Sounds German. Popular Music in Postwar Germany at the Crossroads of the National and Transnational

Fulk, Kirkland A.
New York 2020: Berghahn Books
Anzahl Seiten
140 S.
€ 109,95
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Ulrich Adelt, American Studies, University of Wyoming

Transnational identities have been discussed in many fields, but they seem particularly relevant for German history. It can be argued that in the aftermath of World War II German identity was not only divided into East and West but also became increasingly fractured, suspicious, and arguably impossible to defend in its essentialist nineteenth-century construction. Popular music as an art form that was an integral part of the student revolution of 1968 and has the capacity to easily travel across borders and articulate hybrid forms of „race“, class and gender is ideally suited as an area to map the national and the transnational in a German context. The anthology Sounds German adds to a growing body of literature on German popular music and on transnational identity1, approaching the topic through a German Studies lens rather than a strictly historical perspective. The specific transnational quality of German popular music had recently been explored by two book-length studies of German electronic music and rock from the 1970s, incidentally labeled “Krautrock” despite the fact that much of it was critically interrogating Germanness rather than simply embracing it.2

As editor Kirkland Fulk states in the introduction of his anthology, the essays in the book raise the question which postwar popular music sounds „German“ through „intersections, entanglements, and flows between the national and transnational“ (p. 1). The understanding of „postwar“ is quite broad here, as the volume collects eight very specific chapters about music from the 1970s to the early twenty-first century; it is particularly striking that three of the eight chapters focus on post-punk, thereby invalidating any sense of the book being representative of almost eighty years of musical history. Not surprisingly, all contributors are German Studies scholars, and the intention of the book is „not only to contribute to research on German popular music, but also to teaching German language, history, and culture“ (p. 9). Historians might find the sweeping timeline and the heavy emphasis on post-punk as one specific subcultural movement limiting, but the individual essays reward a closer inspection and provide many valuable insights.

In the first chapter, Sunka Simon compares the two TV shows Die Deutsche Hitparade and Disco from their beginning around 1970 to the early 1980s, preferring the latter’s hybridity over the former’s parochial „Germanness“. The chapter takes on a bit too many different songs for any thorough analysis, which contrasts sharply with the highly theoretical chapter by Cyrus Shahan about technologies of repetition in the work of punk and post-punk artists S.Y.P.H., Die tödliche Doris, and Pyrolator. The following chapter by John Littlejohn about the popular East German band the Puhdys offers an excellent historical interpretation of the subtleties of subversion of the GDR government this officially sanctioned rock group engaged in. Seth Howes then shifts the focus to the distribution of popular music by discussing so-called tamizdat („published over there“) LPs, which were recorded in East Germany but released inofficially in West Germany (unlike the independent East German samizdat or „self-published“ LPs). Howes thereby illustrates the neglected component of inter-German flows from East to West. Kai-Uwe Werbeck’s following chapter touches on the complicated identity politics of „old-school“ German hip-hop from the late 1980s to early 1990s, which cannot be neatly separated into white middle-class versus lower-class immigrant voices. Similarly complex are the identity politics of English „neofolk“ band Death in June, whose proto-fascist and homoerotic lyrics and visuals Mirko Hall untangles in his chapter, and the „popfeminism“ of twenty-first-century artists Peaches and Rose McGowan, the focus of Maria Stehle’s contribution. The final chapter of the volume by Richard Langston is again more theory-oriented and considers the intersections between German Studies, US cultural studies, journalism, and German Popliteratur, which has been recognized as a unique literary genre in Germany since the 1990s. Existential questions of the „soul“ in popular music emerge out of border-crossing between Germany and the US and between different forms of writing here.

Even if the lack of historical breadth and specificity make the volume overall appear a bit scattered, the different chapters in the Sounds German anthology provide cutting-edge research. The essays develop innovative theories of transnational sound and explore under-researched forms of German popular music. It is heartening to see interpretations of German popular music that highlight transnational flows by including „non-German“ artists, by featuring immigration, class, East-West relations, gender and sexuality (even if still being much too male-centered), and by recognizing not just popular music itself but also its distribution and reception. To make it a more comprehensive contribution, one could have wished for the double amount of chapters instead of this rather slim volume. One could have also wished for greater coherence in a book that oscillates between the journalistic and the highly theoretical. The lack of editorial consistency extends to only some chapters having subheadings and to endnotes to chapters that vary dramatically in length and content (most strikingly, Kai-Uwe Werbeck’s chapter is the only one with a separate bibliography and extensive endnotes).

Clearly, there is still more research to be done on German popular music in the context of the national and the transnational. Sounds German only touches on a few exemplary postwar genres and does so exclusively from a literary German Studies perspective, which is odd for a focus on transnational issues. Therefore, a truly interdisciplinary approach would require recruiting contributors outside of German Studies. Here, I am thinking not just of historians of postwar Germany and musicologists, but also of scholars in fields like American Studies, English, Ethnic Studies, Political Science, Sociology, and Communication Studies, among others. If one wants to seriously explore how the notions of the national and the transnational intersect in German popular music, it seems counterintuitive to do so from the silo of German Studies (even if the book includes German Studies scholars from outside of Germany). In addition to anthologies, there also is still much uncharted territory for monographs on German popular music in a transnational context. The anthology Sounds German therefore hopefully offers only a glimpse of what promises to be a rich field of inquiry.

1 Oliver Seibt / Martin Ringsmut / David-Emil Wickström (eds.), Made in Germany. Studies in Popular Music, London 2021; Melanie Schiller, Soundtracking Germany. Popular Music and National Identity, London 2018; Uwe Schütte, German Pop Music. A Companion, Boston, MA 2017; Michael Ahlers / Christoph Jacke (eds.), Perspectives on German Popular Music, London 2017.
2 Ulrich Adelt, Krautrock. German Music in the Seventies, Ann Arbor, MI 2016; Alexander Simmeth, Krautrock transnational. Die Neuerfindung der Popmusik in der BRD 1968–1978, Bielefeld 2016.

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