Pop and Electronic Music 2022
No More War!
2022 was a year of contradictions. While at festivals and sold-out stadium concerts it seemed as though everything was back to pre-pandemic normal, smaller-scale gigs and tours galore were called off – owing to insufficient demand. Economically speaking, it was an anxious year, and musically speaking, all the more provocative: from the clash over the sexist hit party song “Layla” to some raucous grunge anthems and retro R&B that fit right in with the Y2K retro trend. Meanwhile, over in the USA, Kim Petras made history as the most successful German pop singer on the American charts since Nena.
By Jan Kedves
A year ago, as more and more of the population were gaining immunity to the SARS-CoV-2 virus, it was hoped that night life and the live music scene in particular, which had been put on ice for months by the Covid lockdowns, could finally get back to normal. But this hope has since been dashed. For one thing, Germans are still somewhat hesitant about getting vaccinated: as of December 2022, only 62.5 per cent of the population have been boostered with at least a third dose. But the main problem these days is an apparently contradictory situation at clubs, concert halls and stadiums: we might call it “event maximalism”.
Plenty of large-scale concerts held in arenas were sold out this year. Rammstein’s concerts, for example, drew 70, 90 and 130 thousand fans at Wörthersee Stadium in Klagenfurt, Volkspark Stadium in Hamburg and Olympiastadion in Berlin, respectively. The band’s brutish brand of Teutonic metal replete with pyrotechnic spectacle was celebrated as if there’d never been a pandemic. The veteran punk rockers Die Ärzte played Tempelhofer Feld in Berlin a few times with 60 thousand elated fans at each concert bellowing along in chorus and running amok in the mosh pits.
But many smaller-scale concerts fared poorly, with meagre box office returns, empty venues, even some cancellations. And cries for help. “Contrary to expectations,” wrote the folks at Import Export, a small Munich venue for concerts, readings and performance art, “now that the Covid rules have been loosened up, ticket sales have still been sluggish for many small-scale events.” So in the autumn they had to launch a crowdfunding campaign, which raised over €25,000, to keep the venue afloat for the time being.
In a word, concertgoers turned out en masse for the big shows (90k at Rock am Ring, 75k at the Fusion techno fest), but tended to steer clear of small- and medium-sized gigs. Performing artists like Jens Friebe, Rocko Schamoni and the Tocotronic band called attention to this situation in interviews and press releases as well as on social media. “Quite frankly, advance sales are so meagre at the moment that it just wouldn’t be worth it for the clubs, local promoters, ourselves and our crew to go ahead with the tour,” announced Tocotronic after cancelling some legs of their planned tour to promote their new album. Nie wieder Krieg [No More War] came out in late January, just a month before Russia invaded Ukraine, and their anti-war sentiment came across as an expression of the current consensus. Pre-pandemic, it would have been inconceivable for one of the biggest German indie rock bands to have a hard time filling a whole amphitheatre. Now these cancellations corroborated the bad news coming from other bands.
So what was the real problem here? Certainly not that the viral load in the air is lower in a stadium or at an open-air festival than inside a closed club or concert hall. Nor the fact that in 2022 many people were apparently still making the most of the tickets they’d bought before the pandemic. No, it seems that Covid has kindled a powerful yen for the greatest common denominator, along the lines of: If it’s to be a live show, I might as well be sitting or standing cheek by jowl with a huge crowd of people again at long last. This craving for mass gatherings has loomed large this past year.
Techno museum and rumoured shutteringsIn April, the MOMEM (Museum of Modern Electronic Music) in Frankfurt am Main opened with a ceremony at Paulskirche (St. Paul’s) and an exhibition about German star DJ Sven Väth. Activists at female:pressure, a feminist collective of DJs and producers, were irked by the all-white cis-male lineup for the inauguration. In an open letter to Frankfurt’s mayor, the collective also criticized the wording of the invitation, which said the new museum is located “in the heart of Frankfurt, where techno originated”. This claim, they wrote in the letter, is belied by “academic research and assessments on the origins of Techno culture, which stems from the diverse cultures of queerness and BPoC [Black people and people of colour], especially in urban centres of the USA”. Is Frankfurt contesting Detroit’s claim to be the cradle of techno? What about the Black pioneers of techno like Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson?
