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In 2015, the Slovenian industrial rock band Laibach performed two concerts in Pyongyang. This is thought to be the first time a rock band of this variety has ever performed in North Korea. Previous western musicians to play in North Korea have included acts as diverse as Lorin Maazel and the New York Philharmonic to Roger Clinton, the blues playing brother of the former American President.
Laibach are quite possibly the most odd choice of band to play in a country based on Kim Jung-Il’s Juche idea. While Juche places an emphasis on self-reliance, the importance of one’s local culture and on the fellowship of one’s people, Laibach are a band which utilise the most controversial symbols of modern and even ancient history in order to present contradictory themes whose overall message is one of iconoclasm.
Laibach rose to prominence in 1980s Yugoslavia where their name alone raised eyebrows. Laibach was the old Austrian name for the city of Ljubljana, the present day capital of Slovenia. Laibach’s early shows were one part hard rock and one part musical theatre.
The band eventually began recording, performing and filming videos in Britain, Germany and across Europe. The band’s penchant to perform rock and pop hits while dressed in fascist uniforms of the 1930s and 1940s was immediately controversial. The band however also employed the symbols of communism and radical individualism and the confusion was such that few people were sure where Laibach stood politically.
The confusion was clearly intentional as the band once issued a statement saying, “We are as much fascists as Hitler was a painter”.
In reality, a careful analysis of Laibach’s music and visual art reveals that Laibach is ultimately an ultra-libertarian and iconoclastic collective that elevates taboo political and social symbols to the point of mockery. Laibach tests the limits of modern free speech laws by making inferences to regimes which themselves were broadly intolerant of free speech. The result is that in most arguments about artistic merit, Laibach’s position becomes one that is classically libertarian and sceptical of all dogmas, while those arguing for censoring Laibach to appear authoritarian by contrast, even as Laibach dons the appearance of ultra-authoritarians.
My proposal to invite Laibach to the United States, including to the places where tensions are currently running high over Confederate monuments is less about Laibach’s art than it is about the places where Laibach have performed.
In North Korea, Laibach performed a combination of their original material, their well-known covers of rock songs as well as songs from The Sound of Music and the North Korean piece Arirang.
Shortly thereafter, Laibach played in Tel Aviv where their set including a song which combined the lyrics of the Palestinian and Israeli national anthems.
If Laibach could peacefully perform in both North Korea and Israel, two countries which for different reasons court a great deal of controversy, then what is to stop them from performing in the land of the First Amendment which guarantees peaceful free speech to all? Laibach has performed in the US in past, but given how much free speech has deteriorted in America, would they be welcomed back? Would they be able to play in towns like Charlottesville?
One of Laibach’s virtues is that they are able to detach emotion from symbolism through teasing the relationship between emotion and symbolism. The result when played before a discerning audience is that one is able to walk away in a mood for quiet self-examination and contemplation, two things America is very much in need of at this time.
Pyongyang and Tel Aviv proved their audiences were ready to accept Laibach’s message. Is the United States ready?