Review: Shake, Rattle and Roll: Yugoslav Rock Music and the Poetics of Social Critique

This review originally appeared in Journal of World Popular Music 1:2 (2014): 308-11.

Dalibor Mišina. Shake, Rattle and Roll: Yugoslav Rock Music and the Poetics of Social Critique. Farnham: Ashgate, 2013. ISBN 9781409445654 (Hardback).

Yugoslavia’s rock music movements outlasted their country. While most of the bands involved in the 1970s and 1980s Yugoslav rock scenes broke up just before, or as a result of, the violent disintegration of socialist Yugoslavia, the music they made in cities such as Ljubljana, Zagreb, Belgrade and Sarajevo continues to provide old and new fans with a consciousness of belonging to a cultural community larger than the confines of their own successor state. It has even been suggested that the music of Bijelo Dugme, Azra, Idoli and the other bands discussed in this new book by Dalibor Mišina created a conceptual Yugoslavia with which sympathisers were able to go on identifying after the crisis and fragmentation of the Yugoslav state and system.

Shake, Rattle and Roll, based on an extensive knowledge of the Yugoslav rock scene and its media, explores the origins of that common consciousness. Its argument, framed as a work of historical sociology, is that the distinctive spirit so often said to be associated with the Yugoslav “new wave” can only be understood within an intellectual history of Yugoslav socialist thought. The socio-political engagement of Yugoslav rock musicians, Mišina argues, was not to overthrow socialism in Yugoslavia but to expose the ways in which it was failing to live up to its ethical and humanist ideals. The “substantive turn” that Yugoslav rock went through in the late 1970s inspired rock musicians to view themselves not as performers reproducing or reworking the style of foreign rock, but as public intellectuals responsible for creating a “music of commitment”, or an “engaged music” by analogy with Sartre’s notion of “litérature engagée” (p. 93). Shake, Rattle and Roll is thus not so much a history of Yugoslav rock as a musical phenomenon – a narrative which has already been covered in detail by several other ex-Yugoslav authors, beginning with the covers bands of the 1960s – but a history of ideas with the musicians of the “New Wave”, “New Primitives and “New Partisans” movements at the forefront.

The firm grounding of the argument in Yugoslav socialist thought and culture explains the densely theoretical first chapter and a half of the book, which introduce the Yugoslav regime’s strategies for managing the socialist federation, its projects to reshape human consciousness and create the so-called “new socialist man” (p. 33), and the understanding of youth within official Yugoslav political discourse (some familiarity with socialist terminology, such as the notion of praxis, is likely to be helpful for this section). It is when Mišina begins to discuss official responses to rock music in the mid-1970s that the pace of his argument gathers speed: from this point onwards the reader hears of the catalytic effect of Goran Bregović’s band Bijelo Dugme; of how the networks of clubs and youth media in each significant city for the “New Wave” gave rise to distinctive scenes within the overall movement; of how the actors and musicians in Sarajevo’s “New Primitives” movement strove to make the marginal conspicuous and embed the socio-political engagement of rock in an immediate local milieu; and how bands including Bijelo Dugme and another group of Sarajevans, Plavi Orkestar, reappropriated the symbols of revolutionary Yugoslavism and the Partisan liberation in an attempt to reverse the ethnonationalist tendencies of the late 1980s.

The depth of engagement with socialist thought, and the implication that any study of popular music in Yugoslavia has to proceed from this basis, aligns Shake, Rattle and Roll with an emerging cultural studies of socialism. Mišina’s concept of a musical “movement”, for instance, uses the term in a specific way that references the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians (disbanded in 1932) and its notions of how to act as a musician in a socialist society (p. 3). Although the book’s conclusions relate only to Yugoslavia, it could still productively be read alongside Alexei Yurchak’s influential Everything was Forever, Until It Was No More: the Last Soviet Generation (Yurchak 2005), which similarly depicts socialist citizens cherishing socialist ideals yet chafing at the actually existing regime, though within a different state socialist system (the “late socialism” of the USSR). There is also space, which Mišina does begin to explore, to compare Yugoslav rock experiences with sociological findings about British punk. Compared to punk in the UK, Mišina argues that the Yugoslav “New Wave” was “more of a critique than a protest”, and that it related to the state in a far less adversarial way (p. 91); the young people who created it were not alienated from a Britain with “no future” but bored in a Yugoslavia where the basic needs of youth were satisfied but where young people felt a lack of autonomous and meaningful cultural spaces.

An open question in the history of Yugoslav rock, with implications for its potential to have served as a unifying cultural force during and after the break-up of the federation, is how far it could be said to have reflected and addressed Yugoslav “youth” in general, against how far its appeal was instead stratified along class or gender lines. The issue of class is acknowledged when Mišina relays Yugoslav sociologists’ findings that “the new rock’n’roll generation was decidedly urban, overwhelmingly middle class, and conspicuously subcultural”, another important difference from the greater working-class profile of British punk (p. 57). The issue of gender, however, is not tackled in the same way. From comments such as one critic’s reference to the “castration” of rock after Bijelo Dugme had been forced to change a provocative album cover (p.72), or lyrics such as Azra’s “freedom is a woman – get it” (which could equally be translated “take her”) (p. 129), the vision of the new-wave rock musician as public intellectual appears to have depended on a certain construct of masculinity (indeed, elsewhere Mišina also refers to the “censorship and castration of musicians’ rights” (p. 64)) – how, then, did the female fans of Yugoslav rock, the female journalists at Polet and other magazines, or the female musicians such as Margita Stefanović of the Belgrade band Ekatarina Velika, relate to the movements being discussed here? Given the normative commitment to gender equality in socialist thought (another aspect of its ideal which was far from realised in practice), the gender politics of Yugoslav rock would benefit from further exploration within this framework.

More could perhaps also have been said of the legacies that Yugoslav rock left behind, which have been lasting but also contradictory. To be fair, the study of the memory of Yugoslav rock is much more well-trodden than the study of Yugoslav rock at the time it was being created; however, there would be scope to trace the impact of these movements into the present day at more length than the last page of the epilogue. The destruction of Yugoslavia entailed the fragmentation of many of the bands that had formed the various rock movements, and saw their musicians take divergent political positions that could not necessarily have been predicted. Jasenko Houra of Prljavo Kazalište, Bora Đorđević of Riblja Čorba, Emir Kusturica of the “New Primitives” group, and Dino Dervišhalidović of Merlin would all associate themselves with sub-Yugoslav national causes to varying extents and over different lengths of time (Đorđević increasingly consistent and vehement in expressing an anti-authority Serbian nationalism); others, such as Darko Rundek of Haustor or Johnny Stulić of Azra, removed themselves from ex-Yugoslav territorial and political space altogether. Another question thus emerges: what has permitted the broader consciousness of Yugoslav rock to survive the destruction of its immediate milieu?

These remarks aside, Shake, Rattle and Roll represents an important contribution to the study of popular music in socialist Europe, and forms part of a renewed scholarly interest in the cultural history of pre-break-up Yugoslavia in its own right. Its primary appeal is likely to be to region specialists, whether that region is thought of as the former Yugoslavia or as the wider European state socialist space. It can nevertheless also be recommended to those interested in the social and political position of rock music in other types of system. Its grounding in the specificities of Yugoslav socialist thought helps to extend ideas of how rock musicians participate in social and political critique beyond the commonplaces that are sometimes to be found in studies or models based solely on the West.

References

Yurchak, Alexei. 2005. Everything was Forever, Until It Was No More: the Last Soviet Generation. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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