By Marek Kępa
The uniquely Polish genre of dance music known as disco polo has made a dramatic comeback in recent years, including featuring prominently on public television. Is the state broadcaster simply responding to popular demand for entertainment? Or is it using disco polo – which has long divided disapproving cultural elites from the enthusiastic masses – as a tool to serve the populist agenda of the ruling party?
Disco polo goes mainstream
Disco polo is a uniquely Polish type of dance music, consisting of upbeat electronic songs with simple lyrics. It emerged in the early 1990s as a blend of convivial folk music and Italo disco, a pop genre employing drum machines and synthesisers.
Originally disco polo was enjoyed in villages and smaller towns, the choice of the more rural parts of Polish society. It gained prominence in 1994, when the private TV network Polsat started airing Disco Relax, a nationwide broadcast devoted to the genre. This was when bands such as Boys and Bayer Full became known to big-city audiences.
As disco polo went mainstream, Poland’s self-proclaimed cultured circles did not disguise their disapproval. The urban elites saw it as tasteless to the point of being embarrassing. Disco polo’s kitschy sounds and unchallenging lyrics – about “polka-dot panties”, for example – were hard to miss.
But the harsh criticism seemed to be more than just an aesthetic judgement. It smacked of the condescending attitude toward the countryside encoded in Polish public discourse.
Town versus country
The Polish language contains a number of expressions that ascribe negative value to the countryside. The word wieśniak (villager), for instance, can be used as a derogatory term denoting a boor. Robić wiochę, which can be translated as “to behave like a villager”, is used to describe a situation when somebody is displaying bad manners to the point of embarrassment.
And disco polo in the 1990s had a strong rural vibe, making melodic references to traditional Polish country music and with its fanbase mainly outside of the big cities. The genre’s ruralness played a major part in fuelling the negativity it encountered from the urban elites.
This issue of ruralness having pejorative connotations in Poland is a very interesting one, and has only become widely discussed in recent years. It is especially intriguing in a society mostly made up of people with peasant roots. The daily Dziennik Gazeta Prawna explains the paradox:
The negative perception of having a rural background stems directly from history, or rather from how it is taught. The history you learn at school talks about the nobility, even though that social group constituted only 8% of society, whereas the peasants were about 90%. (…) For centuries the peasants were dependent on their lords, uneducated, impoverished, tied to Polishness only through language and religion. Who would want to identify with such a social group? Most Poles imagine themselves to be heirs to Sarmatian and noble traditions, not peasant ones.
The popularity of disco polo eventually started to dwindle, and Disco Relax was axed in 2002. The genre, it seemed, had been just another fad that had come and gone.
The second coming
But in the 2010s, a disco polo renaissance occurred. The hit “Ona tańczy dla mnie” [“She dances for me”] became one of the most popular Polish songs on YouTube, and an entire cable channel devoted to disco polo launched, called Polo TV. Since then, the genre has gone from strength to strength.
A poll last year found 63% of Poles saying that they like listening to disco polo. The findings, however, highlighted the strong demographic and cultural divide in attitudes towards the genre.
Only 6% of people with a higher education and 8% of those living in large cities said they “really like” disco polo; among those with the lowest level of education and residents of villages, the figures were 39% and 33% respectively.
In recent years, disco polo has also gained a presence in an area where it was largely absent before: public television. As the national-conservative Law and Justice party (PiS) – which draws much of its support from more rural areas – has put its imprint on state broadcaster TVP, disco polo has played an important role.
TVP aired a special show devoted to Zenek Martyniuk, a star of the genre, with the broadcaster’s head, Jacek Kurski, present in the audience. Martyniuk also headlined TVP’s much-promoted 2020 New Year’s Eve show. Then, in February this year, a biopic about Martyniuk, titled simply Zenek, was released, with its production part-funded by TVP and the film heavily promoted on its channels.
The public media’s propagation of disco polo has prompted an outcry from numerous commentators, one that may bring to mind the negative reactions from the 1990s. Critics argue that TVP, as a public broadcaster, ought to promote good taste and educate audiences by presenting highbrow content. And yet, they say, it is reaching for the lowest common denominator with distinctly lowbrow disco polo. Why is the taxpayers’ money being wasted like this?
