Once again this year music journalists around the world write obituaries for one of pop music’s greatest.
That horrible day my dog died. I was 15 or 16 and he was my everything. I went out on the Veranda where my Father put him and as I touched him so cold and all stiff already I burst into tears. I didn’t go to school that day. Instead, I lay down on the living room floor and listened to music. We had that very old record player and radio system from the 60s with a nice and warm tube amplifier sound. I put on “Songs of Leonard Cohen”, the first track and I was gone, off to that magical place Suzanne would take me.
Ever since I discovered this very album in the old pile of my mother’s records some afternoon spent in the basement digging and discovering some really great music aged 14, Songs of Leonard Cohen was my personal devastation soundtrack. Later on when my first depressions kicked in when I was around 17 Cohen was one of my saviours.
In love with Suzanne
Every time I was devastated and in tears wondering how long it will take and how long I would be able to stand it, he urged me on that journey with Suzanne and I went with her to this wonderful, surreal place beside the river on a late summer’s afternoon and it was just her and me and there was no time and no space. It was so surreal. A place without feeling and somehow all was numb. There was no pain.
My father didn’t like him at all and freaked out every time I put him on quoting his songs were suicidal music and driving people mad and though it’s true and I’ve never heard sounds that were more depressing than his, he still somehow comforted me in hours of despair:
“Oh the sisters of mercy // they are not departed or gone // They were waiting for me // when I thought that I just can’t go on // And they brought me their comfort // and later they brought me this song // Oh I hope you run into them // you who’ve been travelling so long”
Leonard Cohen is dead now and I wonder why I wasn’t as sad as so many times earlier this year when a lot of my idols and childhood heroes died. Was I just too angry about the fact that the US just elected a racist misogynist maniac president or have just so many people died and I grew tired of feeling it? Maybe. But not only wasn’t I just not sad, I even felt relief for him somehow. Because I know he’ll be alright and I know he was fine with it. He always was and that’s why he was able to comfort me.
We all know Berlin is a vibrant city especially attractive for young creative people. No wonder the parties trying to make it into Abgeordnetenhaus (Berlin parliament) next sunday want to lure the city’s youngest into voting for them. In doing so many of the parties have had the heart to skate on the thin ice of subculture, slang, internet hypes and whatsoever. In short, the parties try pop culture and we all know where this leads us way too often
Whenever German parties start campaigning for whatever election public walls and street lamps are covered with more or less random faces trying their best to look nice and likeable, just as in any other democratic country as well (while in dictatorships you’d probably see one face only obviously). In Berlin I have always been used to a streetscape where you’d find images of the biggest parties at face level while the nazi douchebags had to hang their posters so high, so nobody could reach them to tear them down but they had been splattered with paint bombs anyway.
That seems to have changed during the current election campaign for Wahl zum Berliner Abgeordnetenhaus (Berlin parliament election). Indeed the posters of NPD (Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands: national democratic party of Germany, the successor party of Hitler’s NSDAP, therefore plain nazis) and AfD (Alternative für Deutschland: alternative for Germany, other right wing bastards that don’t wanna hang out with the old fashioned bald and combat boot wearing Hitler fan club because they like Bismarck more but actually are the same nationalist pile of haters except they wear fancy suits) still hang high but even in Berlin’s multi national and alternative left wing districts Kreuzberg and Neukölln I haven’t seen a single poster of one of these parties that actually has been teared apart or paint bombed.
Misfits from the other side
This of course has to do with a general change of society and the way of how public debate is carried out currently. Another reason why especially a lot of young people currently are attracted to parties such as AfD or movements like Identitäre Bewegung (identitarian movement) in large parts of Germany is that they use the same mystification patterns as organically grown sub and youth cultures to establish one of their own and to give themselves an image of a young, dynamic and rebellious movement one can identify with in an allegedly conformist society that would treat these kids as misfits (as it did and does as well with beatniks, hippies, Gammler, 68er, punks, skinheads and so on, you name it).
Sadly these movents are quite good when it comes to adapt to youth culture in order to mobilise the kids politically. Perhaps you have seen AfD‘s 2016 campaign commercial for the Berlin election that raised a lot of attention a couple of weeks ago:
What we see in this 1 minute video is a bunch of mostly young and quite fashionable people with fancy sunglasses. A lot of them wear blue sunglasses (the party’s colour) and therefore have Durchblick (literally see-through, which means being in the know), while others lacking exactly that for having different coloured glasses. The happy summerly atmosphere is completed by a borderline cheesy electro swing track by former succesful producer Marco Delgardo (i.a. Roxette, Savage Garden, Atomic Kitten).
As horrid the message of this clip is, which is based inherently on the exclusion of different-minded people (and different coloured people and foreigners as well, since the only black man in the video wears the wrong glasses as well), for a political party it still comes kind of fresh and at least it is not a reason for Fremdscham (again, only when you leave out the message), a deeply uncomfortable feeling you often get for example when old people try and fail to talk like the cool kids nowadays.
Fremdscham it is what you feel when you watch the campaign commercial of Alfa (Allianz für Fortschritt und Aufbruch: alliance for progress and rise, a eurosceptic right wing conservative party). Imagine a bunch of mostly old white men with an academic background wearing business suits sitting together in a villa on the countryside and trying to come up with an idea to reach the young voters and one of them says: “What about that rap music, isn’t that what the kids are listening to all the time at the moment? Perhaps we should make a rap song.” Given that they are not the first ones among parties or companies doing that and by know the last person actually should know that classic rap and hip hop is a mine field when it’s not real, it’s not even funny anymore but makes me really really sad. The beat comes directly frome hell, the rhymes are cheap and I’m pretty damn sure the “rapper” never ever heard of something called flow. I don’t want to talk any further about this, just see for yourself:
I have to admit though that with the 1 minute long opening montage of news snippets with politicians talking is a classic gimmick mostly used in horror films to give the audience an overview of the general setting and plot without too much storytelling needed, just like in 2004’s Dawn of the Dead. Except here it is done pretty badly with cheap fading effects.
