Print Story Ein himmelblauer Trabant
By Bartleby (Wed Mar 21, 2007 at 06:32:15 AM EST) des mensonges en musique (all tags)
After posting this comment in BlueOregon's latest diary, I foolishly went and actually read the wikipedia entry I linked to, as well as the German entry on the same headwort. Now I'm stuck with an Ohrwurm, an old Schlager from the GDR. Help!


It’s what might have happened to popular music if Chuck Berry and his buddies had never invented rock and roll. And, finally, the best description I can give: if Barry Manilow and Paul Anka sang in German, they would sing Schlager.

Genres are strange beasts. On the one hand, they appear highly arbitrary: If Anka's and Manilow's songs neatly fall in a category separate from pop for their German audiences, then why not for their audiences elsewhere? Maybe the "if" is wrong; at any rate, genres, at least the widely accepted ones, develop a life of their own and are remarkably stable, no matter how fuzzy they are. Actually fuzziness might even help to immunise them, until they're about as vacuous and vague and unassailable as "God" or "truth". Ask someone who's studied Russian literature to explain to you what povest' really means and don't forget the popcorn.


To add to the confusion, Schlager actually means two separate, or at least distinguishable things. I couldn't really disagree with the expats quoted in that blog ("'horrible,' 'nasty,' 'wretched,' 'pathetic,' 'crappy,' and even 'infernal'") when it comes to present-day Schlager (the stuff that we deviously send to the Eurovision Song Contest). Concerning pre-war U-Musik -- pop avant la lettre, if you will -- Schlager can refer to about anything that was popular at the time, so a far wider range of quality is to be expected. I suspect poor old Schlager had to move over a bit when pop and rock entered the German music scene and the German vocabulary. Not a bit, indeed, but so far that it fell off the bench.

Maybe you can go on and subdivide present-day Schlager in gramps-granny-bratwurst-bierzelt-Schlager on the one hand and hip camp gay-scene Schlager on the other hand, with some overlap. Wolfgang Petry and Roland Kaiser to the left, Patricia Kaas and Rosenstolz to the right. (I admit I actually like the latter, inexplicably. They must be under some contractual obligation to include at least one cringeworthy line in every lyric. But their music helped me through a tough time in Uni and my brother through cancer treatment, so by me they can do no wrong.)

Even if it's actually true that Schlager is a typically German aberration, many Schlager singers who became popular here were/are foreigners. Zarah Leander (her 100th birthday was just last week, btw) and Johannes Heesters in/since the 1930s, for example; when I was a kid, you could hardly watch tv for five minutes without hearing Karel Gott, Mireille Mathieu or Nana Mouskouri -- or so it seems to me now, in hindsight. I've been told that Mouskouri was one of a number of artists who catered to very different audiences in different countries and adapted their output accordingly. Schlager in Germany, chanson in France, something like that. I'll put a few names in the poll.

A propos Zarah Leander: Wikipedia claims Nina Hagen had a "major club hit[] in America" with a Leander cover. I didn't know that. I don't get out much these days, so it's always hard to tell how famous Germans that are world famous in Germany are in the world. I remember Hagen covering Leander, though. She has the right voice for that kind of music, no doubt. Leander was the big movie star in Nazi Germany -- until she went back to Sweden in 1943, anyway. Surprisingly to nobody but herself her career seemed to be over at that point, but she did get it moving again eventually. In the 1950s she became a gay icon in Germany, the German Judy Garland in a way, and to this day no third rate travesty act is truly complete without a Leander impersonation. Listen to that voice, and you'll understand.

