Part IX: Pain And Pleasure 2

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“Everyone tells me you’re a hedonist; you look like a sadomasochist. You have everything but you don’t have a soul; emotionally handicapped when it comes to love.” Emina Jahović and Milica Todorović, Limunada

“For the fetishist, it’s the object’s physical connection with the erotic target’s body, as though it has absorbed the person’s hidden ‘essence’, that makes it so arousing.” Jesse Bering, “Perv”

Human sexuality is an endlessly fascinating thing. For instance, what’s the difference between a fetish and a sexual orientation? Feel free to disagree, but in my experience, gay men as a whole have a more fetishistic approach to sex and dating than their straight counterparts. I’ve met guys well over 6 feet tall who say they only date “men taller than me”. I’ve been to kink events where 70 disparate guys united by a shared fetish partied together all evening but didn’t seem interested in even learning each other’s names, let alone staying in touch afterwards or forming friendships or relationships. There are young guys who only date much older men (or “daddies”), slim guys exclusively aroused by fat guys (“chubby chasers”), guys who only date much younger, guys who only date muscle-men. All of these exclusive preferences in relation to sexual partners exist among straight men too, but I’d hazard more rarely; among gay men they seem common to the point of normalization. Not to mention the most frequent occurrence of all, the boyfriend twin, that utmost incarnation of the inherent autoerotic nature of homosexuality – sleeping with your idealized mirror image. Then there’s cruising, sex parties, and the age-old phenomenon of the glory hole, which abstracts any humanity from the sexual act; who needs trust, touch, conversation or eye contact when you can just suck a disembodied dick through a hole in a toilet wall?

When you look at the average profile on a gay male app (“Bottom. No pic no chat. Be athletic. No Asians.”), the discomfitingly impersonal list of requirements and specifications is more reminiscent of someone ordering a custom product from an industrial supplier to fulfil a specific mechanical function than someone wanting to build a relationship based on respect, mutual esteem and an attraction that’s more than just physical. At a talk in London I attended last year, fuzzy Slovenian sex god Slavoj Žižek (whose theoretical gay dating profile name would undoubtedly be “SlaveBoiZizek49”) discussed how as society has become more permissive, we have more casual sex than ever before, but the sex we have is increasingly masturbatory in nature; we don’t care about the other person, we’re just using them to get ourselves off; they may as well be a doll. As a gay guy on the gray-asexual spectrum who can’t separate sexuality from meaning and emotion, half the time the endless, affectless sexual merry-go-round of gay male culture makes me jokingly wish I were a lesbian – whoever heard of lesbian glory holes? For that matter, look at straight male friendships, bonding rituals, brotherhoods, and tell me straight men don’t love each other more than gay men: because they see each other as people first, not as bodies.

In this acclaimed and widely read article, Michael Hobbes describes how gay men are in the grip of a promiscuity-driven loneliness epidemic that they themselves seem to be the cause of. Many seem to see each other only as titillation or as tools to plug a hole in themselves with, literally or emotionally, treating each other as sockets and dispensers rather than human beings – an endless circle of bodies without souls constantly searching for their next hit, emotionally alienated from themselves and disregarding of meaningful human connection. Internalized homophobia and the effects of growing up in a heteronormative society can’t take all the blame here, given that the gay male and lesbian communities differ so greatly in culture and in their typical issues. (Lesbians commonly form intense emotional connections, can’t wait to move in each other and often lose interest in sex once in a partnership – or at least so go the stereotypes based in reality.) Separate men and women among their own kind and I guess they just tick differently, with men’s sexual attraction much more visually driven and women’s more emotionally. Straight women often judge potential partners in terms of whether or not they’d be a great dad, yet for gay men, no similar consideration seems to exist – yet I think that set of values has a worth in and of itself.

