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Pop 2019
Autotune, Cancel Culture, Children’s Songs

Ebow | Photo (detail): © Mirza Odabasi

While we’re ushering the old year out these days, the conclusions drawn are of significant weight considering that 2019 is the end of an entire decade. The new decade beckons, smiles, threatens. The twenties of the 21st century! In order to make a good transition, we need to know what we’re leaving behind. What’s resonating in our ears, what’s stayed in our hearts, what debates have we been having and what can we simply put in the bin?

By Linus Volkmann

Sound-wise, 2019 was still a victim of THE musical sound trend of the decade: autotune. Autotune, autotune, autotune everywhere. Cher, who matchlessly introduced this effect to the world almost exactly 20 years ago with her album Believe, played five concerts in Germany this autumn. The 73-year-old’s world tour closes a circle for the vocal effect, which is used today by good and bad rappers as well as the band Deine Mutter and originally was only meant to iron out minor tonal imperfections. Although autotune was the absolute must-have in recent years, the holy grail as it were of the current pop zeitgeist, we could already feel in 2019 that it is now on its way out. Various productions – for example by Apache 207, the undisputed shooting star of the rap mainstream – make it clear that this very specific sound will soon mark a very concrete phase in pop history and that anyone who wants to sound contemporary will instinctively avoid it.

Diverse versus conservative

But there’s been a lot more going on in rap this year and we can, without kidding ourselves with naïve cultural optimism, detect progressive developments.
The reason for this is probably the increased appeal that the genre has experienced. Along with this, new ideas, new people poured into the picture, gained influence. The panorama has become noticeably more diverse: female, non-binary, queer – it may still not be mainstream in the hip-hop scene, but there has been an increase in importance. Examples include the crew of Ostberlin Androgyn, the Göttingen rapper Haszcara and the Munich-born Kurd Ebow, who has meanwhile moved to Vienna. The title of Ebow’s current record K4L stands for the self-empowerment claim “kanak for life,” which she uses to tie in with current debates about origin and identity. A reader who received a lot of attention in 2019 on this topic is entitled Eure Heimat ist unser Albtraum (Your homeland is our nightmare) and was published by the Berlin journalist Hengameh Yaghoobifarah, among others. Yaghoobifarah also appears in Ebow’s videos.
So we are no longer (only) dealing with that established men’s club that for decades has wanted every homophobic or misogynist derailment to be understood as a valuable basis for the existence of an “authentic” culture. The testosterone camp may still be active, but verbally abusive lines and artists were no longer as readily sanctioned in their own scene in 2019.
This can be seen very clearly in the concert cancellation that Kollegah received on his current tour in Rastatt. Kollegah thrives on provocation – his joint album JBG3 with Farid Bang caused a scandal at the ECHO award ceremony in 2018 due to lyrics that were interpreted as anti-Semitic – as an aftereffect, ECHO struck his colours. In 2019, economic damages also outweigh the promotional effect for Kollegah. In addition to his cancelled events, other appearances that were ultimately held were also touch and go and were met by local protesters. It was similar for Bausa. Due to the absence of a headliner (Foals) at this year’s Reeperbahn Festival, the trap rapper slid right to the top of the line-up – the line-up of an event that is committed to diversity and, above all, more female participation in the music industry. Accordingly, the Reeperbahn Festival had to curate a shit storm that circulated more and more sexist lyrics by the artist, who at first glance seems rather harmless. Bausa’s concert took place, but a bad aftertaste as to his record label (Warner) and the event still remained.
Whether the prohibition of culturally questionable statements is really worth striving for is another matter, together with one of the year’s catchwords: cancel culture. Cancel culture, a charged term that pop culture was concerned with far beyond just hip-hop...

