Ich bin der Rock ‘n Roll-Übermensch: Globalization and Localization in German Music Television

Ulrich Adelt. Popular Music and Society. Volume 28, Issue 3. July 2005.


In popular accounts of globalization, MTV, along with other US-based transnational companies like McDonald’s, Microsoft, and Nike, regularly appears as the harbinger of commodification and the leveling of cultural values. Just as the omnipresent Big Mac seems to make people from around the world surrender to America’s cultural imperialism, so does a network exclusively showing commercials-commercials for records, followed by commercials for other products, again followed by commercials for records-feed consumers in various places with unchanging images of Michael Jackson, Britney Spears, and Madonna. Following this argument, globalization moves in only one direction: from the center (America) to the periphery (the rest of the world). Not only do so-called Third World countries fall prey to the consumer capitalism of the United States, it even permeates the countries of Europe, destroying the Old World’s cultural legacy while at the same time weakening local structures and enterprises.

In an attempt to complicate these accounts, scholars like Appadurai, Jameson, Tomlinson, and Giddens have argued how globalization as a communicational concept works dialectically as both economic standardization and cultural pluralism. “Creolization” (Hannerz), “indigenization” (Robertson), and “hybridization” (Canclini) are cultural processes that allow movements from the periphery back to the center. Recently, quite a few scholars have, sometimes over-optimistically, analyzed how people in different localities are negotiating a cultural resistance against globalization that is situated within the context of globalization-be it female informatics workers in Barbados (Freeman), McDonald’s consumers in East Asia (Watson), or participants in the carnival in Trinidad (Nurse).

The question I want to raise in this article is how German music television of the 1990s can be positioned in the current debates on globalization and culture. Popular music has been a very prominent arena for processes of hybridization and indigenization to develop in a fruitful way (see, for example, Connell and Gibson). At the same time, stratification has also worked in less promising ways, monopolizing the music industry and limiting the dissemination of innovative products (Banks). According to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), only 42.7% of the repertoire released in Germany in 2002 was of domestic origin, compared to 70% in Brazil and more than 90% in the United States (“Regional Summaries”). The actual sales paint an even darker picture: just 26.5% of the long-players sold in Germany in 2002 were labeled “national,” compared to 44.7% identified as “international” (“IFPI Jahreswirtschaftsbericht”) (the rest consists of soundtracks and compilations). How does the German music scene as it is visible on television react to this influx of international pop? As I will argue in this article, distinctive local aesthetics and values represented on German music television can indeed be identified as a form of cultural resistance and/or appropriation. However, I realize that it is somewhat problematic to label these aesthetics and values “German,” because the debate about the nation-state oftentimes informs their very discourse. This is the case when German music videos are heavily ironic in their display of nationalism or when they are dealing with East German and West German identities and immigration.

After introducing current debates on globalization and culture, I will briefly sketch the economic history of the German music television networks and the academic reception of music television in general and in Germany in particular. Drawing on this theoretical framework, I will illustrate my notion of cultural resistance and/or appropriation in two different areas by providing case examples. First, I will argue that, because of Germany’s specific history, self-identity and nationalism are presented in a unique way on German music television, namely through irony and nostalgia. Second, I see German hip hop and the export of globally attractive pop from Germany to other countries as two forms of cultural hybridization that additionally counter the hegemonic forces of international capitalism on a local level. Taken together, the examples I am using show that German locality is strengthened both by participating in and by countering globalization.

Globalization and Culture

Giddens describes different forms of globalization-economic, political, technological, cultural-and also different positions according to one’s definition of globalization. Contrary to skeptics who argue that a global economy already existed in the late 19th century and therefore no acceleration of connectivity between different nation-states is taking place and threatening their existence, Giddens perceives a markedly different level of capital flows in the present. He argues that globalization affects the United States as it does other countries and talks about a “decentering” effect of globalization which has led to the collapse of Soviet communism and its state-run enterprise, heavy industry, and ideological control. For Giddens, this decentering has been instrumental in fostering local cultures and identities across the world (31). In a similar vein, Tomlinson has pointed out that globalization is complex and multidimensional and informed by a dialectical relationship. He stresses the validity of feeling threatened by global capitalist monoculture but does not agree with the dystopian view of consumerism put forth by Latouche’s notion of the “Westernization of the World,” which in Tomlinson’s view does not allow for any kind of agency on the part of the consumer. Tomlinson agrees with Giddens that globalization is not just one-way imperialism. Similar notions appear in Appadurai’s spotting of disjunctures between economy, culture, and politics in the form of “ethnoscapes,” “mediascapes,” “technoscapes,” “financescapes,” and “ideoscapes” (33) and in Jameson’s description of Europe’s struggle with globalization and postmodernity apparent in the inherently contradictory concept of local resistance.

