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Punks and Professors in Slovenia

The worlds of rock music and academia are not entirely separate. Noam Chomsky has appeared on stage with Rage Against the Machine. Poet Paul Muldoon and fellow Princeton professors play gigs as the Wayside Shrines. And, of course, plenty of students opt for courses that deconstruct Madonna, probe the historical impact of the Beatles, and so on.

But in Yugoslavia, and particularly Slovenia, a particularly close relationship sprang up in the 1970s between punks and professors. "At that time, classical political and social critique was not possible, so the political and cultural discontent and critique took the form of Rock music," explains sociologist and politician Pavel Gantar. "Punk Rock music was a form of contestation. Later on, the State started to apply political oppression, and, as I said, intellectuals came out against this oppression. In the late 1970s, Rock music substituted for the absence of political and social criticism."

Intellectuals came to the defense of punk rockers, and musicians expressed many of the sentiments that intellectuals couldn't safely utter in public. The music scene in Yugoslavia soon became the envy of everyone else in the Eastern bloc, and many music fans in the West also began to follow bands like Pankrti and Laibach.

Laibach was a particularly provocative band. In Bulgaria, Zheliu Zhelev wrote a book about fascism that was in fact a veiled critique of communism. Laibach offered a much more in-your-face comparison. Adopting a totalitarian aesthetic that was equal parts communism, fascism, and futurism, it parroted the rhetoric of the Yugoslav authorities and thereby presented itself as a paragon of socialist realism. Defending Laibach, Slovenian intellectuals were also defending freedom of expression.

But by the 1980s, when Laibach appeared, intellectuals were already beginning to create the civil society movements that served as vehicles for social and political critique. Music remained a powerful amplifier of social discontent. But now there were proto-political formations that began to carve out space in Yugoslav society for alternative platforms.

When I interviewed Pavel Gantar in 1990, he was the head of the Liberal Party. The number one question in those days was the fate of Yugoslavia. Would it stay together as a loose confederation or as a more centralized federation? Or, as some began to hint at in those days, could the country stay together at all?

"We went to Belgrade and came back very disappointed," he told me in 1990. "Rational discourse was not possible. We talked about interests and they are talking about Serbian soil and blood and fears and fights and so on. That's why we think that Yugoslavia is probably not an option any more. But still the question remains: how to come to such solutions if we can't stick together. Every solution is a bad solution in this game. We would stand for any solution which would not cost lives."

Slovenia would declare its independence in June 1991. Pavel Gantar went on to join parliament and become its chairman in 2008. He was a politician for 18 years: six years as minister of environment and spatial planning, four years as minister for telecommunications, information, and technology, four years as an MP in the opposition, and then three years as speaker of the house of parliament.

When I caught up with him a few months ago, he was taking a hiatus from politics. We talked about his years supporting oppositional culture, the period he spent in government and parliament, and what Slovenia might have done differently during its transition.

The Interview

I'm particularly interested in the punk music period. It's so unusual for university professors to come to the defense of punk musicians.

At that time, I was a very young assistant. I started as assistant at the university during the dismantling of the student movement in the early 1970s. This dismantling encompassed all student movement institutions, including the independent community of high schools in Slovenia. Only one institution remained: Radio Student. Radio Student was the first student radio in Europe, established in 1970 as a part of the syndicalist program of the student movements. I also worked there, as a correspondent. Radio Student broadcast from noon to 3 pm, which wasn't very much. The Communist Party considered Radio Student relatively apolitical and not a dangerous institution -- so they left it alone.

But at a time when other institutions had been erased, Radio Student took on the role of expressing protest and cultural discomfort through music. They were the most important promoter of international Rock music in Slovenia. They played all the new Rock music, especially British punk music like The Clash, The Sex Pistols, and so on. This music was also broadcast immediately here, maybe with fewer administrative and political obstacles than in the UK, because here it was just foreign music and nobody cared about attacking the Queen of England.

I'm sure the Communist Party here was happy to promote music that attacked the Queen of England!

Yes. Three years ago, I had dinner with the Queen, and I recall thinking, "How nice this lady is! She really looks just like my mom. It's very pleasant to talk with her." And I remembered the Sex Pistols lyric, "God save the Queen, the fascist regime," and I thought, "Maybe she didn't deserve that!"

But back then, this punk music found its natural environment here. The people were disappointed. The young generation was without hope. There was growing tension in the economy. There was no future. Slowly some local bands were established, like the band Pankrti. The lead singer Peter Lovsin had a big interview today with the newspaper Dnevnik, where he said that he never consciously meant to be a revolutionary, that it was only by accident. But the provocative lyrics, like the ones about having no future, were absolutely critical. At that time, classical political and social critique was not possible, so the political and cultural discontent and critique took the form of Rock music. Punk Rock music was a form of contestation. Later on, the State started to apply political oppression, and, as I said, intellectuals came out against this oppression. In the late 1970s, Rock music substituted for the absence of political and social criticism.

And there was Laibach...

Laibach was post-Punk. Laibach came later, in the early 1980s. While Punk actually criticized the hopelessness of the situation, Laibach took all these development one stage higher. Laibach was actually mimicking socialism. They took socialism seriously. They held up a mirror to power, to the Party. And it was because of this that they were subversive. They didn't say, "We don't like this ideology." No, they said, "We will seriously apply this ideology to music." And the authorities were very surprised with Laibach.

To read the rest of the interview, click here.

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