A Historical Analysis of Gender Hierarchies in Serbian Music

‘Music can echo into social debate over what a place has been, what it is, and what it might be.’[i] 

Music is a space for freedom and expression. In many ways it can completely defy societal norms, often molding the historical makeup of a given place. Within this space, however, exist both oppression and marginalization. As culture is inherently a social product, music has the ability to both represent and construct social relations. Popular culture thus plays a pivotal role in the reflection and formation of national and gendered identities. The complexity of Serbian history (and the post-Yugoslav region more generally) complicates its relationship with culture. Popular music in ex-Yugoslavia was ‘the stage on which collective identity was forged, the premise on which national differences were constructed, and it remains the only shared culture in the region.’[ii]

Popular music, within all stages of Serbian history, is situated in precarious gender relations. Serbian society is based on a sharp dichotomy between male and female and their ascribed behaviours. As such, music is often used as a means to uphold the ‘appropriate’ expression of male and female identities.[iii] This being said, there has been an abundance of female participation in music throughout Serbian history. Nenić (2019) notes the stark contrast between patriarchal barriers preventing female creativity and the substantial effort of female musicians in Serbia. Yet there are multiple realities of this participation as gender roles are constantly constructed and reconstructed. Through analysing the history of Serbian music, we can see how highly gendered roles have prevailed throughout- both reflecting and constructing the changing political landscape.

Yugoslav Socialism

Serbia had once formed part of the Socialist Federation of Yugoslavia (SFRY) – a nation assembled after World War Two, composed of six republics and ruled by Josip Broz Tito. During the SFRY years the contribution of female fighters in the partisan resistance, coupled with a newfound communist emphasis on equality, had (to some extent) improved gender relations in the region. Folk had been the most common and popular music genre prior to Tito’s Yugoslavia. Women held a significant status in folk music, with some customs (e.g. lazarice) even practiced exclusively by women.[iv] The initial institutionalization of folk music and dances provided opportunities for female groups to perform at local and regional events.[v] Yet the attitudes of state officials towards these village gatherings gradually changed, in line with political and socio-economic transformations in Yugoslavia. Although traditional folk music had not been under strict control as such, the standardization of the genre came as a result of the broader socialist ideology of modernization.[vi] More and more, folk music became associated with rural primitivism so in an attempt to unify national and regional traits during the industrialization of Yugoslavia in the 1950s, the rural masses were encouraged to erase their traditions under an ‘ideology of progress.’[vii]

With this ideology in place, the musical landscape of what was then Yugoslavia had certainly diversified. Genres such as rock and disco were now at the forefront of popular music in the region and women continued to ‘leave their mark’ across the scene. Yet this diversification had not eliminated historically patriarchal barriers and judgements within music. Regardless of the apparent emphasis on social equality, many contradictions existed in the construction of socialist femininity in the public realm.[viii] Despite the supposed ‘anti-establishment’ nature of genres such as rock and punk, female musicians in gender-mixed bands were often admired primarily for their looks and stage appearance. An example here is Margita ‘Magi’ Stefanović of the band Ekatarina Velika. Despite her undeniable talent and weighty contribution to the musical composition of the band, her popularity in both the press and the public eye largely focused on her gender. Magi was often referred to as the ‘dark princess’ or ‘tragic heroine’ of Yugoslav rock.[ix] Female musicians were therefore subcatgeorised, their success mostly determined by and confined to their gender.

