“It’s Yesterday’s Train That’s Late” : Underground Rock and the Changing Face of Art Theory in Hungary

Trabant-icon of Hungarian underground rock.

Trabant-icon of Hungarian underground rock
Jeno Menyhart, one of the most articulate personalities of the Hungarian underground rock scene, once remarked somewhat cryptically that “it is yesterday’s train that’s late”. He said it in a resigned voice, shortly before his emigration to the United States in 1994, as we were sitting in the new, American-style “Chicago” café, located on the largest boulevard in central Budapest, right across from the New York coffee house. Jeno and I had been talking about how the circumstances of daily life had changed in post-socialist Hungary, and how consumerism had come to shape our urban existence. Menyhart called Budapest “a city outside of time” and argued that “if you come here, you won’t sense that this is the ’90s. If you travel to Amsterdam, you’ll know within a week […] what time it is. If you come here [to Budapest], you’ll figure out where you are but not when you are.” He was referring to the rhetoric that had been adopted by the then-ruling center-right Antall government. But his sarcasm targeted much more than politics. It also aimed at the Hungarians’ rampant male chauvinism, their insensitivity towards the environment, and their arrogant attitudes in business. Most importantly, however, Menyhart’s criticism was leveled at some of his closest friends, his fellow underground musicians who, as modernists, thought of their activity as “authentic art.”

The story I want to tell here is one of clashing ideas and interests amongst those who had just a few years before formed a tightly-knit community. I am interested in the ways in which the shifting social circumstances of art and artist in the ’90s, a period which reorganized the former community and created new fault lines and conflicts, found expression in gendered theories of art. That is, aesthetic theories that are based upon concepts of femininity and masculinity, and that reflect divergent perspectives along gender lines. In the Hungarian rock scene of the 1980s, gender rarely, if ever, surfaced as an issue. It was obliterated by the disdain for the institutions of the party state. After this “golden age”, some of the most independent-minded women from the former underground ventured to articulate a distinctly feminine sensibility through their works, which prompted a particular response from the men. The new fault line between the sexes found expression in the gendering of the dichotomy of popular culture and high art.

In 1993, a unique stage performance entitled Songs from Nirvania premiered. The name “Nirvania” revealed the performance’s theme and character, implying as it did a reference to an early punk song that had been composed and performed by The Spions who used Nirvania as a metaphor for then-socialist Hungary. Because of its transgressive and nihilistic message which really can only (BE) compared to the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen”, the original version of Nirvania was banned. As a result, it became the emblem of Hungarian underground rock. The show Nirvania was conceived and performed by Agnes Kamondy, an old-timer of the post-1968 avant-garde who had made a name for herself in the folk-revival and amateur drama movements, and who subsequently ended up in the rock underground. In her show, Kamondy rearranged some widely known and cherished underground rock songs and peppered them with her own compositions. Diverse in terms of style, ambience and message, these songs invoked, from an insider’s perspective, what Kamondy called the”ghetto”, i.e., the “feel” for a bygone place and an era.

The underground musicians of the ghetto had brought a whole new set of voices and attitudes to the Hungarian art world. Associating themselves with the local tradition of experimental film, music and drama, they also relied creatively on Anglo-American and German punk models. The major difference between punk in the West and punk in the East was, however, that in the East you could never hear these songs on radio or television, and barely, if ever, buy them in the form of a recording. As the Hungarian one-party-state began to collapse as a result of social activism and the mushrooming of new political organizations, parties, journals, etc., the excitement around the rock movement lapsed. Even the shock effect produced by the most anarchistic song couldn’t possibly parallel the shock resulting from the daily earthquakes of the political transition. In effect, the underground rock movement was defunct as early as 1987. Not so the songs, however. By the 1990s, they had attained the sacred status of classics. Even the youngest generation of teenagers demanded them at concerts, and these teenagers as well as their elders readily bought them as soon as they became commercially available. Lyrical segments taken from these songs became public lore that made their way into political, personal, and even commercial advertising. As traces of a bygone era, what role did these songs play in the musicians’ efforts to relocate themselves in the changed social and political space of post-socialist Hungary? What questions of ownership and authorship did this legacy pose?

Let us first take a look at the songs covered by Kamondy. The self-reflective protagonist of the song “The Tourist” (Europe Publishing House, for example, uneasily attempts to situate him/herself in relation to the bleak realities he/she imagines as “moving pictures in black and white”. The anti-hero of the somber and hallucinatory ballad “The Unknown Soldier” changes from the “innocent who hasn’t killed” into the “innocent who’s already killed.” Even though “he (she) barely understands the news” and has “zero chance for victory”, he (she) is well aware that the system destroying him (her) must be destroyed in turn (Ultra Rock Agency, “URH”). The hard-edged and cynical song “You’ll die, too” (Sziami) challenges the belief in the possibility of moral integrity in a “nowhere land” where “the law itself is sinful and punishment needs to be punished.” The cat-fearing reclusive mouse in the song “Faustian Moment” (Balaton) tries to make sense of his (her) cosmic angst and emptiness. In the self-ironic song “It’ll Go Away” (Europe Publishing House and Balaton), the languorous subject finds pleasure in pain and reveals self-pity under the disguise of suffering. The song “It’s Gonna Be Good for Us” (Europe Publishing House) transports the lyrical subject and his (her) lover from the “real” and apparently uninhabitable social world of 1980s Budapest to the rarified privacy of “alien star dusts”, a trip that turns out to be a trip beyond human history.

