Pop And Politics
No Breather

They played a concert for Deniz Yücel: The Notwist
They played a concert for Deniz Yücel: The Notwist | Photo ⓒ Ralf Dombrowski

Politics is attitude is pop. That was thirty years ago. Now the scene is struggling to define its position. Notes on a discussion.

Signs of a politization of pop music in Germany? No problem! From A as in Antilopen Gang to Z as in Zitronen, Goldene, many bands have expressed themselves in political terms since 2015 or 2016, and so responded to the manifold symptoms of what could be summed up in one word as “backlash”. The ubiquitous backlash is embodied by authoritarian politicians such as Donald Trump and Viktor Orbán, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and represented by neologisms such as Brexit and Pegida, and parties such as the Front National, UKIP, AfD and FPÖ, which at least for a while gained undreamt-of approval ratings and drove the so-called established or old parties before them – to the right.

Return of the old

To these shiftings of the social coordinates, pop music in Germany has responded with a noticeable politicization or re-politicization of its art, at least at first glance. Der Plan from Düsseldorf, veterans of the (Original) Neue Deutsche Welle (ONDW / New German Wave), has returned after a long break with a new album; it is entitled Unkapitulierbar (Uncapitulable) and the Berlin based newspaper Tageszeitung sees in it “a blazing plea for Europe and fundamental rights”. Under the title Ein Haufen Scheiß und ein zertrümmertes Klavier (A Pile of shit and a Smashed Piano), FSK (Freiwillige Selbstkontrolle i.e.,Voluntary Self-Regulation), likewise of the ONDW founding generation, has released a tribute to the Futurist painter and musician Luigi Russolo. The title celebrates the political beauty of destruction and deconstruction: “Luigi Russolo says that metal machines serve new gods, who raze the old cities to the ground”.
Many political statments during their career: Die Ärzte

Razing the old to the ground and developing the new from the ruins – this was one of the leading ideas of punk in the late 1970s. Gudrun Gut was there; she was a co-founder of the Einstürzende Neubauten (Collapsing New Buildings), thereafter of many women’s bands whose names begin with “M” – Mania D, Malaria, Matador – and later of the feminist record company Monika Schallplatten (Monika Records). In a radio interview with ByteFM on Monika’s twentieth anniversary, Gut formulated a credo with which most of the ONDW pioneers would probably agree: “You should be as incapable as possible. The new is created out of inability; it was such a funny idea.”

A bit of punk

The funny idea grown from the humus of the so-called Geniale Dilletanten (Brilliant Dilletants) goes back to an old insight: art doesn’t arise from ability. Today the fifty to sixty-year-olds have in common the influence of punk: “The attitude is still important to me, a bit punky. If that doesn’t work ..., which I still don’t believe it (laughs).” Gut has also commented on the question in the July/August 2017 issue of the magazine SPEX devoted to the theme of “Anger – a feeling is splitting the world of pop”. The circumstances have to be changed, said the musician: “I already thought music is and must be political before. Now I see pop as a recreational factor after the fight or as a source of energy for it”.
Christiane Rösinger: Eigentumswohnung

Many German-language pop songs tell of the daily struggle against urban replacement and the squeezing out of Bohemian life from the metropolises – for instance, Christiane Rösinger’s autobiographical Eigentumswohnung (Condo), which is about how she is not even able to buy the Kreuzberg rental in which she has lived for decades. “Mowing down the pigs isn’t enough.“ Under this crisp heading in the SPEX special issue, two main figures of left-wing radical punk made in Germany discuss their rather different definitions of punk and left-wing radicalism: Torsun Burkhardt, the singer of the band Egotronic of the anti-German straight-in-your-face wing (“Germany, asshole, fuck yourself”), and Ted Gaier (self-definition: individualist-anarchist and utopian) of the Goldene Zitronen. Together with the (street) theatre-happening-activist project Schwabinggrad Ballett & Arrivati, Gaier is seeking new, more up-to-date forms of agitp(r)op to treat questions of migration, border regimes and refugee policy. The large group consists of biological Germans, refugees and those who came to Germany for reasons other than being compelled to do so.
Schwabinggrad Ballett & Arrivati: Bodies Will Be Back

Left mainstream

The list of these pop leftist activities in the widest sense could be continued at will; the broad mobilization against the imprisonment of the German-Turkish journalist Deniz Yücel has been substantially supported by musicians: Die Sterne, The Notwist, Bernd Begemann, Peter Licht.

So far, so good. The question remains: how “pop” is this “pop left”? How popular is it and what social reach does it enjoy? And whom doesn’t it reach? This question is inseparable from the ongoing discussion about left-wing populism. None of the acts mentioned here attains sales figures and media presence even approaching the certifiably unpolitical feel-good pop of the Tim Bendzko, Max Giesinger & Matthias Schweighöfer school. And none of the mentioned acts has even approximately the reach of men such as Andreas Gabalier and Xavier Naidoo, or bands such as Frei.Wild (Fair Game) and Die Böhsen Onkelz (The Evil Uncles), all of which represent facets of the backlash, whether folkish-nationalist, masculinist anti-feminism together with “gender madness” hate and homophobia, or anti-Semitic conspiracy theory.
A critical voice against right: The Antilopen Gang

We are thus witnesses to a cultural-political paradox: in the midst of society, highly popular pop artists, who owe their success to their integrability into right-wing populist milieus and content, present themselves as victims of a left-liberal mainstream that forbids them to call a spade a spade. And this in spite of the fact that Gabalier and Naidoo are constant guests, if not hosts, on German TV shows: Frei.Wild win the Echo, the Böhsen Onkelz sell out the Hockenheimring for days, and actor Ben Becker plays the business punk to announce the spectacle. Or rather to bay it out.

Defiance from the right

Meanwhile, the representatives of the ONDW and the older pop leftists receive the anointment of high culture and perform in safe spaces in splendid isolation – places where no doubts are voiced about their prerogative of interpretation. Municipal theatres, Houses of the Cultures of the World, academies, museums, art galleries. But, just to make this clear, against paradoxes of this kind left-populism is of no avail. When Frei.Wild, Gabalier, Naidoo and the Onkelz fulminate against the mainstream, gender madness and the mendacious press, and thus win the masses to their side, a left-wing that can taken seriously cannot help itself to the same anti-mainstream rhetoric without further ado – unless, that is, it is striving for cross-front solidarity between national socialists and neo-National Socialists.