What the Hell Is Laibach Doing in North Korea?
The band holds up a mirror to totalitarianism
For two days in August, the Slovenian industrial rock band Laibach played two very strange concerts in North Korea, of all places.
It was certainly some timing. As the band wrapped up, Pyongyang and Seoul traded artillery fire across the demilitarized zone. North Korea threatened war if propaganda loudspeakers on the southern side were not shut off. The two countries are now participating in high-level talks to defuse the crisis.
North Korea has hosted Western music groups before. But this was … Laibach, a band notorious for its totalitarian imagery and which understandably received more attention. “It’s clear it’s probably one of the weirdest music gigs to have happened in the world — let alone North Korea,” the Telegraph observed.
Full disclosure, I’m a huge Laibach fan. But I don’t want to impose my obsession on anyone who is turned off by factory noises, 20th century totalitarian kitsch and guttural covers of The Final Countdown and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar.
Which I would reckon is most people.
That said, if you need an introduction, this John Oliver routine from July when the band announced its trip to North Korea tops anything I could do. But there’s something more significant, subversive and just plain bizarre going on here.
I have a different theory. Laibach’s gigs in North Korea were an elaborate troll.
This is going to take some explanation. First of all, the band emerged from the Slovenian avant-garde scene in the 1980s when Slovenia was still part of socialist Yugoslavia. Then like today, the brand presented an extreme caricature of totalitarianism without ever breaking character.
What is totalitarianism? In short, it’s a political system which imposes total control over all facets of society. Like the Borg, totalitarianism assimilates everything including your own defenses against it — absorbing societies into its collective and discarding what can’t be used.
Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia are the two most horrifying examples. North Korea is another.
Think of Laibach as an artsy, musical simulation of a totalitarian state. The band is the musical wing of the Neue Slowenische Kunst, a provocative shock-art collective which opened its own “embassy” in Moscow and issues fake passports.
The band’s name derives from the politically-charged German name for Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana. It combines right-wing fascist and left-wing communist aesthetics, and transforms Western pop songs into nightmarish martial anthems.
In Laibach’s hands, Queen’s uplifting anthem One Vision becomes a thundering German language war march. Mick Jagger’s line that he “killed the Tsar and his ministers” in Sympathy for the Devil stops sounding ironic and becomes absurdly, gloatingly serious.
But as ridiculous as Laibach appears, the band is warning Western listeners that your music and culture is no less vulnerable to being transformed, manipulated or re-serviced into a means of control. Laibach is holding up a mirror to our own society and the way it treats art, not just totalitarian ones.
We like to think highly of ourselves. Western societies, for example, produced hip-hop. In Russia, pro-government artists now rap about going hard like Vladimir Putin. The British graffiti artist Banksy produces world-renowned anti-capitalist graffiti. His work now fetches exorbitant prices at elite auction houses.
Laibach points a spotlight at that process — and the band did the same thing to North Korea completely straight-faced and got away with it.
“Band members wore the Mao-style ‘people’s suit’ favored by North Korean officials including Kim Jong-un, the country’s supreme leader,” the New York Times noted. The band wore traditional dress and performed Arirang, the Korean folk song and an unofficial anthem of the country.
Having perfected its brand of satire in communist Yugoslavia, Laibach was positioned to pull it off inside North Korea, which very few other artists could do. I don’t want to overstate it — the performances are probably not going to change many minds.
In videos of Laibach’s performances, the largely North Korean audience seemed befuddled. It’s still hilarious and shocking. “Laibach might seem like an odd choice, but you can understand what totalitarian dictator Kim Jong Un might see in Laibach when you watch their video Dance With Laibach,” Oliver joked.
I also don’t think the band is trying to draw a moral equivalence between North Korea and the outside world. Rather, Laibach takes every political system, assimilates them and reflects the mish-mash back to the audience.
After that, the onus is on us to make up our own minds. Which is a subtle and far more cunning method of undermining totalitarianism than perhaps any other.