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Friday, November 01, 2002

Arts & Letters

The Future of Greek Popular Music - Part 1

Missing in Action

It’s 1982. In Athens, at a café inside an arcade on Stournara Street by the Polytechneio (national polytechnic university), everything suggests an evening like all others. There is, however, something different about the place tonight, something that makes the regulars pause for a brief moment, as if in doubt, when they enter and let the door close behind them: the same familiar faces are in place like every other night, playing backgammon and cards, smoking, drinking, arguing about politics and soccer, but there’s also a bunch of strangers, unfamiliar faces, crowded in front of the television. There’s no soccer game to justify the gathering, but, even if there were, this group would still make the regular patrons raise their eyebrows.

Spiked and dyed hair, leather jackets and Dr. Martens boots, safety pins and chains and, of course, innumerable badges of various punk bands: this is a crowd that usually moves around Exarcheia Square and rarely ventures south of Patision Street. The puzzlement about its presence increases greatly when what has drawn it to the café this particular night becomes evident. Today, Stelios Kazantzidis is to appear on national television after many years of self-imposed retirement from singing and a life away from the public eye. How can these kids – enthralled by pop and a culture called punk, committed to raw sounds, force, vulgarity, and outrageous styles and attitudes – identify with Stelios Kazantzidis? What is the connection between Johnny Rotten’s ranting nihilism and absolute negation and Kazantzidis’s music?

Popular music at its best constitutes what Greil Marcus called “an attempt to intervene in the symbol system of a listener’s everyday life” (In the Fascist Bathroom: Punk in Pop Music, 1977-1992, p. 244). There was a time, albeit quite a while ago, when a number of Greek popular singers successfully made this “attempt” (Kazantzidis, Dionysiou, Angelopoulos, Zabetas). There was a time when kids gathered in front of televisions to watch Kazantzidis were perfectly aware that when he sang, “xekinisame me oneira chrisa ma chorisame stou dromou ta misa,” he brilliantly expressed in two lines, as nobody else could, the failures and anxieties of the Polytechneio generation, in the same way that Johnny Rotten’s spitting out of “no future for you, no future for me,” expressed young peoples’ collective resentment and anxiety about what was waiting for them around the corner. There was also a time when people would leave Enallax, a club in Exarcheia Square, and its rock sounds, and end the night at a small taverna right underneath that had the best jukebox of Greek music in town: from Iggy Pop to Stratos Dionysiou without skipping a beat.

There was a simplicity and immediacy in Greek popular music of the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies that appealed to kids and, consequently, to a larger audience beyond the “expected” one. Traditional folk sounds were, of course, appropriated, and a trained ear could distinguish and untangle a variety of borrowed elements used by these musicians to articulate a personal style, but the sound remained fresh and simple within its complexity. The lyrics of Aki Panou sung by Stratos Dionysiou and Stelios Kazantzidis sounded so plain, but they were felt or “understood so violently.”

Today, most people agree that performers such as Dionysiou, Kazantzidis, Zabetas, and others were the last great acts in Greek popular music, whose appeal easily cut through different generations. To listen to Greek popular music during the last 15 years, and today in particular, is a shock to the system. Dreary, misguided sounds and lyrics; works bloated with unimaginative, repackaged elements; lack of clarity and simplicity: these are some of its characteristics. Although many people seem to be fully aware of the extended drought that is withering Greek popular music, there is no sense of urgency regarding it.

Any hopeful indications appear to be mirages in what is otherwise a desert of originality and creativity. A number of contemporary singers have decided to include some older and “misunderstood” (by whom and why?) popular songs in their repertory, but this is just another example of the imitation and repackaging that currently rule.

What is puzzling here is not so much all the trash that now passes for music, but rather that the form has been unable to reinvent itself even at an elemental and minimal level. This phenomenon is actually rather uncharacteristic of a popular idiom. Genuinely popular idioms such as rock or jazz continually reinvent themselves, as anyone who listens to them knows. While there are many arguments about the state of contemporary pop music, there is no doubt that the form keeps reimagining itself, and that important new work is constantly created. It goes without saying that the ability to create three-minute songs that “get it” completely, both lyrically and sonically, is rare (Beatles, Ramones, Sex Pistols, Modern Lovers). But I know of many bands that can make my pulse rise fast. The dinosaur-like dyspeptic art bands of the Seventies created the punk explosion and the Sex Pistols. The new wave carelessness that followed led to the rap and grunge movements of the Nineties, and the proliferation of electronic sounds at the decade’s end propelled the current garage-rock experiment in Europe and the United States (listen to the Hives and you know what I mean).

How is it possible, then, for a popular idiom such as the laiko tragoudi to cease developing? Have the working classes, which produced all these great voices and songwriters, ceased to exist? Are the social, economic, political, and cultural conditions that fed this movement radically altered? There are many reasons for what is happening today: globalization; fragmentation of the audience; new audiences and modes of producing and promoting music; the need to keep in touch with an ever-expanding audience; and the enormous increase in new recordings, which overwhelms audiences and fosters attention-deficit disorder when it comes to focusing on certain movements.

Although all these factors have contributed to the decline of popular music in Greece, they are not by any means exclusively Greek phenomena. Nevertheless, I would argue that what is happening to the laiko tragoudi today is unique. What is also puzzling in this case is the fact that, at a time when anti-globalization fever seems to be sweeping Greece, and a return to all things uniquely Greek is constantly promulgated, there is no strong movement to revive this music or to reexamine and reevaluate musical movements that are considered to be “national” and “popular.” Indeed, there appears to be no cultural sensitivity whatsoever to what is a traditional musical genre – unless the so-called ellinadika constitute the country’s “homage” to traditional music. The disappearance of gifted popular singers, lyricists, and composers in our days has to be examined through significant social and economic shifts in Greek society that have not only eroded the support base for these artists, but have eliminated the esthetic and artistic framework within which they work.

Next: Globalization and its Discontents

In addition to being a co-founder of, Stelios Vasilakis is a classical philologist and a former associate of the Speros Basil Vryonis Center for the Study of Hellenism.
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