It’s Only 12 O’clock: Lust for Life

In 1993, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia struggled under sanctions, international isolation, and the rule of a red-black coalition of socialists and radicals. Hyperinflation had reached astronomical proportions, with zeroes on worthless banknotes multiplying in a geometric progression. Salaries had plummeted to a historical minimum of five German marks. Store shelves stood empty, and poverty was pervasive. Officially, Serbia was not at war, yet military operations in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina were planned and conducted from addresses in Belgrade. Croats were considered archenemies of the entire Serbian people. Newspapers and their supplements propagated theories of a “resurrected Ustasha movement” and reported daily on alleged Ustasha crimes.

It was the golden age of warmongering propaganda, the ideological framework of which was created by academics, writers, historians, and other professionals from the so-called high culture, generously funded by the state budget for decades. The circle around Dobrica Ćosić diligently worked on shaping a Great Serbian ideological agenda, which was further developed by media spearheads. Many literary works mysteriously disappeared from textbooks and reading lists because their authors overnight became labeled as members of enemy nations.

Young people of that time, myself included, grew up in an atmosphere of war, hatred, chauvinism, fear, and despair; caught in a media and cultural quarantine; bewildered and confused by the anthropological catastrophe taking place around them. The infamous Serbian divisions among teenagers followed political lines less and musical tastes more. On one side stood the numerically superior “diesel” crew who conformed to the dominant musical and value framework of the Serbian society. On the other side, a minority contemptuously referred to as “padavičari“, were mostly inclined towards various genres of rock music.

The “diesel” subculture obediently followed the imposed musical and cultural model composed of turbo-folk and dance music, a dominant cult of tough guys, violence, criminals, and machismo where women were viewed as sexual objects, and promoting intolerance towards differences. The imperative of absolute unity, declared from the top of ideological and political power, permeated the entire society. Anyone who stood out was marked as a legitimate target for persecution, regardless of whether it was due to different opinions, nationality, religion, or the music they listened to or their style of dress.

In such an environment, the song “It’s Only 12 O’clock” became an absolute hit in 1993, an inevitable track at birthdays and other parties, a mandatory part of the repertoire in clubs and discos. There wouldn’t be anything strange about another love-themed song becoming immensely popular among the youth if it weren’t for the fact that it was a song by the dance group E.T. (Electro team) from Zagreb. According to the official standards of that time, they were considered an enemy band with enemy music, but that obviously didn’t bother the young generation.

Yugoslavia had fallen apart just a few years earlier, but the inertia of decades of shared life still lingered, and the unity of cultural and popular cultural space was not completely destroyed, despite the intensive work of the propaganda machinery and the powerful generative forces of violence and war. Nationalism and chauvinism had been officially inaugurated as the worldview, but cracks could still appear on its surface, and not all holes were completely filled.

The widespread listening to this song by E.T. did not signify some sudden emancipation of the youth, nor was it a resistance to nationalism. The question of how a Serbian patriot could listen to and adore a song from some “purgeri” (a term for people from Zagreb) didn’t even arise. Music was probably seen as a separate world that had little connection to the war. Consistency and coherence cannot be expected from teenagers and adolescents whose personalities are still forming, especially in a society in disarray where even adults don’t know what is going on. Unlike rigid ideological frameworks where everything is clearly divided and cataloged, reality is much more complex and unpredictable.

At that time, when completely opposing contents coexisted peacefully the most diverse combinations of diverse elements shaped the consciousness of young people. Someone could be a supporter of Slobodan Milošević while at the same time listen to Sonic Youth, Nirvana, and Pearl Jam. The same person who laughed to tears while listening to Šešelj talking on “Maksovizija” about a Chetnik cutting an Ustasha’s throat with a burst-fire, so there was no need to slaughter him, would then go dancing to “It’s Only 12 O’clock.” In the overall madness of that time, nothing seemed unnatural, illogical, or incompatible.

There is an even greater paradox connected to the song by E.T., at least in my memory. In the process of forced and futile socialization, finding myself in a society that I didn’t exactly choose, I was compelled to listen to a Croatian hit that always came with two additional songs as part of the mandatory repertoire. They were “Usne vrele višnje” by Džoni Štulić and “Zenica Blues” by Zabranjeno pušenje, which were nominally closer to our minority, rock world. All three songs were about infidelity, only “It’s Only 12 O’clock” had a different perspective.

It is sung from the perspective of a mistress who breaks established gender stereotypes, the patriarchal system, and – as the Patriarch, Dveri & co. would say today – the traditional values of our people. The protagonist of the song doesn’t want her lover for herself, she doesn’t suffer because he is married, on the contrary: “I don’t need marriage with you / I don’t care that you’re hers.” She’s not even jealous. “Save love for her, find salvation in me,” and the peak of her so-called possessiveness is visible in the lyrics: “I would love to know / Do you think of me when you’re with her.”

On the other hand, the two rock songs, which are supposed to be subversive, actually confirm the dominant patriarchal order, and in its worst, most violent form. In these songs, the betrayed man seeks revenge by killing the lover, and the authors don’t question this act in any way. It’s no wonder that these two songs generated much greater euphoria among the audience, especially the male part, than the song by E.T. Boys and young men were ecstatic with lyrics that glorify acts of homicide, when the protagonist loses his mind and pulls out a knife, “driven by blind madness.” The revelation of successful revenge: “No one returns from Bare” put them in the same mood.

After a few such sessions, I discovered a bizarre truth: They actually can’t wait for their girlfriends to cheat on them so they can have an excuse for violence and murder. Several years later, while reading Radomir Konstantinović, I realized that it wasn’t about individual psychopathology but about the dominant worldview created by cultural and political elites. It revealed that the feeling of being threatened and robbed is the “fundamental feeling of the spirit of the small town” and that this spirit has an instinctive-defensive tendency to perceive itself as a victim of others. Resentment, bitterness, self-victimization, and resentment towards the whole world had their shining moments serving as justification for war and crimes during that time.

E.T.’s hit introduced dissonant tones into the dominant patriarchal culture of violence, revenge, machismo, and death, perhaps unintentionally. The audience, however, didn’t perceive it as subversive, remaining trapped in the jaws of the prevailing system of worthlessness. Nevertheless, within that song, there existed a longing for life and a cry for freedom in a time when life was worth less than a nickel and freedom was sacrificed on the altar of the almighty goddess Nation. Perhaps that’s why it has survived to this day.

Tomislav Marković, journalist and writer. He writes columns for several regional portals: Al Jazeera Balkans, Antena M, Nomad, and Tacno. His articles were also published by Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Vox Europe, The Guardian, and Eurozine. He was a member of the editorial board of the e-novine portal and one of the founders and co-editors of the cultural propaganda kit Beton (2006 – 2013).