Pop 2017
Of Political Disasters and Poetasters

Andreas Dorau
Andreas Dorau | Photo (detail): © Gabriele Summen

Does a politically charged year like 2017 leave its mark on pop music? The answer is a decisive jein, yes and no: last year’s pop lyrics ran the gamut from escapist calendar mottos to point-blank social criticism. 

Dorau makes the charts!

The German music charts usually reflect but a small slice of the nation’s creative output. Last summer Andreas Dorau voiced a surprising desire – or rather demand: he finally wanted to make it onto the charts. Some previous singles of his, such as the Neue Deutsche Welle (NDW, New German Wave) hit Fred vom Jupiter and Girls in Love, had in fact hit the charts, but none of his albums had. Dorau’s wish came true: his album Die Liebe und der Ärger der Anderen (The Love and Aggravation of Others) spent a fortnight riding high – no mean feat against the predominance of schlager singers Helene Fischer, Ina Müller and Andrea Berg and ever-popular acts like the band Santiano and Peter Maffay, who defended his top slot, yet again, with an end-of-year MTV Unplugged CD.

Dorau’s album came out on Staatsakt, a Berlin indie label that released a number of interesting records in 2017, including brand new acts like Boiband, and is a good example of thriving non-mainstream niche labels whose success depends less on ratings in the charts than on an impressive combination of staying power and artistic audacity. Cases in point include the Munich label Trikont, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year; Tapete Records and Grand Hotel van Cleef, both based in Hamburg, which have been at it for 15 years now; and Buback, started up likewise in Hamburg by two members of the Goldenen Zitronen in 1987, which has long since become an indispensable staple of the German record scene. Another such success story that should not go unmentioned is Milky Chance, a duo from Kassel that actually made the US charts with their album Blossom: this is a rare feat for a German band, and all the more astonishing as they’re signed onto the mini-label Lichtdicht.

Besides Andreas Dorau, several veterans of punk and NDW made a splash last year. The original line-up of Der Plan made a new album, while Family Five and DAF put out box-set retrospectives. The backlist of Jetzt!, a relatively unknown band who were forerunners of the Hamburg School, is back out. And young bands are paying homage to early German punk: the rap duo Zugezogen Maskulin cite both DAF and Slime in the title to their new album Alle gegen alle, the Antilopen Gang’s Anarchie und Alltag pays tribute to Fehlfarben’s epoch-making album Monarchie und Alltag (1980), and Kraftklub’s title Keine Nacht für Niemand is a variation on Ton Steine Scherben’s 1972 record Keine Macht für Niemand.

There were a number of comebacks in other sectors, too: Stephan Sulke (also signed to Staatsakt), for example; Wolfgang Niedecken, who re-recorded his own classics for Das Familienalbum – Reinrassije Strooßeköter; and Wolfgang “Wolle” Petry, who, after an extended break, dared to reinvent himself as country singer Pete Wolf. Counting in the rather uninspired comeback album Flash by Hamburg hip-hoppers Fünf Sterne Deluxe, one might indeed get the impression that 2017 was a particularly self-referential and legacy-preserving year in German pop music…

Pop in museums

… though the urge to museumize pop culture has been around for some time and simply continued unabated in 2017: witness exhibitions like the large-scale retrospective Oh Yeah – Popmusik in Deutschland, which travelled from Bremen to Frankfurt, or a more narrowly focused show with the deliberately misspelt title Geniale Dilletanten (Brilliant Dilletantes) at Dresden’s Albertinum about the German punk and underground avant-garde of the early 1980s. The one-time “dilletantes” Einstürzende Neubauten epitomize the rise from subculture to feuilleton fame: in January, the Neubauten played a widely-acclaimed concert in Hamburg’s newly-opened Elbphilharmonie. A highbrow “ennoblement” like the one accorded to the Cologne electro-pioneers Kraftwerk in presentations at New York’s MoMA and London’s Tate Modern.

Hey Ladies!

The above-mentioned “woman power” in the German schlager scene has hardly rubbed off at all on female artists outside the mainstream. In 2017 Christiane Rösinger, Balbina, Sookee, Schnipo Schranke, Joy Denalane, SXTN, Haiyti and Chefboss released favourably reviewed albums. Bettina Köster, a founding member of the legendary band Malaria!, came out with Kolonel Silvertop. Meanwhile, her former fellow founding band member Gudrun Gut fêted the 20th anniversary of her record company Monika Enterprise: with appearances all over Europe, this all-women electronic label enjoys high repute at home and abroad.

