Walk with Me: Laibach Plays North Korea

laibach north korea

As summer comes to a close, two anniversaries—decades and miles apart—collide. The Slovenian industrial band/artists collective Laibach celebrates 35 years of professional provocation this year. Across the globe, Korea marks seven decades since liberation from Japanese occupation. On August 19th and 20th, Laibach performed in Korea to celebrate both events—but in Pyongyang, not Seoul surprisingly enough. The first rock band to perform in North Korea is a band that never had a Billboard hit or headlined stadium tours in the United States, as one might expect.

For those unfamiliar with the band, Laibach came together in 1980 in what was then Yugoslavia, now Slovenia. They formed mere months after the passing of socialist leader Marshall Josip Tito Broz and almost immediately made waves across the country, with their image cribbed straight from a 1943 Berlin Hitlerjugend rally. They also dabbled in nationalist imagery beginning to emerge in regional Yugoslav communist parties (at least among the leadership) after Tito’s death. The members worked closely with the art collective the Neue Slowenische Kunst or NSK, formed in Slovenia 1984. For several years, the band was banned from using their name in their home republic because of its association with the Nazi occupation of Slovenia during the Second World War—Laibach is German for Slovenia’s capital Ljubljana. Laibach’s unwillingness to politically define itself gave credence to a general crack down in the mid-1980s on punk in many of the major cities across Yugoslavia, an event known as the “Nazi punk affair.” The Nazi imagery indicted both the Socialist government as sharing much with fascists and the rise of nationalism happening around them.

Over the course of their career, Laibach pushed boundaries by employing tropes associated with fascism. John Oliver’s incredulous take likely sums up the general mainstream view of show. When quoting the often-asked question about the band’s political orientation (to which Laibach said that they were as much fascist as Hitler was a painter) Oliver quips that perhaps they are just really bad at being fascists. In the popular imagination, especially in the U.S., Laibach remains an obscure, subcultural act. Moreover, the band’s political orientation again comes into question with each new album. Meanwhile, North Korea tends to be understood by many Americans and Europeans as a regional, if not global threat.

Both ideas seem commonsensical, but neither are quite as true as they seem. Without ignoring the very real nuclear danger posed to South Korea or Japan, North Koreans themselves bear the brunt of violence of the rogue regime. Drawing on punk’s use of shocking imagery, Laibach—far from fascists—point the way towards the problems in our modern mass media saturated world, regardless of underpinning ideology. They compare the free market democracies, the Socialist countries, and the mid-century fascists, finding much in common among the three. Their songs and performances examine the now dominant modes of creating and sharing information, which obscure as much as they illuminate. Mass media, beginning with newspapers in the nineteenth century, helped create a unified national culture, but this unfolded at the expense of other modes of creating identities, all too often, drowning out alternative voices—either to the state or corporations sanctioned by the state.[1]

laibach-Bosnian-biannelle

In this light, Laibach performing in North Korea on the anniversary of a major shift in geopolitics  that continues to impact us today actually makes perfect sense. As they say themselves, their work engaging with tropes of totalitarianism means they couldn’t pass up the opportunity. Laibach’s work lays bare the commonalities of nation-building found in all modern states. In doing so, they carry the Cold War past into the present and make connections between the current position of North Korea and the supposedly unified global economy.  The mass media continue to shape our engagement with the world around us. The band’s appearance in North Korea reinforces the idea of the constructedness of the modern world. Laibach’s songs illustrate the cracks in supposedly natural modes of crafting identities via the nation-state.

Their predilection for cover songs hints at the the role that popular music plays as a medium of communication and an expression of nation-building. You could easily draw parallels to the European song contest Eurovision. Take, for example, their cover of Queen’s “One Vision,” renamed “Geburt Einer Nation,” which they sang in German. In English it re-translates to “Birth of a Nation”—not coincidentally the name of the infamous DW Griffin film from 1915. The fascist nationalism that built the Third Reich into a death machine found expression in many other nationalisms, even if they never reached the same level of violence as the death camps. The era of lynching in the United States—deployed to reinforce white supremacy—came rather close.[2] Race as a modern construct fed nationalism, which created violence against those who were deemed foreign, be they black or Jewish. Through pop culture interventions, Laibach illustrates how mediated social control and resistance to that control found expression across political orientations during the tumultuous 20th century. In the 20s, both Edward Bernays and Joseph Goebbels saw mass media as means to shape a nation to their ideas of perfection. Yet mass media make bands like Laibach possible, because they can reach a wide audience, a paradox that informs their work.