The word "Schlager" found its way into other languages. I have an old cassette somewhere in this dump that I bought years ago in Warsaw, "Szlagiery starej Warszawy" ("'szlagiers' from old Warsaw"), with pre-war songs. I'm not quite sure what exactly szlagier meant then and means now, if it's still being used at all. The current word for hit is "przebój". Finnish has the word "iskelmä", derived from iskeä (to hit, to beat). Seems reasonable to suspect a loan translation from German or some intermediary form in a third language; admittedly this is speculation. At any rate, the word refers to the sort-of pop Gramps and Granny would hear, basically like "Schlager". Somebody who didn't like the genre, apparently, invented the word "itkelmä" which means the same thing, but is derived from itkeä -- "to weep".

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Ein himmelblauer Trabant | 8 comments (8 topical, 0 hidden) | Trackback
"third rate travesty act" by ammoniacal (4.00 / 1) #1 Wed Mar 21, 2007 at 08:01:37 AM EST
That term always loses something in the translation.

"To this day that was the most bullshit caesar salad I have every experienced..." - triggerfinger

I actually by Gedvondur (2.00 / 0) #2 Wed Mar 21, 2007 at 08:19:47 AM EST
puked a little sauerkraut while reading that.

"If that's not irony, I'll drink a kitten." --Fleece

It's called the Bartleby musical diet (TM). by Bartleby (4.00 / 1) #4 Wed Mar 21, 2007 at 09:10:25 AM EST
Instant weight loss, and 100% fish-free. You're welcome.

[ Parent ]
couple ideas ... by BlueOregon (2.00 / 0) #3 Wed Mar 21, 2007 at 08:50:43 AM EST

A lot of Schlager are what would happen to Lawrence Welk music if recorded on a on a 45 but played on a 78, or a 33 at 45 ... take your pick.

As for the cross-linguistic and cultural music genre thing, there's also the matter of Liedermacher. Here I'm thinking of Wolf Biermann (speaking of Nina Hagen, his step-daughter) but also the lesser-known, hell just 'little-known,' Austrian Arik Brauer, whose works I really like. And somehow the songs from Liedermacher are sort of a cross between US 60s pop-folk (Jim Croce, Bob Dylan, Peter Paul & Mary ...) and slightly more Beat-oriented stuff -- more political/critical, less hippy.

How about "singer-songwriter"? by Bartleby (2.00 / 0) #5 Wed Mar 21, 2007 at 09:10:47 AM EST
Or is that a term only German music critics use if they try to sound cool?

The Welk link is interesting. I had never heard of him.

[ Parent ]
no, it's a good term ... by BlueOregon (2.00 / 0) #6 Wed Mar 21, 2007 at 09:24:59 AM EST

And yes, Liedermacher is singer-songwriter, but, I think, there is also a matter of style & genre when thinking about the Liedermacher, or at least people like Biermann and his contemporaries. Early Dylan, I think, compares well, but the term singer-songwriter would also apply to Jewel, to Fiona Apple, etc. To John Mayer ... and they're not at all like the 60s/70s German-language Liedermacher, I think. I might be splitting hairs a bit, but also excluding a bunch of (formerly) popular 'Liedermacher' who at the same time retain no cultural importance to me.

[ Parent ]
True... by Bartleby (2.00 / 0) #7 Wed Mar 21, 2007 at 10:41:06 AM EST
Coming to think of it, I don't actually know much Liedermacher music at all. A little Wader, a little Biermann, that's about it. I like Biermann's "Der preußische Ikarus", for instance, though rather on the grounds of its qualities as a poem.

My personal point of reference for the whole, let's say, a-guy-and-a-guitar genre are neither American nor German singers, but Russian/Soviet "bards". Vysocky, Okudzhava, Bichevskaya... we listened to those a lot in Russian classes in the mid-/late 80s. I believe they were already old school in Russia at the time, or, in the case of Vysocky, dead, but good for learning fundamental language skills.

[ Parent ]
oh and Franz Josef... by Bartleby (2.00 / 0) #8 Wed Mar 21, 2007 at 11:41:57 AM EST
...Degenhardt! How could I forget him?

[ Parent ]
Ein himmelblauer Trabant | 8 comments (8 topical, 0 hidden) | Trackback