Ewa Mazierska and Zsolt Győri (eds.): Eastern European Popular Music in a Transnational Context: Beyond the Borders

London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019, ISBN: 9783030170332, 243 p.

Ivana Medić
Eastern Europe, popular music, borders, capitalism, market, socialism, post-socialism.

This book is a recent addition to the series Palgrave European Film and Media Studies. Edited by Ewa Mazierska, Professor of Film Studies at the University of Central Lancashire, and Zsolt Győri, Assistant Professor at the University of Debrecen, Institute of English and American Studies, the book engages with an often overlooked topic, namely, the state (and status) of Eastern European popular music in a transnational context. In the “Introduction”, the editors emphasise two main reasons for choosing popular music as their object of study over other genres. According to them, popular music is particularly adept at crossing national borders because its market is more global than that of classical music. In addition, popular music is more international than folk music. Both claims are highly debatable, not to mention that there are various genres of contemporary music in which the categories of classical and popular, or folk and popular, overlap.

The book is divided into eleven chapters written by ten authors (some chapters are co-authored, and three authors have contributed to more than one chapter). The authors approach their chosen topics using a variety of methodologies, ranging from investigations rooted in postcolonial studies to specific auto-ethnographies. The chapters vary in their scope and ambition, resulting in uneven quality. While the title of the book implies that the collection encompasses the entirety of geographical and conceptual Eastern Europe, the authors mostly focus on individual countries, namely Poland, Hungary, Romania, former Czechoslovakia, and former Yugoslavia, with just a few authors discussing issues from a broader, pan-(Eastern)-European perspective. The editors have made an unusual decision to leave out the entire former Soviet Union (i.e. the countries that emerged after its downfall), except for Estonia, from their investigations because they feared that the inclusion of former Soviet countries, in particular Russia, “because [of] its very size and specific relation to the rest of Eastern Europe would result in marginalizing many countries we would like to cover and add to the complexity of the investigation” (Mazierska, Győri 2019: 3). While such reasoning is understandable, it still leaves an enormous Russia-shaped hole and makes the present volume inevitably chipped.1

Another unusual feature of this book is that, although the main topic of research is popular music, none of the contributors is a music scholar; instead, the authors’ areas of expertise encompass anthropology, cultural studies, linguistics, film and media studies, philosophy, sociology, history, art history and theory of art. This results in an ‘outsider’ perspective; generally, the focus is either on certain key protagonists of the popular music scene(s) in the aforementioned countries; or, on how popular music is distributed, consumed, perceived, accepted, or rejected in certain societies; or, on the various roles that specific popular music genres play in these countries, including their ability to foster communication both among separate societies and among different social strata within each one of them.

As the editors correctly point out, the transnational character of Eastern European popular music has been limited, due to numerous unfavourable circumstances throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. Eastern European popular music (especially pop-rock and related genres) has consistently followed the dominant Anglo-American models, even during the decades of the Cold War divide, whereas “it would be difficult to find a band from the United Kingdom or the United States, which marketed itself as an act whose ambition was to appeal to Eastern European audiences or which was inspired by music from Eastern Europe” (Mazierska, Győri 2019: 3). Another important observation is that, after the end of the Cold War, the position of Eastern European music “declined, because it lost its old protection on the domestic and regional markets, as import embargoes of western music were lifted” (ibid.: 6). This also led to the destruction of Eastern European record companies. The editors aptly assert that during the communist rule “the political economy of popular music was distorted by ideological premises and the constant search for the role of popular culture in state socialist society” (ibid.: 6), which restricted Eastern European music industries from following the (Western) market principles of supply and demand, and thus contributed to their peripheral status. On the other hand, popular music had a “lower” status within the Eastern European countries themselves, because the Soviet model of culture, which was implemented in all of these countries, established a hierarchy of cultural products, where classical music was regarded as the most valuable; and within the umbrella term of popular music, there also existed a hierarchy of genres, based on the criteria of their presumed “authenticity” (or the lack of it).

As to the concept of “international”, the editors were interested “in two-way traffic: from elsewhere to the Eastern European country and from the Eastern European country to abroad” (Mazierska, Győri 2019: 10), whilst juxtaposing two contrasting approaches: “cultural imperialism”, which concerns international relations, and “aesthetic cosmopolitanism”, which aims to transcend national and cultural boundaries.