Well, it’s complicated. Because it’s true that the DJ Andreas Tomalla alias Talla 2XLC, one of MOMEM’s initiators, set up a separate compartment for (mostly European) electronic dance and club music at City Music record shop in Frankfurt way back in 1982 when he was working as a salesman there – and he labelled it “techno”. He also organized a “techno club” in Frankfurt in 1984. It’s also true, on the other hand, that Juan Atkins over in Detroit began calling his music “techno” in the early ’80s and released a track called “Techno City” under the pseudonym Cybotron in 1984. This parallel development in music history, which still causes some confusion to this day, could have been thrashed out at MOMEM’s inauguration. The museum’s failure to make the most of this opportunity and to show some sensibility for diversity in the lineup for the inaugural party does not reflect well on the new institution. The Bavarian broadcaster Bayrischer Rundfunk quipped that if all these guys prefer to keep to themselves, the new institution might as well be rechristened the “Museum of Bromance”.
Despite a spate of fake news to the contrary, the Berghain Club in Berlin is still up and running. It would take us too far afield to recount exactly how it came about that in mid-October a whole string of media outlets – from the Berliner Kurier and Berliner Zeitung to Musikexpress – spread the canard that Berghain was closing down. What is true is that its in-house Ostgut Booking Agency, which represented 28 different acts and DJs and employed eight staff, is to be shuttered at the end of 2022. And nothing new has come out on Berghain’s Ostgut Ton record company since November 2021: the house label seems to have closed up shop. Why is this legendary club shedding operations and wholly concentrating on its core business, namely the night club? We can only speculate. Now as ever, Berghain won’t answer journalists’ questions. The legendary long queues at the entrance are still there, or rather came back in 2022, and the programme is actually expanding: Honey Dijon began her new residency, called “Jack Your Body”, at the Panorama Bar in October. This Chicago-born house-music DJ, who’s been based in Berlin for a few years now, had a tremendously successful year – and not just because Madonna called her “my favourite DJ in the whole world”, but also because she produced two songs (“Cozy” and “Alien Superstar”) on Beyoncé’s Renaissance album, which came out end of July. Honey Dijon released her own new album, Black Girl Magic, in November. It combines different strands of the African-American house music tradition in a delightful mix of routine and refinement, ranging from minimalist technoid jack tracks to deep jazzy house.
Long before reunited Berlin became a multilingual techno and party metropolis, multi-instrumentalist Manuel Göttsching was sitting in his Studio Roma in the Fuggerstrasse in Berlin-Schöneberg, fusing electric guitar improvisations with pulsating electronic synthesizer and percussion. Back in the ’70s, he’d played with the legendary Krautrock band Ash Ra Tempel. But in December 1981, the stars apparently aligned: Goettsching’s “e2-e4” improv, named after a popular opener in chess, became a classic warm-up at New York’s Paradise Garage club and a sundowner soundtrack on the drop-out island of Ibiza, with its two minimalistic chords, maximalist warmth of sound and legendary 59-minute length. Samples thereof appeared in the late ’80s as undergirding for the Italo house hit “Sueño Latino”. And over in Detroit, techno pioneers like Carl Craig and Derrick May quoted and remixed the piece over and over again. Thanks to “e2-e4”, Göttsching became, as the Guardian once dubbed him, the “Göttfather” of today’s techno and trance scene. He died in Berlin on 4 December 2022 at the age of 70.
A yen for noise, queer immigrant R&B and yodelling2022 was quite a year for Ebru Düzgün, a rapper and singer who goes by the handle Ebow. In March, this Munich native with Kurdish roots released Canê, an album of darkly magnetizing hip hop beats, over which she muses on her identity as a queer immigrant in Germany. The track “Prada Bag” features an impressive monologue simultaneously dissing rappers who show off their luxury brands and interpreting that as a survival strategy: if you’re always regarded as a “second-class person” by mainstream society, the only way to get some respect is to “take something they think you’re not entitled to”. Düzgün says to “Almans”, i.e. white Germans, “The sad thing about it is you have more respect for the capitalism in me than for me myself.”
Gaddafi Gals, an R&B trio made up of Düzgün alias Blaqtea, the singer Slimgirl Fat and producer Walter P99 Arke$tra, came out with the album Romeo Must Die in July. With its allusions to the late 1990s Timbaland sound, the album fits right in with the currently ubiquitous Y2K retro trend the way Matrix sunglasses go with low-rise jeans. The album title is a quote, by the way: Romeo Must Die was a 2000 action film starring Aaliyah. It was her first – and last – film. The American R&B singer died in a plane crash in 2001 and is now a pop icon venerated by Generation Y millennials, much as Kurt Cobain is revered by Generation X. Die Nerven’s new self-titled album once again provides proof positive that they’re one of Germany’s most important rock bands. With a massive appetite for raucous grunge anthems, the trio slam the fatherland (“Germany must burn, I want to see it all on fire”) and address widespread sentiments like the fear of war (“I somehow thought people never die in Europe”) and cultural pessimism in the digital age (“An Influencer cries himself to sleep”).