Whether from Germany or abroad, however, women artists rarely grace the covers of music magazines. Musikexpress only featured one woman, New Zealand singer Lorde, on the cover last year, and the only German-speaking bands to make the grade were male: namely, Bilderbuch and Wanda from Austria. The German edition of Rolling Stone magazine put US actress Emma Stone (in translucent lingerie) on the cover of its February issue, and, for the rest, fell back on well-known elderly or middle-aged gentlemen like Bob Dylan or Campino of Toten Hosen fame. Darth Vader stares out from the cover of the year-end issue.

Traditionally, moreover, precious few female acts take part in major festivals like Rock am Ring and Hurricane, or even alternative events like the US import Lollapalooza Berlin. It is even deemed noteworthy when a woman bassist takes the stage with an international band like The XX. German-speaking female artists are few and far between; the line-ups are invariably dominated by the same old male rock bands like the Beatsteaks, Metallica or Die Toten Hosen. At the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas, on the other hand, besides Sven Helbig and Oum Shatt Y’Akoto, the female duo Gurr and the mostly-women’s band Die Heiterkeit were selected to represent the “German House”, which isn’t bad percentage-wise compared to German festivals.

But – and this must be rated a sign of progress – the dearth of women has at least become an issue. Many a magazine article and blog post, along with the Facebook group Hey Ladies, discuss the paucity of female performers and contest the argument often advanced by organizers that there are simply far fewer eligible women artists around.

Finally allowed to say “whore” again

Moreover, the blatant misogyny of some male bands is striking – and no longer the sole preserve of German rap, though it continues to spew forth crude gender stereotypes. Take Majoe and Kurdo, for instance: “die Bitch muss bügeln, muss sein / wenn nicht gibt’s Prügel, muss sein” (the bitch has gotta iron, it’s gotta be / if not she gets a beating, it’s gotta be). Has it really gotta be?

There’s no doubt that misogyny is now firmly established in indie rock, too. Here’s a line from Dresden band Kraftklub: “Du verdammte Hure, das ist dein Lied” (You damned whore, this is your song). Even if apologists insist this is a fictional persona speaking, who bears no connection to the actual singer, there’s no arguing away the effect of thousands of fans bellowing along in concert. Von Wegen Lisbeth take similar digs at women on the song Bitch, as does Swiss singer-songwriter Julius Pollina alias Faber in lines like “Warum, du Nutte, träumst du nicht von mir?” (How come you don’t dream of me, you slut?).
And yet some German critics actually find refreshing this stylization of the unfairly maligned, but unbending, lone wolf acting out – at least verbally and unfiltered – his fantasies of humiliating women.

New melancholy

Some cloud rappers like Yung Hurn or Rin, on the other hand, have no problem with the new models of maleness and show that emotions can be expressed differently in words. So, too, (Stefan) Trettmann, who changed from a fun Dresden dancehall act to a melancholiac. He came out with #DIY, one of the best German-language albums of the year: unlike Prinz Pi, Sa4, Kollegah and the collective 187 Straßenbande, Trettmann doesn’t buy into the rampant cliché of the invincible gang boss. Instead he sings candidly of weakness and fear, in the same vein as kindred spirit Benjamin Griffey alias Casper, who also raps some hard-to-take lyrics: “Diese Wände kommen näher / Fühl mich wie ich fühl, weil ich nichts mehr fühl / Kann mich irgendjemand hören?” (These walls are closing in / I feel like I feel because I don’t feel anything anymore / Can anyone hear me?). Casper has been compared to Kendrick Lamar for the gloomy, depressing mood of his hit album Lang lebe der Tod (Long Live Death).

