Subject: Book Review: This is
Sent: Wed, 12 Sep 2001
From: "Eric D. Gordy" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
To: Kristina Mihalec <email@example.com>
Matthew Collin, This is Serbia Calling: Rock 'n' Roll Radio and Belgrade's Underground Resistance (London: Serpent's Tail Press, 2001); 245 pp., 9.99 GBP, 15.00 USD
Reviewed by Eric Gordy (Department of Sociology, Clark University), e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Matthew Collin has written the first history of the independent Belgrade radio station, cultural guerrilla force and publisher B-92 (full disclosure: "Samizdat B-92" is the publisher of the Serbo-Croatian translation of the reviewer's last book, and also of Collin's book currently under review), from its temporal founding in 1989 until the demise of the Milosevic regime in 2000. The book draws extensively on already published research, but the literature on this subject so far does not extend far past 1997, and Collin is now the first to have brought the chronicle up to date. If the book were not well researched, briskly written and entertaining (which it is), this would be reason enough to make it worthy of attention.
There are a few moments of hyperbole in the description of "Belgrade, city of chaos," but this is probably to be expected in a journalistic work written for a popular audience. The author compensates for these melodramatizations of the general with detailed and balanced observation of specifics. If a few sensational lines are the price of getting the story of cultural resistance in Belgrade to a wide public, it is probably a price worth paying--especially since Collin is a clever enough writer to pull it off with style. Most importantly, he captures the feelings of dislocation and confusion among young people in Belgrade who did not expect Milosevic to succeed in holding power and did not expect the political rivalries of the former Yugoslavia to develop into war.
Collin has done extensive interviews with the central figures of B-92, from the creators and directors of the station to the on-air personalities, journalists and cultural activists. This allows him to present the most thorough discussion so far of the development of the station. He presents the story of how the early aesthetic and personal confrontations between Veran Matic and Nenad Cekic (now director of Radio Index) led to the development of B-92's unique profile, a combination of professional journalism, subcultural zajebavanje, an "extremist music policy" (p. 27) and performative applications of the alienation effect. This also explains the continued rivalry between the two stations, even during the period of intensified media repression when they were the only independent stations in Belgrade, occasionally shut down and their signals frequently blocked. Collin's narrative also reminds readers of the hilariously original "actions" staged by B-92 in the first years of the war--the "March of the fat people" during the period of food shortages in 1993, the "All the president's babies" action in which people rather directly challenged Milosevic to show concern for families, and Veran Matic's phone calls in the character of "Vojo, your old friend from the Army" to random residents of Ljubljana, asking if he could stay over to attend Milosevic's "truth meetings." At the same time, the narrative points to instances of rare political courage--reporting the movements of the military police, confronting military officers in the field--and to the huge emotional importance B-92 took on for its listeners. On a sadder note, Collin offers a poignant summation of the film Geto, B-92's elegy to the murder of urban culture in Belgrade, which featured the late drummer and urban legend Goran Cavajda-Cavke.
Although he has done considerable original research, Collin writes in a popular style and presents the book as a work of journalism rather than as political or social research. But he makes heavy use of previously published research, including work by your friendly reviewer. The effect is not merely to reproduce or popularize existing texts, because Collin adds something new and crucial. His previous book, Altered State, explored ecstasy and acid house culture in Britain, and his journalistic work over the years on music, popular culture and politics has prepared him to speak authoritatively about aesthetic and experiential issues in club culture in a way earlier social researchers have not been able to do. While there are now quite a few treatments in the literature of B-92 as a journalistic and political phenomenon, Collin is able to discuss the meaning of their playlists, and why it matters that the station stuck to an eclectic musical format which was far from popular among listeners, especially older ones. Any readers curious about the playlist can consult the second appendix to the book, which gives B-92's top ten album lists from 1991 to 1999. He has understood and used the appropriate research, and added a dash of drum 'n bass, surrealist politics (yes, he cites Ljubomir Micic) and football.
Collin's insight into the role of art--music as soundscape, and surrealism as disruption--may be the most welcome part of the analysis, since so little of this has been done even in existing research on alternative cultural movements in Milosevic-era Serbia. He explains how the anarchy of B-92's musical and talk programs formed a whole with the independence of its journalistic programs, a station which was radical throughout. He also makes clear why the oppositional character of Belgrade's garage musicians was not defined simply by musical sloganeering or performance at rallies. B-92's success in preserving the independent orientation of urban culture was itself a blow to the regime--and the reason Uros Djuric describes the station as a "soul ambulance" (p. 119).
So why did it receive so little support from international governments which claimed to be interested in democratic change in Serbia, and in the spread of objective information? These governments remained silent when the station was shut down, leading Veran Matic to speculate, "Perhaps someone out there would prefer to see us removed completely--as the final proof that Serbia is home only to nationalism, war-mongering and sheer brutality" (p. 147). The emotional and informational function the station had for its audience mattered only to the broadcasters and listeners themselves, people who were in principle unrepresented. The regime was willing to move between tolerating the station as a sign of its "tolerance" and banning it when it became inconvenient. For international leaders who found it useful to maintain Milosevic as both pariah and negotiating partner, independent alternatives ranged from uninteresting to annoying. Collin has few kind words for the "international community" which consistently failed to support alternative voices, then quickly claimed credit when the cultural and political opposition to the regime finally defeated it.
This book ought to make a useful part of any library on the contemporary Balkans, and its accessible style makes it a good candidate for inclusion on the reading lists for undergraduate courses. But if a bizarre impression I have received is correct, it may not make it to many of them: if my quick and cursory check of the listings at amazon.com is accurate, this book, published by the London-based Serpent's Tail Press, is not available for purchase in the United States. Note to American publishers: get your act together.