Kamondy’s “Free Variations on my friends’ and my songs from the last fifteen years” revived the prevailing themes, concerns, and attitudes of the rock community. Kamondy introduced a new voice and altered the songs’ overall texture and sound. The typical rock stage was replaced by a theatrical stage complete with a cabaret singer. Kamondy’s performance created an intimate, feminine image that differed sharply from the punk derived, youthfully masculine tenor of underground rock ten years earlier. Kamondy made a statement about the past at a time when this past was just turning into “a different country”. As theories of collective memory have suggested, the stories we tell about the past are not merely instruments of remembrance, but also tools of understanding. Kamondy was the first in the Hungarian art community to tell a coherent and emotionally captivating story about the counterculture of the 1980s with a view to “reduce its grip”. Hers was the first act of looking back at an era that was recent in calendar terms, but that virtually overnight became classified as “history”. Several circumstances made Kamondy’s performance both provocative and painful at the same time. There was, first of all, the pace and profundity of the social changes that had destabilized individual and collective identities. Second, since music had constituted the only alternative to state socialism, it was therefore soon identified with the past. What about these painful memories and the creative vigor associated with the era of socialism? How can one part with these aspects of the past?

Rarely do popular cultural movements or styles become relegated to history as fast and as abruptly as was the case in East-Central Europe’s rock culture after the fall of the Berlin wall. The community which Kamondy portrayed and addressed had had no time to adjust to the changes that had, within a few years, turned the recent past into “a remote country”. With her new rendition of the past, Kamondy tried to negotiate the ever-widening gap between personal and collective experiences; between the past-turned-history and the not-yet-formed present; between the political and the artistic aspects of her music, and, finally, between the former “ghetto” community and the new, disjointed alternative scene of the 1990s. Kamondy also raised an issue that had not surfaced under socialism, i.e., gender and gender politics. She brought her self-consciously feminine voice to the male-dominated world of rock and politics, producing an original narrative that consisted of songs that had been composed and performed by men. Thus, her chronicle of the past fifteen years did not only reflect a different, female re-appropriation of those songs, she also claimed ownership of these songs by demanding the right to determine the value and relevance of the sub-cultural heritage.

Many critics greeted Nirvania with enthusiasm. The performance ran for two years and was issued on CD by the independent label Bahia. However, to Kamondy’s dismay, the composers and (former) performers of the songs themselves were uncomfortable with her show. They shared a sense that Kamondy had transformed these songs into examples of high culture. In his review, Peter Sziami Mueller, for one, playfully knighted the artist the “savior of Nirvania“. Mueller suggested that to elevate rock music to the status of high art is a dubious undertaking. Laci Kistamas concurred and suggested that Kamondy had transformed the songs into museum exhibits. Menyhart, for his part, felt that any pretense of “art” and “culture” was anachronistic: “Here [in Hungary] everybody sticks by certain cultural traditions. Kamondy is also tinkering with those [outmoded traditions], which is a fundamental error. The art of the 1990s is linked to the media, and categories such as ‘alternative’ or ‘commercial’ are losing their meaning.” Aware of the relativization of cultural values and lifestyles over the past few decades, Menyhart presumed that a different creative approach was necessary so that artists could remain in touch with present-day realities.

Menyhart’s critique is certainly symptomatic of a new postmodern sensibility in the Hungarian art community. Yet, in many ways, Kamondy’s performance did go beyond high modernism. Several of her artistic devices betray a postmodern aesthetic sensibility, such as her blurring of the boundaries between the serious and the playful, her use of blank irony, pastiche, and the polysemic juxtaposition of old pop music clichés with more contemporary idioms taken from minimalism, industrial music, and punk. Even Kamondy’s stage persona was ambiguous and fluid, combining as it did a whole range of voices and vocal styles: the wistful and confidential tone of the chanteuse, the assertive, declamatory tone of the bard, and the blues vocal representing the “girl-gone-wrong”. However, her own interpretation of artistic intentions reflects a serious commitment to high modernism. Kamondy wanted to elevate the musical output of what she called “the ghetto” to the status of art. By re-arranging these songs, she tried to demonstrate that they had latent artistic qualities that needed to be made manifest. This would not have been interesting in itself, considering the local art establishment’s persistent investment in hierarchic and universalist approaches, and its skepticism of multiculturalism and feminism.

