Is Schlager Music The Most Embarrassing Thing Germany Has Ever Produced?

Deutschland über us.

Image: Bengt Nyman

When you think of German music, what comes to mind is probably:

…or, if you’re feeling classy:

…or, perhaps, if you want to be snarky, this; or, if you have excellent taste, this; or, alas, this.

However, what you probably don’t realize — because this is Germany’s best-kept (or at any rate least-translated) cultural secret — is that the most popular genre of homegrown music, in the most important country in the world, is the aural equivalent of nuclear war. It’s an oeuvre that makes Christian rock seem subversive. As Nico Roicke put it in the Guardian a few years ago, what I’m about to show you is “Germany’s most embarrassing musical genre” — and this is a country that brought us a phenomenally unnecessary reboot of Montell Jordan’s “This Is How We Do It.” (DON’T MESS WITH PERFECTION.)

Allow me to introduce a category called Schlager—pronounced SHLOG-uh (literally “hits”), but not to be confused with Goldschläger, (GOLT-schlay-guh), though the latter is, interestingly, what the former would both taste like and do to your brain if distilled into liquid form. Schlager is a form of pop so insipid and saccharine that it is possible the Communists built the Berlin Wall to keep it out.

I feel like you need to witness some right now, before we talk any more.

Don’t worry, there’s an unfathomable amount more where that came from.

As German columnist Teresa Fries writes in her latest on Young Person’s Blog jetzt (“now”), for reasons neither she nor I can fathom, far too many Germans of a Certain Age live their lives under schlager’s thrall. Of the current top five albums on the German charts, two are schlager records. To put it into perspective, that would be like if the number three and four albums on the US Billboard Hot 100 were Christian rock about cats. (To be fair, the current top two albums in Germany are German-language hip-hop, but that’s a discussion for another day.)

Fries writes of her own young-Boomer-aged parents’ habit of watching several hours of schlager specials on TV every night before they go to bed — there’s the Spring Festival of Volksmusik, the Summer Festival of Volksmusik, the Great New Year’s Schlagin’ Eve Spectacular (my approximate and excellent translation); and on and on forever.

Judiciously, Fries describes her decision, as a grown adult, to sit with her parents on the couch while they enjoy this entertainment, as a “true test of love,” one whose extent she doubts they understand. When, in elementary school, she discovered she’d been slightly hard of hearing her whole life, she assumed she had “simply tried, while in the womb, to develop some sort of self-protection mechanism against the musical taste of my parents.”

Now, you may be asking: BUT HOW DO I KNOW I AM LISTENING TO SCHLAGER AND NOT NORMAL TERRIBLE POP MUSIC, REBECCA? Oh, you’ll know. But, on the extremely unlikely off-chance that you’re not sure, here’s a concrete blueprint.

One: Schlager contains lyrics that are maximally chirpy, predictable, simplistic and very, very, very, very rhyming. If your average terrible pop song rhymes ten times in thirty seconds, a schlager hit (REDUNDANT) rhymes fifty times in thirty seconds. Like if your Golden Retriever learned German and then wrote a song. Here’s an example Fries provides, by the schlager superstar Michelle (one name).

Du und die, das geht nie
(DOO oont DEE, DOSS gayt NEE)
Das geht nicht mal irgendwie
(DOSS gayt NISCHT mall EAR-goont-VEE)
Einen Mann zum Wahnsinn treiben
(AYE-nun MONN tsoom VONN-zinn TRIBE-un)
Das kann keine so wie sie

Or, more or less:

You and she
will never be
Never, no way
no-how, gee
To drive a man
to be crazy
Is all from her
you’ll ever see

Two: You can recognize schlager by its subject matter, which is never, ever, ever political, risqué, or even too grumpy. (The latter is probably why so many Germans rightly find it offensive.) Schlager songs are usually, as the above demonstrates, about love as envisioned by an animate American Girl doll. But they can also, as Roicke pointed out in the Guardian, touch on such disparate subtopics as “being on holiday, country living, life on the Autobahn, living with animals and living with animals on the Autobahn;”

Three: Every schlager song climaxes in a particularly simplistic and soaring melody, reminiscent of what your 1980s keyboard’s “boogie” setting would write if it became sentient.

Though its roots trace back to the operettas of the late Weimar Republic, the true origin story of schlager involves the postwar Wirtschaftswunder (VURT-shofts-VOON-dur, or “economic miracle”) of West Germany, a period where, thanks to a bunch of important stuff that God invented history professors to explain to you, people in the Federal Republic got to enjoy all manner of Western consumer goods — including, of course, the Devil’s Music. So schlager really came into its own in the postwar years, meant as it was to lure Germans away from Rock ’n Roll’s unapologetic Americanness, sensuality, and (usually stolen) blackness. I’m not sure what the precise formula for OG schlager was, but I’m guessing Pat Boone + Lawrence Welk x fourth-grade German poetry project ^ just the tiniest hint of oompah.

The hits inexplicably kept chugging through the sixties, now in place as a stalwart against the so-called ’68 Group, harbingers of West Germany’s version of the cultural revolution:

And on and on schlager plodded, like the treacly chords of its own hooks, through the disco era, and then sharing radio space with actual greats of the German New Wave in the eighties (Nena 4Lyfe!), experiencing a dip during reunification and Germany’s total takeover by the baby Backstreet Boys in the mid-nineties, and on and on like the interminable repetition in Wofgang Petry’s seminal Verlieben, verloren, vergessen, verzeihn, to the present, where we can find schlager hits 24 hours a day on the dedicated German channel “Gute Laune TV” (GOOT-uh LOW-nuh, or “good mood,” which Fries points out is a misnomer of the highest order).

I feel sort of bad picking on schlager, because I suspect that Germans’ relationship to the alleged Music of the People is not unlike that of Teresa Fries and her own parents — or, for that matter, me and mine. I can make fun of my own mom as much as I want, but if someone else does it, I am legally obligated to kick their ass. So, even though schlager is categorically awful, do I as a non-German have any right to diss it? I’m not sure I do. In fact, I will totally understand if what I have coming to me for voicing this particular opinion is my very own Schlag to the face. If only there existed a violent cinnamon liqueur to dull the pain.