The World on Hold
German pop music has no political message. This was the lament heard from Udo Lindenberg in 2016 - before he promptly went on himself to record a sentimental, apolitical contribution to his repertoire of late work. The Böhsen Onkelz sounded like a soundtrack for the populist AfD party and right-wing Pegida movement, while the young indie guitar rockers sought refuge in the realm of Neo-Biedermeier and the typically German Schlager hits resurrected the image of women from the fifties. This year artistic and political utopias were only to be found in club music and electronic pop.
Shortly before the end of the year, however, the German pop scene had the riot act read to it by one of its most prominent founding fathers and veterans. Why is the younger generation so unpolitical? This was the question Udo Lindenberg asked in an interview in November. “There are many who do not express any opinions on principle, who say that we are entertainers and that is all, entertainment is what we do”. How nice it would be, “if Helene Fischer, for example, were to make a statement against right-wing populism”. It is important to show a clear attitude, “especially in these worrying times.”
Is Lindenberg right? Was there really no political pop in this politically turbulent and troubled year? There was some, but not the kind Lindenberg might have imagined. One of the most successful German albums in 2016 was Memento – the comeback album of the Frankfurt rock group, the Böhsen Onkelz, that was so long awaited by the fans. It is without a doubt a highly-political work, it is just that it does not position itself against right-wing populism, but in fact picks up on its buzz words and articulates them positively, be it, for example, the contempt for the elites or the feeling of having been left behind socially, or even to a rejection of democracy that results from all this. “Ein elitärer Kreis / erbarmungsloser Wesen”, (An elitist circle / ruthless creature) it says in a piece called “Markt und Moral” (Market and Morality), “pisst uns in die Tasche / und erzählt uns, dass es regnet / Vertraut der Demokratie / Ich frag’ mich, wie” (pisses into our pockets/ and tells us that it is raining / you must trust democracy / I wonder how) This could, however, be interpreted as the soundtrack for AfD and Pegida.
It is the same with the music of Freiwild, the second biggest group of the year in the realm of German-speaking rock. Freiwild come from South Tyrol, but in April were awarded an Echo (German music prize) in the category “Rock Alternative National" by the Federal Association of the German Music Industry. In much stronger manner than the Böhsen Onkelz, Freiwild combine the new right-wing “We-are-victims-of-the-system” mind-set with an aggressive patriotism. “Ich dulde keine Kritik / an diesem heiligen Land, das unsre Heimat ist” (I do not tolerate criticism / of this sacred country, which is our homeland") it says in a piece called Südtirol (South Tyrol), with which they wowed the audience at their concert in Berlin. Back in 2013 they withdrew their participation in the Echo ceremony due to protests from left-wing groups such as Kraftklub. This time, however, they were given ample opportunity by the media industry and public television to tell their critics on prime-time television where to get off. This, too, is a sign of a general shift in society to the right.
RETREATING INTO THEIR PRIVATE SPHEREGerman-speaking indie rock, on the other hand, was dominated by a wave of apolitically vague melancholy and a retreat into the private sphere. The most successful representatives of this Neo-Biedermeier was AnnenMayKantereit from Cologne, who released their debut album “Alles Nix Konkretes” in February. In authentic-sounding songs reminiscent of street music their singer, Henning May, announces in his manly, rough voice the desire to move into a two-room apartment in an old building with his girlfriend. To a certain extent, AnnenMayKantereit makes the sensitive emotional music of Tim Bendzko (who released a new album entitled “Immer Noch Mensch” this year) seem as if it were aesthetically on the level of a discursive form of pop that promotes no discourse.
That, of course, does not mean that there was no surprising, new, good and rugged German rock music this year. There was, for example, Harieschaim, the debut of the neo-post-punk singer Max Gruber and his band Drangsal, in which Gruber sings about the state of existential homelessness, the joy of pain, and sexual domination fantasies to cold beats in a reverberating voice. Then there was the Munich quintet, Friends of Gas, which combined its minimalistically repetitive post-punk with the stoically urgent text fragments of the singer Nina Walser. Max Rieger, the singer of the Stuttgart-based group, DIe Nerven, went solo under the name All Diese Gewalt (All This Violence) and managed to merge the rugged sounds and splintered abstractions of post-punk into soft, flowing forms. His album Welt in Klammern (World in Brackets) was, so to speak, the best German progressive rock number of the year.