Kamondy’s conservative discourse, however, is intriguing and unique for the way it is bundled up with religious metaphors. To her, art gains its power from its ability to purify and heal body and soul. To her, the rebirth of “ghetto culture” as high art intimates the metaphoric rebirth of those who seek to establish for themselves a new identity outside of the ghetto. Kamondy’s “transcendentalization” of the “ghetto” songs helps her to externalize and purge the injuries and trauma associated with her participation in the underground subculture of the Communist era, a subculture that responded to political oppression with transgression, and widespread social anomie with nihilism. Kamondy’s metaphors of rebirth, regeneration, redemption, and remembrance resonate with themes and acts that are central to public and political life in transition-era East-Central Europe. Anthropologist Katherine Verdery once wrote of “a veritable parade of dead bodies”, both flesh and bronze, that symbolized the collapse of state socialism in the former Soviet Bloc, a time when corpses were “exhumed [and] shuttled from New York to Budapest, from Washington to Warsaw, from Paris to Bucharest, dug up and turned over, exiled from the Kremlin Wall to more lowly sites”. Incidentally, the definitive moment in the change of the regime in Hungary was marked by the rehabilitation-qua-reburial of Imre (NAGY), who was prime minister during the 1956 uprising. In 1993, even Miklos Horthy, the notoriously undemocratic governor of the interwar period, found his way back to his “native Hungarian soil”.

What does underground rock culture have to do with the fate of politicians’ corpses and statues? In fact, Kamondy’s performance was also an attempt to reassess the past by changing the underground’s symbolic location on the cultural map. The imagery she used to explain her motivation for rearranging the songs is revealing. She argues that she rearranged them so that “they [could gain their rightful place and] rest in peace”. When Kamondy moved the music of the “ghetto” into the context of high culture, she also attempted to ascribe new value to these songs . Kamondy felt that a new life could be given to them once they had been removed from their original context. No longer mere history book documents of collective hurt and degradation, the music of “the ghetto” would then become an artwork open to repeated re-interpretations. Kamondy’s ideas, of course, stand in stark contrast to those of the male musicians who had made their fame with these very same songs. The original meaning of the songs, they argued, had been ruined by the trappings of Nirvania’s bourgeois setting with its velvet stalls, conductors, and usher ladies. From their populist point of view, any art with a capital “A” merely implied status and respectability, not social relevance or profound thought.

Kamondy’s conscious motives for creating Nirvania did not, in fact, include the sacralization of the songs she appropriated from the erstwhile underground. Ironically, she blamed the male musicians precisely for what they accused her of. If they thought that Kamondy had killed the essence of the pieces by erecting an artistic monument to them, Kamondy, on her part, contended that her fellow musicians mythicized these songs by insisting that they would remain meaningful only in their original context. Kamondy reversed the “live versus dead” metaphor by contrasting her own approach to the songs–treating them as open-ended, living, malleable, and re-interpretable artifacts–with that of her critics who viewed them as essentially sealed and immutable, eternally frozen in their original context. For Kamondy, this amounted to a male myth of the “ghetto”. She opposed art as a living entity to mythology as a form of closure, the former connoting openness, flexibility, and femininity, the latter rigidity and masculinity.

The gendering of an essentially aesthetic argument suggests that the male musicians’ disaffection with Kamondy’s show had a more than purely aesthetic basis. Yet it seems as if the debate around Nirvania challenges the common notion of gender- related aspects of modernist and postmodern aesthetics. In 1986, Tania Modleski pointed to the tendency, in theories of culture, to account for the rise of mass culture with reference to notions of femininity. Properties such as sentimentality, a propensity for formulas, and passive, mindless consumption have all been ascribed to women’s inferior psychosocial needs and tastes. Even postmodern theories that reappraise and celebrate mass culture set the masculine aura as conveyed by modernist/elitist concepts of art against the feminine aura attributed to pop and mass culture.

Curiously, the Nirvania-debate reverses this entrenched nexus between mass culture, art and gender. Kamondy regards “serious” art as feminine and distinguishes it from male myth-making. So does her critic, Mueller, who, however covertly and without sharing Kamondy’s values, sees the principal referent of high culture in the quintessentially East-Central European institution of the “usher lady.” In East-Central Europe, the usher lady represents a highly unpopular social type, the disciplinarian and narrow-minded bureaucrat, usually a low paid senior citizen. To relegate art, as Mueller does, to the domain of usher ladies is a barely concealed disparagement. High art, in his definition, becomes old, authoritarian, and female, while “rock’n’rot”, by implication, remains young, impudent, and male.

Why did men reinstate the masculine ethos of rock in such a manner? At a time when the former celebrities of a politically suppressed but potent subculture found themselves to be in isolation, with slumping social prestige, it is easy to see why their anxieties were spurred by a woman artist who had never enjoyed the same degree of prominence. This alone rendered her handling of the songs – symbols of masculine vigor, substance and impudence – irksome. Kamondy’s Nirvania did away with the masculine subtext of “rock’n’rot” and evoked in its opponents a deep-seated fear of losing ground, a fear they tried to cover up with “male” postmodern rhetoric.


Anna Szemere writes on popular culture issues and politics in Eastern Europe, with a focus on Hungary. Her new book Identities in Transition: Rock Musicians and Regime Change in Hungary is forthcoming.

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