Pop 2015 Rum Kokos for Karma

Deichkind at the Southside Festival in 2010
Deichkind at the Southside Festival in 2010 | Photo (detail): Olaf (i-workz), CC BY-SA 2.0

People often bitterly bemoan the inferior quality of German popular music. With good reason, and perhaps more than ever in recent years. And yet in 2015 – for the first time in a long time – the bottom line for the year in German popular music was cause for great cheer.

Whatever the eternal curmudgeons and grim nitwits may say to the contrary, 2015 was a fantastic year for German-language popular music. Maybe even one of its best in a long time. For one thing, we finally have an impressive German post-punk band: Die Nerven from Stuttgart, who pulled off the impossible with their EP Out and songs like Barfuss durch die Scherben (Barefoot Through the Shards): to sound fatalistic, gloomy and angry like a German version of Joy Division – and yet without being embarrassing. Funkstörung, old heroes of a genre affectionately known as “intelligent dance music” or IDM for short, came out with a fairly irresistibly pumping electro-soul song called So Simple, sung by Jamie Lidell. And then there was the grandiose stop-and-go shuffle I Haven’t Been Everywhere, But It’s On My List by DJ Koze, another indefatigable German IDM hero who never seems to run out of good ideas.

The smartest song of the year

It was Tocotronic, however, that came out on their new record, Das Rote Album, with what might be the most beautiful, intelligent and moving folk song in the history of German pop: Solidarität, which would definitely rank among the very best of contemporary German poetry as well, if pop really needed that (especially since one occasionally cannot get away from the impression that German popular music lyrics, when any good, have long since proved in far better shape than German poetry):
  • Ihr, die ihr euch unverzagt / mit der Verachtung plagt /Gejagt an jedem Tag / von euren Traumata / Die, ihr jede Hilfe braucht / unter Spießbürgern Spießruten lauft / Von der Herde angestielt / Mit ihren Fratzen konfrontiert / Die ihr nicht mehr weiter wisst / Und jede Zuneigung vermisst / Die ihr vor dem Abriss steht / Ihr habt meine Solidarität.
  • You who, undaunted, / Are troubled by contempt / Hounded every day / By your traumas / You who need all the help you can get / Running the gauntlet among philistines / Goaded by the herd / Confronted with their grimaces / You who are at a loss / And missing all affection / You who are about to be demolished / You have my solidarity.
Even Gabi Delgado recently came out with a remarkable new double album of electronica. In the late ’70s he concocted one of the most spectacular German Gaga Dada New Wave bands, DAF (Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft), and danced the Mussolini. Now he’s back in Spain, living in his native country again, far away from German popular music, but his brief comment about his new record 2, in particular, showed he hasn’t lost any of the edge and lucid cleverness of his early days: “German has lots of syllables, which is why the imperative is the shortest way of saying anything.” The curse that lies heavy on German pop could hardly be summed up more precisely. Or the blessing, if one can deal with the fact that, for that very reason, German popular music has already basically lost its innocence before the first measure.

In other words: if you really want to say something succinctly – which is, after all, the name of the game in popular music – in German it’s very likely to sound like a rather uncivil command and not as amiably entreating as, say, “Love me do”. Bands like DAF, Die Tödliche Doris, F.S.K. or S.Y.P.H. made the best of that then (and to some extent still do today), going all out to put paid to the hippie authenticity kitsch of the 1970s: “Zurück zur U-Bahn / zurück zum Beton” – i.e. “Back to the subway / Back to concrete.”

The Hamburg electro-rap riot combo Deichkind have perhaps proved the most consistent in striving to salvage this project. For years they’ve been doing the impossible, engaging in something like a very, very casual critique of ideology. Just take Like mich am Arsch (Like My Arse), for example, from Deichkind’s latest album Niveau Weshalb Warum (Level Wherefore Why), which topped the German album charts in February. Everything’s gonna be alright.