My analysis of German music television follows Inda and Rosaldo’s call for an anthropologically motivated study not just of “deterritorialization” (Canclini 228) but also of “reterritorialization,” a relocalizing of culture in new or changed contexts. As Inda and Rosaldo astutely remark, the cultural dynamics of this relocalizing are connected to political and economic dynamics. In concentrating on the biographies of selected artists on German music television and the textual analysis of their songs, I am covering all of these areas, yet I am fully aware that there is a lot more to be said about the actual reception of these texts. An ethnographic study of MTV viewers in specific cultural environments could give further insights on how reterritorialization of supposedly globally uniform cultural products functions as resistance and appropriation in different parts of the world.


The US version of MTV went on the air in 1981 with only 125 videos in its library, playing about everything it received (Banks). Contrary to notions of Americanization, it proved in the early 1980s to be the breakthrough for many British groups, who, like Duran Duran and A Flock of Seagulls, were visually attractive and had already released videos. American rock acts did not have any music videos available when MTV was launched because in the early 1980s US record companies had not realized the promotional potential of videos (Banks). In its early history, therefore, MTV was an outlet for innovative and emerging pop stars and gave the already established rock stars from the 1970s a hard time. Once the commercial potential of MTV became apparent, production costs for music videos increased dramatically and American rock acts jumped on the bandwagon, as Bruce Springsteen’s story exemplifies (Banks).

Schmidt points out the economic reasons for the launching of MTV, which should not be ignored here. In the 1980s, the embodiment of authenticity in popular music had shifted from live musician to performer, and traditional broadcast TV was unable to follow this development (96). MTV as a youth-oriented format was able to secure the support of advertisers and deliver what Goodwin calls “performance as promotion” (25). In addition to the advent of cable and satellite TV and the pressure of limiting production costs and narrowcasting to specific audiences, another factor in the rise of MTV was the crisis of the recording industry in the late 1970s and the need for more effective advertising campaigns for records (Schmidt 98).

In 1986, Viacom, one of the world’s largest media conglomerates, purchased MTV. Surprisingly, according to Philo, MTV simultaneously managed to widen its musical scope and to remain politically “liberal.” In the early 1980s, for example, MTV had played exclusively videos by white artists. Later it was instrumental in “breaking” acts like Michael Jackson. Through TV shows like Yo! MTV Raps, the network also became an important outlet for hip hop. MTVs ostensibly liberal politics have repeatedly been called into question. As Goodwin astutely points out, far from being a radical break with older forms of the production of meaning, the counterhegemonic trends on MTV take place only within the confines of capitalist ideology.

After the establishment and consolidation of MTV as an economically successful format, the network’s strategy since 1986 has been diversification (special interest formats) and expansion (MTV in places outside the United States) (Schmidt 107). Today, MTV reaches more than 300 million viewers worldwide (Gundersen). Without a music video on MTV, it has become virtually impossible to sell a large number of records for any pop artist. In addition to its financial impact, MTV’s aesthetics have heavily influenced commercial movie and TV productions all over the world.

It should not be denied that, despite the liberatory tendencies of popular music laid out in this paper (tendencies that have often been only grudgingly acknowledged by the popular music industries), one of the main goals of MTV and other large corporations involved in the production, marketing, and distribution of popular music is the accumulation of capital. Yet, while the transnationalization that MTV executives went for worked out economically, it proved to be less successful ideologically.

One of MTV’s most famous slogans from the mid-1980s had been “one world, one image, one channel” (Philo). However, MTV quickly noticed that popular music was less global than international superstars like Michael Jackson suggested. MTV Europe was launched in 1987, and later even European MTV was compartmentalized into subsidiaries like MTV Italy and MTV Poland. Today, there are 28 regional programs reaching from MTV Brazil to MTV China (Traufetter). Traufetter quotes MTV’s regional strategist, Simon Guild, as saying that the word internationality, once instrumental in selling MTV, became a real threat to the company. Fischermann supports this view by discussing at length how, except for a few truly “globalized” companies like Nike and Coca Cola, the advertising industry has also turned to “glocalization,” i.e., marketing with an emphasis on regional difference (while still acting globally on a business level).