Laibach’s work speaks directly to role of social control with different ideologies—in capitalist, socialist, or fascist societies. Laibach also shows the growth of interconnections between high art and pop culture over the twentieth century. Like the peasant and noble working together at times in their common interests against the rise of the bourgeoisie, the exploration of high concepts through low culture subverted middle class expectations of middle brow popular culture. Not too many artists in the traditional sense crossed over into the pop world in the past few decades, taking their audience seriously. Performance artist Laurie Anderson produced a series of pop albums (you can hear Anderson share her experiences in the pop world, among other things, with Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArds). Throbbing Gristle combined a punk mode of production with the experimental drive and techniques of the Musique concrète movement. In general, the entire genre of what became known as industrial music draws strong influence from the realm of performance art and experimental sound crafting via the manipulation of electronic gear.

Laibach North Korea

One notable American “art pop” act seemingly deeply influenced Laibach. The Residents hide their identities—not unlike Laibach playing down their individual identities in favor of group identity. Both bands also re-imagine popular songs. The Residents utilized the language of fascism in their work in order to show the common origins found within mass culture, such as their second album Third Reich and Roll. The album includes classic rock songs and commercials parodied for maximum effect and intercut with some Wagnerian flourishes, much like Laibach. The latter band’s epic take on the Rolling Stones reveals just how much they connect the supposedly apolitical pop back to the political realm of meaning-making. Laibach’s cover of “Sympathy for the Devil” makes the song into a Wagnerian drama, with a video that conflates the decadence of the ruling class with violent state repression. Not that the original blues-inflected version can’t be read as a strong social critique, but Laibach’s interpretation of the classic makes it plain.

Attempts to enforce social norms via mass culture often met with cultural resistance across the world, especially from youth cultures. Laibach draw on this tendency as well. The crackdown on punk across the Eastern bloc often serves to illustrate the relative tolerance found in the capitalist world of the non-conforming members of First World societies in contrast to the backwards repression of the Second (Socialist) and Third Worlds. Although subversive modes of dressing and musical consumption appeared across all three political spaces, accepted wisdom tells us that the disciplining of unruly youths during the Cold War were far less draconian in the capitalist world. But how correct is that belief and what do bands like Laibach tell us about those assumptions? One could certainly argue that punks in Moscow had it rougher and not be far from the truth. But punks in America and Britain often faced harassment from their more mainstream-bound peers, disapproval from family, and at time outright violence from the police. The tolerance narrative also ignores the long-standing violence against young African Americans. The FBI murdered Fred Hampton at the age of 21.

Police violence harks back to the role of the state in a capitalist societies. The transition from first wave to hardcore punk on the West Coast was accompanied by a series of intense police riots, centered on Los Angeles. By 1980, LA cops who previously only warned kids at punk shows to keep it down began employing riot tactics to disperse unruly young men angry at not getting to see the Circle Jerks or Fear. Tensions between cops and kids from the hardcore LA punk scene were immortalized in songs like Black Flag’s “Police Story.” The notoriety of punk increased as daytime talk shows trotted out preachers, educators, and psychologists to explain to 80s housewives how punk and postpunk genres of music endangered their children. But in some ways, the “punk panic” rhetoric backfired. No doubt many a sick-with-flu teen discovered the joys of subversive acts like G.G. Allin or Gwar from Phil Donahue or Sally Jessie Raphael. Even evening dramas such as Quincy, with its famous punk episode, “Next Stop, Nowhere” cashed in on the fear of a punk planet, making it common sense for adults to worry about their kids if they found a 7inch from Bad Religion on their turntables. Some punks likely saw a means of rejecting mainstream values they found hypocritical, not unlike hippies in the 60s. Yet even here, the often overwhelming whiteness of punk scenes across America paled in comparison to the experiences of young black youths fighting state sanctioned racism.

The connection between this kind of state repression, channeled through local police, the home, television, houses of worship, and other private or local institutions means the role of the state fades away—purposefully so. The role of the state in a capitalist market too often remains underexamined when questions of youth culture and social control surface. The state, especially the United States historically speaking, works to make the world safe for their markets. As such, the systems of control deployed seem less draconian than in Stalinist Russia, precisely because the calls for censorship, which at times emerge from consumers, fall to private industry. The Hayes Code, the Comic Book code, and the McCarthy era witchhunts of the culture industries which created the Hollywood blacklists can be understood as the state colluding with private industry to shape social reality. It’s hard not to see those connections when it comes to things like the decision by Body Count’s label Warner Brothers to drop the controversial track “Cop Killer” from the bands 1990 debut album after President George Bush (and Vice-President Dan Quayle) railed against the song as anti-cop. While it might not count as the gulag, this censoring of alternative points of view certainly constitutes state repression—even when private industry does the censoring.