Late 1980s-1990s

The Serbian musical landscape changed significantly from the late 1980s to the early 1990s. Following the death of Josip Broz Tito in 1980, a collective presidency was formed among the six Yugoslav republics. During the decade that followed, the viability of the Yugoslav state was undermined by political and economic crises, underlying ethnic tensions, and the rapid growth of nationalism. As socialist ideals cracked, conservative forces vied to replace the Yugoslav regime. Yugoslav society began to revert back to the practices and ideals of religion, tradition, and heritage. With this, a transition of the role of women in Serbian society and their position in music. The rise of conservative forces orchestrated a return to pre-socialist gender norms in both private and public spheres. While Yugoslavia descended, Serbia became increasingly isolated, faced with forging a new sense of national identity. Establishing a common culture is integral to nation-building and music can play a vital role within this. Newly composed folk music (NCFM) or ‘turbofolk’, initially discouraged during Tito’s regime, now became a pivotal part of state-controlled media output. Turbo-folk is a genre that blends traditional folk music with fast, electronic beats. By the late 1980s, turbo-folk was favoured over all other music genres in Serbia. The rapid ethno-nationalization of the Yugoslav republics had quelled initial antagonisms between rural and urban populations. Instead, turbo-folk music (historically the voice of a repressed rural population) came to symbolize the revival of a ‘repressed’ Serbian nationalism. In this way, music became a legitimate field for the symbolic purification of Serbian national culture.[x]

Serbian nationalism of the time was founded on an essentialist hierarchy between the sexes which then infiltrated into popular music. Gender opposition is often employed as a metaphoric device to uphold national and cultural stereotypes – fundamental within a context of conflict and nation-building.[xi] Conflict is thus highly influenced by perceived gender roles; its effects embodied and symbolized in different ways. Thus while, on one hand, popular music was used as a means to homogenize Serbian national identity, it also became a mechanism for structuring the authority and responsibilities assigned to men and women. In terms of ‘model’ masculinities, much of the turbo-folk distributed during these years spoke of warrior-like qualities, with some songwriters even presenting ‘the enemy’ through gender opposition. Meanwhile, marriage, child-rearing, and the ‘proper’ role of women in society were vehemently encouraged at political, religious, cultural, and interpersonal levels. Turbo-folk then adhered to this narrative by perpetuating the sharp differentiation between men and women during war.

A key example here is Svetlana Raznatovic, also known as ‘Ceca.’ Ceca is often hailed the ‘queen’ of turbo-folk and perhaps most explicitly embodied and replicated the hegemonic codes of 1990s Serbia. Her marriage to Arkan, a Serbian nationalist and paramilitary leader, came to symbolizse a union between music and national ‘heroism’ – a union that played a key role in forging Serbian identity at the time.[xii] Their wedding in 1995 had been depicted as a ‘fairy tale’ – airing on national television and selling 100,000 copies across Serbia.[xiii] Ceca’s music made explicit references to gendered codes of behaviour within nationalist discourse such as that of a fiercely loyal wife/mother and their soldier sons/husbands. One example is her 1996 single ‘Kad Bi Bio Ranjen’, a song that begins with the sound of troops marching and speaks of a woman’s passionate surrender to a wounded soldier. Another example is her 1997 single ‘Nagovori’ which speaks of a mother convincing her son to marry and head off to the army – and so, reinforcing an ideal of patriotic manhood. Ceca, and turbo-folk more generally, replicated and entrenched structural power relations that favour militant nationalism and a hierarchy between the sexes.

While turbo-folk had encouraged women into the roles of ‘wife’ and ‘mother’, it also stressed a heightened level of female sexuality. The steady transition of Serbian society towards capitalism and consumerism led to a relatively newfound commodification of women. Popular music was heavily regulated during the Milosević presidential era between 1989 and 2000 – a key mechanism of control being ‘PinkTV.’ PinkTV is a state-sponsored entertainment television channel that deliberately favoured turbo-folk over other music genres, monopolizing popular culture in Serbia at the time. And from PinkTV came ‘pink culture’: a world of partying, materialism, hyper-sexualized women and violence.[xiv] PinkTV institutionalized Serbian patriarchal nationalistic culture – a culture in which ‘paramilitary war criminals and gangsters were widely celebrated as role models, and their female counterparts came to stand for a nationalistic symbol of Serbian femininity.’[xv] As such, pink culture both legitimized the new Serbian elite and concealed the harsh social reality of Serbian life. Commercial culture, nationalism, and sexualized femininity emerged as dominant frames of reference during the 90s. Turbo-folk both embraced and encouraged this transition, presenting women as mere objects of sexual desire. This over-sexualized version of femininity thus came as a direct result of changing political and economic circumstances and the need for particular gender representations within the media.[xvi]