And then there were the two Austrian pop sensations: the two Viennese bands Wanda and Bilderbuch. In February, Bilderbuch released their album Schick Schock (Chic Shock), coming across as the ultra-laid-back and yet structurally perfect and funky indie pop band they were on their 2014 singles Plansch and Maschin. Check out the wonderfully wobbly single OM, on which singer Maurice Ernst’s voice is so extremely cool it almost dies away, but only almost. If there can be such a thing as German R’n’B at all, then it has to sound like this:
  • Tijuana, New Mexico, First-Class / Immer hin mit uns, runter vom Gas / Ich sagte: “Mädel / Komm mit mir da hin! / Bling, Bling, Bling und sing: / Rum Kokos für’s Karma / Relax and don’t pay tax.”
  • Tijuana, New Mexico, first class / Keep going with us, lay off the gas / I said: “Girl / Come along with me! / Bling, bling, bling and sing: / Rum Kokos for karma / Relax and don’t pay tax.”
The music video to the song, by the way, is first-class madness too. But of course.

Wanda, for their part, initially rode the wave of the fame they’d garnered with singles like Bologna, Schick mir die Post (Bologna, Send Me the Post) or Auseinandergehen ist schwer (Breaking Up is Hard) on their 2014 debut Amore. In October they followed with their second album Bussi and delivered material that was even almost better, with lines like this from the song Lieber dann als wann (Better Then than When):
  • Wenn Du Du selber bist / bist Du so fad, dass niemand mit Dir spricht / Es schaut Dich keiner an / Wenn Du Dich selbst nicht spielen kannst.
  • When you’re yourself / You’re so dull no one talks to you / No one looks at you / When you can’t play yourself.
These were lines that put the ideological abysses of everyday life so succinctly and smartly that we very nearly forgot the bawling delivery. With assiduous help from the band, who in interviews insisted on not providing food for thought but for “ecstasy and passion”, a fine little indie controversy actually broke out in Germany to top it all off. What was for some a fabulously break-neck and morbidly ironic celebration of inauthenticity in the guise of a “gutter rock sensation” (Musikexpress magazine), was for others merely an ideological regression in German indie rock, a giant stride backwards with seven-league boots, narcissistic male kitsch.

In the video to Bussi Baby, the lead was played by Ronja von Rönne, a 25-year-old journalist who shortly before that had caused a ruckus with a raucously anti-feminist pamphlet in the arts supplement to the German daily Die Welt. In another daily, the Süddeutsche Zeitung, the Viennese writer Stefanie Sargnagel observed:

He [singer Marco Michael Wanda] is wearing a leather jacket and trousers that he never changes and, I believe, never washes either. He came up with that, he says, because he finds it manly, as Hemingway did reading, boozing and fishing. It is this very aesthetic that puts many people off. When Marco makes air-humping movements in concert, despite all the gooseflesh I had just before that, I’m so appalled I have to close the YouTube video.

The nastiest genre

Generally speaking, all-too-exhibitionistic machismo tends to be more the speciality of German gangster rap. After Haftbefehl, in songs like Ich rolle mit meim Besten (I Roll with the Best), finally edged this quasi-uncontrollably proliferating genre nearly to an American level in 2014, a whole spate of rather crude lyrics followed in 2015, leaving little to be desired in the way of glorification of violence, misogyny, fantasies of omnipotence, anti-Semitism and humourlessness. The highpoint of the year in German gangsta rap was POL1Z1ZISTENSOHN (Cop’s Son), basically a well-done parody thereof replete with video clip by presenter and satirist Jan Böhmermann. The scene didn’t get it all and, as a knee-jerk reflex, in all seriousness actually “banned” Böhmermann from certain cities. At least Rap.de, one of the popular but notoriously uncritical hip hop web sites, did soon come to see things somewhat more clearly in the debate: “There is absolutely no denying the basic problem: the bulk of the coverage of rap is nothing but promo. No criticism of anti-Semitic statements, no criticism of the glorification of violence, no criticism of the massive dissemination of stupid conspiracy theories and prejudices of all kinds.”

The surprises came from the sidelines. With their new album What’s goes? and singles like Papa Willi und der Zeitgeist, Die Orsons could be clearly acknowledged, despite all their horsing around, which occasionally seems almost compulsive, as the most progressive hip hop crew in the country. The beats fidget and splutter, stumble and bang along in a marvellously nervous manner that we are used to hearing only in the more interesting American and British productions, whilst the raps are eclectic to the max and yet superbly limber. The stiff crudeness that still makes so much German rap so unpalatable is absent here.

