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Ein, zwei, drei, vier!

German rockers turn to their own language

By Christian Thiele, freelance writer from Berlin, is the Arthur F. Burns Fellow at the Tribune

August 21, 2005

It must have been somewhere around 1985--at the age when my thinking centered around questions like how to get rid of my braces, how to kiss a girl without hurting her with my braces or how to not hurt myself when kissing a girl with braces--when I bought my first pop music tape: "Forever Young" by Alphaville, a band from near Cologne, Germany.

This is so '80s, I think when I listen to it today, but I loved it at the time.

In high school, my English skills were below average until I started buying German pop music. Then, my English grades went north because most German bands' lyrics were in English.

And it seemed rightly so. Who was Germany? We had good soccer players and we made fancy cars. But we were a divided country protected by the Americans, a political dwarf burdened by the guilt of having slaughtered 6 million Jews in the Holocaust and of having started two world wars. So why care to sing in German?

Maybe that's why Germans used to travel so much: to get away from that burden. When I traveled and met Germans, which was practically everywhere, I would do anything to avoid being recognized as German. Alphaville was symptomatic of that attitude.

But that's no longer true.

"Das Spiel" ("The Game") is this year's summer hit in Germany--a sweet little tune about what a man thinks about what a girl thinks about him. Last year, everybody hummed "Symphonie"; the year before it was "Guten Tag." And the lyrics are all in my mother's tongue. German popular music is finally losing its braces.

Sure, my friends in Berlin do love Moby; Robbie Williams concerts still sell out in Hamburg; and at Munich's Oktoberfest, the Bavarian brass bands will go on playing Shakira between their hoooomptahhtahhs. But German pop is the thing to listen to.

Bands like Juli, Silbermond (Silver Moon), 2Raumwohnung (an East German expression for "2-Room Apartment") and especially Wir Sind Helden (We Are Heroes) sell their CDs like, well, like freshly baked rolls, as we say in Germany.

Is it just a fashion that will fade with the next trend? Or is it here to stay?

I think it's a long-term change, and a deep one. I believe, though, that the bloom of homegrown pop reflects that my fellow young Germans and I are at last coming to terms with our country, with our collective identity.

Take the TV broadcasts of the Nationalmannschaft team's soccer matches: A few years ago, it would have been just unthinkable to put on the national team's black, red and yellow jerseys for a match. Today you see scores of them and even some national flags along "Casting Alley," the nickname of one of Berlin's most fashionable streets.

And look at the cuisine. Besides all the Italian trattorias and the sushi places, we have started rediscovering our national cuisine. While reporting a story, I once rode around Hamburg in a stretch limo with a local rap musician in his cool white Adidas suit. And where did he take me? To the Rathauskeller, a place as traditionally German as sauerkraut.

So what has changed? The world, to begin with. There is no Berlin Wall anymore. The country is reunited and as such is the largest in Europe.

The capital also has changed. In 1999, the government moved from Bonn--a village where the rail-crossing gates were down most of the time--to Berlin, which, with its ridiculously low rents, has become a cool place to live. Foreigners adore this city, even if its architecture is rather half-hearted compared to Chicago's. And I must say that I show them around with a certain sense of fanfare.

Politics has changed as well. Like many Germans, I had known only Helmut Kohl as federal chancellor. Throughout the '80s and most of the '90s, the fat, stubborn man with a heavy southwestern accent would always have a Hammond organ man playing grandfather's tunes at his party conventions--not exactly the kind of figure whose posters I would hang on a wall.

But then in 1998 came Gerhard Schroeder's red-green coalition. Schroeder, a one-time socialist lawyer known to be a soccer addict, became chancellor. Wow! And he picked Joschka Fischer as his foreign minister, a former taxi driver. Fischer, the back-yard rebel who had thrown stones at police during the '68 riots that were so important in facing our grandfathers' Nazi past, would represent Germany to the world.

Feeling awkward in his huge but cool new Chancellery (Germany's version of the White House), Schroeder would often invite young filmmakers, writers or painters over to the auditorium, serve sausages and salad and sit on the stairs to chat. Schroeder's Cabinet also made Germany more gay-friendly, more open to immigrants. Suddenly I felt German politics was in sync with my generation's lifestyles and ideas, and no longer concocted on another planet.

During an autograph session a few years ago, Schroeder was taped while saying to one of his aides, "Just get me anotha' beer." Pop culture latched on to this snippet, and the phrase was actually turned into a hit song.

Is this melding of culture, music and politics some over-the-top nationalism? Is it a hidden sign of new assertiveness? Should the new wave of German pop scare the world? Not really.

Just listen, for example, to "Die Traegheit" ("Laziness") by Annett Louisan: It's a sweet tune about the passing of a dull day, light as a feather. It catches today's feeling in Berlin. Or tune in to Nylon's retro-electro covers of Marlene Dietrich or Carole King tracks. You might worry about whether your iPod battery will run out. But that's pretty much as bad as it gets.

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In Germany, German is in

Some popular German albums that embrace their native language:

- Annett Louisan " Boheme"

- Silbermond "Verschwende Deine Zeit"

- Wir Sind Helden "Die Reklamation"

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