Photos by Sven-Sebastian Sajak, Stefan Rother, Fleyx24
...and other embarrassing curiosities of German music, explained by a German.
Helene Fischer. Who is this woman who was dubbed “the Britney Spears of German Schlager”, who performed on stage for the German national team at their controversial victory party in front of the Brandenburg Gate and who sold over five million records in the past 10 years? How do you explain the insane success of “Atemlos durch die Nacht” (breathless through the night), a song that’s disgustingly cheesy and yet so catchy that just writing about it leaves me with an Ohrwurm for weeks?
To be completely honest with you: I don’t know. There are a lot of things I dislike about Germany but, most of the time, I am able to explain them to my expat friends. Like the GEZ, for example. Or the concept of an Anmeldebestätigung. But when it comes to Schlager, I’m lost for words.
I used to think that if you were under 60 and listened to Schlager, you were either doing it ironically or you were drunk and simply incapable of making your own decisions. But apparently I was wrong. Millions of Germans seem to have made the very conscious decision to listen to Helene Fischer, buy her records and go to her stadium concerts (her three shows at the O2 World in November have already sold out).
Who are these people? What do they look like? Where do they live?
As it turns out, they’re right under our noses. My friend Lisa is a seemingly normal 22-year-old German engineering student from Hesse who loves Helene Fischer. Her excuse? “The music is just so infectious!” Or: “The lyrics are in German, so you can easily sing along. I mean, you obviously hear that it’s Schlager but it’s not as antiquated as the rest. It’s modern!”
In short: you can listen to her without feeling like you’re listening to your grandma’s music collection. Actually, her grandmother probably likes Helene Fischer just as much as her mum (she already has tickets to see her live next year), her dad (she’s pretty hot after all), her boyfriend (they first kissed to one of her songs) and her gay best friend (he saw her at the CSD in Cologne and she looked “fabulous”). Unlike her long-term boyfriend and fellow Schlager superstar Florian Silbereisen.
Imagine a bleak multipurpose hall somewhere in eastern Germany and an audience well over 60, squeezed onto biergarten benches, clapping and swaying to the music (“schunkeln” as we like to call it). On stage: ‘bands’ in full Bavarian attire, lip-synching German songs about the beauty of nature while pretending to play the accordion. (You think I’m making this up? Just type “Herbstfest der Volksmusik” into Youtube, sit back and lose your faith in humanity.) No wonder the German Schlager industry is rumoured to have a higher per-head consumption of cocaine and alcohol than American rock’ n’ roll in the 1970s.
“It’s great that young people in Germany are opening up to other music styles!” my friend Sergej, who works for a big Berlin-based media agency, said to me the other day. “Schlager and trashy music isn’t just for provincial idiots. It’s annoying how people take music so seriously sometimes. I tell you, trash is the new pop.”
Maybe he’s right. If you attended the much-hyped Dandy Diary opening party for Fashion Week this year, you might remember that 50-year-old guy with bleach-blonde spiky hair who performed as the ‘special guest’. His name: H.P. Baxxter. (H.P. is short for “Hans Peter”, the name of your average Bürgeramt employee.) His Eurodance formation Scooter, consisting of random guys playing around with techno beats and him shouting stuff into a vintage microphone (or megaphone occasionally), has sold over 30 million records.
While I admire anyone who is able to base a song solely around the question “How much is the fish?” and respect his commitment to a single haircut (it literally hasn’t changed since the early 1990s), I am unable to explain the appeal. Sure, the nineties are back and feel free to wear all the crop tops you like but Scooter, seriously?
I guess it’s kinda like David Hasselhoff. The Germans love David Hasselhoff, but they actually don’t. They just find him hilarious. Add a little bit of hipster culture to it and it’s suddenly totally acceptable to like something terrible if you’re doing it ‘ironically’.
Unfortunately, there are many more incomprehensible aspects of German music than just the obvious Schlager and Eurodance. In the late 1970s, the Neue Deutsche Welle made music sung in German fashionable again. Nena, sporting armpit hair and colourful headbands, landed an international #1 hit with “99 Luftballons”. Die Ärzte, who started as a punk band in West Berlin, became a sensation among teenagers and remain one of Germany’s most popular bands to this day. In the early 1990s, Die Fantastischen Vier finally brought the concept of rap music – deutscher Sprechgesang – to Germany. But it was only a matter of time until someone caught on to gangsta rap.
Yes, there really is such a thing as German gangsta rap. One of the first to obtain commercial success in that field was Sido in 2004. His first critically acclaimed musical releases: “Mein Block” about sex, drugs and hookers in the ghetto of Berlin and “Arschficksong” (buttsex song) about, guess what, forceful anal sex, which he later justified by “trying to provoke” and “being a punk”.
He only ever appeared wearing a silver skull mask and when he finally took it off years later, it became apparent why: This guy looks nothing like a gangster. He’s not even remotely attractive. I mean, I get it, his life was tough. After graduating from a Gesamtschule in Reinickendorf, Paul Hartmut Würdig (yes, that’s his real name) lived in a run-down Berlin WG with his friend “B-Tight” and dreamed of becoming a musician – a scenario quite familiar to most Berlin expats.
His label Aggro Berlin later spawned an army of German gangsta rappers, including his former friend Bushido, who stirred up quite a controversy last year when he released a song including the line “Du wirst in Berlin in deinen Arsch gefickt wie Wowereit” (In Berlin, you will be fucked in the ass like Wowereit). Wowi tried to sue, but failed in court.
Yeah, I admit it, us Germans are weird. We’re the land of poets and thinkers, yet we invented Schlager and Volksmusik and were the pioneers of Eurodance. Sometimes I’m jealous of my expat friends for not knowing all those things. I wish I could unhear all those Helene Fischer songs that were blaring from the speakers during the World Cup. Maybe I should just stop trying to explain it and let it fade breathlessly into the night.
Originally published in issue #131, October 2014.