The new helplessness
It has been a year of upheavals – the digitization of the music industry continued to take its course, while “Intro” and “Spex” magazines phased out their print edition and the Echo Award was cancelled. Political conflicts continue to escalate. The only thing to do – stay cool!
By Ralph Christoph
In retrospect, 2018 may be remembered for triggering a turning point in the realm of pop music that, although hardly noticed by the general public, nevertheless caused quite a stir. A “sea change” was the term used by the Bundesverband Musikindustrie – BVMI (Federal Music Industry Association) in its half-yearly report to describe the fact that audio streaming had now overtaken the CD on the German music market.
Since 2014, the number of streaming downloads has also been taken into consideration when calculating the official charts in Germany. As opposed to the way it is done on the streaming charts, only the so-called premium streams are evaluated, i.e. downloads, for which customers pay directly either for one individual download or by subscription.
For some time now, the charts have projected a sometimes rather confusing image, one which on, the one hand, places the well-known national and international stars in the upper regions, yet, on the other, embraces a large number of German rappers whose names never used to appear in this context. Now, people like Capital Bra, Bausa, Kollegah & Co. not only top the charts on a regular basis – especially the single charts, but they also regularly smash all the previously held records.
For example, Russian-born rapper Capital Bra, who lives in Berlin, was the first artist since the charts were introduced in Germany to manage seven No.1 singles in one calendar year (as of 31st October). And rapper Bausa, from Saarbrücken, with his Was du Liebe nennst held the number one spot for nine weeks, longer than any other German hip-hop song before.
An Echo from the pastIt is these and similar achievements that inspired the aforementioned BVMI and its affiliated organisation, Deutsche Phono-Akademie, to set up the Echo awards back in 1992. For them it has always been the case that an outstanding achievement meant in the first place a product which sold better than all the others. The high number of streaming downloads accessed by young target groups then has obviously had a great impact on this.
The criteria used for the awarding of the prize created a dilemma. Despite the fact that there had been massive criticism in the past regarding the nomination and honouring of the South Tyrolean patriot band, Frei.Wild, this year it finally led to a huge éclat. Instead of responding to the lack of sophistication and embarrassment of recent years and embracing long-running debates on the #MeToo and #OscarsSoWhite initiatives, they decided to award the Echo to rappers Kollegah and Farid Bang despite having such lines in their songs as “Mein Körper definierter als von Auschwitz-Insassen” (My body is more defined than any Auschwitz inmates). Even though the two of them were subsequently exposed to massive allegations of anti-Semitism and in the end accepted an invitation from the International Auschwitz Committee to visit Auschwitz Concentration Camp, the prize in this form was no longer tenable and had to be abolished. They realised too late that the prize was being involuntarily perceived as a platform for anti-Semitism, misogyny, homophobia and the trivialisation of violence.
It was Herbert Grönemeyer who showed that there were other roads to go down in the mainstream of pop culture in 2018. With eleven Echos under his belt, the third most successful artist in the history of the award, he paid an unannounced visit to the Jamel rockt den Förster Festival in Jamel near Gägelow, in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. Since 2004, the couple Horst and Birgit Lohmeyer have organised a festival there in a place that is regarded as a stronghold of the right-wing scene. The festival gained supraregional renown after an arson attack on a barn that was used as part of the festival in 2015, whereupon the Toten Hosen expressed their solidarity by turning up there to do a gig. Since then, it has been considered good form among German indie, pop and hip-hop acts to support the Jamel rockt den Förster Festival. With his album, Tumult, Grönemeyer has been characterised as the “Gewissensbarde der Nation” (Germany’s bard with a conscience) (Spiegel online) and has made a very clear political statement – something that is unusual for him.
Stay cool!The Bauhaus Foundation in Dessau had a much harder time of it, when it cancelled its planned concert in the historic Bauhaus auditorium with the left-wing, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern punk band, Feine Sahne Fischfilet. On the grounds that the organisers were afraid of right-wing troublemakers and a possible escalation. In addition, a spokeswoman proclaimed in the course of the conflict that the Bauhaus had always been an apolitical place. This was at least a somewhat daring statement on the part of an institution that was shut down in Weimar and later in Dessau by pressure from right-wing forces and later by the Nazis.
All these debates and discussions will have to take place in future without the two most important German music magazines. After 38 years and 384 issues, Spex (magazine for pop culture) was discontinued at the end of the year. In July, the music magazine Intro, founded in 1991, announced that it would no longer be able to produce a print edition. It also almost went unnoticed that Groove magazine, which was published by the same house as Spex and was the flagship of all reporting on electronic music, also stopped its print edition after 29 years and 175 issues in October and will be published only in digital form from January 2019 onwards.
