Friday A/V Club: Laibach Goes to Pyongyang

The most poker-faced joke in the history of pop music...maybe


This week North Korea hosted its first concert by a Western pop act: the Slovenian industrial band Laibach. This is deeply weird, not just by North Korean standards but even by Laibach standards.

I first heard of this group in 1988, when a bizarre LP arrived at the campus radio station where I worked. It was called Let it Be, and it consisted of the band remaking every track on the Beatles' album Let it Be except, for some reason, the song "Let it Be." The musicians turned those classic-rock staples into gruesome things, with harsh martial rhythms and with vocals that sounded like Mephistopheles backed by a Hitler Youth chorus. This should give you the flavor:

I found this hilarious. And as I explored the rest of Laibach's catalog, I decided its other records were pretty funny too: The group had a knack for taking totalitarian imagery and bending it into strange, cartoonish forms. (They were surely the only artists to wed a dance beat to lyrics like "The state is taking care of the physical education of the nation, especially of the youth, with the aim of improving the nation's health and national, working, and defensive capability.") This was, I concluded, one of the best spoofs of fascism I'd ever encountered.

Many critics agree. But not everyone thinks it's a spoof, and the group itself isn't about to break character and clear things up one way or another. (Their most famous quote on the subject: "We are fascists as much as Hitler was a painter.") The one time I saw them play live, in Seattle in 1997, I learned that it wasn't just the band's foes who suspected them of harboring genuine totalitarian sympathies; there was a small but noticeable group of fans who seemed to be taking everything literally as well, standing at attention and occasionally throwing up a Nazi salute, even when the group was giving the Let it Be treatment to Jesus Christ Superstar. Of course, for all I knew they were just trying to get into the spirit of the joke.

Here's the video for "Tanz Mit Laibach," released in the early Iraq War days of 2003. Judge for yourself just how much irony is at work:

So now they've played Pyongyang, with a program that apparently featured their versions of songs from The Sound of Music. From The New York Times' account:

The official news media gave the Wednesday show a nod of approval.

"Performers showed well the artistic skill of the band through peculiar singing, rich voice and skilled rendition," reported KCNA, North Korea's state-run news service.

Morten Traavik, a Norwegian director who organized the band's performances, said that the false impressions surrounding Laibach made the group a good fit to play in the authoritarian state…."Both the country and the band have been portrayed by some as fascist outcasts," he said. "The truth is that both are misunderstood."

I'm tempted to declare this the most elaborate Laibach joke yet. (I'm not sure how they could top it. Playing a Trump rally?) But I'm also reminded of the old Kurt Vonnegut line, "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be." The most important question here might not be What did Laibach intend? but What did the audience make of all this?

"There are all kinds of music," the BBC quoted one attendee as saying afterward. "Now we know that there's this kind of music, too."

I'm impressed. That's even more poker-face than the line about Hitler the painter.

(For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)

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  1. “Now we know that there’s this kind of music, too.”

    “I feel a lot more like I do now than I did when I got here.”

  2. Their cover of the The Final Countdown is fantastic.

  3. Needs more Count von Count

  4. The most important question here might not be What did Laibach intend? but What did the audience make of all this?

    This is the only relevant question in art. The artist’s intent is impossible to discern, which is okay because it’s also irrelevant.

  5. How dare you not mention their best work: Sympathy (Who Killed The Kennedys)?

  6. My favorite is their cover of this cheese, which was a monster hit when I lived in Germany and I only discovered the Laibach version many years later.

    1. Which cover? Their album Opus Dei has a bombastic English version as its title track, as well as a dirge-like “Leben Hei?t Leben” German version.

  7. Playing a Trump rally?

    Oh please please please please someone make this happen.

  8. “We are fascists as much as Hitler was a painter.”

    Hitler was not that bad of a painter. Not all that good, either, but there was definitely some talent there. So what is the audience to make of this? That these guys are only so-so fascists?

  9. Poe’s Law writ large?

  10. I love this story – trolling an entire country is epic. Anyone who has seen Laibach or one of their videos and thinks they’re for-real fascists is a humorless moron. Or a politician. There is something of a cottage-industry of this sort of thing in Germany, with bands like Feindflug and Winterk?lte doing some fine trolling of their own.

  11. I first encountered them when their wonderfully Triumph des Willens-esque video for “Geburt einer Nation” ran on MTV’s 120 Minutes back in the late ’80s. I was disappointed to find that a lot of their work is just cacophonous “industrial” music, but I enjoyed sifting their neo-fascist fever dream stuff from it.

    I was thrilled when they were enlisted to do the Iron Sky score, though that turned out to consist mostly of serviceable but uninspired Wagner riffs. The end credit theme song is a nice big-budget-Hollywood version of their style, however.

    1. Geburt Einar Nation is, of course, a cover of a Queen song, the lyrics to which are frighteningly Hitlerian for a British rock band fronted by a campy Turk.

  12. Mr Novak said that playing in Pyongyang was not an endorsement of North Korea’s oppressive regime. ‘That argument is absurd,’ he said. ‘In what form should a regime exist so that we could perform in it without any ethical problems? This regime is as it is. I wouldn’t say it’s the worst thing in the world, it’s hard for us to judge it.

    ‘Of course, the people here are isolated and don’t have the same kind of information we do. But talking about totalitarian dimensions [in North Korea] is quite absurd because the most totalitarian successful system in the world is the rule of financial capitalism in the west.’

    That’s from:…..laces.html

    1. Thanks, I missed that piece. My favorite part of it:

      He also said that The Sound of Music fitted in with the totalitarian themes of Laibach and North Korea.

      ‘The philosopher Slavoj ?i?ek had a theory about The Sound of Music being the ultimate totalitarian music,’ he said. ‘But I just I found out by chance that it was already popular in North Korea. Our mission is blessed.’

  13. Holy shit, Laibach!


  14. Laibach – Les Privilege des Morts

    This the cassette mix over a fan-created cut of Jan ?vankmajer’s “The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia”. I figure there are a few folks out here who’ll enjoy it.

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