MTV Europe arrived in Germany in November 1989. Coincidence or not, within an hour, the East German Politburo resigned, and within 48 hours the Berlin Wall came down. MTV Europe was broadcast in English, with English-speaking VJs (the video equivalent of DJs) and mostly British and American repertoire. Some shows, like 120 Minutes or the controversial cartoon series Beavis and Butt-head, were imported from American MTV, while others were produced in London. As it became clear that German audiences, comprising the third largest market for popular music in the world after the USA and Japan (“IFPI Jahreswirtschaftsbericht”), were not sufficiently represented, in 1996 MTV employed two German VJs, Christian Ulmen and Julia Valet, who spoke English with a heavy German accent. Yet, with the threat of the German network Viva becoming very real for MTV, the channel launched a few subsidiary specifically for Germany, Austria, and Switzerland in 1997. Only a few English-language shows remained in the program, and the percentage of German video productions rose to more than 40 (Traufetter). Lately, even a popular American show like Celebrity Death Match has been recast with German stars.


The most obvious reason for launching MTV Germany was the success of an all-German-language music television network, Viva TV. American MTV’s contractual agreements with record companies (as the producers of music videos) and with the cable companies that featured the program in their networks had made it possible for MTV successfully to shut out competitors in the United States (Banks). However, in Germany, MTV was less successful in monopolizing music television. Four major record companies, not satisfied with their amount of control over MTV, launched Viva in 1993 (Hachmeister and Lingemann 138). An endeavor similar to Viva is Star TV’s Channel V in Asia, another station largely owned by record companies, which challenges Asian MTV subsidiaries (Banks). Today, four of the five record companies that control more than 80% of the music market, Time Warner, Universal, EMI, and edel, own 68.8% of Viva TV (“Fakten und Zahlen”). About 40% of the video clips played on Viva are produced in Germany (Hachmeister and Lingemann 147).

Dieter Gorny, Viva CEO from the network’s earliest days, does not only have strong ties to all major record companies but also to the Social Democratic Party (SPD), which holds the majority in Nordrhein-Westfalen, where Viva is located (Hachmeister and Lingemann). Under Gorny’s guidance, innovative special interest formats with connections to local hip-hop, heavy-metal, indie-rock, and house-music scenes in Viva’s early years made way for a more consolidated and controlled program in 1996 (Hachmeister and Lingemann 150). Although MTV and Viva started out by proclaiming an alternative to mainstream TV, both networks have chosen the path of commercial expansion. The rivalry between MTV and Viva has been well documented in the German media since both networks reach around 4.5 million viewers per day and each tries hard to outdo its respective competitor.

Banks talks at length about MTV’s strategies to monopolize the music market through payola and the network’s impact on how filmmakers shoot music videos. It is interesting to note that, from the 300 records that are released in Germany every week, only 20 music videos end up on MTV and Viva (“Fakten und Zahlen”)-not surprisingly, almost the same 20 videos on both channels. MTV and Viva are heavily commodified and influenced by even larger companies. However, as Philo argues, the success of regional forms of popular music and advertising and the network’s various social and political campaigns for issues ranging from AIDS awareness to civic responsibility do not only serve MTV’s commercial interests but also manage to be of larger non-commercial value and allow local artists to retain local meanings. The success of Viva TV additionally highlights the relevance of “local color” even in the purely economic strategies pursued by the networks.

MTV Studies

If both MTV and Viva have been heavily informed by globally oriented corporate politics, how can locally situated cultural politics emerge from those networks? In the 1980s, scholarly debates on MTV focused largely on its visual aesthetics and their potential as postmodern rebellion (Kaplan Rocking; Goodwin). Fiske (76) described MTV as the product of capitalism and the means of resisting it; Kaplan (“History” 5) saw gaps for alternative positions to Reagan’s America. Goodwin, on the other hand, argues that MTVs politics have always been firmly rooted in capitalist ideology. Cullity develops a locally more specific analysis of cultural nationalism on MTV India. She sees the indigenizing of MTV India in language and looks (such as the large percentage of Hindi film music and VJs speaking “Hinglish”, a mixture of Hindi and English) and in its-in a Western sense-less “rebellious” image. Yet, even if it relies paradoxically on a global perspective, MTV India’s promotion of an alternative cultural nationalism geared towards the middle class can be viewed as a move that challenges simplified notions of globalization as Westernization.

There is an ongoing academic debate in Germany about Viva and MTV, but interestingly enough globalization does not play a large part in it. In a recent collection of German essays on the subject (Neumann-Braun), MTV and Viva are mostly analyzed in a global context and much room is given to economic aspects, discussions of art vs. mass culture, poststructuralism, and a detailed textual analysis of (mostly American) video clips. Nationalist or post-nationalist tendencies on the networks are completely ignored, partly because a positive evaluation of the German “nation” is still a taboo topic in Germany even among academics. Only one essay in the volume explicitly deals with globalization and follows Adorno’s critique of the culture industry by concluding that MTV is plagued by commercialization, standardization, and domestication (Schmidt).

