Linguistic Change and Politics

Pop Language: German

It was a long, bumpy road from Ted Herold’s rock’n’roll adaptation Ich bin ein Mann (i.e., I am a man”, 1959) to Thees Uhlmann’s guitar poetry on the album of the band Tomte, Buchstaben über der Stadt (i.e., Letters over the City, 2006). For nearly five decades, German-speaking pop song experimented, rejected and re-defined itself again and again. Out of this artistic struggle a tradition has developed that makes it easier for the contemporary music scene to have a playful and relaxed relation to German as a “pop language”.

In 2005, the Federal Association of the Phonograph Industry ( i.e. Bundesverband der Phonographischen Wirtschaft) found, at 35,3 %, a new proportion of German-speaking music in the official charts for record albums. For a long time now, indie pop from Klee (i.e. Clover), Wir sind Helden (i.e. We are Heroes) and the hard rhymes of aggro rappers may be found in the traditional sections devoted to hits and folk music. The diverse musical styles continue to speak to different groups of listeners that are clearly marked off from each other. Yet the earlier fundamental debate about the somehow uncool German language appears to have dissolved into thin air. German, at any rate, no longer represents a hurdle to entering the pop and rock sections of the charts. Singing in English, before a question of artistic honour, has become a marketing decision. Whoever is aiming at a career of international calibre like what are called the Euro Dance Acts continues to belt out Move your body to the beats.

Rio Reiser, pioneer

At any rate, the aesthetic tummy rumbling which Rio Reiser, the singer and song writer of Ton Steine Scherben (i.e., Clay Stones Shards), described in his autobiography König von Deutschland (i.e., King of Germany, reprint 1997), is over: “We talked about sex and girls and about what was good and what reprehensible in current music. Everything sung in German got the lowest marks!”. Irked by the stuffy musical surroundings of the mid-sixties, resounding with hits like Wir wollen niemals auseinandergeh’n (i.e., We Never Want to Part) by Michael Jary or Bohnen in die Ohr’n (i.e., Beans in My Ears) by Gus Bachus, early German rockers stuck strictly to Anglo-American models. Part of this was the meticulous translation of the lyrics into their high-school English.
Nevertheless, it was the sceptic Rio Reiser who was the first musician outside the shallow entertainment branch to formulate the messages and feelings of his love songs in contemporary and forceful German. Reiser was quick to recognise that his demure mother tongue could rock. Assuming, of course, that you knew how to use it. It is true that going by the sales statistics, Ton Steine Scherben moved only in the autonomous niches of the rock/pop business; yet their song titles, like Ich will nicht werden, was mein Alter ist (i.e., I Don’t Want to Become What My Old Man Is) or Keine Macht für Niemand (i.e., No Power for Nobody), influenced the language of the young in the 1970’s. With this, German passed its practical test; even so, a complex and similarly influential song writers’ scene did not (yet) emerge. British critics baptised the musical experiment from Germany Kraut Rock, and most of the bands continued to prefer English. The German singing “Liedermacher” (i.e., song makers), who strummed their acoustic guitars like modern bards, didn’t possess the musical and socially explosive power of their electrically amplified colleagues. Which is not to say that the long-term effect of folk and political singers like Hannes Wader or Franz-Josef Degenhardt should be underestimated.

Without taking a breather

Throughout the 1970’s there continued to be no consensus whatever in the music scene about how to deal with German. For instance, Inga Rumpf, singer for the Hamburg hard-rock band Atlantis, told the monthly magazine Sounds in March 1978: “English and rock music fit together better in their structure”. Nevertheless, every step in musical innovation was now accompanied by attempts at texts in German. And these were often amazing and, from the contemporary vantage point, had a more lasting effect than the striving after world standards by countless English-singing German groups. For example, the monotone verbal flow of Kraftwerk’s 1974 world-wide hit Autobahn (“vor uns liegt ein weites Tal” – i.e., before us lies a wide valley) or the Hanesatic rocker sayings of the early Udo Lindenberg (Alles klar auf der Andrea Doria – i.e., everything’s O.K. on the Andrea Doria). He processed elements from glam and hard-rock into extravagant revue concerts and created in his lyrics bizarre characters like Bodo Ballermann, Rudi Ratlos and Elli Pirelli. Later he became more and more a self-promoter of his “no panic” slogans. Still, German had wrestled itself free. “Without taking a breather. History will be made. It’s moving ahead” (“Keine Atempause. Geschichte wird gemacht. Es geht voran”) belted out the Düsseldorf group Fehlfarben (i.e., Wrong Colours) at the beginning of the 1980’s.