Turbo-folk defined the new wealth acquired during the Milošević era, and singers such as Ceca became the cover star for what this wealth could achieve. The women of turbo-folk defined themselves as ‘everything the communist woman wasn’t’ – a femme fatale, both desirable and provocative.[xvii] Gender signifiers within turbo-folk music evoked the idea that men are physically and economically powerful while women are only powerful in terms of their sexual appeal. Turbo-folk’s female stars thus symbolized Baker’s (2020) notion of the postsocialist “sponzoruša” (“sponsored woman”)– strategically using sexuality to attract a wealthy man to fund her material desires. Self-eroticization was therefore presented as a vital means of female success- as Jelena Karleuša (a popular Serbian musician) put it in the early 1990s, ‘all of us in this business are in fact whores… the real skill is to sell yourself well.’ Again, Ceca serves as another fitting example. Ceca, a ‘self-made superstar from the village,’ provided a mechanism of hope in the face of growing insecurity. This empowerment was presented chiefly through notions of femininity and eroticism. Ceca provided a phantasm of the ‘American dream’, moving away from socialism in the national imagery. Her erotically aggressive image embodied a specific ‘rhetoric of power’ in which beauty is defined as the ability to create oneself (through consumerism, cosmetic surgery, etc.). Cosmetic surgery became highly popular in Serbian society – illustrated in the active advertisement of breast implants on PinkTV and the existence of ‘silicon valley’: a street in Belgrade almost entirely dedicated to cosmetic procedures.[xviii] Ceca’s body and image became the focal part of her appeal, naturalizing conventions of women as merely a form of masculine pleasure.[xix] And so, turbo-folk presented a multitude of gendered positionalities (loyal wife, mother, desirable sex object), all of which were constructed through a patriarchal perspective. Music became a space for the celebration of patriarchal nationalism during the Milošević era, both reflecting and reinforcing gender inequalities within Serbian society.

Contemporary music

The years after 2000 brought relative stability and a rigorous transition from communism to market-orientated economics. Since then, Serbia’s socio-political landscape has been founded on a convergence of European integration, neoliberalism, and globalization. Within a context of political and economic progress, the introduction of neoliberal ideals redefined the turbo-folk genre. Turbo-folk detached itself from its nationalistic and ethnic themes, transforming into a multicultural pop phenomenon to appeal to globalized sounds. It now gained a reputation as a genre dictated by authentic Balkan spirit, female empowerment, and even queer performativity.[xx] Much like the wider transitioning Serbian society turbo-folk now provided a space for forging new identities based on principles of freedom and self-expression. In addition, the emphasis placed on consumerism and western-style luxury that had begun in the 90s continued to thrive in this new context. Yet a woman’s so-called ‘success’ in this lexicon was still determined by notions of beauty and sexualization – only now masked by a neoliberal narrative of self-empowerment. The ability to sexualize oneself within the public sphere becomes a symbol of empowerment as it progresses past traditional forms of femininity once confined to the private sphere. In this context, gender equality represents the ability to capitalize on one’s sexualized self-exoticization. Thus, while turbo-folk now presented itself as a space for female empowerment, it continued to maintain motifs of over-sexualized women. Ceca, too, continued to symbolize an ideology of empowerment, her comeback facilitated by perpetual yet evolving links between gendered nationalism and popular culture. Although turbo-folk may now be marketed through the promise of personal empowerment, the discourses it promotes are potentially disempowering for the very audience it targets.