Unlike other studies of music television, my analysis centers around the music, the lyrics, the potential audience, the musicians, and their particular historical context. My reason for not going into the visual aesthetics of music videos here is that, in opposition to the music, there seems to be hardly any stylistic difference between most German music videos and their American counterparts.

German Self-identity and Nationalism

Two main factors that have shaped German self-identity and nationalism over the last sixty years have been coping with the Nazi past and the effects of reunification. The destruction of Hitler’s Germany led the now divided nation into an obsession with its own burdened past and strategies ranging from historicization and therapeutic mourning to normalization (Kattago). The guilt-ridden internalization of the potential dangers in identifying as an “imagined community” (Anderson) made it very difficult to construct a positive image of Germany without being labeled right-wing. Reunification, according to Bach, emphasized national (instead of binational or postnational) thinking, yet the German nation-state as a whole continued to be devoted to European integration and remained decentered from above and below.

I argue that the specific historical situation of Germany as it is reflected in popular music and on German music television in particular has been a key factor in developing, in the 1990s, a unique form of revised nationalism which is deeply steeped either in a self-mocking and ironic attitude or in Ostalgie, a nostalgia for the former East Germany. This somewhat positive but self-conscious nationalism stands in marked contrast to earlier forms of German popular music as described by Leary: while German-ness as presented in sentimental Volksmusik (folk music) and Schlager (German-language pop songs) had been uncritically positive and German-ness as presented in the songs of the Neue Deutsche Welle (the “New German Wave” postpunk of the mid-1980s) mostly negative, German music produced in the 1990s defied such easy classification. Yet, like its predecessors, music identifiable as “German” continued to challenge and appropriate the massive influx of British and American pop music.


The struggle to localize in German pop music is actually twofold: on a larger scale, it is the struggle for German content against British and American content, indicated by instances like German pop musicians wanting to install a quota for songs in German on the radio; on a smaller scale, it is the struggle for East German acts to be heard. Hart describes how difficult it still is for musicians from Eastern Germany even to get radio airplay. He talks of “kulturelle Kolonialisierung” (cultural colonization) and describes how many acts from the East, despite their immense popularity, are rejected by the people who select playlists, who even in the East are mostly Wessis (a derogatory term for West Germans), and by the major record companies. Established East German bands like City, Karat, and the Puhdys make their living mainly through touring, feeding what Germans have neologized as Ostalgie (a nostalgia for the East), while younger artists, with some notable exceptions, just do not make it big. Hart describes the radio station MDR 1 for Saxony, BMG’s Amiga label, and the Berlinbased music-publishing company Buschfunk (Jungle Radio) as the last vestiges of East German music production.

In terms of the way Germany at large feels about its reunification, it is interesting to compare the success of the Scorpions’ “Wind of Change” in 1989 to that of Kai Niemann’s “Im Osten” (“In the East”) eleven years later. The Scorpions from Hanover were already an internationally successful West German heavy metal band when they recorded “Wind of Change” in September 1989. Klaus Meine, singer of the Scorpions, wrote the schmaltzy ballad about glasnost and perestroïka in response to playing in front of 260,000 Soviet rock fans at the Moscow Music Peace Festival (“The Scorpions”). He could not have chosen a better time. When the Berlin Wall came down just two months later, the general euphoria catapulted the song to the number one slot in eleven countries, making it the best-selling single worldwide of the following year (“The Scorpions”). Not only did MTV Europe put the song on heavy rotation, but the Scorpions also recorded a Russian-language version and met with the last Soviet head of state and party leader, Mikhail Gorbachev (“The Scorpions”). The band’s Western heritage and the English lyrics celebrating “the magic of the moment on a glory [sic] night” spoke of a euphoria many people in Germany felt in November 1989, a euphoria that did not last long. This euphoria was also apparent in other pop culture events like David Hasselhoff singing “Looking for Freedom” on top of the Wall, or Roger Waters from Pink Floyd staging an all-star rendition of The Wall on Potsdamer Platz, a large square in downtown Berlin, in 1990 (among the stars were, of course, the Scorpions).

