Pop-rock music and changing attitudes to the personality cult of Josip Broz Tito

In 2012, the right-wing populist regime in North Macedonia erected a new monument to Tito in the center of Skopje, indicating he had more admirers than haters within the electorate. Photo by Filip Stojanovski, CC BY 3.0

Today, the number of declared Yugo-nostalgics who nurture the personality cult of Josip Broz Tito is rather small. However, judging by the backlash against recent statements by Bulgarian politicians who described him as a totalitarian dictator, one can infer that many people consider the long-gone Yugoslav leader a generally positive historical personality in North Macedonia.

While Macedonian officials (with exception of the Mayor of Skopje) took the high road and didn't directly react to the provocative statements, they were discussed at length on social networks and in cafés (allowed under lax COVID-19 protocols).

Arguments against the idea that Tito was an evil dictator are rooted in perceptions about the fundamental differences between him and Stalin, though the differences between the political systems they led resulted in different kinds of personality cults. However, public debate on these issues, as well as academic research on actual beliefs about the legacy of Federal Yugoslavia, are sorely lacking.

From my experience, the generations of children born in Yugoslavia in the 1970s reacted to the break-up of the value system that put Tito on a pedestal with a growing dose of cynicism. Despite official propaganda (which gradually decreased after his death in May 1980) Yugoslav teenagers of that era were more interested in rock songs that challenged the established image of Tito.

These were the children who as babies had been exposed to patriotic songs like “You can count on us” (“Računajte na nas”) by Rani Mraz from 1978, and “Comrade Tito we swear to you” (“Druže Tito mi ti se kunemo”) by pop star Zdravko Čolić from 1980.

In “You can count on us” the singer-songwriter Đorđe Balašević said he “made these lyrics as a pledge to Tito,” assuring that his increasingly Westernized generation (“in the name of all of us born in the 1950s”) would not betray the ideals of the anti-fascist revolution which created Yugoslavia during  World War II, “as the blood of partisans flows through our veins”:

Sumnjaju neki da nosi nas pogrešan tok
Jer slušamo ploče i sviramo rok
Al’ negde u nama je bitaka plan
I kažem vam, šta dobro znam
Računajte na nas

Some people doubt that we are misled
Since we listen to [vinyl] records and play rock [music]
But somewhere within us the flame of the battles still glows
And I tell you what I know well
Count on us

The lyrics of Zdravko Čolić's song were actually a version of a somber patriotic anthem from the 1942 battle of Kozara, whose headline lyrics became an official state/ruling party slogan: “Comrade Tito we swear to you that we will not stray from your path.” Čolić's song was released as a single record, and the B-side “On Tito's path” (“Titovim putem”) was also popular.

Godine su prošle pune muka.
Ginulo se za slobodu nijemo
ili s pjesmom umesto jauka,
Druže Tito mi ti se kunemo.

The years have passed full of torment
One died for freedom in silence
or with a song instead of a moan,
Comrade Tito, we swear to you.

A few years later, those born during Tito's lifetime could identify with at least two-thirds of the song “The Three Times I Saw Tito” (“Triput sam video Tita”). Its author was again Balašević, who more than anyone reflected the Yugoslav zeitgeist. Balašević shared his childhood experiences as a participant in a mass rally when the president visited his city, then an occasion when Tito came to his concert, and at the end, the outpouring of grief across the country around Tito's funeral. The song concludes that Tito lives on in all the good things that have been built around Yugoslavia, its freedom and peace.

1980s rockers question Tito's image

In their own way, Sarajevo rock band Zabranjeno pušenje referenced this song in a parody in 1999, with a scene of a child dressed as one of Tito's Pioneers playing for the president in the video for their song “Jugo 45.”

Zabranjeno pušenje was once the subject of a scandal when its singer joked at a 1984 concert in Rijeka, Croatia, that “The Marshall croaked,” allegedly referring to a malfunctioning electronic amplifier. As “the Marshall” was Tito's military title this attracted the attention of the secret police. The media blamed the band for offending the state and their tour and TV show were discontinued. Contrary to then-widespread rumors, band members were not arrested.

