Thursday, January 05, 2006
German music | Hailing Heino | Economist.com
Nov 10th 2005 | HOYERSWERDA, SAXONY
From The Economist print edition
Farewell to a peculiarly German form of song
MENTION that you are going to a concert by Heino, Germany's best-known folk singer, and your sophisticated friends will surely grimace. One musical analyst, Rainer Moritz, calls Heino an “emetic for many generations”. Why this visceral reaction to a singer who mixes the flashy outfits of Liberace with the sunglasses of Karl Lagerfeld—and who is on a farewell tour, after 50 years on stage?
The answer lies in a genre of German hit songs known as Schlager, which are the antithesis of what hip 68ers and their spiritual successors groove to, with folksy melodies, schmaltz-dripping voices and simple lyrics. Theodor Adorno, a philosopher and musicologist, once dismissed Schlager songs as musical opium for the working class. But what makes them truly German are their themes. Soon after the war, for instance, they were about sunnier pastures that people could not afford to travel to, particularly Italy. By the 1970s, the topics were drugs, the environment and peace.
Heino's songs have also often been an outlet for feelings that German history has made it hard to express: love of the country, its culture and landscape. His repertoire, listened to on both sides of the Berlin Wall, included modern versions of traditional folk songs, or Volkslieder, even ones that were popular with the Nazis. In Hoyerswerda, which is near the Polish border, they earned him standing ovations from a crowd whose average age was well above Heino's 66. “These songs will still be sung”, he pledged, “when Heavy Metal, Punk and Hip Hop have long been forgotten.”
Yet his valedictory tour may prove the last breath of the Schlager. “The Hitparade”, a popular television show that once featured them, is long gone. They have disappeared from the Eurovision song contest—indeed several recent German entries have been parodies of Schlager songs. Germans now prefer genuine Volksmusik, for instance on “Musikantenstadl”, a television show, or ordinary German-language rock bands.
Most Germans are happy about such musical normalisation, though some will miss making fun of Heino. Heino impersonators such as “The Real Heino”, once the opening act of Die Toten Hosen, a punk band, will die out. Foreigners, too, should shed a tear over losing one of Germany's more unusual cultural phenomena. Jello Biafra, former lead singer of a punk band, Dead Kennedys, has a collection of Heino records, to show how low you can get musically. And listening to their simple lyrics was always a great way to learn German.