THE RHETORIC OF TRANSIENCEUdo Lindenberg's new album was musically much more conventional, but enormously successful – Stärker als die Zeit (Stronger than Time) reminisces about the path he has taken through life, the joys and suffering and the feeling of gratitude that he is still alive. In songs like Muss da durch (Have to get through it) or Wenn die Nachtigall verstummt (When the nightingale goes silent), Lindenberg, who was 70 in May, also sees his own death approaching. Surprisingly, it is this rhetoric of transience, so prevalent in his later work, that is so very popular with teenagers and female fans - as could be seen at his sell-out concerts in stadiums. The same was also true of that other great, spiritually inspired record of the year – Von Mensch zu Mensch (From man to man) by the Gothic singing star Unheilig, who after a two-year (!) farewell tour has now supposedly said his final goodbye to his fans.
Apart from the Böhsen Onkelz - the most eagerly awaited comeback album of 2016 came from the Hamburg hip-hop trio, Beginner. On Advanced Chemistry, in a most successful way they managed to uphold the aesthetics of their main work from the nineties – hip-hop beats with wild scratching combined with dance-hall reggae rhythms and Jan Delay's charismatically nasal Hamburg dialect. The most advanced German-speaking rap of the moment came, however, from Austria from the ironically minimalist, ultra-slomo cloud rappers like Young Hurn, for example. Or, in contrast, from the hyperactive Hamburg rapper Ronja Zschoche, alias Haiyti, who on her tape mix called Toxic invoked feminine autonomy and assertiveness with an air of punk. The second important political hip-hop album of the year came from the Frankfurt-based rapper Megaloh. In a piece called Wohin (Where to) on his Regenmacher (Rainmaker) album, he tried to put himself in the position of a refugee, for example, “Sie sagen, ich bin illegal hier / ich habe kein Recht / ich such nur nen Platz, um zu leben / ich habe kein Recht” (They say I am illegal here / I have no rights / I’m only looking for a place to live / I have no rights).
Apart from that, the Schlager, Germany’s most successful mainstream genre also had some impact in 2016. Although its unchallenged queen, Helene Fischer, managed to cause a mild stir with a posthumously mixed duet with Elvis Presley, it was, in fact, her main rival, Andrea Berg, who, with Seelenbeben (Soulquake) produced one of the most successful albums and then went on a sold out concert tour. Roland Kaiser, who, in true Lindenberg style, had already positioned himself against the Pegida movement last year, performed his “Kaisermania” Festival in Dresden to an audience of 50,000. And at events such as the Lange-Schlagernacht (The Long Night of the Schlager) festival series he was equally as well received by young audiences as newcomers like Vanessa Mai.
AN IMAGE OF WOMEN FROM THE FIFTIESIn 2016, it was Ms Mai who set about taking over the Schlager diva throne from Helene Fischer. Her disco hit might well have sounded modern, the image of women promoted in Vanessa Mai’s lyrics, was, however, much more conservative. In this case, feminine autonomy is completely replaced by a woman's longing for a man with whom she will find love, protection, and gratification. Particularly in contrast to Helene Fischer and the sexually dominant appeal of Andrea Berg, she comes across as a restorative figure; one that is animated by a longing for the fifties, similar to the ones that are also to be found in the restorative trends of present-day politics.
Musical futurism and the unconditional will to innovate were in 2016 once again most likely to be found in the area of electronic music. The most successful electro-pop record of the year was made by the Berlin trio Moderat: On III, they transposed the avant-garde club music styles of the past few years into a song and concert hall format for the masses. The most advanced electronic music of the moment also came from Berlin, in particular from the international artists living there. Kuwait-born producer, Fatima Al Qadiri, for example, brought out a highly political album called Brute, in which she mixed techno-beats and middle-eastern sounds with original recordings of demonstrations. And in the Berlin clubs or at festivals like Atonal or CTM, you could hear young DJs and producers, as well as female producers like Whybe, mobilegirl, Pan Daijing, Dis Fig, Group A or M.E.S.H, all working on the creation of a globalised post-internet form of pop. They interlace the latest American and European club music seamlessly and naturally with both traditional and modern African, Caribbean and Asian dance music styles – a completely “deterritorialised” form of music, which feels at home in all musical cultures and styles alike. If you were looking for a progressively political statement against the new mainstream trend toward restoration in 2016, then maybe this – it is music that completely champions and lives off the beauty of a truly globalised pop culture that has become boundless.