Reunification proved to be a lot more complex and controversial than “Wind of Change” had suggested. With its high unemployment rates, xenophobia, and economic pitfalls, Eastern Germany became unpopular with many West Germans, while a lot of people in the East wondered how much better rampant capitalism really was compared to former head of state Erich Honecker’s square socialism. The longterm effects of reunification were also audible in Germany’s pop music. Without large promotion and even without an accompanying music video, Kai Niemann’s single “Im Osten” (“In the East”) sold 300,000 copies and went to number four in the German charts in 2000 (“Niemann, Kai”). The song begins with East Germany’s national anthem and, in a semi-satirical mode, features numerous sound bites dealing with reunification as well as lyrics sung in a Saxon dialect and culminating in the call, “haut die Mauer wieder auf (“rebuild the Wall”). Even if that exhortation seemed a little over the top, Niemann’s celebration of distinctly Eastern customs hit a nerve in one part of the emotionally still divided country. The success of “Im Osten”, ironically released by Sony Music, proved the need for East German regionalism, even if it was largely Ostalgie. The fact that the song, unlike “Wind of Change”, did not appear on MTV and Viva, proved something else: that, even if a distinctly East German singer made it to the top of the charts, he could still be barred from promotional institutions.

How widespread Ostalgie has become in the new millennium is evidenced in the phenomenal success of the German movie Good Bye Lenin by Wolfgang Becker, which was nominated for the Golden Globe as best foreign film in 2003. The comedy tells the story of a proudly socialist Eastern German woman who falls into a coma in October 1989 and wakes up eight months later. Knowing that any emotional disturbance could kill her, Alex, her son, tries to pretend that the Wall has not come down and that Lenin’s vision of the world still has currency (“Good Bye Lenin”).


While Ostalgie as a form of revised nationalism by definition is limited to Eastern Germany, an ironically charged uber-nationalism is potentially far more wideranging, even if it originates in the East, as in the case of the band Rammstein. Named after a fatal accident at a flight show at Ramstein air base, the Berlin- and Schwerinbased group not only became extremely popular in both East and West Germany, they also sold more than 500,000 copies of their album Sehnsucht (“Longing”) in the United States and peaked at number 45 on the Billboard 200 after David Lynch included two of their songs in his film Lost Highway (“Rammstein Timeline”). Worldwide, two Rammstein albums, Herzeleid (“Heartache”) and Sehnsucht, went double platinum with sales of more than two million each (“Rammstein Timeline”). Rammstein’s all-German repertoire became their bonus in America. People did not have to understand what Rammstein actually sang in their songs to perceive their provocative content. The pounding heavy metal guitars as well as singer Till Lindemann’s old-fashioned Buhnenaussprache (a “stage pronunciation” easily associated with the Nazi stereotype) made it clear that Rammstein were not nice guys. On stage, Rammstein’s theatrics included a vast array of fireworks and special effects, adding to their commercial potential.

In Germany, the band’s political orientation became a matter of controversy. Their employment of Leni Riefenstahl material and their posing as Aryans were quite ironic but many cultural critics did not see it that way. For their 2001 release Mutter (“Mother”), Rammstein felt obliged to include a song entitled “Links 2 3 4” (“Left 2 3 4”) to hint at their “real” agenda while at the same time maintaining their ambiguity (the song title is a march chant). Rammstein’s success in Germany and worldwide is meaningful both globally and on a local level. Like the bands Kraftwerk (Power Plant), Deutsch-Amerikanische Freundschaft (German-American Friendship), and Einsturzende Neubauten (Collapsing New Buildings) before them, Rammstein were successful overseas because they perpetuate stereotypes of Germans as being technically versatile, cold-blooded, and aggressive. However, the ironic implications of these bands, largely discernible in their lyrics, could be appreciated only by their German-speaking fans.

Whereas Rammstein’s ironic nationalism blatantly played on the internalized Nazi past, the comedian, music producer, and TV host Stefan Raab found more subtle ways of developing a revised imagined community. Raab began his career as a VJ for Viva in 1993. Employing anarchic strategies, Raab set out to stretch the boundaries of what is appropriate behavior on television. He insulted and mimicked celebrities and used a large number of swear words, which on German TV do not get censored. Raab was able to transform his humor into chartbreaking German hip-hop singles and launched the comedy show TV Total (“Total TV”) in 1998 on the larger network Pro7, rapidly gaining popularity.

With the help of his show, Stefan Raab produced a string of top ten singles which celebrated German culture while simultaneously making fun of it. In “Flaschebier” (“Bottle of Beer”), Raab sampled German chancellor Gerhard Schroder’s sentence, “HoI mir mal ‘ne Flasche Bier, sonst streik ich hier” (“Bring me a bottle of beer, or I’ll go on strike”), adding an oom-pah accompaniment, and by doing so made the head of state appear more like an oktoberfest announcer than the elder statesman he tends to present himself as. Raab released the song as a collaboration with “DJ Bundeskanzler” (“DJ Chancellor”) and gave Schroder credit for “writing” the lyrics (which meant half of the royalties went to the head of state). The song reached number one on the German charts, but Schroder refused to appear on Raab’s show.

