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A death in the family

Front cover of the “YU Mythology Lexicon”, Rende 2004, photo: Pescanik

This is not an article about Djordje Balasevic or his death. Those who knew him better, who listened to and loved his songs more than me, will write about him. This is an article about Yugoslavia and its death. This article asks: how many times can a country – specifically Yugoslavia – die? Last night, messages of mourning united Yugoslavia. By saying goodbye to Balasevic, many of us once again said goodbye to Yugoslavia.

Through various networks, I believe you, just like me, received these messages last night: I was not a devoted fan of his music, but tonight I feel that the sadness and loss are too great. Perhaps you, like me, watched a recording of Balasevic’s 2001 concert in Pula on HRT. And your eyes were full of tears as you watched the children born after Yugoslavia’s demise singing songs from a time they can’t possibly remember. And with that, maybe even involuntarily, keeping Yugoslavia alive.

You also saw, if you were watching, middle-aged people on the edge of the Pula Arena, sitting on their seats like in a time-machine. Remembering… what, exactly?

The memory of Yugoslavia is like a telenovela – a soap opera of kitsch. Strong passions, unconvincing plotlines and even worse denouements. A carousel of love and hate, with singing and shooting. Just like in Balasevic’s songs – on the edge of kitsch, and over it. That is why we identify with them so easily. These are the songs of our lives precisely because they are kitsch. Our lives are – kitsch. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think there is anything wrong with that, for Balasevic. If our (Yugoslav, and post-Yugoslav especially) lives had been more meaningful, I believe Balasevic would have written different songs.

This is what happens when pathetic and absurdly evil characters, without whom soap operas are unimaginable, rush into the real world and begin to shape it to their own measure. If we don’t drive them away in time, we start living their fictions. And there is no room for nuance and careful reasoning there. Only strong emotions and quick – one would say – superficial conclusions. But that impression of superficiality is wrong. Because in that simple, flat, black-and-white world, one always concludes and chooses between good and evil. No matter how flat it is, the depth of (moral) decline in that world is guaranteed.

Balasevic, on the other hand, proved to be an infallible judge, on the side of good. That gives his kitsch a higher moral value. When we easily identify with his songs and surrender to the passion and nostalgia contained in them, among many other things, we are trying to see ourselves in a better light than we normally are. We remember Yugoslavia in the same way. It is, after all the failed decisions and their ugly outcomes, the memory of some fictional better version of ourselves. Here, in that imaginary better world, the spectators from the stands on the edge of the Arena and the children from the front rows meet, when they sing together, in one voice, Balasevic’s songs – and Yugoslavia.

That is why tears were shed all over Yugoslavia when Oliver Dragojevic and Mira Furlan died, but also when Tose Proeski died, although for him and his audience, Yugoslavia doesn’t really mean anything.

Yugoslavia awakens again every time we are in trouble, when the going gets tough, when we feel like we’re alone and when our neighbors reach out and say – you are not. Yes, pure kitsch. But morally superior kitsch. We saw this, for example, in 2014, when Macedonians brought help for the victims of the floods in Serbia to the square in Skopje. We saw it recently, when messages of consolation from this side of the Danube went to Zagreb, which was damaged in the earthquake. Proeski, Dragojevic, Furlan, Balasevic all worked to dig and maintain those channels of solidarity, as did others, each in their own way.

In the Yugoslav soap opera, standing against the evil villains, they are our superheroes. The destructive real power of politics was countered by the positive symbolic power of popular culture. The outcome of that unequal conflict had to be tragic: on the one hand, naked, ruthless force, and on the other… Really, what is on that other side? Some songs, stories, movies. But popular culture, intangible and fluid, sometimes scarce in some of its contents, is still indestructible. Soap operas tend to develop their simple patterns indefinitely. So does Yugoslavia. And Balasevic with it.

How many times can Yugoslavia die? Countless. Yugoslavia is forever. Just like Balasevic’s songs.

Translated by Marijana Simic

Peščanik.net, 24.02.2021.


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Dejan Ilić (1965, Zemun), urednik izdavačke kuće FABRIKA KNJIGA i časopisa REČ. Diplomirao je na Filološkom fakultetu u Beogradu, magistrirao na Programu za studije roda i kulture na Centralnoevropskom univerzitetu u Budimpešti i doktorirao na istom univerzitetu na Odseku za rodne studije. Objavio je zbirke eseja „Osam i po ogleda iz razumevanja“ (2008), „Tranziciona pravda i tumačenje književnosti: srpski primer“ (2011), „Škola za 'petparačke' priče: predlozi za drugačiji kurikulum“ (2016), „Dva lica patriotizma“ (2016), „Fantastična škola“ (2020) i „Srbija u kontinuitetu“ (2020).

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