Cancel culture

Well-researched documentaries focused on the victims of attacks, making artists like Michael Jackson or R. Kelly what they also were or are in 2019: perpetrators. The #metoo debate confronted pop music. How should one react to these revelations as a music listener or even a fan? Does a pop song exist separately from its performer? Do all Jacko devotional items and his musical legacy belong in the shredder today? And how much can we trust songwriter Ryan Adams, whose finished record wasn’t even released this year after several allegations of abuse against him were made public? Ultimately, amid the heated discussions on social media everyone will have to answer these questions for themselves. But it’s certain that a widespread consequence of the subsequent scandals will be heightened awareness of the issue.
Pop culture also required heightened awareness in the continuing omnipresent discussion of populism and its consequences in 2019. Should we ignore right-wing voices and no longer give them the media space that they have taken up in recent years – or go to the barricades again and again and shake up our own filter bubbles with hashtag activism? It’s the year after #wirsindmehr (there are more of us), the camps seem more deeply divided than ever. The reactions to Grönemeyer’s announcement at a concert in Austria at which he roared in rage for an open society and against its enemies are emblematic of this. Grönemeyer’s spontaneous inflammatory speech (handed down in the form of a shaky YouTube clip, which has since been deleted on the Internet) is just as celebrated as it is condemned, it can’t stimulate a dialogue but merely trigger the respective camps. For the new decade, we can only derive from this that productive social debates within the heavily populist attention economy of the Internet have no future. It may sound fatalist, but it’s still reality.

Familiar moods

Back to music: Rock, superior to all other genres for decades, often seems somewhat tattered and perplexed today. But this doesn’t mean that noteworthy records were not made. Thees Uhlmann, for example, had a big impact. After a creative break of six years, the former front man of Tomte returned to the stage with his third solo record and his surprise bestseller Sophia, der Tod und ich (Ki-Wi). With pointedly classic song writing and generally stable value – he hit the nerve of all those whose taste in music does not have to reinvent itself every few years. The album Junkies und Scientologen made it to number two on the German charts. What is remarkable about one of the most relevant records of the national rock year, however, is that the most interesting lyric aims at the rap scene: Ich bin der Fahrer, der die Frauen nach HipHop-Videodrehs nach Hause fährt (I’m the driver who takes the women home after hip-hop video shoots). Uhlmann uses narrative prose to tell of a world that is as bizarre as it is real, in which women serve as a sexy backdrop and masculinity seeks its value in conservative, materialistic, tribalist chauvinistic horrors.
One of the best records of the year demonstrates that guitar music belongs not only to male revenants. Power Nap is the name of the second album by Ilgen-Nur from Hamburg. A tour as the opening act for Tocotronic had attracted attention to her for the first time in 2018, and a year later she headlined her first tour. The music resembles international artists like Courtney Barnett, but also points to the heyday of shabby indie punk while harking back to Built To Spill, Sebadoh and Bikini Kill. A washed-out, sleepy, yet highly pointed guitar album that aesthetically emphasises that not all progressive forces are turning their backs on rock.

Growing up with pop

Another phenomenon that is growing from a colourful side-line act to a real factor in the music business is Unter meinem Bett (the fifth part was released in November 2019,) Under My Bed. It’s a popular series of compilations of clever children’s songs that aims to spare kids and (above all) parents from migraine-inducing noise emitting from the family devices. It is accompanied by Sunday morning concerts as family pop always needs to be pragmatic. Pop music as a way of life: the idea isn’t new and is getting on in years itself. And if you miss your life as music aficionado since the kids arrived, you can meet like-minded people here and entertain the kids with better music. Many larger festivals have also added such stages to their array. Meanwhile, the craze has prospered so much that more and more prominent German acts are appearing on these samplers and gigs. If, for example, Baked Beans clowns across the stage dressed as tin cans, you know you’re dealing with the operators of the renowned Berlin indie pop label Staatsakt or with musicians from Die Türen. The new cast of the pop Punch and Judy show is definitely interesting. Whether kids will really like tunes by Clueso, Andreas Dorau, Von Wegen Lisbeth, Dokter Renz (Fettes Brot) or Laing better than music by the more commercial kindergarten acts like Deine Freunde remains to be seen. In any case, this trend certainly represents an attractive space for opportunities.