Maligned two decades ago, manele is back with a vengeance as it is rediscovered by the new post-transition generations, those born in the late 1990s-early 2000s, a demographic cohort much better known as zoomers. Unfamiliar with that fraught history of miners, inflation, economic collapse or dubious tunes like Valahia or something ultra-obscure like the band Fan-D, today’s zoomers are discovering the maneles of 10-15 years ago and more through the grid of the dance-pop scene and musicians like Smiley and Alex Velea. All the better when you consider that the manele of almost two decades ago not only depicted capitalist inequality but also normalised patriarchal relationships. The good thing about that musical relief was that a lot of Romanian intellectuals of two decades ago and beyond seemed to be very annoyed by the existence of manele, from anti-communist conservatives to increasingly weird nationalists, and when privileged conservatives get annoyed, it means you’ve done something interesting and captured some systemic problems. These intellectuals so uptight and worried about the fate of Western civilization or the literary Romanian language were trying to make us understand that manele promotes inculturation and undermines our chances of becoming Westernized, of joining the European Union and in general because of manele no one reads Plato, Aristotle, Dostoevsky or The Recent Man anymore. Fast forward two decades later, and manele, now that it has reached the ears of the zoomer, has metamorphosed into a genre called trap, i.e. a genre much harsher in language and social representation, with lyrics about the periphery, exclusion, but also drug use (to which politicians respond in the style of the radical right in the US, by toughening up the punishments) and the violence implied by poverty. Musically, trap means electronic music and hip hop or rap, and in our case it adds to the mix the social imagery of another genre called manele.
As with mannequins in the past, this film has provoked a mixture of anger and fear, this time from parts of the press (lately, intellectuals of the mind are busy with something more rarefied, like why women get the Nobel Prize for Literature, but also the same predictable stuff about endangered Western civilisation), with news of popcorn fights and belly dances during film screenings – hence the fear that such light comedies are negatively influencing young people or the trap is getting them high. Unlike in the past, this moral panic was short-lived, with early reviews of the film deflating the hype produced by a less reactionary but equally sensationalist press. One would think that the moral panic has respectable traditions in our intellectual-media area, starting with manele two decades ago and reaching comedies that touch on the periphery and its music, all to elicit a specific consensus, let’s say the complete assimilation of capitalism. For those interested in learning more about how moral panic is defined and how it works, they can browse sociologist Stanley Cohen’s classic 1972 study, Folk Devils and Moral Panic.
Social history aside, I’d say that one gripe I have with Romina, VTM is that it doesn’t at all note a critique of the violence produced by gender inequality. For example, the scene in which Romina, stoned on shots, is in a club toilet and confronts Gino, an ex-boyfriend to whom she used to write lyrics, a scene in which the inequality of power is obvious, but director Paul-Răzvan Macovei wants to insist on the image of a strong woman in the process of becoming independent, i.e. the protagonist played by Nicole Cherry. However, statistics on violence against women show a much darker picture in which that scene could have evolved, especially when, again, it is about unequal power between genders. Similarly, the objectification of women is present in this film as well, and I don’t see any attempt to undermine that objectification beyond the portrayal of a female character trying to save the family terrace. On the other hand, Romanian comedies haven’t advanced much in social criticism and haven’t gone beyond the level of bus humor, so Romina, VTM doesn’t break the mold in this category. It could be said that, unlike what has been called the Romanian new wave, our feature-length comedy has not only remained at the stage of reproducing local mentalities, but has also not broken out of the habit of offering the audience a slightly idealized image of Romanian society. Since Divertis, most of the productions in the comedy sphere do not dare to undermine social relations, or even to show that there are social problems such as poverty or the way certain groups of people are treated, but only to tell us that this is how things really are and we can only make fun of it. Perhaps, to see how social criticism works, writers and directors thinking about making comedies might take inspiration from Swift’s prose, an eco-horror like Frogs (1972) or the South Park series.
At the opposite pole, I liked that the film doesn’t follow the formula from rags to riches, Romina wants to sing with Valentin, a tourist from Bucharest who has come on holiday to Costinești to save the family restaurant. But it’s not without parts of the Hollywood recipe either, with the protagonist arriving at the last minute (from Bucharest to Costinești) to save the restaurant of the girl he fell in love with. The action is pretty straightforward: Valentin comes to Costinești with his cousin for some summer fun and to earn some money playing guitar in the street. In the process, we learn that the coast is not as uniformly provincial as we might think, and that Costinești is just a province compared to Mamaia, where the real centre of the trap/manele music industry is located. We also learn that the promoters of musicians like Gino (whose lyrics were written by Romina) are a kind of business-interlopers and club owners. On this occasion, we might reflect on Vasile Ernu’s quip that manelistas are the true libertarians who live only from their work, i.e. music and concerts. Unlike those who work for the state, but want minimal status; however, the presence of businessmen funding the performers seems more reminiscent of the remarks of a political potentate in The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer’s 2012 documentary about the anti-communist massacres in Indonesia in 1965-66: that official opined that in Indonesia communism would never be accepted, for the simple reason that they have so many gangsters, and that’s a good thing. Gangster’ is an English word meaning ‘free men’, the gangster wants freedom to do things, even if they are wrong, said the same official. With all the backing of some Mamaia businessmen who are playing Mecenas to the traps, Gino will be fired and end up on a tabloid reality show, hence the film’s satire of tabloid reality shows.
I would also note the habit of these young people in the film – Romina, her younger brother Valentin and his cousin or Gino – to be present on social networks and to become recognized artists primarily on Instagram or TikTok. Valentin seems unaware of the power of social media to make him a star, but the other characters want followers on Insta and see the idea of being a star with many fans as inseparable from a social media presence. In fact, the prospect of having a job, an eight-hour job, doesn’t say much to these image-obsessed social media zoomers. A regular job is meh for these characters, who believe that you can make money and become famous/famous at the same time if you have a social media presence and fans. Romina even says she could always find a job as a waitress in a tourist area like Costinești, so the regular job no longer defines the social image for the zoomers. This could mean that the ordinary jobs known from the days of the social state in the last century have collapsed (in any case the idea of having social status through a job seems to be falling further and further behind as we move away from the 20th century) and Generation Z no longer even offer the illusion of social mobility. All the better that some universities offer influencer courses, which is a pretty useful course when you don’t want to sign up for something as boring as Cyrillic-script Romanian.
As for the acting performances, let’s say that they are not quite Oscar level, but it should be noted Nicole Cherry, with an expressiveness that is not too diverse, but with the ability to react to the environment and the presence of mind to “read” the other characters: from Valentin’s mimicry, you can see that he has no experience with the music industry. I could also say that Romina, VTM gives the exact time in what is Romanian trap, treats the people of Bucharest like other provincials who gravitate around the resort of Mamaia, you can also see scenes close to a musical, but the last word must belong to Rareș Mariș (Valentin): “Let’s not hate on manele when we listen to Albanian music and Maluma. I try to tell people that it’s okay to play manele, even if you’re a commercial artist. It’s okay to do what you want.”
Photo: The YouTube poster of Romina, VTM (source: YouTube)
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