Translated by Andreas Faust
Just a few remarks on the 30 year jubilee of Laibach, of whom I have recently confessed myself a fan in this blog. Since their formation in 1980 the world has greatly changed, but so have the group themselves (musically rather to their disadvantage), and from their original lineup only frontman Milan Fras and Ivan Novak remain.
In a certain sense the Slovenian formation have merely been recycling their own myth for the past two decades, a myth whose power and effectiveness was closely connected with the context of the project’s origins in post-Tito Yugoslavia (1980 also saw the death of that cultishly adored president, and was also the year the multi-ethnic State, patched together by blood and iron, slowly began to crumble).
The choice of the German name for Ljubljana was a deliberate provocation of the Yugoslavian authorities, who in the 80s were already lax and sufficiently infected by liberal spinal atrophy so that the band were effortlessly stage-managed as “more totalitarian” than the ruling regime, “more Catholic than the pope,” so to speak (in the DDR of the same period every harmless amateur punk combo was silenced by the Stasi). But the State at this time no longer actually wanted to be evoked and glorified in the way Laibach did.
Slovenia and Croatia were relatively affluent, and one would little have suspected the devastating war that would break out only a decade later. In 1983, Laibach’s martial evocations and over-emphasis of the old Communist rhetoric of war, asceticism, self-sacrifice and heave-ho, backed with frenzied noise music, were considered embarrassing, frightening, irritating and aggressive. The aesthetic mix of Communist-Stalinist, Fascist and National-Socialist elements, which would only intensify in the middle of the decade, had an additionally subversive effect, deconstructing the “anti-fascist” mythos of Communist ideology through convergence and amalgamation. Laibach indirectly attacked the socialist state, while they ostensibly overtook it from the right, setting it in relationship to its enemy brother, National Socialism.
In a notorious early TV appearance the group were shown with sinister lighting, shiny boots, indefinable uniforms and armbands with black crosses, sitting silently with stony expressions, while the frontman persistently ignored the questions of the interviewer and instead read out long, complicated manifestos: “Laibach deals with the relationship between art and ideology, the tensions which are sublimated through expression. Thus every direct ideological discourse is eliminated. Our activity stands above direct engagement…we are completely apolitical.” And so on and so forth. At the same time on Yugoslavian TV one could watch pop videos (see here and here) which differed little from those in the West.
With the album Opus Dei from 1987 Laibach began their infamous series of “fascist” or “martial” cover versions of popular songs, for which they are best known (including titles by the Beatles [Let It Be], the Rolling Stones [Sympathy for the Devil], Prince, Status Quo, and as a meta-pop joke, DAF). Fanfares and trumpets, epic sound, pounding military percussion, texts rendered in German, and forced, bombastic singing which bordered on self-parody (later copied by Rammstein), well-known melodies made unfamiliar in puzzling ways.
The most classic of these is their version of the superhit “Life is Live” (“Nananana”) by the Austrian group Opus, which was at that time played ad nauseam in discos around the world. Along with the video, in which Laibach trudged through the mountains and posed in front of monumental waterfalls, displaying a stately sense of mission and cultish air, the song had a completely unique flavor, which from then on defined the group.
The appeal stems from the merging of various contradictory elements: on the one hand there is the obvious matter of a glaringly funny joke, a conscious and intentional sense of camp. On the other, a captivating and rousing effect: the charismatic, vigorous singer with the walrus mustache, the strange desert-warfare head coverings and trim alpine costumes in front of a backdrop of snow-covered peaks and backwards-flowing waters (!) — it goes far beyond the mere “deconstruction” gag. The Heroic-Teutonic aesthetic is as much celebrated as ironized. It is comedic and parodic, but also — sexy.
Laibach demonstrated, how with little effort a banal pop song could be given a “fascistic” sound and subtext. In the alternative version “Leben heißt Leben” they Germanized and slightly altered the original English text.
When we all give the power
We all give the best
Every minute of an hour
Don’t think about the rest
Then you all get the power
You all get the best
When everyone gives everything . . .
Life is life, when we all feel the power
Life is life, come on, stand up and dance
Life is life, when the feeling of the people
Life is life, is the feeling of the band!
Wann immer wir Kraft geben,
(When we all give the power)
geben wir das Beste,
(we all give the best)
All unser Können, unser Streben
(All our ability, our striving)
und denken nicht an Feste,
(and don’t think about solid ground)
Von jedem wird alles gegeben,
(Everyone will give everything)
und jeder kann auf jeden zählen,
(and everyone can rely on everyone)
Leben heißt Leben!
(Life is life!)
Leben heißt Leben — Wenn wir alle die Kraft spüren!
(Life is life — when we all feel the power)
Leben heißt Leben — Wenn wir alle den Schmerz fühlen!
(Life is life — when we all feel the pain)
Leben heißt Leben — Heißt die Mengen erleben
(Life is life — is the experience of the people)
Leben heißt Leben — Heißt das Land erleben…
(Life is life — is the experience of the land)
One man, one goal
One heart, one soul
Just one solution,
One flash of light
One God, one vision
One flesh, one bone,
One true religion,
One voice, one hope,
One flesh one bone
One true religion
One race, one hope
One real decision
Wowowowo oh yeah oh yeah oh yeah
Ein Mensch – ein Ziel
und eine Weisung.