Nor does Romano with the plaited pigtails, who knows no stylistic boundaries, fit the bill for musical machismo. So when he tours with his new album Copyshop and says he wants to marry everyone in the audience, that must seem rather disconcerting to the “tough guys”.
The sugar-coated poetastery of hit-parade mainstays like Mark Forster underscores how fine the line is between emotionality and kitsch: In an April edition of his weekly broadcast Eier aus Stahl (Balls of Steel), satirist Jan Böhmermann lampooned the ECHO Music Prize. ECHO had come under fire for inviting the right-wing South Tyrolean band Frei.Wild to perform at the awards ceremony, whereupon public broadcaster ARD dropped the show – and private broadcaster Vox picked it up (emceed by Xavier Naidoo and Sasha). Böhmermann went on to pillory “Max Giesinger and German industrial music”: his sneering tirade about “oh-so-authentic” German pop singer-songwriters won the “Prize for Pop Culture”. Last spring Böhmermann didn’t know Julia Engelmann’s Poesiealbum yet. The popular poetry slammer (whose first book of poetry is called Eines Tages, Baby (One Day, Baby)) reaped ridicule and indignation for her “wall tattoo” poems and well-intentioned advice to eat a grapefruit in case of depression. But Engelmann isn’t the only one spouting bromides and insipidities: other young women singers like Lina, Alina and Lotte don’t take a back seat to their male counterparts like Vincent Weiss or Johannes Oerding. Now as ever, meaningless mushy platitudes à la Mark Forster (“Egal was kommt, es wird gut, sowieso / immer geht 'ne neue Tür auf, irgendwo” (Whatever happens, it’ll be alright anyway / A door always opens somewhere)) seem to be much in demand.

Pop & politics

Now, it is quite legitimate for pop music – perhaps even its real purpose – to provide escapist entertainment. However, in a politically charged year like 2017 (Trump, G20 in Hamburg, elections that put the xenophobic AfD in the Bundestag, refugee ”crisis”, right-wing violence), we do expect artists to take a stand. That we hardly heard any political statements from established pop stars last year isn’t all that surprising, but self-restraint ruled in other music genres as well. So Musikexpress magazine launched a survey about political self-conceptions and sent a questionnaire to 150 German artists: only 29 answered.

Meanwhile, despite Campino’s apologetics for Merkel, Die Toten Hosen, who’ve long since become mainstays of mainstream stadium rock, probably still regard themselves as being somehow left-wing. On their latest album Laune der Natur, however, the erstwhile punk band seem resigned and at a loss, both their music and their lyrics at a standstill: “Wir halten hier die Stellung / sind längst nicht abgetaucht / Unter den Wolken / wird’s mit der Freiheit langsam schwer / Wenn wir hier und heute / Alle wie betäubt sind / Unter den Wolken / Gibt’s keine Starterlaubnis mehr / Für all die Träume” (We’re standing our ground here / haven’t gone dark by any means / Under the clouds / freedom’s gradually getting tricky / When we’re all stunned / here and today / Under the clouds / there’s no clearance for take-off anymore / for all the dreams).

More robust, in contrast, Die Fantastischen Vier: on their new track Endzeitstimmung (Doomsday Mood), the indestructible fun hip-hoppers attack Nazis point-blank. “Geht mir weg mit eurem Stolz auf die eigne Nation / Ihr seid nicht das Volk, ihr seid die Vollidioten” (Go away with your pride in your own nation / You are not the people, you are the tossers). Only a handful of top stars get this explicit nowadays, though we can be grateful to, say, Xavier Naidoo for refraining, on his solo record Für dich, from conspiracy theories à la Marionetten from Söhne Mannheims’ album MannHeim and sticking to romanticism instead.

Probably the most hotly debated and decidedly political song of 2017 was by Kettcar. After a five-year hiatus, the Hamburg band resurfaced with an album entitled Ich vs. Wir (Me vs. Us, on the label Grand Hotel van Cleef). On a literarily arranged song called Sommer '89 (Er schnitt Löcher in den Zaun) (Summer ’89 (He Cut Holes in the Fence)), lyricist and singer Marcus Wiebusch takes on a subject of fateful, if not exactly current, import to the Germans. With unmistakeable pathos, Kettcar meet the need to present positive, “upstanding” actors of German reunification.

Christiane Rösinger engages in concrete social criticism in Eigentumswohnung (Owner-Occupied Flat), a bitter and laconic song about gentrification, which has now reached even alternative refuges like Kreuzberg, Berlin. Thus, whatever their preferred approach, they still exist: politically aware artists.