Serbia’s Eurovision entry is NOT a “bizarre” pop song about Meghan Markle’s hair
In the minutes, hours, and days following the announcement that Konstrakta (Ana Đurić) would represent Serbia at Eurovision with her song “In corpore sano,” the internet went wild. Not just in Serbia, but across Europe, where it shot to the top of many countries’ trending lists on YouTube, and even a little in America.
This year, Serbia’s Eurovision contest (Song for Eurovision 2022 / Pesma za Evroviziju 2022, colloquially known as Beovizija) was a three-night spectacle with a whopping 36 entries in the semi-finals, 18 of which went on to the final round on Saturday, March 5.
When Serbia first heard Konstrakta’s song, they were maybe a little confused, a little surprised. This can’t be a Eurovision song, they might have thought, what strange lyrics. Yet the song remained one of the top 10 most-played Beovizija songs on YouTube, one of the key metrics that was tracked in the run-up.
After Konstrakta’s performance in the first semi-final, she gained momentum. Once we saw her performance, everything clicked: the lyrics’ profound and funny meaning became clear, the song itself struck us as a hit, and we all wanted to clap and flip our hands along with her. “In corpore sano” memes, jokes and supportive posts sprung up everywhere. And in the end, she won not only the expert jury’s vote, but also the public’s, both by wide margins. Apparently, this is the first time this has ever happened in Serbia’s history of participating in Eurovision.
Overwhelmingly favored to win were pop princess Sara Jo’s “Muškarčina” and young songstress Zorja’s “Zorja.” (Yes, the song is named after herself). Sara Jo, who has been in the game for a long time, worked with popular pop artist, writer, and producer Coby on the track, which was an infectious, sexy, futuristic witch-pop song about her secret relationship with a “manly man.” Zorja, for her part, found recent fame on Serbian television’s regular music competitions and is a violinist with a huge voice; combining Serbian etno (traditional music) and contemporary ballad, she sang about being strong, being herself. Both had serious followings in the weeks leading up to the competition.
And yet the dark horse that won is a quirky bop by an alternative artist wearing medical scrubs with carnations in her pocket, who spent all three minutes of her performance washing her hands onstage. It starts with the lyric, “What’s the secret behind Meghan Markle’s healthy hair?” (“Koja li je tajna zdrave kose Megan Markl?”) If you stop listening there, like one Newsweek writer seemed to do, you might miss the entire point of the song. A point which is relevant for people in Serbia and other countries of the former Yugoslavia, but also probably for everyone.
This song should not have won. It’s outside of the pop establishment, outside of the state-controlled media apparatus; it’s not naked, glitzy, elegant, traditional, flashy, or beautiful. But neither is it a bizarre song about Meghan Markle.
Why did this song win Beovizija?
In short, this song combines extreme catchiness with a smart, well-executed concept. I am personally not a fan of activist music because it’s usually not done well: the cause often becomes more important than the creativity. But in this case, the entire package was so seamlessly executed that it gave me chills—in the moments I wasn’t dancing.
First, “In corpore sano” is such a catchy tune. This song uses melodic and lyrical repetition perfectly, with just enough surprises to keep the listener on their toes. No one can get the first line, “Koja li je tajna zdrava kosa Megan Markl?”, nor the line “Biti zdrava, biti zdrava, bit-bit-bit-biti zdrava” (“[An artist must] be healthy”) out of their heads. Konstrakta doesn’t really show her vocal chops in the way that the Eurovision audience might be used to – but that doesn’t make this song easy to sing. In fact, it’s quite challenging to sing onstage even though it might not be obvious since she’s not belting or hitting whistle tones. Yet everyone can kind of sing it—it’s accessible to all.
Two, it has all the elements of a viral hit. One reason that this song really exploded after the live performance is that the visuals allowed people to feel the full effect of what she was trying to do. She had a concept.
Konstrakta sits on a chair, dressed in a white medical outfit with red carnations sticking out of the pocket, dramatic black bangs and red lipstick, her big eyes staring at you without a hint of a smile. She has a washbasin in front of her in which she scrubs her hands during the entire song, while in a horseshoe around her, a small, creepy choir in black robes with towels around their necks occasionally echoes her or chants in Latin “In corpore sano,” “In a healthy body.” When the energy of the song picks up, they jump and wave the towels over their heads like lassos, or if you’re Balkan, like scarves.
Konstrakta and the choir have two other moves during the chorus. First, they all clap their hands, crossed diagonally, during the first “Biti zdrava” part and then when they get to the “biti-biti-biti-biti zdrava” part they raise their hands to the level of their head and flip their wrists, showing the audience their palms and the back of their hands alternately in time with the beat. This is so much fun. And yet flashing red crosses glare on the screens behind them, adding to the truly ominous feel. It’s spare, it’s minimal, it’s devastating, but it’s enticing. Not to mention the weirdness of the lyrics, singing about Meghan Markle’s hair and being healthy.
All of this makes for an iconic performance, a viral hit, perfectly meme-able and excellent fodder for internet jokes of all kinds.
But this alone would likely not be enough for the song to win.
