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.)