Televised talent shows popular across Serbia, such as ‘Zvezde Granda’, still engage in notions that determine the success of their female applicants by beauty and youth. Turbo-folk remains a popular genre continuing to showcase the sexuality of its stars. The presence of female performers is still outweighed by men at music festivals. For example, at EXIT festival’s ‘fusion stage’ (the stage showcasing local Serbian talent), the ratio of male to female performers in 2016 was 7:1.[xxi] Music festivals have been central to tourism in ex-Yugoslav countries and are, therefore, an important platform of opportunity for female musicians.

In spite of this, the position of women in Serbian music has certainly elevated. In 2007, Marija Šerifović won the Eurovision song contest for Serbia with the song ‘Molitva.’ The victory received an abundance of media attention- ŠerifoviĆ is of Roma origin and her performance had been characterized as queer (leading to the automatic labelling of her sexual orientation in the same way.).[xxii] Her victory thus held symbolic weight as nationalistic and homophobic discourses remain prominent in Serbian society. Despite arguably vested interests in the portrayal of Šerifović’s victory as the ‘new face of Serbia’, she remains a prominent figure in Serbian popular music. Her popularity is largely rooted in the power and emotion evoked in her songs, transgressing the habitual emphasis placed on the ‘sexual power’ of female musicians. Nenić (2019) shows how post-modern female composers in Serbia have adopted almost more of a non-conventional approach than their male counterparts – moving between genres in retaliation to societal expectations of ‘intrinsic gender characteristics’ in their music. Moreover, female pop stars who continue to capitalize on their sexuality have also begun to use their platform in positive ways. An example here is Jelena Karleuša, infamous for her unapologetic political opinions and regarded as the second biggest influence of Serbian youth after Novak Djoković, the current world No. 1 tennis player.[xxiii] Karleuša was one of the first Serbian celebrities to publicly support LGBTQ rights and has frequently advocated for freedom of speech and social equality.[xxiv] As such, Karleuša holds specific political power and influence over Serbian society – a newly asserted place for women in the music industry.

Despite significant progress, equity for female musicians in Serbia has not yet been achieved. Patriarchal obstacles may hinder both a woman’s desire and ability to pursue a career in music. And so, excavating examples of talented female musicians omitted from history can not only rectify truth but also provide hope for aspiring musicians across Serbia. On a structural level, gender biases within the music industry must be addressed, particularly the idea that beauty and sexuality equate to success for female musicians. Breaking from narratives that judge music on gendered terms and compare female musicians to a male standard is also integral to dismantling gender hierarchies. An understanding of the historical relationship between gender and popular music is of fundamental importance. In doing so, subjects are able to challenge and disturb the status-quo; a status-quo that is now legitimized through the depoliticization of music genres such as turbo-folk. Thus, if we consider music as a representational domain, let us hope that the future of Serbian music both reflects and constructs a society in which women hold a multitude of positionalities.



[i] D. Matless, ‘Sonic Geography in a Nature Region’, Social & Cultural Geography, vol. 6, no. 5, 2005, p.745-766.

[ii] U. Čvoro, ‘Remember the Nineties? Turbo-Folk as the Vanishing Mediator of Nationalism’ Cultural Politics, vol. 8, no. 1, 2012, p. 121-137.

[iii] N. Ceribasic ‘Defining Men and Women in the Context of War: Images in Croatian Popular Music in the 1990s’ in Moisala, P; Diamond, B. and Koskoff, E., Music and Gender. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000.

[iv] A. Hofman, ‘Staging Socialist Femininity: Gender Politics and Folklore Performance in Serbia (Balkan Studies Library, 1877-6272)’ Brill Academic Publishers, 2011.

[v] I. Nenic, ‘Stories of powerful voices: women in Serbian music’, [website], 26. March 2019, <http://www.womeninart.it/womeninserbianmusic.htm>.