If “Flaschebier” was already somewhat celebratory of ur-German culture, Stefan Raab’s involvement with the Grand Prix d’Eurovision de la Chanson went a step further in nationalist politics. The Grand Prix is the annual song contest of most European countries, including Turkey and Israel, which is widely watched and usually quite conservative in its overall presentation. Each country sends the winner of a prior national contest. In 1998, Raab surprisingly managed to win the German contest with “Guildo hat euch lieb” (“Guildo Loves You All”), his collaboration with Guildo Horn & die Orthopadischen Strumpfe (Guildo Horn & the Orthopedic Stockings). Guildo Horn was part of the German Schlager revival that, in the late 1990s, made many young people go back and pick up the easy-listening records of their parents with their German lyrics celebrating innocence and sentimentality. In times of economic instability, this celebration implied an ironic twist for Germany’s youth. “Guildo hat euch lieb” reached an astonishing number eight in the final. In 2000, Stefan Raab participated in the Grand Prix again, this time singing his own song, “Wadde hadde dude da”, which, despite its nonsensical lyrics and obvious presentation as parody, even made it to the fifth spot in the European final.

Stefan Raab’s ironic play with notions of nationalism is apparent in almost all of his songs and also in the footage he shows on TV Total A good example is “Ich Hebe Deutscheland” (“I Love Germany”), in which an African-American woman living in Germany praises the country and its inhabitants. Sung in German with a heavy American accent, this recording from a Public Access TV station unintentionally makes fun of the very act of national pride it celebrates and can therefore serve as a safe outlet for Germans to be patriotic, an act that in post-war Germany almost always has connotations of chauvinism.

A third example of an ironic declaration of German-ness which relies on the visual possibilities of music television is “Rock’n’Roll Äbermensch” by Die Ärzte (“The Doctors”). Berlin-based fun punk band Die Ärzte had not only had a number of hits with jocular content but also with a couple of rather serious songs like “Schrei nach liebe” (“Cry for Love”), in which they uncover neo-Nazi xenophobia as nothing but a cry for love and affection. Die Ärzte’s music videos were often quite innovative. Shot with a portable camera in black and white, “Rock’n’Roll übermensch” shows the band performing their low-fi reggae track at a German department store. While the singer tells tales of rock’n’roll übermenschen, aliens, apocalypse, and other absurdities, he grows to Godzilla-like proportions and finally shatters the roof of the store. In their video, Die Ärzte manage to showcase German-ness in an ironic fashion as a multicultural hybrid of Nietzschean übermensch theories, Japanese monster movies, US rock’n’roll, and remnants of Caribbean reggae-quite a contrast to Rammstein’s teutonic heavy metal, but “German” nonetheless.


Despite critiques of biologism and the obviation of issues like class and gender, cultural hybridity is a useful concept for post-colonial theory and for describing the exchanges that take place between the center and the periphery or between different peripheries (Papastergiadis). Hybridity as a mixing of traditional and modern culture (Canclini 2) can function as a form of resistance but it does not necessarily entail oppositional politics. Canclini warns of reducing the study of hybridized popular culture to either deductivist or inductivist notions, i.e., either assuming that cultural production is exclusively determined by hegemonic sectors or by taking for granted that subaltern forces are solely responsible for shaping popular culture. As with the term “globalization”, “hybridization” can be used in an inflationary way (after all, there are no “pure” cultures anyway). Yet, when contrasted with essentialist forces, hybrid culture becomes more specific and visible (the same holds true when “globalization” is contrasted with “localization”).

Immigrants and German Hip Hop

From its earliest stages, hip hop as a hybrid musical form connected different continents and represented a “Black Atlantic” (Gilroy). How does German hip hop, which has been extremely popular since the early 1990s, construct and shape identities and communities? Is hip hop the arena where immigrant voices come to the fore in order to “periphalize the core” (Sassen-Koob) and to challenge Germanness, which is silently agreed on as being “white”?

In fact, immigrant cultures are present on German music television and, to a certain degree, also in hip hop. While VJs like African-German Mola Adebisi or Vietnamese-German Minh-Khai do not show many signs of their heritage except for their pigmentation, it is musicians like the aptly named Dritte Generation (referring to “Third Generation” immigrants) or Indian-South-African-German Xavier Naidoo who raise issues of ethnicity and culture. Their music, however, hardly bears any traces from their heritage. “Ethnic” music is largely left to Turkpop and other music from immigration countries, which does not get played on MTV and Viva. There have been two notable exceptions in the past few years: Tarkan’s crossover hit “Simarik” (“Kiss”), which, despite its Turkish lyrics and harmonies, went to number six on the German charts in 1999, and Algerian Khaled’s French-language “Aisha,” which was an all-European hit in 1997.

