|Laibach pose solemnly in the "hermit kingdom" of North Korea.|
by Andy Nowicki
In a weirdly historic turn of events, the Slovenian art-noise-industrial-Gestapo-Stasi rock band Laibach is playing Pyongyang, North Korea this week. Their show, we are told, is based heavily upon the band's reinterpretation of various songs from Rodgers and Hammerstein's "The Sound of Music." (!)
Apparently the locals aren't quite sure what to make of these lads (and lady), but that's nothing new; people haven't known what to make of Laibach for a good three decades now. Ever since they burst on the (then) Communist, (then) Yugoslavian scene as a state-funded act in the new-wave 80s, they have maintained an enigmatic aura that keeps people guessing: are they parodic, or sincere, and if the latter, just what are they sincere about? There is certainly enough fascistic/Nazi-esque imagery in their videos and stage aesthetics to create simultaneous intrigue, titillation, and unease among the liberal and/or bourgeois-minded, but some hold that their art is meant as a critique, not a celebration. When asked, the band reportedly went on record with an epically ambiguous statement: "We are fascists as much as Hitler was a painter." (Hitler in fact was a painter, prior to becoming a dictator... but he wasn't a successful one; the analogy here is, one suspects, intentionally obfuscating.)
I recall first encountering Laibach sometime in the late 80s, when their video for "Geburt Einer Nation" was broadcast on MTV's "120 Minutes." Suddenly, at the end of a set of REM, Husker Du, Souixsie and the Banshees, Jason and the Scorchers, et al., came something quite different, namely this:
As a young lad of then decidedly left-wing proclivities, I was aghast, indeed (as we say today) "triggered" by the overall atmosphere of the song and the Triumph of the Will-flavor of the video. How, I wondered, could they be showing this uptempo Nuremberg rally number – the Horst Wessel Lied with a furious backbeat – on a good, decent "alternative music" program? Yet I also found the scrawny singer's uber-gutteral voice quite funny. In fact, the general brooding, solemn visages of all of these guys with their noodle-thin arms and Hitler Youth hairdos suggested that the entire thing was some sort of post-modern, post-Warholian joke. But who could tell, really? Gradually, I came to grudgingly admire the fact that they refused to give themselves away, and left the viewer in some distress, scratching his head with dread and wonderment.
It wasn't until years later that I came to learn that "Geburt Einer Nation" was a cover of Queen's "One Vision":
...And that that moment, Laibach's subversive brilliance shone through with truly pulsating clarity. For Queen's song is about the world coming together in peace and harmony, with all national boundaries disappearing and every human distinction getting dissolved in an earnest orgy of good vibes ("No hate, no fight, just excitation... one voice, one hope... one sweet union"). In their cover, Laibach converted this milquetoast sentiment into something dark, dank, and dangerous. Even the new title, which means "Birth of a Nation" in German, takes things into the realm of the forbidden, as do lines like "Ein Reich, ein Volk!" which seem torn from the pages of Mein Kampf. Yet the ideas expressed in "Geburt Einer Nation" are pretty much the same ones conveyed in "One Vision," prompting one to wonder if the differentiations we are so eager to draw between ideologies aren't in fact quite a bit more blurry than we had first believed.
With this in mind, it makes sense that Laibach would be the first band to manage to gain entrance to the "hermit kingdom" of North Korea, that obscene Stalinist killing field of a country ruled over by an obese, dynastic warlord, whose ruling bloc has long practiced Nazi-style eugenics against "life unworthy of life." Like Laibach, North Korea might be seen as a kind of post-modern inside joke, rife with contradictions, albeit a "killing joke" with a massive body count.
Thus, the mutually-reinforcing surrealities of Laibach playing Pyongyang are quite satisfactory, even if (judging by this photo) the sublime syncronicity has clearly been lost upon most of the attendees of the event. Then again, perhaps in that "inscrutable" Asian way, they do "get it," even if they seem not to.
|Pyongyangers rock out to Laibach.|