35 years of Spex magazine Pop to think about

A small, but very active team - the editorial staff of the Spex magazine in 2015 with Patrick Klose, Daniel Gerhardt, Torsten Groß, Jennifer Beck, Arno Raffeiner, Annika Reith, Christoph Gabriel (f.l.t.r.).
A small, but very active team - the editorial staff of the Spex magazine in 2015 with Patrick Klose, Daniel Gerhardt, Torsten Groß, Jennifer Beck, Arno Raffeiner, Annika Reith, Christoph Gabriel (f.l.t.r.). | Photo: Claudia Rorarius

In 2015 the music magazine “Spex” will be 35 years old. This span encompasses not only upheavals in the history of the bi-monthly, but also several stretches of German pop culture history. A process not always painless. 

In 1980 founded as a fanzine, the founding generation gave Spex a New Wave profile. In contrast to the magazine Sounds, which had existed since the 1960s and was the relevant platform for the German-language music journalism avant-garde, Spex was a product of the post-Punk era with a corresponding revolutionary self-image. A new style of writing for a new music was needed, for a “music of the times”, as the original subtitle of the magazine had it.

Relevant Pop culture in Germany of the 1980s was more or less synonymous with subculture; there was no established form for a reflection on what in Germany is called “U-Musik”, light music, neither in the arts pages of the establishment newspapers nor at the universities. If it was treated by the mainstream media, then as a phenomenon of teenage culture or light entertainment, presented on public television in slapstick formats such as “Disc Kitchen”, “Bananas” or on hit platforms such as “Disco”.

Gaps in interpretation of the pop world

The resulting gaps in interpretation opened the space in which Spex could become one of the most influential organs of the German Pop scene, a development that the original editors collective of Gerald Hündgen, Clara Drechsler, Dirk Scheuring, Wilfried Rütten and Peter Bömmels could not foresee. For Pop experienced a gain in importance in the 1980s. The social change in post-war Europe brought forth consumer societies, which found their expression in Pop. Youth culture became the avant-garde of a mainstream aesthetics shot through with advertising. In Spex the corresponding discourses found their podium.

There Marxist analysis, French theory, postmodernism and deconstruction met fandom and participative observation where events were happening. In a unique constellation of those concerned, a community formed around the Cologne editorial staff that extended beyond the merely musical sphere. Its unique journalistic position as a creditable organ of music criticism and the constantly growing interest in subcultural content gave Spex, which had neither a commercial nor a publishing orientation, its economic existence. The tobacco industry and thriving record sales guaranteed advertising revenues.

Pivotal years of criticism

With the transition from post-Punk to Rave as the dominant Pop trend and the simultaneous reunification of Germany at the end of the 1980s, a new era of reflection on Pop began in the country and for Spex. In 1990, after five years as chief editor, Diedrich Diederichsen left his post, but continued to write articles for the magazine such as, two years later, The Kids Are Not Alright, in which he notes that Pop had lost its revolutionary and emancipatory potential. Symbols of youth culture resistance such as hoodie shirts and baseball caps are now also worn by xenophobic demonstrators, who presumably also listen to some extent to the same music as their anti-fascist counterparts.

With such developments the phase of West German identity came to an end in which Pop stood for the new, for the culture of the occupying forces that sought to dominate the old and the German. It went from being a symbol of resistance to a symbol of consumerism, of the product. In the 1990s the Spex staff, initially under chief editor Christoph Gurk (1993-1998) and then under Dietmar Dath (1998-2000), came to grips with a new Pop world and its languages. Non-musical subjects such as art, literature and film demanded more space. In addition to traditional music journalist approaches, discourses that built on Anglo-American interdisciplinary “Cultural Studies” treated topics such as gender politics and racism. At the same time Pop culture came to the mainstream arts pages. Former Spex authors now wrote for German daily and weekly newspapers.

At the end of the decade the economic framework of self-publishing Spex began to totter. The Munich publisher Alexander Lacher took over the magazine with Piranha Publishers, becoming its publisher. It was a personnel and programmatic watershed. Under chief editor Uwe Viehmann, Spex was reorganized; it now had a fashion series and enclosed CDs. At the end of 2006 the editorial staff was relocated to Berlin; several new chief editors tried to succeed, before in April 2012 the current chief editor Torsten Groß began his stint.

Commerce and debate

In the 35th year of its existence, the October 2015 cover of Spex shows a German Shepherd and bears the headline “Germany, Make Room!” to illustrate a debate about the current refugee crisis. In addition, the listing of diverse acts, topics from the world of TV series, games, fashion and the trends of the Internet community. Compared to its Cologne beginnings, the Berlin Spex is a normal commercial magazine, which, however, thanks to its own “brand” history and the related range of subjects, can continue to allow itself editorial liberties.

In the attention competition of contemporary Pop culture, Spex in 2015 must again prove itself as a podium for relevant critiques and a sexy, marketable media format in the current debates. No easy task, but without the attitude to criticism, to permanent revolution at least in the symbolic dimension, the magazine would degenerate into an annotated catalogue of the culture industry. In the challenge constantly to prove its relevance, Spex resembles its subject, Pop culture.