The first part of the book, “Bringing Foreign Music to the European East”, begins with an interesting chapter by Adam Havlík, who examines how popular Western music was distributed in communist Czechoslovakia in the 1970s and the 1980s, be it legally (via radio, licensed LP records and such), or, more commonly, illegally. Havlík discusses the “fetish” of foreign music records and their symbolic capital and then describes elaborate procedures for smuggling these precious goods (e.g. LPs, cassettes, posters, music magazines, and such). Havlík has managed to locate a number of these former smugglers, as well as their regular customers, which has enabled him to recreate a vivid history of illegal music markets and other sites where Western music was distributed and consumed.

In the next chapter, Ewa Mazierska and Xawery Stańczyk investigate the reasons why Leonard Cohen enjoyed unusual popularity in communist Poland, observing several stages of Cohen’s Polish reception. Stańczyk is also the author of the third chapter, dedicated to “orientalism” in Polish popular music, especially in 1980s alternative rock, when the protagonists of that scene “self-orientalised” in a quest for authenticity (even if “being authentic” actually meant appropriating someone else’s culture). Stańczyk argues that “orientalism in Polish music took three forms: banal exoticism popular in Polish music after the war; ideologically motivated ennoblement of ethnic and folk music, both local and foreign; and the quest for an authenticity and originality in the theatre of Jerzy Grotowski and his followers that preceded similar endeavours in music” (Mazierska, Győri 2019: 85). In his very interesting (and self-deprecatingly auto-reflexive) chapter on Estonia as a “punk frontier”, Aimar Ventsel shares his vast experience (and numerous anecdotes) from working as a booking agent, and organising concerts of international punk, ska and garage bands in a club in Tartu.

The second part of the book, “Eastern European Music Crossing the Borders”, opens with Mariusz Gradowski’s profound discussion of the career of Czesław Niemen, and his “failure” to make a career abroad (i.e., in the West). While highly acclaimed in his native Poland, Niemen (real surname Wydrzycki) could not achieve the same level of success in other countries, although not for the lack of opportunities, but due to his refusal to offer an easily digestible version of his art to Western consumers. An excellent chapter by Ewa Mazierska sheds light on the collaboration between Polish and Yugoslav musicians in the 21st century, most notably Goran Bregović’s joint projects with the Polish singers Kayah and Krzysztof Krawczyk. Mazierska uncovers many layers of these collaborations, including the initial rationale for them, an analysis of the resulting products, and their very different reception, caused by the fact that the Krawczyk-Bregović collaboration was perceived as a copy of Bregović’s previous, very successful collaboration with Kayah.

The following chapter, unfortunately, does not match the quality of Mazierska’s contribution. The authors, Munich-based philosopher Slobodan Karamanić and art historian Manuela Unverdorben, write about two types of Balkan music that emerged after the dissolution of the SFR Yugoslavia, namely “Balkan world music” and “Balkan pop-folk music”. However, the authors recycle some unproductive cliches about Balkan pop folk, due to the fact that they rely mostly on older literature (from the turn of the millennium) and disregard numerous recent writings, which offer more nuanced views on these genres and their societal and political impact (e.g. Dumnić 2012, Medić 2014, Wilson 2020, Gligorijević 2020, Dumnić Vilotijević 2020). (This chapter was originally published in 2009 in German and then translated and expanded for the present volume, without much additional research.)

The final section of the book, “Liminal Spaces of Eastern European Music Festivals”, comprises three articles. The authors offer a variety of perspectives: for example, Dean Vuletic expands on his previous research into the Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) and offers a comparative view of the Intervision Song Contest (ISC), a competition which was organised in the Eastern Bloc – to be precise, in Czechoslovakia (1965–1968), and in Poland (1977–1980). The ISC in both of its incarnations could not succeed in increasing the visibility and viability of Eastern European pop music in the western markets, although the festival organisers invited guest performers from western Europe. Moreover, rather than promoting the genres of Eastern European music with any pretence of authenticity, the ISC confirmed the omnipresence of Western cultural influences. The same conclusion is drawn by Zsolt Győri, who offers a comprehensive analysis of Hungary’s largest summer music festival – the Sziget. Instead of promoting local talent and facilitating their international breakthrough, the festival is primarily aimed at affluent Western audiences, catering to their musical tastes and preferences.