Ein Herz – ein Geist,
nur eine Lösung.
Ein Brennen der Glut.
Ein Gott – ein Leitbild.
Ein Fleisch – ein Blut,
ein wahrer Glaube.
Eine Rasse, ein Traum,
und ein starker Wille
Gebt mir ein Leitbild! Ja, Ja, Jawoll, Jaaa!!
And one could see how Queen, in Rio de Janeiro in 1985, caused umpteen thousand people to stamp along to “We Will Rock You,” while frontman Freddie Mercury, his naked, muscular upper body wrapped in the Union Jack, paraded up and down before the masses and dominated them like a shrill glam-rock Mussolini.
Laibach have thus touched upon the subterranean connections between pop as a mass phenomenon and totalitarian mass movements, which David Bowie also grasped in the 70s with his notorious bon mot that “Hitler was a pop star.” One might also think of Jean Genet, who once remarked that fascism was “essentielment” theater.
In pop, too, there is no necessary contradiction between greatly enjoying a pose, and at the same time stressing its artificiality and winking showmanship. One thinks, for instance, of the splendid fantasy uniforms and savior-like gestures of Michael Jackson. In this democratic age, rock stars satisfy a deep-seated desire for monarchy, and in their own world they are kings, absolutists, messiahs, dictators, mythical animals who receive the homage and allegiance of their masses of fans who they rule by the power of their art, and who for their part willingly sacrifice themselves to the regressive-blissful intoxication of the fan community.
Contrary to what Genet thinks, we can ask to what extent the channeling of “totalitarian” backdrops and pretensions in a stage show and an art-product like the NSK-“State,” can satisfy what Armin Mohler called a “monumental undernourishment” on a depoliticized, defused, and purely aesthetic level. Because, if Laibach were nothing but parody and deconstruction, their appeal would not have been as lasting and strong.
In any case, it appears to me that Laibach, as soon as they were accepted as “art” by Western intellectuals (after a certain period when they were merely seen as irritating) also served as a valve for those who wanted, with a good conscience, to give expression to their “inner fascist.” When the group performed in Vienna in the mid-90s, the audience was full of readers of alternative-hipster left-liberal papers like Standard and Falter, who could now let loose their repressed “fascist pig” and salute the stage with right arms outstretched: “And then we celebrate unity, all night long! Jawolllll, Jaaaa!!” And, at the Gothic and Wave Night at Wiener U4, one could witness entire marching formations spontaneously form on the dance floor, dancing in lockstep to “Life is Live.”
I have often asked myself to what extent the hysterical contamination-fear of many contemporaries over Riefenstahlian or Speerian aesthetics is based on an unacknowledged fascination, which in a puritanical way they cannot even admit to themselves. It is certain that very many people still feel the unique force of attraction and suggestion of these images, which appeal to deep-seated, ineradicable emotions. Or, as a sociologist of the 70s whose name escapes me put it, both pithily and with intent to denounce: Fascism satisfies fundamental human needs. (If that is true, then what conclusions do we draw from it? And what exactly is “fascism”?)
With the disintegration of the Eastern Bloc, Laibach lost the context from which their original friction derived. Their approach increasingly became a mere fad, and with albums like Kapital (1992) and Nato (1994) one could see that they were searching for new targets to infiltrate. (Liberalism, however, in contrast to National and International Socialism, is unfortunately an all-too elastic opponent, absorbing its opposition like a sponge.) The effect of this was like a somewhat treacherous (in a telltale way in respect to the obscure image of the band) revue of ideologies, which the Laibach method could not really get a grip upon.
Even less convincing was the album Jesus Christ Superstars (1996), devoted to the ‘ideological’ framework of religion, and presenting Milan Fras in the robes of a pilgrim or preacher. That was definitely too easy.
“Tanz mit Laibach,” a kind of remake of the DAF hit “Tanz den Mussolini” turned once more “back to the roots,” but like the permanent loop of a Nazi boot in the video, it was scarcely more than a stale joke leading nowhere.
More successful by far (and their most interesting release of the last decade and a half) was the 2006 album Volk, which consisted solely of interpretations of different national anthems. This was done with a quasi-“ethnopluralist” spirit, and a minimum of irony, despite the shepherds on the cover. Here the “deconstructive” intention has clearly receded, and here too is an indication that Laibach cannot easily be written off and incorporated in a “left-wing” culture industry, as so many rashly and soothingly believe.
In this regard, I agree with the opinion of Dominik Tischleder in Junge Freiheit:
Wholly without ambiguity, a “belief in Peoples” here unfolds as a pop musical panorama. National identity is identified as a political factor of the first rank. Volk, therefore, is an album that stimulates mainly on an intellectual level, in which the actual music becomes almost a triviality. Laibach themselves express it thus: “Pop is music for sheep, and we are the wolves disguised as sheepdogs.”