Nevertheless, there are others who have defied all the upheavals and celebrated big anniversaries. In Hamburg Buback Records celebrated its 30th birthday. While it is normal nowadays and in the course of digitisation that musicians also operate a label, back then it was a actually a novelty brought about by urgency. The Berlin label Staatsakt has only been around for half that time and is still working on its reputation as a melting pot for the most interesting niche products of German pop culture.
One of these products was Die besten Jahre by International Music, the most interesting release of the year from the house of Staatsakt. Although International Music also focuses on the big issues like love, doubt and despair, in a very casual way they also manage to revive Krautrock, The Jesus and Mary Chain and DAF. And with Cool bleiben, they have succeeded in creating an impressive puzzle song that shakes up identities and rhymes, and then comes to an abrupt end after less than two and a half minutes in the form of an urgently monotonous accelerando
The fact that an artist like Barbara Morgenstern, formerly associated with electronic music, has also found a new home with her album Unschuld und Verwüstung at Staatsakt shows that you can be caught between two stools in quite a comfortable way.
With a certain reserve!“Schaut mich an, ich werde älter,” (Look at me, I’m getting older) sings Max Gruber, aka Drangsal. His release Zores (Caroline) is a sometimes exhausting, but a great idea for a pop song. Children’s choirs meet 80’s synthesizers and are held together by Gruber’s strident voice.
Gruber tries to use simplicity as an antidote to the complicated world. And he does not try to hide his roots from Germany's Palatine province (Pfalz). In the old days city dwellers supposedly used the term provincial as a weapon to draw a line between themselves and the artists they considered provincial. Today artists like Gruber dismiss this with a smile, knowing that the big cities and their artists are also not able to produce any better answers to the insecurities around them.
“I’ve tried to find my place in the vast spectrum that stretches from the archetypes of pop discourse like Distelmeyer and Lowtzow through to Blixa Bargeld and Klaus Lage. I admire the lifelike simplicity of their lyrics,” Gruber said in an interview in the Tagesspiegel.
Of those mentioned, only Lowtzow and his band, Tocotronic, released a new work in 2018. Tocotronic with their 12th album, Die Unendlichkeit, have also taken a direction that one would not have expected. Getting away from pop discourse and contemplating their autobiographical navel, whose point of departure is, of course, the provinces. Right from the start the title track carries us off into distorted spaces, supported by a slow beat and by Lowtzow’s mantra – “Ich treibe weiter / seit ich noch ein Kind war / und es dauert an” (I’ve always kept drifting / since I was a kid / and it goes on and on.)
The lives of othersWith so much insecurity and uncertainty, it’s not surprising that narcotics are back on the agenda. Whereas Die Verdammten in Tocotronic’s song still have to make do with ibuprofen, Isolation Berlin go a step futher with Vergifte dich (Poison Yourself) and Jens Friebe declares Es leben die Drogen (Long Live Drugs). And with Drangsal on Und Du? (Vol.II) it is all about “Es sind die Jugend, sind die Drogen / Alle anderen Ängste waren erlogen” (It’s youth, it’s drugs / All the other fears were lies).
“Ich kenn alle eure Stories, doch glauben kann ich keine,” (I know all your stories, but I cannot believe them) shouts Hayiti in her anthem Berghain on her album Montenegro Zero. In this case, the Berlin KitschKrieg collective has produced a new, hard and cool sound, which presents hip hop, cloud rap, trap and pop rap in a new guise. This benefited not only the Hamburg rapper, Hayiti, but also other artists from the top regions of the charts like Beginner and Bonez MC & Raf Camora.
You should also listen to Kat Frankie’s Bad Behavior (Greenland), Antje Schomaker’s Von Helden und Halunken (Columbia), the Leoniden from Kiel with Again (Two Peace Signs) featuring the indie hit Kids, Peter Licht’s Wenn wir alle anders sind (Tapete Records) and Jens Friebe’s Fuck Penetration (Staatsakt) that without any embarrassment whatsoever manages to make a connection between sex and Tolkien.
And at the end of this confusing year, as if they had been summoned, the Goldenen Zitronen hit the scene with the first release from their album that is to be released in the New Year entitled More Than A Feeling. On Nützliche Katastrophen singer, Schorsch Kamerun, fans the flames of an emotional fire – “Ich baue Wände voll erzeugter Ängste / Und werde zum Regenten ernannt” (I build walls full of fears / And am appointed regent), while the band delivers a particularly disruptive sound that seems to groan in a sweetly feverish way. They, too, however, are not able to show any way out of this complicated year of pop.
Nevertheless, it was also possible to make a statement with a cheeky pop quote, as was shown by Gudrun Gut with her new album Moment (Monika Enterprise) that contained the track Baby I Can Drive My Car, to which she added the rhyming phrase “In Saudi Arabia”: Saudi Arabia was the last country on earth where women were not allowed to drive – it somehow fits in well with this year.