High culture isn’t everything: this is the basic idea underlying many hit Schlager songs, according to Vinzenz Hoppe and Mirco Limpinsel. Udo Jürgens’ evergreen “Greek Wine”, for instance, speaks of guest workers in a tavern who are eating, drinking, and singing about how they miss their home country, free of any elitism. This image – typical of Schlager music – has always had to hold its own against so-called high culture. The two German literary scholars set off to unlock the secrets of Schlager.
To learn more about how Schlager are written, Hoppe and Limpinsel invited lyricist Tobias Reitz – who knows a thing or two about them – to their seminar “Topics in German Schlager” in April 2016. Reitz, who regards himself as “Germany’s youngest Schlager writer”, has written some 600 songs, including for German Schlager stars Patrick Lindner, Die Flippers, Mireille Mathieu, Stefanie Hertel, and Hansi Hinterseer. His collaboration with Helene Fischer won him gold and platinum awards. Reitz actually studied German and media science. “We were very happy that the most famous German Schlager lyricist accepted our invitation to Potsdam,” Hoppe says. For 90 minutes, Reitz talked to the students – and a school class who had come from Berlin just to hear him speak – about the everyday life of a lyricist. He made clear that one characteristic of Schlager is that it is firmly rooted in the mainstream. It is certainly not a subcultural mode of expression; it is less suited for rebellion, and it is inclusive. “In research, there is a formula for it: achieving acceptance by avoiding distance,” Hoppe remarks. Schlager strives to reach its audience with emotion, catchy melodies, and familiar topics. The term Schlager is, after all, derived from “Kassenschlager” – box office hit. Its definition, then, is rather trivial: What sells is a – good – Schlager.
After the seminar, the two German scholars began researching the essence of Schlager. They are convinced of a topical structure throughout German Schlager, and they now want to test out their hypothesis “on a living object”. “We are still in the exploratory stage,” Hoppe and Limpinsel say. They have been working with a canon of some 160 songs, some of which were – with the help of students in the seminar – searched for typical topoi, that is recurring lyrical themes. For Hoppe and Limpinsel, these can be found – more or less explicitly – in the story told by the song. “The topos does not have to be mentioned explicitly; sometimes it is present only in the background,” Limpinsel explains. “Love and pain will pass”, “women know what they want”, or “getting more intimate with someone” are typical ones. Heino’s song Blue Blooms the Gentian, for instance, is about lovers gradually getting more intimate: “In the first chalet we sat together / In the second chalet we ate together / In the third chalet I kissed her / No one knows what happened afterwards”.
Limpinsel and Hoppe plan to catalog and publish the most popular Schlager topoi on a website, where they will describe and contextualize them and link them to corresponding lyrics. A first publication on the subject is also in the works, since there is hardly any literary research on Schlager.
Despite the “box-office-hit” thesis, deciding whether a song classifies as Schlager can be difficult. For instance, seminar participants asked if Reinhard Mey’s Above the Clouds was a Schlager. Not so much, the two researchers say. Even though Mey refers to the topos “happiness lies elsewhere”, he at the same time questions it, because constant travel makes lasting happiness elsewhere impossible. “Mey writes more thought-provoking songs,” Hoppe says. And this deviates from the primary function of Schlager – wanting to please. Schlager also only takes up topics once they have become mainstream; it ignores both the current zeitgeist and day-to-day politics. “Schlager music is not distinguished by its originality,” Limpinsel explains. There is no brilliant idea behind it. Heino, for instance, is a baker with a beautiful voice. He does not write any lyrics himself. The Schlager singer is the performing artist; the lyricist works independently – “with a picture of their muse in front of them,” as Hoppe puts it. For the two researchers, listening to evergreens has become part of their daily research. Online music services have streamlined their work: “Without Spotify and others we would have to search enormous record archives,” Hoppe says. The team would also be restricted to certain media that have already selected songs – like “Hitparade”. “Online we also have access to more unusual Schlager.”
Despite their enthusiasm for researching the subject, the two German scholars are not Schlager fans themselves. “We are interested in it as a 20th-century cultural phenomenon,” Hoppe says. For some time now, Hoppe has focused on the works of the Brothers Grimm. In the folksongs they collected, the Brothers Grimm studied so-called mythemes: mythic clichés passed down over centuries from one generation to the next. In the Schlager project, this approach has been used to a certain extent, Hoppe explains. Limpinsel is writing his doctoral thesis on adequacy and inadequacy as a yardstick of hermeneutics and, in so doing, singled out topos as analytical tool. “The Schlager project is to test the topos method. We want to find out whether it is transferable to other fields,” Limpinsel says. The fact that they are researching Schlager with this tool is also due to the fact that literary studies have long obstinately ignored pop culture. While cultural studies scholars have discovered Schlager in recent years and researched, for instance, “Heimat” or gender in it, the perspective of German literary scholarship has been lacking. “Traditional methods of literary studies do not work for Schlager, Limpinsel explains. After all, they do not claim to be autonomous works of art. For Schlager, it makes little sense to research its metaphors or poetic meter as you would a Weimar Classicist poem – Schlager is just too simple, too uniform for the criteria of literary studies to apply.
Here the two researchers see parallels to the formula fiction that emerged near the end of the 18th century. A barrage of texts suddenly appeared that were no longer up to the standards of high culture, Limpinsel explains. This type of literature has been mainly researched from a sociological perspective – with regard to gender or reading habits at the time – but hardly in literary studies. Indeed, Schlager has a low standing both in research and in the eyes of the general public. “Adorno, one of the most important intellectuals of post-war Germany, has had a lasting impact on how Schlager is perceived,” Hoppe finds. Critical theory came out against Schlager – as well as jazz – which they saw as capitalist manifestations meant to lull the minds of the people. Still today, many speak derogatorily of the lavish stagings of Schlager singers on TV – for instance Florian Silbereisen’s hiking tour with fans through the Alps. At the same time, the number of younger Schlager fans is rising.
For the two German literary scholars, this is also an expression of a generational change. “While our parents turned to rock music to express their rebellion, young people today are shocking their parents by listening to Helene Fischer.”
Vinzenz Hoppe studied German philology and history at the University of Potsdam. He works as a research assistant at the Institute for German Studies and is Coordinator of the Center for Early Modern Times.
Institut für Germanistik
Am Neuen Palais 10
Mirco Limpinsel studied German philology, philosophy, and musicology at the University of Giessen and at Freie Universität Berlin. He works as a research assistant at the Institute of Architectural Theory and Design (IGMA) at the University of Stuttgart.
IGMA – Institut Grundlagen moderner Architektur und Entwerfen
Since 2016, Hoppe and Limpinsel have been researching “Topics in German Schlager”. The German literary scholars identify various topoi in Schlager texts. A monograph on the topic will be published following the seminar. A website dedicated to cataloging the topoi is also in the works.
Text: Jana Scholz
Translation: Monika Wilke
Published online by: Daniela Großmann
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