The recent renaissance of disco polo’s popularity in Poland can be seen not only as an artistic trend, but also as an intentional strategy, strengthening the ruling party’s electoral base. With the help of Polish public television, disco polo can, thus, be treated as a tool in local identity policies, going hand-in-hand with Poland’s government.
From its very beginning, popular music has signified what people felt or wanted. It was used as a manifestation of values, social goals, but also utilized as a promotional measure for politicians, parties, or campaigns – whether we are talking about the countercultural psychedelic rock of the 1960s, anti-establishment punk of the 1970s, or more contemporary instances like rap of the 2010s being a soundtrack of racial protests. From this perspective, disco polo is relevant, too.
A political tool in the form of disco
Starting in the mid-1980s as a localized version of disco, heavily influenced by Italo disco and the USSR’s dance music, disco polo adapted simple rhythms, melodies, and danceability into the framework of wedding music. Since its inception, it has been regarded as party music – enjoyable, yet without any significant depth to it. However, after the fall of communism and rapid transformation towards free-market economy in Poland, disco polo became a cultural phenomenon, being one of the most popular music genres of the mid-1990s. In a country still striving to cut itself off from its communist past, it was the semi-libertarian, ribald, but safe alternative, manifesting the pure joy of celebration of freedom. It married the traditionalist sense of ludic joy of a wedding and freedom of expression in a conservative country.
Disco polo’s extreme popularity in the 1990s attracted politicians, and it was widely used in campaigns. For example, Bayer Full, one of the most successful disco polo bands of all time, recorded Prezydent in 1995, supporting Waldemar Pawlak of the agrarian Polish People’s Party (PSL) in his 1995 election. Another example includes the song Ole Olek!, which was used as a campaign song the same year for the left-wing candidate Aleksander Kwaśniewski of Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), who eventually won the election. However, in the early 2000s, disco polo rapidly lost wide popular appeal, mostly due to the changes in the music industry and global trends, but also to the widespread criticism aimed at its shallowness and simplicity. Still, the phenomenon did not cease to exist, but remained popular as festive wedding music, becoming even more localised, a hyperreal example of Polishness.
Nevertheless, since the late 2000s, disco polo has gained momentum yet again, regaining its presence on television – the medium which made its popularity a decade earlier. Finally, the genre’s renaissance was confirmed once the Prawo i Sprawiedliwość party (Law and Justice, or PiS) won the parliamentary election in 2015, taking control not only over the parliament, but also over the public television TVP (Telewizja Polska), placing its associate Jacek Kurski as its chairman in 2016. PiS saw the identity-building potential in disco polo, and, through Kurski, not only reintroduced the genre in the mainstream discourse, but also changed the narrative – music previously seen as shallow and simplistic was now patriotic.
Disco polo as an identity builder
Regardless of whether we are discussing the usage of disco polo as a wedding soundtrack, campaign music, or an identity policy, it must be seen as a valid element of the cultural landscape of Poland, mostly finding its audience in rural, conservative areas. These are the main regions in which the PiS electorate is located, so through their approval of the music, previously seen as unworthy by intellectuals, voters are heard not only on the political but also the cultural level. Drawing from the country’s ludic heritage, mixed with the celebration of joy, the genre ceased to be perceived as something that Poles should be ashamed of, but can be a source of pride. Such a dichotomy fitted perfectly into the narrative forced by PiS since their landslide win in 2015. Disco polo was an embodiment of right-wing, traditional culture, manifesting a strong bond with rural regions, while the opposite side of the political spectrum consisted of over-intellectualised, post-communist, snobbish central-leftists, who are disconnected from reality.
The affirmation of disco polo as a valid cultural discourse can be seen through its inclusion in the state-approved mainstream television. PiS, clearly understanding disco polo’s evolution in the 1990s and television’s role in the popularisation of the phenomenon, has chosen to use it again to return the genre to its previous glory. With a help of Kurski, disco polo has started being re-introduced to a national audience through its regular inclusion in concerts broadcast by TVP: it is unofficially state-curated, obviously state-approved.