A second-generation immigrant from Macedonia who reached phenomenal success in Germany was Zlatko Trpkovski, an unemployed industrial worker appearing in Germany’s version of the TV show Big Brother. Zlatko gained popularity for dismissing high culture as “Deppengeschwätz” (“jive”), for being proud of his complete ignorance of Shakespeare, and for his renditions of German Schlager. After being thrown out of the house, Zlatko recorded the single “Ich vermiss dich wie die Höik” (“I Miss You Like Hell”), which went straight to number one in the German charts. Big Brother s production company, Endemol, saw to it that, during the short time Zlatko was popular, he generated as much revenue as possible. Although Endemol was equally successful with other Big Brother contestants like Jurgen and Christian, Zlatko was the most interesting, because it was precisely the combination of his celebration of German pop culture and his Macedonian upbringing that turned him into a national star.

Another arena where immigrant cultures find an outlet is hip hop, which originated as an African-American musical form and spread all over the world. Pennay marks two trends in the latecoming German hip-hop scene, starting in 1993 and epitomized by the politically conscious rhymes of immigrant rappers Advanced Chemistry and the lyrics about personal relationships of the commercially accessible white middle-class group Die Fantastischen Vier (“The Fantastic Four”). However, there is significant overlap between these two traditions, as the success of Hamburgbased Absolute Beginner suggests. Although keeping their street credibility and coming from an anti-fascist background, Afro-German Denyo and white Eissfeld made it to heavy rotation on MTV with the accessible “Liebeslied” (“Love Song”) in 1998.

In his account of the evolution of German hip hop, Pennay describes this localized art form as related to American hip hop but “marked by its own individual dynamics and reference points” (128). Processes of hybridization and indigenization are played against an identification with a global hip hop scene by European rappers and fans. A good example for this dualism is the simultaneous use of local dialects and English expressions as a way of Signifyin(g) to the hip-hop community.

Androutsopoulos and Scholz estimate that German hip hop involves immigrant performers (mostly Turkish and Italian) up to about 60%, compared to France, where more than 90% of hip hop is performed by lower class immigrants from Africa, possibly explaining why xenophobia and poverty are more common themes in French than in German hip hop (Androutsopoulos and Scholz 6). Yet, despite the massive success of Die Fantastischen Vier, the first German hip-hop performers to appear on MTV with “Die da” (“That One”), a harmless love rap from 1992 which went to number two on the charts, Advanced Chemistry’s “Fremd im eigenen Land’ (“Stranger in My Own Country”), released one year later, paved the way for a more socially conscious variant. In the wake of Advanced Chemistry and Die Fantastischen Vier, regional scenes evolved in different parts of the country (Hamburg, Stuttgart, etc.). It is no overstatement to say that hip hop grew rapidly to become the dominant musical force of the German pop mainstream in the 1990s. MTV’s Fett (“phat”) and Viva’s Wordcup and Mixery Raw Deluxe were shows devoted exclusively to hip hop, a large percentage of it being of German origin, and the music also appeared regularly on other formats.

Although, musically, German hip hop can hardly be distinguished from its American counterpart, there are two features which make it a very unique art form. One is the language itself, as the music of Absolute Beginner exemplifies. Absolute Beginner (and many other German-speaking rap artists) have managed to turn the German language into a swift flow of words, in stark contrast to Rammstein’s staccato-like vocals. The other feature that distinguishes German hip hop from other variants is its content, which has addressed local issues in both of the traditions Pennay traces- the socially conscious hip-hop tradition of Advanced Chemistry and the middle-class party-rap tradition of Die Fantastischen Vier.

The German hip-hop movement and its indigenization of global pop music show parallels to the Neue Deutsche Welle (“New German Wave”) of the 1980s, which also established a distinctly German-language pop scene with regional differences and acts like Nena and Falco even crossing over to the American charts. Neue Deutsche Welle artists appropriated British New Wave music in a similar way German hip hop artists fared with African-American rap (Leary). What is different about German hip hop, however, is that it has by far exceeded Neue Deutsche Welle’s lifespan, which was only about three years. The reason for German hip hop’s staying power might be that it was more resistant to the complete absorption by the pop mainstream, which was the death of the Neue Deutsche Welle in 1985. Over the last ten years, German hip hop, like its American equivalent, has been reinvented many times.

