An expat survival guide to German popular music
For the sake of this article, I’m going to put all the great German classical composers to one side, leaving the reader with the choice of exploring all the Mozarts, Beethovens, Schuberts and Brahmses at their leisure. Instead, I’m going to focus on the popular music tradition in Germany, which is perhaps less known to the outsider, and thus more interesting to read about - or so you might think.
A little background: Having been a full-blooded musician myself prior to taking up full-time teaching, the topic of music is a particularly sensitive one for me, and in a way, particularly painful to write about.
Is German popular music bad? Well, no, not really
Thinking about German music often causes various gastric reactions and other unpleasant sensations in my body. This is not because German popular music is bad per se - it’s not. I mean, it’s no worse than any of the other commercial garbage aimed at 12 to 16-year-olds that we hear these days, picked out by machine algorithms that music labels spend a fortune on. No, this is not the main reason.
But to say that Germany does not have a rich music tradition would be grossly incorrect. In fact, based on its history and its own unique taste, it does. For example, 1920s Berlin was a thriving hub for Cabaret and small-stage theatre that bore witness to the likes of the Comedian Harmonists (a male acapella group), Chansonieres such as Marlene Dietrich, and spoken theatre, to name but a few elements. To this day, these forms of expression are very much in vogue, and retain a coveted place in German cultural establishments, and in the hearts of German people.
A brief history of pop music in Germany
Let’s have a look at the chronology of the popular German music scene. After World War II, there wasn’t much going on, for obvious reasons. However, with the division of East and West came an outpouring of creative energy, as German bands in the East subtly and not-so-subtly rebelled against the communist state.
For example, the emergence of mainstream rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s and punk rock in the 1960s and 1970s were mirrored by similar developments in Germany. Nobody could escape the Presleys, Beatles, Dylans and the Stones, and so German musicians embraced the rebel spirit with open arms - although, naturally, they did it in their own language.
Then came the happy-go-lucky 1970s and 1980s with their frizzy hairdos, colourful outfits, and snazzy attitudes to match. At the same time, groundbreaking, experimental electronic music from the likes of Kraftwerk was emerging from the musty basements of Berlin and Düsseldorf. This era also saw bands like Nena and Modern Talking take centre stage with their cheeky synthy-pop music.
The emergence of German hip hop in the 1990s paved the way for a different kind of expression. The absence of singing and the emergence of rap suited the German language very well, and it quickly became very popular among German teenagers, who were desperately searching for a voice that was different to the previous generation. Bands like Die Fantastische Vier, Fettes Brot and Jan Delay all pay homage to this genre and reflect the youth culture of the time.
Where things go wrong
On to the topic of the English language: Throughout the history of German pop, very few bands have made hits in English, and there is a very good reason for that. Have you ever noticed that the moment Germans switch from their native language and begin to sing songs in English, things start to go horribly wrong? I’m not talking about the chart artists, but rather in the entertainment industry: cover bands, musical singers, hotel musicians, that sort of thing.
In fact, I’ve lost count of the number of times my ears have had to endure listening to the ghastly pronunciation of popular hits like Summer of 69 by Brian Adams, which roughly sounded like this: “PLAID IT ‘TILL MAI FINGERZ BLED, WOZ A SAMMA OF ZIX-TI NEIN!”; or cringing to an unbearable rendition of Marvin Gaye's Sunny, which went like this: “SANNI, YESTERDEI MAI LAIF WOZ FILD WIZ REIN.”
The pain I suffered got instantly worse when I saw the German audience were seemingly impressed, and not at all bothered by the pronunciation. This was confirmed by them determinedly clapping on beats one and three (as German audiences do, in stark contrast to the rest of the world, where people clap on two and four).
As an afterthought, doing something quite badly to an audience that does not know the difference between what’s good or bad seems to work too — Germany being the case in point, so I guess I’ve just defeated my own argument with my own counterargument. In the end, why should a nation like Germany, with a population of over 80 million and a rich language tradition, care about a few "frowning" expats.
Successful German artists that sing in English
Here is a list of all the successful German artists and bands that sang in English and enjoyed international success in the past fifty years:
- Modern Talking — whose iconic singer Dieter Bohlen — akin to Simon Cowell in the English-speaking world — is now on the jury panel for Deutschland sucht den Superstar.
- The Scorpions — the iconic rock band of the 1980s and 1990s, whose timeless power ballads — particularly the song Winds of Change — still appear on regular radio playlists.
- Nena — another iconic singer whose 99 Red Balloons — a song about the fall of the Berlin Wall — engraved her initials into German musical folklore.
- Alphaville — probably the only German band that made it into the big 1980s power-ballad legacy, with its cult hits such as Forever Young, and Big in Japan.
- Fury in the Slaughterhouse — a band with a funny name, whom I only know based on their one hit, Time to Wonder.
- Rammstein — these prog-rock heavy hitters are a household name in Germany and abroad too, although technically they mostly sing in German, save maybe a couple of songs like TE QUIERO PUTA, which is in Spanish anyway.
Aside from that there are a few other bands that have enjoyed international success to various degrees. These include: Cascada, Fools Garden, Falco, Kraftwerk, Lou Bega and Tokio Hotel.
You might have noticed that I left a certain Hans Zimmer out of the equation. This is partly due to the fact that he writes instrumental film music, and partly because he himself can hardly speak his native German tongue anymore. He is virtually American.