intervention from the record company), however Tito was referred to as „May“ (due to his official birthday and day of death in the month of May) in the deliciously trippy Odbrana („Defense“) where one of the lyrics, „Jesus is our May“, makes a veiled reference to his semi-deification in SFRY’s culture.
Idoli also returned to the theme of queerness in “Moja si” (You are mine), one of the best and weirdest songs ever recorded in Serbo-Croatian. During the course of the song which mixes Orthodox chanting with paranoid guitars, the male protagonist, who is initially depicted a war hero on a horse, is lifted in a dream by an angel and fantasises about turning into a woman, lusted over by his friends. After a spoken word interlude, reminiscent of symbolist poetry, the song ends with full on chanting.
Then there is “Igrale se Delije”, a nod to a traditional Serbian folk song reimagined as a banger in a 1980s club tune, “Rusija”, a nostalgic love song depicting a relationship with between a weak nerdy guy and a much stronger maiden, and the opener “Kenozoik”, which sings about a confused youth and his girlfriend “shown a path by St Sava’s young hand”.
This remarkable pastiche of queerness, politics and Orthodox iconography was not a commercial failure (selling only a fraction of copies compared to their first releases) and but was widely acclaimed from the get-go. Its “controversial” cover, received a prize in 1982, and it was one of the rare albums reviewed by the British NME.
Subsequently, Idoli switched to more-retro sound reminiscent of 1950s and 60s with Bambina and Čokolada, only to disband in 1984.
While their more poppy songs still remain more popular, the themes explored in “Obrana i Zaštita” defined 1980s politics and culture in SFRY. Their stylish playfulness with sexuality, blossomed in outright synth horniness of Denis i Denis, while the subversion towards Tito-era truths of SFRY, rhymed with increased interests of local elites in SFRY constituent countries to reassess their cultural (and political) position in a country that now sorely lacked a unifying cultural figure like Tito.
Indeed, the very post-modern 80s in SFRY saw resurgence in ethnic and religious iconography in the arts (think Laibach) and more identity-centred discussions in politics, as the cultural, economic and political foundations of SFRY became ever more apparently unable to create a unified or at least harmonious identity.