Meanwhile, Deichkind surprised everyone with some yodelling on their new single “In der Natur” (In Nature). The chorus is based on a sample from “Triohatala”, a 1997 yodelling track by the Swiss band Stimmhorn: “Hu loin-de-u ah wabbi-didl-loin dejo hu-de-u.” Weird timing – because in mid-August, the American rapper Megan Thee Stallion released a single called “Anxiety” also based on a yodelling sample. What’s going on here? In their quest for new “ethnic” flavours to spice up their tunes, rap and electropop have apparently just discovered Alpine folk music. Well, why not. Maybe this mini-fad will catch on to become a global pop trend in 2023.
Exploitation or self-determination? Pop songs about sex workThe 2022 summer hit was also one of the most controversial songs of the year: “Layla”, a techno tune that catapulted DJ Robin and Schürze [which means “apron” or “pinafore”] to stardom, especially in Mallorca’s German party tourist scene. It topped the German charts for nine whole weeks. “Ich hab’ ’n Puff, und meine Puffmama heisst Layla, sie ist jünger, schöner, geiler, la-la-la-la-la-la-la-Layla,” goes the chorus, whipped up by coarse clapping and the trash sound popularized by the German band Scooter: “I have a whorehouse, and my madam’s called Layla. She’s younger, prettier, hotter, la-la-la-la-la-Layla.” “Layla” wasn’t just the soundtrack to binge tourism in Mallorca, but a summer hit with a built-in shitstorm. Beyond the Balearic shores, the song reached a public more sensitized – maybe even hyper-sensitized – to sexism largely thanks to the #MeToo and cancel culture debates of the past few years. At any rate, there were calls to ban the song. Whereupon others waved the German constitution and cried “Censorship!” The song was taken off the playlist at public festivals and fun fairs in Würzburg and Düsseldorf, but that wasn’t a ban because anyone holding an event – whether it’s a rifle club or city hall – has a householder’s right to play whatever music they like. And if they choose to strike from the playlist a crude, sexist pop tune that glorifies pimping and pandering, that’s not a breach of free speech. Even Marco Buschmann, the German Minister of Justice, waded into the debate: “You don’t have to like the lyrics to mainstream pop songs,” tweeted the FDP (free-market liberals) politician. “You may even find them dumb or tasteless. But to officially ban them is, I think, taking it a step too far.” In other words, not a trace of censorship. The “Layla” controversy also showed that how you see prostitution depends on whose prism you’re looking through. “Layla” has drunken male party proles hollering in the role of pimps, with a subtext of sexualized violence and exploiting dependent women.
“Unholy”, another huge hit last year, comes at it from the opposite angle: it’s the sex worker herself singing here, and there was no shitstorm around this duet by Sam Smith and Kim Petras. With its arabesque melody and fat bass, this super-catchy song was number one on the charts in Australia, Bulgaria, India, Lithuania, Singapore, Turkey and plenty of other countries. “Unholy” belongs in this year-in-review because Kim Petras was born in Cologne thirty years ago, in 1992. The trans singer moved to Los Angeles at the age of 19 to become a pop star. “Mm, daddy, daddy, if you want it, drop the addy, give me love, give me Fendi, my Balenciaga daddy,” she sings in the second verse from the perspective of a call girl enjoying transactional sex with a family man. And she sounds so totally in control of the situation that all the usual clichés about sexploitation recede into the distance. Her collaborative effort with Sam Smith, a non-binary British pop star, topped the charts over in America, too, making Petras the most successful German pop singer in the USA since Nena, whose “99 Luftballons” reached second place on the Billboard charts back in 1983. “Unholy” has even been nominated for a Grammy for “Best Pop Duo/Group Performance”. To which Petras then tweeted, “Omg maybe i’ll b a tranny with a grammy.” Well, we’ll find out soon enough when the Grammy Awards are doled out in February 2023. Meantime, we German compatriots are keeping our fingers crossed!