The case of the New Year’s Eve of Dreams
The best example of such an event is an annual New Year’s Eve concert, organised by TVP in Poland’s most popular winter resort Zakopane since 2016 (with an exception of 2020, when it was held in Ostróda due to the pandemic), and known as ‘Sylwester Marzeń’ (New Year’s Eve of Dreams) since 2017. Note that PiS has been Poland’s ruling party since 2015, while Jacek Kurski has been TVP’s chairman since early 2016, which coincides with the concert’s rebranding and relocation. Interestingly, the first year of Kurski’s leadership at TVP saw the introduction of Zenon Martyniuk – one of the most popular disco polo artists in Poland – to the list of artists performing at the event. And so the trend was initiated. In 2017, there were three disco polo artists out of a total of twenty one (14 percent), in 2018 there were four out of nineteen in total (21 percent), in 2019 eight out of twenty two (36 percent), and in 2020 four disco polo artists performed out of eleven (36 percent). The 2021 edition continued the trend with ten out of twenty seven main artists presenting disco polo music (37 percent).
This latter trend seems worthy of further investigation, especially in terms of disco polo’s promotion on TVP. While the public channel as a whole is an important political tool in the hands of PiS, its most important element is a daily segment called ‘Wiadomości’ (News), an extremely popular news programme focusing on domestic and foreign news. Since 2016, it has created a certain indisputably pro-PiS/anti-opposition narrative, which has played a huge role in each election. Usually, most of the thirty-minute show concentrates on political stories of the day. However, from time to time some segments are devoted to the promotion of TVP’s other shows. While they are typically placed near the end of the show as an addition, ‘Wiadomości’ on December 29th, 2021, devoted the first eighteen minutes out of a total of thirty to the promotion of the upcoming New Year’s ‘Eve of Dreams’. A similar focus was presented the next day, on December 30th, with ten minutes devoted to the event at the end of the program, extending that to the post-Wiadomości segment ‘Gość Wiadomości’ (Guest of the News), which focused entirely on the event.
Such aggressive promotion fits into a broader strategy of identity-(re)building, in which TVP is being used as the main tool in the promotion of certain conservative values. If the most-available TV media, including its news programme, advertises a disco-polo event, it creates a narrative legitimising its presence in the cultural mainstream, allowing certain ideas to be seen and boosted. Therefore, if we keep in mind that TVP is state-approved/controlled and that Jacek Kurski is a former PiS representative with a solid party mandate, the connection between disco polo, the political agenda, and an identity-solidifying process is evident.
Disco Polo in the contemporary cultural and political landscape
There is little doubt that the interest in disco polo was renewed with the help of such events as ‘Sylwester Marzeń’ once PiS gained power in Poland and Jacek Kurski became chairman of TVP. However, there is much more to all this than the simple support of a once-discredited artistic trend. It is a political strategy due to the nature of the relationship between disco polo and Polish identity, or, more precisely, the version of Polishness represented through this egalitarian and anti-intellectual genre of music. Such a connection can be used as a political measure to strengthen the electoral base, to make voters feel heard and valued. More importantly, when such a narrative is paired with the state media’s promotion of the idea of the ruling party’s flawlessness and the values it promotes, both become inseparable: the political element and the cultural representation create a self-reinforcing cultural soundtrack to a political landscape.
At the same time, disco polo, outside of TVP’s mainstream narrative, has become a symbol of artistic division, bringing back the cultural gap of the late 1990s. However, if back then the divide was purely of an artistic character, it has now been transposed to the political sphere. Disco polo is no longer seen as an opposite of intellectual music or higher culture, but as a form of active resistance to the oppressive evils of exclusionary liberal thinking and music linked to its ideas. In a sense, disco polo became a voice of social rebellion of PiS’s voters targeted at an allegedly forced progressive culture. Acknowledging such a state of things paints a picture of Polish popular music as an element of political warfare, which is in fact not new, nor innovative. Music has always been political, but this is the first time since 1989 that has it become such a strong force in a state-led, cultural and political offensive with identity-building in mind. Therefore, disco polo is far from being discredited, dead, or forgotten and must not be perceived as politically irrelevant.Maciej Smółka holds a Ph.D. in cultural studies at the Jagiellonian Unviersity. Previously, he completed an M.A. in American studies (Jagiellonian University, 2015), and a B.A. in cultural studies (Jagiellonian University, 2013). He was a visiting researcher at Dickinson College (2015) and the University of Minnesota (2018). He specializes in popular music, popular culture and American studies. Among others, he is an author of Say Yes! to Michigan (AT, 2017), and a co-editor of From the Bowery to the Bronx (Intellect, 2023).