May 30, 2018 — Casually flipping Croatia’s local television channels you’ll find… Wait. What is this man doing?
Turn on the TV, peruse the channels and… Huh? You’ve just seen… something. Not sure what.
Is that vuluptuous woman dressed in a shiny green leotard supposed to look like a cactus?
Will this band ever run out of dry ice?
Does this man need medical assistance?
Whether you’re a native or tourist on vacation, you may accidentally encounter the Croatian Music Channel, the local equivalent of MTV back when most agree MTV was worth watching.
CMC has spent its decade-long existence clinging to the cultural anachronism of a 24-hour music channel, well after was stampeded to death by reality television elsewhere.
Not that it’s popular. CMC ranks lowest among the free channels available to all Croats, holding a steady clip of about 1 percent of all viewers.
Like most low-humming cultural phenomena, CMC offers a respite from the wider world. Some use it as a soundtrack to do chores, cook or just general noise to keep the pets company.
But a demented few (that’s me, hi) consider CMC’s off-kilter music videos a funhouse mirror for the Croatian psyche: hopelessly romantic, hedonistic, patriotic, artistic, depressed and horny.
Watching CMC for longer than 15 minutes becomes a struggle against cynicism. After about the 20 minute mark, you feel as if someone’s messing with you. After a few days, you’re convinced there’s a hidden portal to another dimension exclusively inhabited by the smiling faces you see on the screen. A place where self-awareness doesn’t exist, and “corny” and “cool” are synonyms.
Something inevitably feels off kilter about every video. An attractive woman dancing to overproduced music, only to reveal she can’t sing. A “klapa”, singing some of the most romantic and heartfelt songs of the Croatian cannon… hiding behind sunglasses like ZZ Top.
CMC, more than any other channel, bears to witness a popular culture in the midst of an identity crisis. Western influence has offered its hand-me-downs to Croatia, and not everything fits.
Watch a bit longer and you’ll find common elements or narratives. These terrible videos could be the codex answering a very common riddle: what the hell is going on around here?
The Needlessly Naked
Croatia has aptly produced pop starlets designed with laser-like precision to stock glossy gossip magazines with fodder while occasionally making a cheesy club-anthem along the way. This may be the most egregious set of attention-grabbers populating CMC.
Their queen, Severina, has been making ear-torturing noises with her vocal chords for nearly three decades. She holds the distinction of being that rare cross-cultural pop gem, popular not just in Croatia but throughout the whole region. (She also carries the proud honor of submitting Croatia’s mostly delightfully kitschy Eurovision entry, a song brilliant and absurd at the same time with sample lyrics like “cikla bikla, Afrika paprika”).
Severina’s heiresses follow her broad range. Watch in wonder as they seamlessly switch from the unabashed seductress to simple girl about town looking for love. Marvel as Jelena Rozga dances in a suit apparently made made of tin foil, impersonating a sheep doing vocal exercises.
None of these tropes are new to western pop culture; everyone from Beyonce to Madonna has played these roles. But for some odd reason… the singers’ wardrobe and the lyrical content of the actual song often don’t align.
For example, Lidija Bačić Lille’s newest single, below, is a cheesy-sweet chunk of sugary nonsense with lyrics that include “I don’t want gold, diamonds, when you’re near my heart.”
Why does the egregious and blatant bikini need to be present? Oh right, cause the actual music is unbearable.
What are all those men staring at?
Ah, klape. Drop into any smokey tavern in a remote Dalmatian village on a Friday evening, the sort of “locals only” joint designed to scare away tourists, and you’ll likely hear at least one inebriated soul tear off a verse of a “Klapska pisma” in a capable baritone. It’s in the sea. It’s in the blood.
Without Dalmatia, Klape would have nothing to sing about (except women).
Without Klape, nobody would be singing about Dalmatia. The genre and the region are one.
Lately, these vocal maestros have developed the odd habit of emphatically avoid any eye contact with the camera. All dressed alike, they resemble a weird cult afraid of modern lenses.
This wasn’t always the case. Klape used to sing directly into the camera. But now, in an apparent attempt to shove away the mothballs and embrace modern deepness, they just look into the distance, singing to the ether. Rad.
It’s summer time, let’s party!
Klape romanticize the Adriatic sea, salt and Dalmatian traditions so often, they’re caricatures of themselves. Modern Croatian male pop vocalists? They’re going to party!
The Croatian coast begs to be filmed. Deservedly so. But it could do better than pseudo rappers and auto-tuned weasels grasping for summertime anthems which never stick.
The songs, like much of the Adriatic, are too shallow to plunge into. But the videos? Perfect for cringe comedy.
Will that creepy old man seduce the girl?
Blame the remnants of the patriarchy.
Croatia’s crooners never age well. Most, in fact, become bloated versions of themselves with diminishing vocal dexterity running converse to their prodigious (allegedly) alcohol consumption.
Some, like Mladen Grdović, have banked on this caricature while throwing in a couple of oldies to keep the fanbase satiated.
Others refuse to even keep up the pretense that they can sing. The once-inimitable Mišo Kovač has been reduced to a Jabba Da Hut on stage, standing like Christ The Redeemer as a stadium full of fans sing the choruses to his greatest hits back at him.
Yet these crooners they keep up the pretext of virility whenever they inject their music video with some sort of loose a narrative.
My soul is so dark…
This category of music vids hits CMC’s otherwise-chipper playlist and sends the whole mood careening into a bottomless cave of despair.
Depressive music of doesn’t only jar after a Klapa ballad or club hit, it strikes the viewer as somehow otherworldly. One minute, legendary crooner Vinko Coce is singing about his magical dream fairy, next Urban is… well, being himself.
It may seem a bit incongruous, considering the general sunshine involved in all the other genres. But all systems need balance — a dark to dampen the light. Maybe that means Goran Bare flailing about Christ-like as crows fly about keeps the Croatian universe in order.