I’m trying to figure who in Ljubljana — or Pyongyang, for that matter — thinks this is a good idea:
35 years on from their genesis in the then-Yugoslavian industrial town Trbovlje, Laibach are still the most internationally acclaimed band to have come out of the former Communist countries of Eastern and Central Europe. Founded in the death year of then-Yugoslavia’s leader Tito, and rising to fame as Yugoslavia steered towards self-destruction, Laibach have consistently opposed labels of any kind, be they “rock”, “pop”, “techno” or “industrial”. Self-styled engineers of human souls, Laibach can make you think, dance and march to the same music.
In August 2015, Laibach will become the first ever band of its kind to perform in the secretive country of North Korea, a reclusive garrison state as well-known for its military marches, mass gymnastics and hymns to the Great Leader, as for its defiant resistance to Western popular culture.
Laibach’s Liberation Day Tour will coincide with the 70th anniversary of the Korean peninsula’s liberation from Japanese colonization and subsequent division into two enemy states which confront each other in an uneasy truce to this day. The concerts will also be subject of a documentary film scheduled for premiere in 2016.
I’ve long subscribed to the Kanan Makiya school of thought about one-party states and personality-cult dictatorships — that they are works of absurdist art, were deliberately fashioned with that intention, and need to be viewed that way. So, ever since I first came across North Korean media (when I was at San Francisco State University, reading The People’s Korea and listening, whenever I could, to Radio Pyongyang on the shortwave), I’ve always considered the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to be something of a work of art.
A couple of years earlier, while working at KSPC, I discovered Laibach — their full-length cover of Let It Be by The Beatles (oh, for God’s sake, Google them). I even saw them live in San Francisco, describing them as “music to invade Poland by” and noting the show itself was a strange and wonderful pretend kind of absurdist politics. I always though Laibach was something of a complex joke — totalitarian politics as absurdist art. (For example, several people showed up wearing brown SA and black SS uniforms, with a black heart or a rainbow replacing the swatiska in the armband and the death’s head on the hat.) I have a soft spot for this sort of thing.
For example, they could take this Queen song (already chock full o’ fascist images)…
… and turn it into an actual fascist anthem. The kind of thing you might listen to while scheming how to remilitarize the Rhineland or carve up Czechoslovakia.
Or, they take this little Eurovision bubblegum anthem (again, already pregnant with lots of fascist imagery — what was it with europop in the 1980s?)…
… And put it atop a Tiger tank roaring through the Ardennes on it’s way to Paris.
If Laibach is a joke — and honestly, it’s hard to tell — it’s one they’ve been stringing along for the better part of four decades. Long after totalitarian politics stopped having parties, and armies, and ideologies, or even aesthetics. Aside from the catchy “Tanz Mit Laibach,” I’ve not been all that interested in anything Laibach has done since Let It Be (though the collection of national anthems is interesting).
(However, their next album, Spectre — the title probably comes from the first line of The Communist Manifesto — looks really, really interesting…)
North Korea is the final frontier of the sort of thing Laibach is really, really good at. If anyone could do something ironic with the Arirang Festival — the kind of mass spectacle the North Koreans are exceptionally good at — and make it into interesting performance art to back their presentation, then it is Laibach.
But the DPRK is something or an irony-free zone. At least I think it is. It’s hard to tell. Irony is most of what Laibach does. (At least I think so. Again, it’s hard to tell.) I’m not sure anyone in Pyongyang will get the joke that is Laibach. Or know what to do if and when they get the joke.
Or, maybe, just maybe, Laibach has finally met its match when it comes to the party, state, and army as ironic performance art.