Punk and New Wave lost no time. German lyrics made a fresh, direct and progressive impression. An entire movement cut up sentences in Dadaist manner and reassembled them anew. Not only the Düsseldorf band Der Plan (i.e., The Plan) set things (and texts) on their head: “Why not walk by red; why not stop by green” (“Warum nicht bei Rot gehen, warum nicht bei Grün steh’n”). That two years later the music industry already drove this movement into selling-out with the swiftly pushed and mainly silly Neue Deutsche Welle (i.e., German New Wave) (“Gib Gas, ich will Spaß – Hit the gas, I want some fun" – Markus) ensured creative exhaustion in the underground; but now the way was free for the musically traditional mass artists Herbert Grönemeyer, Marius Müller-Westernhagen and Wolfgang Niedecken with his band BAP (the German-speaking counterparts of stadium rockers like Bruce Springsteen). The formerly so mockingly observed German rock had developed into a million dollar business. Punk survivors like Die Toten Hosen (i.e., literally “dead trousers”, meaning “nothing doing”) or Die Ärzte (i.e., The Doctors) became staples of the festival circuit.

Broad spectrum

As if the progressive forces needed to recover from the hang-over of the Neue Deutsche Welle, Element of Crime with singer Sven Regener (who later changed to German) and the Dortmund indie king Phillip Boa began in the mid-1980’s to use English again. But the initially teenager-like, and therefore commercially highly successful, attempt of the Fantastischen Vier (i.e., The Fantastic Four) to transfer American hip-hop to the Swabian suburbs with Die da (i.e., Her There) led again through an attempt in German. As a result of the rapid splintering of pop music, musicians took up the question of German in quite different genres. Only this broad confrontation, which ranged from the politically engaged approach of the Hamburg punk bank Die Goldenen Zitronen (i.e., The Golden Lemons; Das bisschen Totschlag, i.e., That Little Bit of Manslaughter, 1994) to the Teutonic murmuring of the Berlin pathos-rock band Rammstein, gradually relegated the “language controversy” to secondary importance. On these paths, even musical boundaries were crossed: the Hamburg intellectual band Blumfeld, for instance, evoked the four voice harmonies of the pop band Münchener Freiheit (i.e., Munich Freedom; So lange man Träume noch leben kann, i.e., As Long As You Can Still Live Dreams) which was located in the 1980’s pop hit mainstream. Or the Cologne electro-duo Justus Köhncke Band brought sweet love songs into the formerly so wordless techno. While German critics invented for this the term Schlager-Techno (i.e., Hit Song Techno), internationally it was respectfully referred to as German Techno Soul.

Thus today a broad debate about quality is possible that was for a long time restricted to individual phenomena for lack of variety. For just as little as singing in English in the 1970’s and 80’s guaranteed international resonance, so too pop lyrics in German do not ensure an original approach. Today the music industry throws a lot of cloned indie rock bands with German lyrics (and preferably a singing front woman) onto the market. After all, a successful formula has been recognised for the sales region GSA (Germany, Switzerland, Austria). But another burn-out such as at the time of the Neue Deutsche Welle is hardly to be expected. German as a language for pop music has now become sufficiently flexible for underground and mainstream.

  KuBus 70
How German may one sing?
Rechts-PfeilTo the KuBus-Film
Ralf Niemczyk
has been writing since 1982 for underground and mainstream journals on music, pop culture, sport and urban planning

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut, Online-Redaktion

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May 2006

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