Like the Neue Deutsche Welle, German hip hop manages to reclaim the German language as being part of popular music (in fact, there are many references to the Neue Deutsche Welle in German rap songs). During the 1960s and 1970s, German language had become almost absent in popular music, largely due to the fact that it did not tie in well with rock music, and, with a few notable exceptions (Udo Lindenberg, Kraftwerk, Ton Steine Scherben), popular music from Germany, if it wasn’t Schlager or Volksmusik, was sung in English. Then, as Giessen describes in his analysis of German song lyrics, there was a rise of right-wing rock bands in the 1990s (largely underground and, with the notable exception of Die Böhsen Onkelz, who ostensibly cleaned up their act, invisible on music television). Because of its hybrid form, German hip hop not only set out to reclaim German lyrics but incorporated other languages as well, thereby reflecting the impact of different waves of immigration into Germany over the last decades.

Global Exports

While I have stressed in my account of German pop music its forms of cultural resistance and appropriation, it is important to mention the heavily “globalized” and faceless Europop from Germany, which is gaining immense revenues worldwide. Unlike popular music informed by debates over German identity, Europop made in Germany does not challenge globalization stylistically but rather economically. Whereas it is rather exceptional that songs inscribed with specifically local meanings make for successful exports (I mentioned the Scorpions, Rammstein, and the Neue Deutsche Welle acts Nena and Falco), Europop produced in Germany is often made with an international market in mind. Incidentally, this international market does not always include the United States and might entail a hybridity between different peripheries (Papastergiadis).

While some American pop acts like the Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync had their early successes with German audiences (and later “crossed over” to their home country), German Europop artists like Mr. President have sold millions of albums in countries as remote as Japan. Modern Talking have been around since the mid-1980s and, despite being far from innovative, are still selling millions of albums, especially in Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia. Lately, they have started to employ an American rapper to make their music sound even more international.

The latest internationally successful German act with hardly any indigenous characteristics was No Angels, a girl group modeled after the Spice Girls and cast through the TV series Popstars, a format originally invented for Australian TV. Popsters, shown in Germany on RTL2, let the viewers participate in all stages of the making of the group, from the very first castings through dance routines and press conferences to the final product. Although probably not intended by its producers, Popstars offered valuable insight into the way popular music is being produced and marketed (as one reviewer remarked, after seeing how much effort you have to put into being a star, starting a garage band might seem the more appealing option). The No Angels proved to be a success and sold one million copies of their first single “Daylight” in Germany alone (“Erfolgreiche POPSTARS”). This economic success can be seen as a different form of hybridity than that of locally specific artists like Kai Niemann, Stefan Raab or Absolute Beginner, namely an economic one.


Current debates on globalization have taken into account indigenization and hybridization as strategies of supporting local cultures against the threat of homogenization (Canclini, Appadurai, Tomlinson, Giddens). As the development of the German music television networks MTV Germany and Viva TV shows, fostering local culture is an economic necessity. Although both networks contribute to an influx of British and American music into Germany, they also feature a large number of music videos that, if not visually, at least musically cater to localized desires to declare a redefined German identity in ironic or nostalgic terms. This is exemplified by the anti-national nationalism of Stefan Raab and Die Ärzte, the ironic ubernationalism of Rammstein, and the opposition to the Scorpions’ global celebration of Germany’s reunification by Kai Niemann’s declaration of Ostalgie. German-ness is also being expressed in hybrid forms like hip hop and the export of globally attractive Europop to countries all over the world.

Despite my positive evaluation of cultural resistance and appropriation in German music television, I am aware of the power of Western capitalist values and standards that are instrumental in shaping global TV, including that of an economically powerful country like Germany. Even if Viva TV initially countered the monopolizing strategies of MTV (Banks), both networks are extensively commodified and do not take great pains in producing anything innovative or peripheral. Contrary to more localized spaces like dance clubs, independently owned record stores, and pirate radio stations, music television is youth culture, not youth subculture, and more an index of what was than what is. Yet, innovative artists did emerge on both MTV and Viva in the 1990s. Stefan Raab’s ironic proclamation of nationalism, Rammstein’s play on a troubled past, and Absolute Beginner’s stylistic flow show the heavy impact of regional sensibilities on the making of popular music in Germany, popular music that at the same time participates in and resists globalization.

Granted, one could argue that the local musical forms mentioned in this essay, while constituting quite creative instances of indigeneous cultural hybridization, are still prestructured by a wider Anglo-American popular music culture. However, as I have shown, in the process of indigenization at least some of the “original” meaning is being transformed and bastardized to a degree that it can serve to counter the very discursive networks it emanates from.

In his latest book, Against Race, Gilroy argues for a cosmopolitan response to identity formations along the lines of race and the nation. While I am far from discounting Gilroy’s argument about the dangers of racialized identity, my analysis of the revised German-ness apparent on MTV and Viva shows that, in times of accelerated transnational commodification, the rediscovery of national identity can indeed serve as an effective strategy for countering global homogenization on a local level.