Is the rise and fall (and rise again) of what was once the most profitable form of music in Poland, connected with the similar rollercoaster ride of Polish organized crime?
That was the thesis behind an article in the current affairs magazine Wprost a couple of weeks ago. As the police fight a re-emergence of large organized crime groups, disco polo – a unique Polish contemporary music form, popular in the 1990s – is rearing its tone deaf head.
If you have never had the dubious pleasure of hearing a disco polo hit, then imagine a late 1980s Casio keyboard rhythm track, plus simple chords played under a simple Polish folk type melody.
It didn’t sound very good.
The ‘genre’ emerged in the early 1990s in the small dance halls of small Polish towns. Originally known as piosenka chodnikowa (sidewalk songs – sold via cassette on the streets from little stalls) it was a truly do-it-yourself music, much in the same way as British punk music circa 1976 was. Locals got together in groups, bought a few cheap keyboards, pressed one of the few pre-set rhythm buttons and composed their own little songs.
Sounds horrible, and it was. But it was also amazingly popular.
When I first came to Poland, you couldn’t turn on the Polsat TV station without being confronted by the latest disco polo sensation. Though effectively banned from mainstream radio, ‘artists’ like Shazza (the Madonna of disco-polo, pictured above) or disco polo boy bands like Skaner or Boys - sold much more ‘units’ than more establishment pop singers like Edyta Gorniak.
In 1995, more than 80 million disco-polo cassettes and records were legally sold, and many, many more illegally.
Because the normal channels of recording and distributing this music were not open to disco polo ‘artists’ - no major record label would touch the stuff, neither would publishers, distributors and most retail outlets - alternative recording, publishing and distribution networks emerged (under the guidance of organized crime groups) to cater for what was a genuinely popular form of music among rural and small town folk.
As the TV station Polsat had a good demographic base in such places, they picked up the music and devoted hours of broadcasting to it.
It’s also been suggested that Polsat had a rather too comfortable relationship with organized crime, via disco polo record labels.
And then, in the late 1990s, Polsat suddenly dropped it from their scheduling.
This was, maybe, because they were trying to improve their demographic, and get more advertising friendly viewers in the large cities.
But disco-polo was in a decline anyway.
Partly this was due to ‘cultural’ factors. Disco-polo lovers started getting hip to the more urban hip-hop. The do-it-yourself music of choice now was rap. Disco-polo tried to follow the trend – Rapo-polo? – but the fan base was slipping away.
But there was an economic factor, as well. The financial base of disco polo – the Polish mafia – was also in decline. A high profile series of busts by the cops in places like Pruszkow and Wolomin, on the west and eastern fringes of Warsaw, hit them badly. Suddenly the gangs that run much of the early 1990s proto-capitalism were collapsing.
But now, disco polo is experiencing a kind of comeback. Groups like Boys, etc, are getting invited to power up their Casio keyboards once more. This time, however – with the appropriate amount of knowing irony – Boys and the others are getting invites to fashionable night clubs.
Maybe people long for the relative simplicity and feel good factor of the 1990s, compared with today’s complexity and disappointment. Maybe singers like Shazza have come to symbolize the good old times, when skirts were short, when hope was long, and when music was utter, utter rubbish.
Experience the true musical horror of disco polo with this video of Boys' greatest hit, Jestes szalona (You are crazy) here .
Monday, March 12, 2007
Posted by beatroot at 3/12/2007