Andreas Dorau That’s Democracy – It Never Gets Boring

Andreas Dorau. Not from Jupiter, but with a flower.
Andreas Dorau. Not from Jupiter, but with a flower. | Photo (detail) © Sönke Held

Sometimes songs take on a meaning that’s completely different from the one that was actually planned. Former Neue Deutsche Welle star Andreas Dorau experienced this with his song “Demokratie”: intended as a light-hearted pop tune, the song is played even now when it comes to upholding democratic values. 

It’s a spring day in 2017, und an impressive stage has been erected in front of the Brandenburg Gate. A solidarity concert is taking place here today, with the aim of drawing attention to the global situation regarding press freedom. The thing is, free press is not something that can be taken for granted, not anywhere, not even in European countries. Posters on the stage and throughout the crowd convey the same message, many of them showing the likeness of German-Turkish journalist Deniz Yücel. He’s in custody in a Turkish high-security jail near Istanbul for his critical reporting at that time.

One of the big names in German-language electropop is playing at a protest rally in Berlin: Andreas Dorau. On this occasion he’s playing an old track that originates from the days when Germany was two states, from the year 1988. Its title: Demokratie.

But what might at first glance look like a performance by a socially committed musician armed with an appropriately committed repertoire, is actually something far more extraordinary. Andreas Dorau states that he has never performed his work at this event under the umbrella of activism before – and if you listen carefully, the song Demokratie doesn’t sound remotely like the kind of demo folklore that could be used to provoke unrest. It has more of a disturbingly inconclusive effect.

“Sometimes It’s Unassuming, Then It’s Demonstrating”

To understand Andreas Dorau and the song Demokratie better, a trip back to the 1980s is helpful. In 1981 not only is Dorau 16 years old, but most significantly he has become a popstar overnight. During a school project week he composed Fred vom Jupiter, a mixture of children’s song and disco hit. Once the pop zeitgeist of the day got its teeth into the song, there was no holding back.

Alongside acts like Nena, Spider Murphy Gang, Fehlfarben or Trio, Andreas Dorau also becomes a face for NDW – the German pop phenomenon “Neue Deutsche Welle”. It’s a phase of change, an upbeat mood ripples through the German music industry. Before NDW, Germany didn’t exactly have the reputation of being a pop nation – quite the opposite. Interesting, exciting music was sung in English and ideally came from America or England. German lyrics were reserved for “Schlager” hits: Heino, Freddy Quinn, Alexandra or Heintje were their interpreters – and you could say what you liked about them, but somehow being cool or modern was definitely not part of the image. NDW changes that in an instant, with Andreas Dorau caught up right in the middle. But the story of this New Wave also includes the fact that it ebbed away almost as suddenly as it foamed up. Something that’s regretted by many acts, who still revive their old hits at local festivals today, came at just the right time for Andreas Dorau.

The Hamburg musician is fascinated by the avant-garde trends of NDW – bands like Der Plan, Die Geisterfahrer, Die Radierer. However the charts of the day are awash with other more commercial acts – often former rock outfits that have adopted a new approach based on corny lyrics in German. The hype peters out, and Andreas Dorau is quite happy not having to perform “Fred vom Jupiter” anymore, he enrols on a film course at the University of Munich.

“Democracy, Mr Chancellor, Is Power on a Temporary Basis”

It’s a while before Andreas Dorau’s enthusiasm for making music is fired again. A long self-discovery phase precedes the 1988 album Demokratie, named after its title track. Dorau himself calls it a “forceps delivery”.

He’s set to surprise the music world of the time with the subject of democracy. In those days, democracy was not exactly under suspicion of being a pop topic. The first re-election of Chancellor Helmut Kohl is in 1987, with more to follow. The SPD, led by subsequent President Johannes Rau, doesn’t stand a chance. Manifesting through the Palatine figure of Kohl, democracy seems more sedate than fascinating, but there is absolutely no other alternative in the West. “Although I thought Kohl was an idiot, I didn’t get my hopes up that my vote would do anything to stop him being elected. I was pragmatic in that respect,” remembers Andreas Dorau, with regard to his early encounters with one of the pillars of democracy: voting rights.

The fact that Andreas Dorau takes up the theme of democracy in his music – in fact the single cover even shows him with a pipe and Prinz Heinrich cap posing as Helmut Schmidt – can be attributed to the mother of singer Holger Hiller of the band Palais Schaumburg. Dorau admires her poetry and is allowed to use it as a resource for his songs. He picks out the one about democracy, repeats a couple of lines to form the refrain, and rounds off the track with some monolithic voice samples by politicians. For these he uses a double LP full of political slogans that was released at the time.

“I never considered the title to be political, it’s too ridiculous for that.”

“Stay in The Garden of Eden, and Listen to the Speeches”

Today he sums it up as follows: “I never considered the title to be political, it’s too ridiculous for that. To me, the title says more about people and how they live together – not about day-to-day politics. The song looks at the bigger picture of democracy, not this political sense.”

Presumably that’s precisely why this apparently light-hearted track has outlived its time in such an enduring fashion. Admittedly when it was released in 1988, other songs were becoming hits. Die Toten Hosen for instance achieved a breakthrough with their record Ein kleines bisschen Horrorshow. Although Dorau’s lines “Democracy has many faces / ... / then it strikes again” seems to correspond with “A rubber bullet for every maverick” (from 1000 gute Gründe by Die Toten Hosen), the two acts could not be more different in terms of both aesthetics and content. Dorau hovers cheekily above a social discourse in which Campino’s band ventures to intervene pointedly. Legend has it that the song’s congenial video incorporating cameo appearances by politicians robbed the song of its last chances of market success.

The clip has a good standing in the editorial conference at “Formel Eins”, the leading pop show of its day. Until a decision-maker pulls the plug after all. Dorau remembers that the objector believed the video depicted former Bavarian minister president Franz Josef Strauß performing a “Hitler salute”. Anyone can check this today on YouTube and see that they made a mistake – but for the “Formel Eins” conference it means the clip is off the table. Andreas Dorau gives a wry smile: “That meant all chances of having a hit were over.”

“That's Democracy – It Never Gets Boring”

However the track endured in the collective memory, as did the artist’s repertoire. Even if he doesn’t perform it very often, it has never disappeared. And just like any really important song, this track manages to keep making valid statements about the respective here and now.

So the smart pop cameo being played in 2017 for Deniz Yücel and other victims of totalitarian governments suddenly doesn’t seem so harmless or even ironic. It’s more a matter of Demokratie telling the story of what a privilege it represents and what power it possesses to be able to poke fun at the subject of popular government. At this moment, the concept of retaining or even defending this unquestioned status resonates around the Brandenburg Gate along with the song. The journalist Deniz Yücel remained in custody for over a year and was not released until the following spring.

“So the smart pop cameo suddenly doesn’t seem so harmless or even ironic.”

All the subheadings are quotes from Andreas Dorau’s song “Demokratie”.