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90s in Lithuania

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My friend M. wrote on his facebook that it's not his 30th birthday that makes him feel old, but rather knowing that Freddie Mercury died 18 years ago. It made me think about my memories of that time, when I was still at primary school, with a childish awareness that one of my childhood heroes died from a terrible disease called AIDS.

When one teacher, following some comment of mine about Mercury, said that he had an 'unusual lifestyle', 'no family and many women' (implying, perhaps, that he's not a suitable role model), I wasn't able to make a connection between the 'lifestyle' and the disease.

These memories made me think about 90s in Lithuania, full of all these foreign influences, local sensitivities and anxious uncertainty, and in this post I want to share the things I remember.

First of all, early 90s are unimaginable without the band 'Rondo' and Rolandas Janavičius - the icon of the era. Too bad I can't find how to embed youtube videos into the CB blogging system, so I'll only provide links. One could be critical of their style, but it was impossible not to know them. Janavičius was called 'the Lithuanian Michael Jackson'. Rest in peace both.

Two female singers also became the icons of the era. The singer of 'Dinamika' (forgot her name) and Džordana Butkutė were the godmothers of the kind of pop that still dominates the Lithuanian musical scene. It's kind of cheesy, but, for example, Butkutė's songs explored the issues of loneliness of the new independent female character ("I didn't love you, perhaps because I'm very cold", "Today is my sad holiday - my birthday", "Alone at home, you do what you want"...). Their 'cattish' voices were unique at the time, and all the contemporary immitators are merely distant shadows of them. Note that with them 'Western' exploitation of female bodies entered the Lithuanian scene, taking these clumsy, pathetic and naive expressions you see in these clips. It was all about being provocative.

Some people were experimenting with pop music on the brink of parody. For example, in his famous song, Tomas Augulis praised joints (in the anatomical sense of this word) - absurd lyrics were combined with his dead-serious 'cool guy' look, with sunglasses being the primary expression of that coolness.

The still-famous band SEL was born at that time. Early 90s saw a massive change of values, however pathetic this may sound. Youth subcultures appeared in order to offer people some sense of belonging, which was often defended violently. Youngsters were channeled either to geographically-based gangs or music-based subcultures, which often overlapped. In this legendary song the band sings about belonging to a gang of one's 'court' (the space among the typical Soviet block houses. The word 'kiemas' generally means 'yard' in Lithuania, but in this case they are not talking about closed spaces belonging to a house). The song is about shared open spaces between the houses, where life was happening. Skip rope and roller skates were the the attributes of the younger ones, while teenagers gathered there to listen to music, chill out and occasionally set off to pick fights with other 'courts'. 'Ravers' and 'rappers' were the dominant musical subcultures in my hometown, and the more violent one, urlaganai, something like skinheads, was forming at the time. In this song SEL is trying to create a local hip-hop version, with the reversed peaked cap, break dance and sweatsuits being its necessary attributes. Note that the lead singer is wearing a Volkswagen logo - a move of symbollic embracing of show-off capitalism that shaped values and styles in Lithuania at the time.

Another famous band, 'Pompa' (pump), which tried to translate classical gangsta rap into the Lithuanian context, was one of the most interesting - at least in my personal opinion. Their lyrics were ironic and pathetically provocative. In the linked-to song, Pompa describes the life of a prostitute, who works hard and has to give everything she earns to her pimp, who is well-connected to the police and fears nothing. The choice, however, is to use the word 'boss' rather than 'pimp', and hence the refrain ('Everything you earn... you will give away everything to your boss'), liked and sung by many people at the time, came to express the reality of early 'jungle capitalism' in Lithuania, with prostitution being just an illustration for something that everybody experiences at work. In another song called 'Mama', 'Pompa' recycles a rather cheesy pop song, typical in wishlist musical TV shows and dedicated to mothers. The refrain is sung with an artificially overstretched voice, with "yeeeah!" following the gentle words for the mother. The verses describe a young 'cool' wannabe gangster who proudly presents his little joys to his mother: he boasts of having a well-trained body, popularity and high status in the gang, and his girlfriend, in his own words, "the most productive sex machine". The new values, adopted by early-capitalist Lithuania without reflection and discretion, entered everyday human relationships. Being detached, making instrumental use of other people (like in the case of the girlfriend) and achieving a high status through cold-blooded rationality and violence, if needed, were essential elements of high self-esteem. Therefore the wannabe gangster in the song can't express his gentle feelings to his mother without pretending that all of this is ironic, that in fact he's making fun of it; yet the song clearly shows how important it is to him to present his achievements to his mother (who might be searching for drops against her heart condition the very next moment she hears it, since, obviously, streetfight and utilitarian sex do not constitute the lifestyle a Soviet-educated middle-aged lady would want her baby boy to lead). Yet the boy lives in another world, saying "Fight for your street, fight for your girlfriend, fight for your mother!"

Not all people cared to be provocative and conflictual. Abundant crowds danced and swinged to local rock bands, which are still popular and remembered with nostalgia. 'BIX' combined energetic music that drove fans wild with slightly political, but not pretentious lyrics. Just because I'm writing about Lithuania from Israel, I'll link to the song 'Shalom Lithuania', which describes the gloomy view of the country (domestic violence, alcoholism...) with a lot of irony. The refrain is "Shalom shalom, Lithuania, hi hi, beloved country". It was not supposed to stir the crowds for political action, rather make fun of reality in the usual Lithuanian way. Another famous song regretted that "a Lithuanian is a thief to a [fellow] Lithuanian".

Finally, for the dessert, the legendary Lithuanian band 'Foje' [foyer, lobby], which is still popular among contemporary wannabe hipsters yet often smirked at by the 'alternative' community. A little bit of optimism - 'The last train [is still waiting]'.