So it’s with some reservations on how we fetishize and objectify each other in contemporary society, especially as gay men, that I return to talking about kink and objectification in the world of Serbian turbofolk videos and performances, over a year since the first part of the article. I guess the bottom line is that it’s OK to drool over some guy or girl in a music video as long as you don’t go on to treat people around you as objects. Entertainment is entertainment and life is life. Innit. Right. Onto the videos.

To the sound of dramatic synth stabs, the 2016 clip for Emina Jahović‘s Romeo by Turkish director Nihat Odabasi opens on a homoerotic gym scene full of bare-chested muscle men pumping iron. What’s interesting is how the video teases by only allowing us to see fragmentary glimpses of the men, as well as the fetishistic focus specifically on their legs and immaculate pulled-up sports socks. As the second verse starts, the scene changes to something resembling the gay steel mill from The Simpsons; as beefy welders stripped to the waist don hard hats and literally make the sparks fly, Emina takes up residence in a giant heart-shaped metal module. The lyrics are bitterly defiant: “Sadness is a natural environment, and when I’m by myself, I don’t feel alone. […] the fact that you’re male doesn’t mean that you’re a man […] the fact I’m a woman doesn’t mean I’m a fool. […] Come on, face me, and show everything that you’ve stolen from women. […] Romeo, you’re nothing to me.”

Released a few months later, Emina’s video for Lolo by LCF Media uses two blindfolded male models dressed only in briefs as human furniture, their job being to hold up a five-pointed star in the background. (Would it be overinterpretation to call this a wry take on the human cost of communism?) In the second half, Emina and the two men – still in their underpants but now able to see – interact with a rotating prism of light, at times inside it, at times outside. In one scene, as the two men try to break into the prism, Emina stands inside with one hand raised to its wall, the back of her shirt emblazoned with the words “MUSIC IS THE ANSWER”. It really is: the melody and lyrics are fragile, hopeful and transcendent.

No hunks were harmed in the making of the Mad Max-inspired clip for Džidža’s Kraljica (“Queen”) by flourishing Belgrade filmmakers Tropical Life Is Fun. The 2016 video casts the singer as a post-apocalyptic queen who, aided by two bare-chested thugs on leashes, uses and abuses a male model she keeps shackled in a cage, at one point even chaining him up in a crucifix stance. (This hilarious production outtake shows him accidentally break one of the cell bars.) The lyrics are creepy: “Somewhere beyond the borders I will be your queen […] We both know I’m the best one for you, I wouldn’t destroy your happiness. […] Who am I without your gaze? […] Our blood runs the same color, your fate should be clear. […] Why should you sleep alone in these cold nights? Come here, my darling, I’ll give you everything.” The memorable visuals, hooky songwriting and swirling eastern sounds make for an enjoyably heady mix, which crescendos during the extended instrumental bridge performed on the diple, traditional bagpipes of the Western Balkans.

The TV performance recreates the video pretty successfully: as the second verse begins, model Nenad Pajić (whose heavy eye shadow recalls bruising) is released from the cage and manhandled to the ground by 4 female dancers, where he kneels in front of the singer. When he’s returned to the cage as the song ends, Džidža joins him there so she can get up close and personal with him. It’s Mad Max male sexploitation for a primetime audience: don’t try sex slavery at home, kids.

Last time I visited my local gay S&M club and asked the resident dungeonmaster to punish me for being a bad boy, he strapped me to a leather bed and made me read a 3,100-word thinkpiece by a 20-year-old Ivy League student on how pumpkin spice lattes are cultural appropriation until I begged him for mercy. The bloke in the 2016 video for Milica Pavlović’s Detektiv by daVideo Production has better luck: handcuffed to a grille in the corner of a warehouse, he’s gently taunted by the sexy fishnet-stockinged singer using a riding crop and multi-tailed whip during the rapped bridge. We never find out what he did to deserve this; perhaps he unfollowed her on Instagram. Earlier in the video, Milica flirts with 4 male dancers while wearing knee-high black plastic boots with giant stiletto heels and a clear plastic jacket with a pair of handcuffs dangling from the belt.