Drawing on the realities found in many modern states, Laibach’s image invites misinterpretation, as that reflects a key aspect of mass media itself—ambiguity of meaning cultivates the widest possible audience. The more an individual sees oneself reflected in the culture, the more consumers buy in. Laibach shows that the tropes employed by fascists were in no way unique to that particular political inclination by feeding them through a pop culture, mass-mediated lens. The building of a Yugoslav or Slovenian identity as political projects relied on much the same sorts of mass media. Today, their work continues to address some of these same concerns, but they also gesture to a new zeitgeist. The songs on their most recent album, Spectre, discuss the socio-political mood dominant since the end of the Cold War. The first single “Eurovision,” a nod to the long-running song contest mentioned above, stares down populist tensions in an economically unified Europe. Given the current influx of refugees from Syria and Afghanistan, the Grexit crisis, and ongoing conflict in Ukraine, they once again seem almost prophetic in this song. The uber-catchy “Whistleblowers” celebrates those willing to reveal abuses of new technologies by the state—while not asking the motivations of said activists. On their recent tour of the States, they even had a “Snowden for President: 2016” image during the intermission countdown.

Few songs address the current zeitgeist like “Walk with Me,” which describes the re-emergence of street protests and the politically ambiguity found in such actions. One need only remember that the fascists and communists had running street battles in Germany during the interwar period to see the long standing connections to the streets and political actions. But beginning with the 1999 Seattle anti-globalization outside of the WTO conference, street protests have exploded back into the public consciousness in a big way. In recent years, the streets of American cities have been disrupted by a variety of groups seeking to right wrongs. This includes young black men and women demanding an end of police violence aimed at their bodies and middle aged, middle class white conservatives rejecting big government. The song could be applied to all the groups who’ve made the street their most important political space. To wit—what sort of change arises from street protests described in the lyrics of the Laibach song—the kind imagined by the Black Lives Matter or the Tea Party?

Given the fraught nature of modern politics and the rise in state secrecy particularly used to push through corporatist agendas, the street once again emerged as an important space of resistance, especially with the eager adoption of social media by activists. Many might see taking to the streets to change the world as inherently a leftist stratagem, but a long history exists of people across the political spectrum employing democratic actions on the street as a form of political expression throughout the turbulent twentieth century, something which continues. But whose use of street protests is the song referring to—the right or the left? Black activists or police apologists? Environmentalists or laborers in the oil industry looking to preserve their livelihoods? Tea partiers or Occupiers? Pro-lifers or pro-choicers? LBGQT organizations or “pro-family” organizations? All of these differing groups embraced the tactic of feet on the ground to both promote their political views and to show the world that they—not their opponents—have the grassroots support and moral high ground. “Walk with Me” examines not a political consensus found in street protests, but the phenomenon itself, a social weapon employed by any number of groups for a variety of purposes.

Given that their fingers rest so firmly on the pulse of the geo-political zeitgeist for the past 35 years, Laibach’s trip to North Korea makes a weird kind of sense. The band sort of lucked into the opportunity as the director of one of their recent videos has a history of work in the closed-off country. The regime of Kim Jong-un likely assumes that Laibach’s meta-discussions of power and control apply to the West only. They might see a band that plays music with a critique of western ideologies from which they claim doctrinal immunity—or they just sought out a band to perform for their citizens who they imagined shared their values. But if Laibach can serve to criticize the West for the regime, they can also express political solidarity with ordinary North Koreans attending the show. Perhaps they can even serve to critique the marginalization of North Korea from the community of nations. If Laibach was attempting to subvert the regime’s ideology, they did so not by outright challenging Kim’s rule, but by speaking directly to the audience and reflecting back to them their own distorted reality. Meanwhile, the band can also continue to question the morality of the imposition of values imported from Europe around the world. All without explicitly stating which side they’re on…

[1]    Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, (London: Verso, 2006).

[2]    Nancy Maclean, Behind the Mask of Chivalry: The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).

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