The music industry is increasingly coming alive to the signs of the times: German productions continue to edge up on the charts, hip hop is enjoying a sustained revival and small adaptable labels are defying the forces of Berlinification. All things considered, 2013 was by and large a good year for the industry. But what has become of social commentary in pop music?
Some years ago - older Germans will remember – there was an ill-fated debate over a quota to bolster the share of German pop productions on the radio. The so-called German Rock and Pop Musicians Association launched the initiative, which was seconded by Heinz-Rudolf Kunze, Reinhard Mey et al., and the CSU (Christian Social Union – Bavarian conservative party) called for musical protectionist measures à la française. It was discussed and debated at length, and the German Bundestag recommended the quota, delegating the final decision, however, to the Länder. Eventually, this somewhat stuffy and very German debate subsided, probably in part because not a few of the original advocates had withdrawn their support in the wake of accusations of nationalism.
And last year the whole debate fizzled out for good. In 2013, as in 2012, Germany’s Media Control Charts did not reflect in the slightest the Anglo-American predominance that quota proponents had previously regarded as a threaten to German pop productions: the most successful album of the year was in fact Helene Fischer’s Farbenspiel, Andrea Berg and Santiano followed hot on her heels, whilst veteran Schlager singer Heino flung himself at young listeners much the way Rick Rubin and the late great Johnny Cash did, covering popular songs by Die Ärzte, Peter Fox, Rammstein et al. On the whole, over half of the bestselling albums on the domestic charts were of German provenance, and there was only a single foreign artist, namely Robbie Williams, among the top five albums.
Hip hop renaissance unabatedNow Schlager pop and Medieval rock are traditionally high-turnover genres in this country, but there was a surprise in store for us as well: a sizeable share of German productions’ very good showing last year was thanks to unabated vitality of a genre that had recently been given up for dead. German rap was ubiquitous in 2013. One couldn’t help occasionally feeling that anything a 16-year-old could chant halfway correctly instantly went gold. Though we’d never heard their names before - Genetikk, Alligatoah and RAF 3.0, for instance – they all dominated the German charts last year.
The most interesting thing about this resurgence is that hip hop is now more vibrant and varied than ever before. And all its subgenres seem to be going strong simultaneously: street and student rap, veterans and newcomers, old school and new school alike. Max Herre, a rather intellectually inclined survivor of the 1990s, rounded off his comeback, for example, with an unplugged record, partaking of the booming rap revival alongside the likes of Grim 104 and Prinz Pi, long-serving street rappers Sido and Bushido, and their younger avatars Haftbefehl and Kollegah & Farid Bang. The omnipresence of Cro, a gifted teeny rapper who was ruthlessly run into the ground, and the success of so-called MC Fitti might be an indication, however, that this inflated movement is maxing out yet again. Fitti in particular comes across as a caricature – concocted by marketing strategists – of the modern hipster rapper who ropes in everyone and everything and goes down well with one and all. The so-called YouTube phenomenon is interesting chiefly from a phenomenological perspective: no-one is interested in his music, but you see this bearded Berlin transplant on every talk show and every commercial, and he’s always in a good mood.
Blood & SoilFar more important than chart rungs and sales figures, however, is of course what stories the music by all these folks tell, what they have to say about the country we live in, about social and political developments. On his Hinterland album, Casper ventured last year beyond the bounds of the rap genre. Casper: Alles endet
So did Thees Uhlmann from Bielefeld, who on his second album, aptly entitled #2, treats of his native Germany in a manner reminiscent of Americans like Bruce Springsteen. So Casper and Thees Uhlmann are creating a new German Heimat song of sorts, evoking provincial glum and the hankering after a better life in a better town, as well as the nostalgia that lies at the core of rock'n'roll.
The heated controversy over Frei.Wild, however, a Blut und Boden band most widely appreciated in rural parts of the country, made it clear in the spring that there’s more to the German “wastelands” than just the charm of rural punk, youth-centre nostalgia and green fields: they are also a locus of very real problems and political confusion. Although they hail from South Tyrol, Frei.Wild were of course a distinctly German issue in 2013.
This hugely successful band style themselves victims and harbingers of a new right-wing brand of populism, to put it bluntly. They thereby occupied once and for all the niche left vacant by the skinhead band Böhse Onkelz, even before the “Evil Uncles” announced a comeback for 2014, and landed several top hits in the charts. The band’s authenticity, a prerequisite for the sort of clientele they cater for, rests partly on frontman Philipp Burger’s past as a singer in the neo-Nazi rock band Kaiserjäger.
So before the Echo Awards in March, some performing artists protested against Frei.Wild’s nomination. Kraftklub, shortlisted in the same category, actually withdrew from the running in protest. The Frei.Wild nomination was thereupon withdrawn, a shitstorm broke out on the Internet, and Frei.Wild took advantage of the opportunity to pose as martyrs once again.