[vi] A. Hofman, ‘Staging Socialist Femininity: Gender Politics and Folklore Performance in Serbia (Balkan Studies Library, 1877-6272)’, Brill Academic Publishers, 2011.

[vii] I. Šentevska, ‘Turbo-Folk as the Agent of Empire: On Discourses of Identity and Difference in Popular Culture’, Journal of Narrative Theory, vol. 44, no. 3, 2014, p. 413-441.

[viii] A. Hofman, ‘Staging Socialist Femininity: Gender Politics and Folklore Performance in Serbia (Balkan Studies Library, 1877-6272)’, Brill Academic Publishers, 2011.

[ix] S. Strugar, ‘Knjiga O Magi Stefanović: Tek Treba Da Razjasnimo Osamdesete’, [website], 29. January 2019, <https://www.vijesti.me/zabava/muzika/5736/knjiga-o-magi-stefanovic-tek-treba-da-razjasnimo-osamdesete>

[x] I. Šentevska, ‘Turbo-Folk as the Agent of Empire: On Discourses of Identity and Difference in Popular Culture’, Journal of Narrative Theory, vol. 44, no. 3, 2014, p. 413-441.

[xi] N. Ceribasic ‘Defining Men and Women in the Context of War: Images in Croatian Popular Music in the 1990s’ in Moisala, P; Diamond, B. and Koskoff, E., Music and Gender. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000.

[xii] R. Hudson, ‘Songs of Seduction: Popular Music and Serbian Nationalism’ Patterns of Prejudice, vol. 37, no. 2, 2003.

[xiii] Z. Volčič, and K. Erjavec, ‘The Paradox of Ceca and the Turbo-Folk Audience’, Popular Communication, vol. 8, no. 2, 2010, p. 103 — 119.

[xiv] ibid.

[xv] ibid.

[xvi] M. Grujic, ‘Community and the Popular: Women, Nation, and Turbo-Folk in Post-Yugoslav Serbia’, Ph.D diertation, Central European University, 2009.

[xvii] E. Ibroscheva, ‘Turbo-sexuality or Turbo-sexism: The Emerging Standards of Beauty in the Pop-folk Music of the Balkans’  in Anreescu, F and Shapiro, M ‘Genre and the (Post) Communist Woman: Analyzing Transformations of the Central and Eastern European Female Ideal’ (Interventions), 2014.

[xviii] T. Nikolic, ‘Serbian Sexual Response: Gender and Sexuality in Serbia During the 1990s’ in Aleksanar Stulhofer and Theo Sandfort ‘Sexuality and Gender in Postcommunist Eastern Europe and Russia’, 2005.

[xix] I. Krojna, ‘Turbo-Folk and Dance Music in 1990s Serbia: Media, Ideology and the Production of Spectacle,’ vol. 22, no. 1, 2004, p. 103.

[xx] The Calvert Journal,  ‘Turbo-folk: How Serbia’s Weird and Wonderful Pop Music Came in from the Cold’, [website] 1. March 2017, <https://www.calvertjournal.com/articles/show/7805/turbofolk-serbias-weird-wonderful-pop-music>, accessed 2019

[xxi] T. Nikolić, ‘Rodni odnosi na alternativnoj muzičkoj sceni Srbije i regiona’, Novi Sad: Pokrajinski zavod za ravnopravnost polova, 2016.

[xxii] M. Mitrovic, ‘Colours of the new face of Serbia: National symbols and popular music’, Glasnik Etnografskog instituta, vol. 57, no. 2, 2009, p.7-17.

[xxiii] P. Živković, ‘Đoković i Karleuša Idoli Maturanata!’, [website] 29 March 2013, <http://tracara.com/dokovic-i-karleusa-idoli-maturanata>

[xxiv] Tračara, ‘Održana Parada Ponosa, Kuma Karleuša Održala Govor’, [website] 17 September 2017, <http://tracara.com/odrzana-parada-ponosa-kuma-karleusa-odrzala-govor>

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