Those in charge of TVP are said to have a different view of the whole affair. By presenting disco polo, they are simply responding to popular demand, serving their remit of providing entertainment to the masses. Besides, disco polo helps TVP to broaden its audience, and it is only natural for a media outlet to want to do that.
Ruralness is nothing to be ashamed of
But TVP’s promotion of disco polo also serves another purpose. Here’s what Monika Borys, a cultural studies scholar and author of a book about disco polo in the 1990s, says about this in an interview for OKO.press:
Jacek Kurski and TVP refer to the emotions and complexes which arose in the 1990s when the elites unanimously deemed disco polo as something shameful and worthy of disdain. Today TVP rhetorically exploits this complex. It shows that Poland’s elites hold in contempt not only the music genre, but the people – their political choices, lifestyle and pastimes. What is important is that in the rhetoric of PiS, the people equals nation. This identity motif is extremely important in PiS’s cultural politics.
Disco polo is thus used to serve PiS’s broader populist agenda, in which it claims to be purging Poland of the old elites – in politics, the judiciary, the media, and also culture – and replacing them with figures who supposedly better serve and represents the true people. TVP is showing that the current government accepts the lifestyle of the Polish masses, unlike the snobby, scornful elites rooted in the 1990s which continue to criticise the genre even in 2020.
After TVP’s disco-polo-heavy New Year’s Eve event provoked mockery from some figures in culture and the media, the channel’s news evening broadcast – which is a mouthpiece for the ruling party – headlined a report: “Pseudo-elites envy Poles’ New Year’s Eve.” The segment revealed how “the so-called elites” show “disdain for normal Poles”.
"Pseudo-elites Envy Poles' New Year" celebrations, headlined the main evening news broadcast on state TV, a government mouthpiece.
"The so-called elites" (liberal commentators and government critics) showed "disdain for normal Poles" who enjoyed TVP's NYE event, said the report pic.twitter.com/jQoRrSsAON
— Daniel Tilles (@danieltilles1) January 2, 2020
Moreover, disco polo also allows TVP to exploit the aforementioned issue of the negative connotations of ruralness. By showing that it accepts rural vibes, the public broadcaster is saying that, far from being something to be ashamed of, ruralness is now part of the publicly endorsed mainstream.
This may come as a relief to those who come from the country or smaller towns and have to put up with the condescending atmosphere toward the countryside present in the Polish discourse.
Disco polo is now, therefore, firmly ensconced in a political role where it provokes conflict between certain groups – the urban elites which criticise TVP for promoting this music and the more rural masses which appreciate the genre. It is in PiS’s interest to stoke this conflict and mobilise its electorate, which is traditionally more rural and less educated than the voters of the main opposition party, the centrist Civic Platform (PO).
Of course, this concept of using disco polo for political gain is nothing new. Politicians from various parties, like the former left-wing president Aleksander Kwaśniewski, have used disco polo songs in their campaigns to give them a warmer image. What is new is that the PiS-dependent TVP seems to be playing the disco polo card on a regular basis. Previously, it was only at election time that political actors flirted with the genre.
Preaching to the choir
But while there is a fairly heated media debate about whether disco polo should or should not be aired on public television, most people are not particularly engaged in the topic. There are two main reasons for this. Firstly, disco polo no longer has the shock value it held in the 1990s – it has been around for quite a while and is a mapped phenomenon. Singing about “polka-dot panties” to the accompaniment of a synthesiser does not raise eyebrows any more.
Moreover, disco polo has in recent years gained some popularity in bigger cities like Warsaw and Katowice. Many of the fiercest critics of its first incarnation have grown to see it as harmless entertainment or even something with a unique, specifically Polish value. On the whole, while cultured circles may still not be fans of the genre, they tend not to be as openly hostile as they once were.
Secondly, Poles today have access to a very broad range of TV networks, be it online, cable or traditional. Unlike in the communist era, when the state held a TV monopoly and all you could watch were public broadcasts, today anyone can change the channel. If you are listening to disco polo on TVP, this is your choice. So when TVP provides audiences with disco polo content, in most cases it is simply preaching to the choir.
Main image credit: Agencja Gazeta/Tomasz Stańczak