Set at a stylized pool party, the colorful clip for Milica’s pumping 2015 dance track Demantujem (“I Refute”) directed by Aleksandar Kerekes similarly features the singer in a variety of alluring fetish outfits, and at one point memorably posing atop a pony. At the conclusion, wearing an eye mask and kinky black dress that barely keeps her breasts under control, she writhes like a cat at the feet of a suited businessman sitting in a chair.

Seksi biznesmeni are also erotically taunted by a diva in the remarkably horny 2004 stage performance of Zašto tako naopako (“Why So Topsy-Turvy?”) by Indira Radić. Two young male gym bunnies stand on stage wearing full business suits before Indira gradually strips them down to their briefs, revealing their muscular physiques, which the camera savors. Indira is also notable for featuring turbofolk’s first gay kiss in her 2008 video for Pije mi se pije (“I Just Want To Drink”) directed by Vedad Jasarević.

More forced stripping occurs in Jelena Karleuša’s live performance of Ide maca oko tebe (which Google Translate renders as “The pussy is around you”). Whenever Jelena performs this number in a club, she selects a guy from the audience to come on stage and be stripped down to his undies by her and her two female dancers over the course of the song. The fact it’s a standard part of her routine means that the audience knows what to expect and the guys who go up on stage are generally up for it, enjoying the mild embarrassment in front of their friends whatever their physique. Notably, Jelena doesn’t default to picking a slim, conventionally attractive young guy every time – she’ll get guys of any age or shape to come up on stage and lose their clothes as long as they’re game.

For a long time, Karleuša’s performance of her classic dance hit Još te volim (“I Still Love You”) at her 2010 Belgrade Arena concert was the benchmark for turbofolk kink, featuring as it does 6 male dancers in full bondage harnesses who emerge from behind a leather wall as the video backdrop shows Jelena cavorting in fetish gear. As the song climaxes, they strap Jelena into a harness of a different kind, and she flies over the rapturous audience.

Directed by Petar Pašić, whose features featured prominently in the last edition, the seamy clip for Separe by Aleksandra Prijović released in summer 2017 contains what feels like every fetish in the book – from riding crops, ball gags and spanking to women in bondage outfits using urinals, a man being trampled by high heels and wrapped in full-body cellophane, and a woman getting a fork in the buttock. (Plus a shirtless dwarf, obviously.) The action is shot in low-light using obtuse camera angles and edited in a staccato, fragmentary fashion, so we never get a clear view of the myriad kinky hijinks. It’s an interesting directorial choice designed to whet viewers’ appetite while leaving them unsatiated, thereby building an element of erotic denial directly into the video’s aesthetic. The lyrics describe a woman moving on after being mistreated and cheated on: “The place where you hit me will never hurt again, because the place where you kiss me hurts more than I can bear. That’s why I’m leaving while there’s still time. […] You had me, but you gave yourself to her. You kissed me, and it was like I had wings. You trod on me, and even then I enjoyed it.”

Featuring similar themes to the Bad Romance video, the clip for Dunja Ilić’s excellent Noc je, zvezdana (“It’s A Starry Night”) from 2012 opens with the singer being thrown into a cage wearing a black corset and eye patch. She’s the prisoner of a mysterious bronzed muscle-man who sits bare-chested on a red leather throne surrounded by chains, candles and human skulls (probably all from IKEA), his face partly covered by a monstrous breathing apparatus that looks like it came straight from the world of HR Giger. My favorite thing about this video is the sudden, unexpected high-res footage of a housefly halfway through – it’s exactly the sort of disconcerting element that shows the genre’s willingness to unnerve and that would never appear in a mainstream Western pop video for fear of scaring off consumers. The lyrics darkly describe the singer’s attraction to a bad boy: “Who should I ask where you are tonight – the devil or God, when you’re a bit of both? […] Take me away from this monotony, everything is so intense with you. […] I’d even go to hell with you, your gaze promises me madness, and I’ll sell my soul just for that.”