Thanks to increasing liberalization, Zabranjeno pušenje were soon back touring, making songs alluding to Tito and social issues. One such hit was 1985's “The Sunday when Hase left” (“Nedjelja kad je otišo Hase”) nominally about the last game of Bosnian football player Asim Ferhatović Hase in 1966.

The descriptions of the sports fans’ behavior were widely interpreted as mourning for Tito. The song ends on a high note, with the crowd saluting their favorite player and patriotically cheering the name of the Union: “Everybody forward, there's only one Hase! Yu-go-slavia, Yu-go-slavia!”

However, their 1987 song “Day of the Republic” (“Dan Republike”) is full of gloom. It describes a disappointed, drunken father, a veteran of the Second World War, who badmouths the opportunism of younger compatriots, and the unraveling the socialist ideals. The song refers to the incoming economic depression, as “the old man” wants to open the windows and shout on November 29, but his wife says their stove isn't working (it's too cold).

It was also Balašević who bade farewell to Tito as a state symbol with his song “Requiem,” from the 1988 album “Panta Rei” which anticipated the violent breakup of Yugoslavia, starting with street protests of “hungry workers” and the swindling of the naïve citizenry by the ruling class.

Ostaće u knjigama i priča o nama:
Balkan krajem jednog veka.
Svako pleme crta granicu.
Svi bi hteli svoju stranicu…
Tope se snovi kao sante, ej Komandante…

A story about us will remain in history books:
The Balkans at the end of a century
Each tribe draws its border.
Everyone would like their own page…
Dreams melt like icebergs, hey Commander…

It is framed as a conversation between the poet and “the Commander,” another synonym for  Tito. It starts with admitting that he no longer sings his once popular song “You can count on us,” which is all but forgotten. At the end of the song, Tito is humanized, addressed with a simple “[hey] man.”

I kad god prođem ulicom sa tvojim imenom
pomislim na panta rei…
Baciće se, tako, neki lik
kamenom i na tvoj spomenik.
Jer sve se menja, i sve teče… Čoveče.

And whenever I pass the street with your name
I think of panta rhei
One of these days some bloke
will throw a rock on your monument too
Because everything changes, and everything flows… Man.

Anti-communist backlash

The 1980s ended with a full-blown comparison of the ruling Communist Party to an organized crime syndicate by Belgrade hard rock band Riblja Čorba. They turned the state propaganda slogan “Tito is ours, we are Tito's” upside down with the dismissive “Tito is yours” (“Tito je vaš”). (The Serbian word “vaš” is also short for “vaška”—”a louse.”)

Tito je vaš
A vi ste titovi
i ja vam nisam za to kriv

Tito is yours (“a louse”)
And you are Tito's
and that is not my fault

The title of their 1990 album “Koza nostra” is a transliteration of the name of the Sicilian Mafia Cosa Nostra, and the song “A Member of the Mob” (“Član mafije”) refers to people who obtain their party cards for personal gain at the expense of ordinary people. Moreover, the song “Al Kapone” compared Tito to the infamous American gangster, declaring him the “king of crime and big vermin,” and one of the most evil dictators:

Prema njemu Idi Amin
Lekovit je k'o vitamin
Al Kapone
Prema njemu je Bokasa
Human kao Vojska Spasa
Al Kapone

Compared to him, Idi Amin
is as curative as a vitamin
Al Capone
Compared to him, Bokassa
is as humane as the Salvation Army
Al Capone

Not all Yugoslav kids of the 1970s subscribed to the full regimen of pop-rock's treatment of Tito from hero to villain. Compared to the horrors of the 1990s, many grew to view his reign as rather benevolent.

In the following decades, the citizens of successor states of Yugoslavia with authoritarian personalities in need of a nationalist founding father figure found ample replacements for Tito among the much less illustrious heads of political parties. Many such politicians were members of former Communist political dynasties turned right-wing populists, who “invested” taxpayer funds into building new personality cults.


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