Actually, the only German rapper to make the crudeness bearable last year was Roman Geike alias Romano from Berlin, who took the biscuit on his debut Jenseits von Köpenick (Beyond Köpenick) with songs like Metalkutte (Metal Cowl) or Brenn die Bank ab (Burn Down the Bank). He created what is doubtless the zaniest German pop persona of the year: a sort of amiable urban Indian pimp in tight trousers, bomber jacket and Pippi Longstocking pigtails who simply raps about his favourite metal bands. The irony with which suchlike Berlin hipster ideas are normally performed seemed utterly alien to him – which is profoundly unsettling.

Naturally, in any survey of German popular music, even more de rigueur than hip hop and gangsta rap is the German schlager. Because there’s just no getting away from the admission, bitter as it may be, that schlager is by far the most successful German popular music of all. When a new album by Andrea Berg, the Flippers or Semino Rossi comes out, it immediately makes the top ten in the German charts, and usually even takes first place. So it’s no coincidence that the German popular music superstar par excellence is Helene Fischer, a schlager singer, who went on her first stadium tour in 2015, by the way. Her latest album Farbenspiel (Play of Colours) has sold well over two million copies by now, her first Christmas album Weihnachten close to a million within just a few weeks. In this day and age, in which there’s less and less money to be made on sales of physical sound carriers now that music streaming has become a mainstream phenomenon, this kind of phenomenal success seems almost inconceivable.

The top ten surprise

People were a bit surprised to find not a single schlager star among the top ten German albums (which always means the albums that sold the most copies the previous week) in the last week of June. All ten had lyrics in German, which was unprecedented. Even if sales of just a few tens of thousands of copies will suffice nowadays to make the top ten, people were nonetheless amazed. “German-language music is more popular than ever before”, observed Mathias Giloth, managing director of GfK Entertainment, the consumer research company that compiles the charts.

But that’s still not true abroad, where popular music made in Germany traditionally has a hard time of it, and there were no real international hits in 2015 like Wankelmut’s remix of Asaf Avidan’s One Day/Reckoning Song in 2012 or Milky Chance’s Stolen Dance in 2013. Now as ever, there is still basically no real foreign market for German-language pop outside of Austria and Switzerland. The only exception here – and for some time now – is Rammstein. German techno DJs, on the other hand, still have a sterling reputation of course in the clubs of the world. Meanwhile, the eternal Krautrock revival continued in 2015 in the Western world’s more progressive indie pop circles, especially in Great Britain.

German hip hop/gangster rap and schlager shared the field in the record charts in almost brotherly fashion. Four hip hop albums were among them, including the number one record of the week, Fata Morgana by rapper KC Rebell from Essen. Marsimoto’s Ring der Nibelungen (Marsimoto is the nasty alter ego of German hip hop star Materia) came third, Obststand by Hamburg rappers LX & Maxwell fifth and Bonchance by Haftbefehl’s protégés Celo & Abdi eighth. They are all, at best, solid works. But one somehow has the impression German rap is a bit too self-satisfied. Then again, maybe the astonishing number of German hip hop projects is necessary to produce something really amazing at some point.

Not even this last little hope is held out by the invariably horribly formulaic German schlager and schlager pop, as evidenced by the best-selling albums of the week: Xavier Naidoo took second place with the second sampler from his television show Sing meinen Song (Sing My Song) Sarah Connor came fourth with Muttersprache (Mother Tongue) and Gregor Meyle sixth with the first sampler from his TV show Meylensteine (Milestones). Followed by the Santiano men’s choir singing sea shanties on Von Liebe, Tod und Freiheit (Of Love, Death and Freedom) (7th place), Christina Stürmer’s best-of album Gestern. Heute (Yesterday. Today) (9th) and Purs Hits Pur – 20 Jahre eine Band (Pure Hits – A Band's 20th Anniversary) (10th).

Well, but maybe mainstream will get better someday after all. Until then we can listen undespairingly to Romano’s Brenn die Bank ab and Deichkind’s Like mich am Arsch.