One of my favorite performances of 2016 was this stage-owning appearance by rapper Sajsi MC, previously featured in Part 1. Dressed in full dominatrix getup including a corset, arm-length transparent black gloves and above-the-knee fetish boots, Sajsi gives a darkly sexual guest performance of her discordant and structurally unconventional track Sedativ. The context is everything: it’s an imperious and threatening tonal intervention staged during a family-friendly Sunday-evening folk-singing show in front of a studio audience of old ladies. Everything about it feels revolutionary, and it just gets more intense and uncompromising – when the synths come in halfway through then again at the end even harder, it’s a true auralgasm. Sajsi never cracks a smile throughout, but you can tell she’s enjoying herself and in complete control. Stars including Jovan Perišić and Savo Perović look on from the couches behind.

Andrej Ilić’s 2016 video for Gad (“Cad”) by Stefani Pavlović and Milena Ćeranić utilizes the same male model in two roles – half-naked, so we can enjoy lingering close-ups of his six-pack and rippling shoulder muscles, and fully clothed but roped to a chair. Good to know his uses; perhaps if there’s a follow-up he can do some DIY. The lyrics describe the two women coming to realize the same guy has cheated on them with each other, before they come together “to destroy this cad”. A couple more examples of fetish-lite are the 1995 black-and-white video for Mira Skorić’s Devojke vruće (“Hot Girls”), featuring a coterie of half-naked male models in a rudimentary mockup of an S&M dungeon, and last year’s clip for Lepa Brena’s Carica (“Tsarina”) by Toxic Entertainment, which features outlandish outfits and portrays its 55-year-old protagonist as part of a strange, sexually charged domestic ménage a trois.

Women in balaclavas, black corsets and fishnet stockings wield assault rifles in Toxic Entertainment’s black-and-white 2015 video for Kalašnjikov by rapper Teča, which interpolates the eponymous track by Goran Bregović and adds rapping, bullet sounds and dancers from Belgrade Pole Dance Academy (because of course that exists).

A similar gangster vibe but with reversed genders is on display in the video for Crna duša (“Black Soul”) by Anđela Veštica, a former porn actress who earlier this year survived a shooting by her boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend. Largely filmed in a concrete underpass and featuring a gang of heavily tattooed shirtless thugs, it’s an atmospheric mélange of aggressive rap and traditional Balkan choral vocals, which fold in during the pre-chorus to great effect. This is one of my favorite songs of 2017.

Wearing a dominatrix outfit complete with ring choker and a black plastic police cap that looks like it came from the nearest sex shop, a truncheon-wielding Goga Sekulić interrogates two men strapped to chairs with cloth sacks over their heads in Boris Zec’s video for Red i zakon (“Law And Order”) released in summer 2017. In the background, guards in military attire with assault rifles strapped across their chests stand menacingly with their faces covered, as a shadowy man smoking a cigar observes proceedings from a sofa and Goga restrains a bemused but enthusiastic Doberman on a leash. It’s très Abu Ghraib y’all. The song itself, by superproducers Coby and Rasta from the Balkaton hip-hop label, ain’t half bad.

In a lackluster guest performance of her fantastic dance song Nemoj sa njim (which is actually an Israeli cover) at the 2015 Pink Music Festival, singer Seka Aleksić perches in a stylized metal throne wearing a silver skin-tight rubber dress while four guys wearing mouth gags dance around her. The song title translates as “Don’t Go With Him”, and the lyrics describe Seka’s internal conflict – desperate for some passion, she goes home with a guy for a one-night stand despite her inner voice urging her not to. She overrules her doubts, telling herself “tonight I want someone who isn’t right for me”.