Pop = protest?One reason that controversy in the runup to the Echo Awards remains unforgotten is that controversy of any kind or a clear-cut stance on anything is increasingly rare in pop music. In keeping with the international trend, pop seems to have served its time as a medium of protest in Germany, too. And yet the issues such protest songs could easily take on are plentiful and right there for the picking. Still, hardly anyone last year found or even looked for answers to the NSA and NSU, to the euro crisis or growing income equality in this country as elsewhere. Most of the songs were about personal sensitivities instead; the bigger picture doesn’t seem to interest many German songwriters these days. The reasons for this state of affairs probably lie in a widespread disenchantment with politics, a sense of powerlessness, resignation and a withdrawal into the private sphere – and in this regard, last year’s pop songs were yet again but a reflection of the society around them.
However, a new German grass-roots indie scene has been taking shape underground, 20 years after the emergence of the so-called Hamburg School, and proving that there is indeed an alternative. Taking their musical bearings for the most part by their forebears, bands like Trümmer, the Nerven, Messer or the Heiterkeit, for example, are now re-articulating, whether bluntly or between the lines, a spreading malaise about the way things are going in present-day Germany. Although they’re from different cities, all the aforesaid bands avail themselves of similar means of musical expression. Now that their role models have grown up – Tocotronic fêted their 20th anniversary in 2013 with a physicality-themed double album, whilst the Goldenen Zitronen again distinguished themselves on one of the best albums of their career as spokesmen of the Hamburg protest scene –, the generation of their “heirs” have created an interesting new underground Diskurspop (“discursive pop”) scene. Messer: „Die kapieren nicht“
Vying for the citiesRe underground: it is of course a truism, but a viable infrastructure with suitable conditions is absolutely essential to sustain a diverse and thriving pop scene. And the most crucial element of such an infrastructure – even in this digital day and age – is still a dense and lively network of clubs. It is these risk-taking club owners who hold small not-for-profit concerts on hundreds of evenings a year that give aspiring artists a chance to play to a crowd, to gain experience and exposure. But there wasn’t much good news to report here in 2013. For years, clubs like Hamburg’s Molotow, Munich’s Atomic Café and Chemnitz’s Atomino had staked plenty of money and passion on keeping the German indie scene alive and kicking, but in 2013 all these clubs were acutely threatened with being closed down – and some actually were.
At the Reeperbahn festival in Hamburg, on the other hand, German State Minister for Culture Bernd Neumann awarded one of the newly established prizes (worth €1 million all told) for venues with the best rock, pop and/or jazz programming to the owner of the Atomic Café. Meanwhile, local concert organizers and the GEMA (German music copyright watchdog) reached a tentative agreement after GEMA’s planned rate hike threatened the livelihood of large swathes of the German club scene. These are both important signals at a time when the fight to preserve urban centres is intensifying as commercial interests increasingly threaten to drive out cultural diversity.
Big in Berlin?Without the multi-faceted club scene in Germany, for example, another big jubilee could not have been celebrated at all last year. The unexpected comeback of David Bowie, who, as we know, lived in Berlin for several years, opened the unofficial Berlin festival at the very start of the year. A whole slew of events revolving around various anniversaries and book publications continued into the summer, harking back to old West Berlin as well as the early days of the “new” reunited techno-raving Berlin. The years following German reunification in particular were a time of the most important revival of pop culture in the last 30 years, to which the city still owes its prominence in the international pop music scene and its resultant appeal for artists and musicians from all over the world.
Berlin’s resident expats are indeed largely to thank for its standing as the foremost hub of pop culture in Germany. The nation’s capital gave rise to some interesting and musically diverse albums last year by Moderat, for example, and by Dagobert, a very charming indie/Schlager singer from Switzerland. Against this backdrop, the Berlin senate, which has clearly begun to realize that the city’s cultural resources go to make up a lot of its appeal, funded the Musicboard, a one-of-a-kind
organization in Germany to promote this diverse music scene. But what may be the best news of all is that, despite the widely bemoaned Berlinification of the industry, a wide range of different music scenes were able to emerge or stand their grown all over the country. Hamburg in particular has held up against the exodus of its leading creative forces for years with a singularly lively and diverse scene, which gave rise to some outstanding albums last year by the likes of Pantha Du Prince, DJ Koze and the newly discovered Helena Hauff.
Many of these people owe their success to what is increasingly becoming the standard business model in the music industry: small creative cells have proven highly flexible in adapting to the realities of a changed industry, covering every aspect of the business and forming interfaces, wherever needed, with the system of established majors.
This model is working out for various genres the length and breadth of the country, including everything from Nuclear Blast (metal) and Chimperator (mostly rap) to veteran indie outfits like Buback. It is small-scale structures like these which, bolstered by web capabilities, make the unexpected success of a band like Milky Chance from Kassel possible in the first place. So 2013 might well go down in German music history as the year in which answers were found to the so-called crisis – and that’s good news for once!