Earlier this week, Slovenian industrial act Laibach announced that they were to be the first foreign band to ever perform a concert in the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea. This seems fitting, because Laibach are known for their pseudo-ironic, ambiguously sincere fascist presentation.
Named after the Slovenian capital under Nazi occupation, the band often employ seemingly fascist imagery — swastikas on album covers and Triumph of the Will-influenced music videos, for instance — while remaining cagey about their actual political beliefs. They seem to delight in the ambiguity of it all; the bulk of their schtick isn’t the fascist imagery itself, but the joy they get in watching people squirm while trying to surmise how serious it is, refusing to outright deny ties to fascist ideology. A notable quote from the group: “We are fascists as much as Hitler was a painter.”
This statement is obviously intended to be able to be taken two ways, but both ways really lead to the same conclusion: either they are legitimately fascists, or they’re pretending to be in order to get a rise out of people. The reluctance to clarify and the apparent joy they get in making people uncomfortable suggests that their is, rather than any real subversion or commentary, an inspiring of discomfort.
In this respect, they’re not really any different from the scores of bands who do use such imagery seriously, to profess a kinship with fascist governments or a belief in white nationalism. (Take, for example, Death In June, who are notable for festooning their album covers with swastikas and other Nazi imagery and adopting the totenkopf as their logo, have a notable fanbase amongst neo-Nazis, and are led by Douglas Pearce, a self-proclaimed “National Bolshevik” who professes ideological similarities to Nazi officials.) Laibach might be a little more aware of the fact that doing so might piss you off, but beyond that, what’s the difference?
Consider where this imagery gets its power. There’s nothing inherently shocking or imposing about a swastika, a symbol that once represented nothing more than the sun. The impact behind it is in the 11 million deaths that it represents. To use it for shock value — whether because you’re really a fascist or because you think it’s edgy to flirt with the ideology and its imagery — is to capitalize on those deaths, to reduce all those lives and the misery they encountered to nothing more than a marketing tactic. The so-called artists trading on fascist imagery didn’t do the dirty work in making those images have impact, didn’t live through the misery that they bring up memories of; they saw the photographs, watched the videos of human skeletons wrapped in a saran-thin layer of skin, sick and dying in concentration camps, and thought nothing more than, hey, this seems good for a laugh.
The thing is, even if fascist and Nazi imagery are employed for shock value alone, who are you trying to shock? If someone is made uncomfortable because images like the swastika or other artifacts of Nazi Germany remind them of family that perished under those governments, or of the fact that they themselves would have been brutally oppressed and murdered, well, isn’t that legitimate? What, exactly, makes them a worthy target? It’s kicking sand in someone’s eyes and defending it by saying, well, what do you expect? I meant to make you cry.
And really, if what you’re doing is meant to be a criticism or takedown of fascism, who are you really trying to help? It’s a stance and an aesthetic that clearly makes the survivors of actual fascism, i.e., the people that such a protest would seemingly exist to protect, supremely uncomfortable; how is that in any way productive? Unless Laibach are under the delusion that their stunt will somehow take down the North Korean government from the inside, all they’re doing is rubbing salt into the wounds of those whose side they’re supposedly on while simultaneously patting themselves on the back for being so subversive.
It’s an entirely self-indulgent, narrow-minded form of “protest” as performance (not the other way around), showing off a pretense of subversiveness at the expense of the feelings of actual oppressed groups. Really, what this means doing is using real tragedies as a springboard for your own self-serving needs. For a gaggle of white gentiles from a country whose Jewish population hovers somewhere around five hundred, it isn’t a good look.
Of course, Laibach isn’t the first band to pull a stunt like this. In 2001, the Manic Street Preachers played a show in Cuba for an audience of 5,000, including Fidel Castro. That decision was questionable enough, but this is different than bringing foreign music to a country that normally wouldn’t get to experience it. Laibach has already stated that they’re going to play popular North Korean songs, as well as selections from The Sound of Music; there’s likely going to be very little material different from what’s normally played in the DPRK.
In all likelihood, then, this show will make a negligible difference to the actual oppressed people of the DPRK, while allowing the government to claim that it’s open to cultural exchange and dedicated to entertaining and providing for its people. Whether Laibach sees playing a show for the most violently oppressive fascist government that the 21st century has seen as an extension of their supposed “critique,” or they’re just in it for the novelty, one thing is clear: there can be no better representation of the very real connection between faux-fascism and the real thing.