A partial remake of Mariah Carey’s Heartbreaker video mixed with a healthy dose of Anaconda, Dejan Milićević’s clip for Voli me voli me (“Love Me, Love Me”) features a scene where singer Ana Nikolić writhes in front of a topless male model strapped to a chair. The cinema-set video ends with Ana beating up another woman in the ladies’ toilet before returning to her seat and pouring her soft drink on her date’s groin. (Or as it’s known in Widnes, “Saturday”.)

Also helmed by Dejan Milićević, the terrible video for Indy’s Čka kosmička features the singer simulating sex with a giant teddy bear as a shirtless male model wields a riding crop, before flirting with a suited businessman while wearing a dominatrix corset and red stilettos, and finally lying down astride a model train track and smiling in pleasure as a toy train supposedly rides up her vagina. (Makes a change from “leaves on the line”.) All in an afternoon’s work. The song is a cover of Bulgarian singer Tedi Aleksandrova’s 2015 megahit Chalga Peperudki, the video for which itself featured the singer being pushed around in a shopping cart by two male dwarves while taunting them with a baby bottle full of milk.

When men of any orientation see their erotic targets as objects not people, feel entitled to them and fail to respect their boundaries, and when women are denied agency and treated as chattels and property, issues like dominance and control are no longer freely negotiable on a level playing field, let alone in the playful context of BDSM and kink. You can’t toy with submissiveness for fun if submission is forced on you every day; you can’t dominate lovingly if you already dominate coldly. In the grammar of how we interact with each other, our love must be dative, not instrumental. That’s why I’m ending this edition the way I started it, with Limunada, one of the best and most unusual Serbian pop songs of the year – it’s melancholy yet hopeful, and strongly centers female solidarity by pairing two of Serbia’s biggest female stars together in wistful sisterly commiseration at What Men Are Like. “You’re like Pablo Escobar when it comes to love,” bemoan the two friends, while dancing together and taking care of each other in a dayglo escapist fantasy world created by Serbian visual artist Ljubba. “All we want to do is drink lemonade and eat chocolate, somewhere away from the city.”

Sometimes thought of as a 50-Shades-style optional extra to spice up sex and make it more interesting, a fetish can be core to someone’s sexual identity, or even constitute their primary sexual orientation. The psychology of kink continues to be the subject of research, but one theory I find intuitively logical is the suggestion that a lot of fetishes – and there are a lot – have their roots in childhood psychosexual fears, which is why so many of them are of things that are frightening (uniforms, pain, bondage, subjugation, plaster casts, missing limbs, balloons popping, giants, clowns, medical procedures, asphyxiation) or gross (urine, farting, mud, vomit etc.). Kinks may be a psychosexual defense mechanism whereby the developing brain sexualizes a stimulus that it finds too overwhelming to process in order to render it safe. I think another incredibly appropriate and useful model for understanding sexual fetishes is as a sort of sexual synesthesia, where instead of sounds being perceived as colors or tastes as shapes, other types of interaction stand in for intercourse, and other body parts (such as feet or hands) or objects become the primary erotic focus in place of the genitalia. This concept of erotic target location errors explains why some fetishes are more common than others, and indeed has some speculative biological grounding in the case of the foot fetish: the genitalia and feet are located next to each other in our brains’ cortical homunculus of sensory input, so this common kink at least may simply be a matter of overlapping wires.

That’s all for this time. And apropos wires, who knows: if the field of teledildonics continues to make advances, maybe the next edition of Queer As Turbofolk will be ‘coming’ to you not as words and images but as a series of intimate vibrations. After all, we’re in the post-truth era – it’s not about facts, ethics or rationalism, it’s about what you feel, and who needs Queer As Turbofolk when, armed with just a VR headset, haptic feedback pod and wifi-enabled technophallus, you can have virtual sex with Dado Polumenta that’s so realistic he even cries hot regretful tears onto your lower abdomen for 20 minutes afterwards?

Until then, we’ll have to make do with good old text. And music. And videos. Keep it kinky, and remember: music is the answer.