On the other hand, Ruxandra Trandafoiu analyses the biggest electro-dance music festival in Romania, the Untold festival, taking place in the city of Cluj-Napoca in Transylvania, the region famed (or notorious) throughout the world for its association with ‘gothic’ themes, i.e., stories about vampires and other fantastic creatures. The festival organisers widely utilise this gothic and fairy-tale imagery and the imaginary legacy of Transylvania because it facilitates the branding of this festival.

The overwhelming impression after reading this edited collection is that the internationalisation of the Eastern European music market after the dissolution of the Eastern Bloc did not result in an increase of interest in music coming from this area – be it due to language barrier(s), the producers’ lack of experience competing in a market-oriented music industry, the loss of local record companies which could not survive the economic transition towards a liberal-capitalist model, the lack of powerful music managers and bookers with strong international ties, or simply the still omnipresent hegemony of Anglo-American models, supported by the type of infrastructure that is still lacking in Eastern Europe. Whereas popular music from Eastern Europe continues to pursue its goal of crossing borders, finding new audiences, and becoming internationally relevant, the obstacles are still too numerous and hard to overcome.

Ivana Medić
Institute of Musicology, Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts


1 For this area, cf. the special issue of Apparatus 13 (2021): Putting the Empire to Music. The Phenomenon of Vocal-Instrumental Ensembles (VIA), https://www.apparatusjournal.net/index.php/apparatus/issue/view/23.


Dr Ivana Medić is Principal Research Fellow of the Institute of Musicology, Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts, Associate Professor at the Department of Multimedia Design of the School of Computing in Belgrade, and Visiting Research Fellow of the Centre for Russian Music, Goldsmiths, University of London. She received her doctorate from the University of Manchester in 2010. She is President of the Serbian Musicological Society and a convener of the BASEES Study Group for Slavonic and East European Music (SEEM). She won the “Stana Đurić Klajn” award for the best musicological monograph in 2019. She is Head of the project Applied Musicology and Ethnomusicology in Serbia: Making the Difference in Contemporary Society financed by the Serbian Science Fund. She has written five books and edited ten collections of essays.


Dumnić, Marija. 2012. “This Is the Balkans: Constructing Positive Stereotypes about the Balkans and Autobalkanism”, In D. Despić, J. Jovanović, D. Lajić-Mihajlović (eds.), Musical Practices in the Balkans: Ethnomusicological Perspectives, Belgrade: Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts: Institute of Musicology, Department of Fine Arts and Music, 345–356.

Dumnić Vilotijević, Marija. 2020. “The Balkans of the Balkans: The Meaning of Autobalkanism in Regional Popular Music.” Arts 9, no. 2: 70.

Günther, Clemens and Christiane Schäfer (ed.). 2021. Putting the Empire to Music. The Phenomenon of Vocal-Instrumental Ensembles (VIA). Special issue of Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 13. DOI: https://doi.org/10.17892/app.2021.00013.

Medić, Ivana. 2014. “Arhai’s Balkan Folktronica: Serbian Ethno Music Reimagined for British market.” Muzikologija-Musicology 16: 105–127.

Gligorijević, Jelena. 2020. “Contested Racial Imaginings of the Serbian Self and the Romani Other in Serbia’s Guča Trumpet Festival.” Arts 9, no. 2: 52.

Mazierska, Ewa and Zsolt Győri (eds.). 2019. Eastern European Popular Music in a Transnational Context: Beyond the Borders. London.

Wilson, Dave. 2020. “Not Different Enough: Avoiding Representation as ‘Balkan’ and the Constrained Appeal of Macedonian Ethno Music.” Arts 9, no. 2: 45.

Suggested Citation

Medić, Ivana. 2023. Review: “Ewa Mazierska and Zsolt Győri (eds.): Eastern European Popular Music in a Transnational Context: Beyond the Borders”. Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 17. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.17892/app.2023.00017.313.

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