Third, it’s like a reaction to Serbia’s typical entries. Serbia’s history at Eurovision is quite varied in terms of the quality of entries. Last year the country sent Hurricane, girl group deluxe, which wowed everyone in Europe and beyond with their sparkling personalities, flashy and tiny outfits, brazen choreography, and singing chops on “Loco Loco.” These girls are extremely talented and they gave an amazing performance. Yet they represent a segment of the Serbian music market that has long dominated pop—lots of skin, lots of plastic, lots of makeup. In a word, it revolves around making women look extremely (grotesquely?) “sexy.” And Eurovision celebrates this aesthetic: it’s certainly not just Serbia who sends performers styled in this way.
Konstrakta, however, refuses to play this game. In fact, the song criticizes the beauty standards that women and particularly female artists are held to, positing that the pressure to focus on beauty instead of health is insidious. A female artist, she insinuates, is told to seek a deep hydrating hair mask or facial treatments when they are actually ill, because she has to be healthy—which in effect means she has to be pretty.
Meghan Markle isn’t the subject of the song, and in fact has very little to do with the song. Other than the fact that she represents, at least in the media’s conception of her, the vision of health that a woman should be. The real subject of the song is the music, media and beauty industries that focus on beauty at the expense of health. It’s like Konstrakta came to Beovizija to crash our party, to tell us all that the competition we’re supporting is part of that unhealthy industry. People’s support for her shows that this is a message the public is ready to receive and to get behind – that they want something new. The game is changing.
And in fact, when she won, Konstrakta seemed completely surprised. Not only that, but she looked a bit like she wished she hadn’t. When interviewed by the show’s hosts following her win, she mentioned that she, as the head of her apartment building’s owner’s association, wasn’t sure about how she would handle going to Torino, where Eurovision 2022 will be held. It was in part a joke, but it was also serious. Unlike some of the other performers, she didn’t expect or desire to win this competition. Her priorities lie with her community, her family, her life, her music. And that, in effect, made so many of the other performers who wanted it so badly look pretty silly.
Fourth and finally, this song has a strong social message, but that message doesn’t overshadow its melodic and lyrical qualities. Konstrakta’s message about the beauty industry is wrapped up in another critique, which is that of the health system in Serbia. This part might be the most opaque to outsiders, but it is also the most relevant topic for all of us. She sings that she doesn’t have a “knjižica,” which is like a health insurance card that entitles you to Serbian state health care, “so how will [the state] monitor me, how will they care about me?”
In Serbia, everyone is entitled to free health care—it is mandatory, in fact—but their employers must bear the costs for it, and individuals must often apply for it and pick up their own card. They must have this card in order to access the public healthcare system, and if their employer has not paid for their insurance, they are technically not insured. The public system has long been criticized as inadequate, with long wait times and poor care. Thus, most people go to private care facilities where the costs are quite high by local standards and state insurance doesn’t pay. Among other groups that are marginalized in this system, artists struggle. They don’t make much money, they are outside of the formal employment system, and they must rely on artists’ associations (as a stand-in for an employer) for their social registration and care, which often forces them to bear the costs.
It is this that makes the message about the beauty industry so tragic and insidious—it is reinforced by the state, which refuses to provide its citizens, and in particular its artists, with the conditions they need to live. Strikingly, during the Beovizija final, the hosts asked all the performers how many of them also didn’t have health cards – and almost everyone’s hands shot up. One of the women from Hurricane posted on Instagram that even she doesn’t have a health card.
But this is not just about Serbia. So many countries around the world are dealing with issues in their healthcare systems. The United States, for example, has been embroiled in a long, painful transition to try to get everyone insured, but the system still refuses to ensure people have preventive care. Women everywhere still have a hard time getting taken seriously by their doctors, and the wellness industry, which has boomed on social media, is just another form of those magazines that tell you about beauty, but call it health. The Latin in the song highlights the fact that we even pray to our gods for health rather than investing in it. We all know this: most of our societies are not healthy.
This song is not in service to its lyrics, though – its lyrics work seamlessly with the other elements of the song and its performance, making the activist message feel natural and compelling rather than heavy-handed or undue.
“In corpore sano” received over 40,000 votes from the public, two times more than the artist with the second-most votes (Sara Jo). This says something quite interesting about Serbian society at the moment, which is that there is increasing interest in the domestic alternative music scene. These artists are getting more and more exposure, with talk of wanting to create something as powerful and exciting as Yugoslavia’s celebrated rock scene. They represent not just a musical alternative to the descendants of turbo-folk on radio and television that everyone has been fed for decades, but also perhaps a political alternative. Radio Television Serbia (RTS), the state-owned media company which hosts and broadcasts Beovizija, has perhaps inadvertently promoted a song with a strong critique of the current system, and indirectly of the government. With elections in Serbia just weeks away, one Serbian paper has even wondered if this means change is finally coming to the country’s entrenched political establishment.
At the end of her song, Konstrakta asks us, “I šta ćemo sad?” “And what now?” Well, she’s off to conquer Europe. We’re off to think deeply about the performance she’s given us, and to enjoy every minute of it.
I would like to thank my friends and collaborators, Emma Brandt and Daniel Petrick, for their contributions to this post and particularly for pushing me to write it.