Berlin’s CDU (Christlich Demokratische Union: christian democratic union, Merkel’s conservative party) also tried to adapt to the laid-back Berlin party and creative lifestyle and boy, do they know what the party kids want! More security while going out!
And while this very diverse bunch of likeable young girls and boys above surely know how to hit the dancefloor right, CDU candidate Frank Henkel comments in a video what really goes wrong in Germany’s capital: “[…] I also see a different Berlin. A Berlin with big problems. I see a city in which infrastructure decays, public transport that doesn’t work, integration [of migrants] that doesn’t always proceeds as some politicians want to make people believe. I see dirt and wildness (while Henkel passes by a wall with graffiti) […]”. Well, the way I see it, Berlin is constantly constructing fancy new buildings, public transport – while truly having problems – still is one of the best in Germay, the vast majority of the more than 500.000 people of almost 190 nationalities live peacefully together (yes I know there is a lot of criminal energy and arabic mafia here as well) and I really don’t think that in the year 2016 graffiti is still something you could use for symbolising vandalism and dirt.
That may have worked for Ed Koch‘s campaign to become mayor of New York in 1977 but today street art hangs in museums (which misses the whole point by the way). Dear Mr Henkel, you can’t fight against Berlin’s sub cultures and literally lead a war against Rigaer 94 (one of Berlin’s last left alternative housing projects deriving from the 90s squatting movement) but then unasked use video material shot at Klunkerkranich club to bask in the glory of what this city is loved and famous for. That’s just bad style.
After reviewing a lot of material that is mostly harmless and therefore too boring to mention it, after failed attempts to understand young voters it seems that Die Partei (the party, satirical party that even made it into EU parliament) is the only one that truly understands what people from, say, 18 to 35 want: Not to be bullshitted. Corresponding to their slogan Inhalte überwinden (overcoming content) they do exactly as promised and with their satiric and nihilist attempt show the true nature of what politics often means these days. In doing so they have not only become part of pop culture itself. With Maxim and Nico of notorious and constantly provoking rap crew K.I.Z they also have two german “popstars” running for the Berlin parliament (as the video below shows for the 2011 campaign. They run again this year). Enjoy and go vote on sunday.
A version of the following article was first published in Al Ard – Die Welt in Berlin, for which I work as chief editor. It was published in both German and Arabic language. See here the English version:
Western Pop music often helps itself with the music of other cultures to reinvent itself. Rarely there is a real fruitful exchange. But in the 70s local pop scenes evolved in several countries of North Africa, enhancing the music from the west. Only now the rare recordings are available in Europe for the first time.
The recording whooshes and scratches, the suspense-packed atmosphere of the studio reaches out to the listener in that short moment before the musicians begin to play. Then a tinny sounding dirty distorted guitar rattles loudly and a world-famous blues riff blares out of the boxes. The dirty garage sound underlines the singer’s raw energy as he fervently caws into the slightly overdriven microphone.
It is James Brown‘s classic „Papa ́s got a brand new bag.”Just as the song has started droning, there is a first moment of surprise; contrary to expectations not the language of blues is to be heard here, not the “Godfather of Soul” James Brown is singing. Here it is a young man from Moroccan Casablanca demanding everything from his voice, when he screams “Sid Redad”, an Arabic cover version of the classic (listen here). His name is Fadoul, a man who discovered the raw sound of western underground music in the back rooms of Parisian avant-garde and brought it back to Morocco.
Fadoul was pure avant-garde
Until recently nobody knew Fadoul anymore, not in his home country, not somewhere else in the world. Even during his creative period in the 70s he was far from fame. Fadoul was pure avant-garde, underground, a thoroughbred total artist who moreover played theater and painted. In time his rare recordings disappeared somewhere under piles of LP’s in the Moroccan side road junk shops. His music couldn’t even be hold for lost or missing, since hardly anyone in the decades after knew they were actually existing.
Until German Producer Jannis Stürtz rediscovered them. In an electronic shop he was taken aback when he saw a cover with Arabic writing between a dump of vinyls, that credited James Brown for being the original author; it was a single by Fadoul et les Privileges. He found the family of the musician, who died in 1991 and purchased the rights to reissue his music. So in 2015 all of the eight rediscovered Fadoul-singles could be brought together on the Album “Al Zman Saib” by Jakarta Records.
Catchy belly dance disco
In the history of music this is an outstanding process, because music from North Africa, that combined US-Soul with North African groove and Arabic lyrics, was reimported into a western market. Until then the mutual musical influence was more like a one-way road from the west to the Arabic world: Jimmy Hendrix visited Morocco in the 70s jamming with local musicians, just as did free jazz pioneer Sun Ra from Birmingham (USA), who recorded songs in Cairo inspiring a local Egyptian jazz scene. But also musicians from North Africa would go to Europe, mostly France, and where they were influenced by the local pop culture. Impressions they brought home and developed them further.
Contrary influences Europe or the US took from Arabic music often showed the face of exotism, as shows the Abdul Hassan Orchestra for example: Behind the project Dutch producer Han van Eyck could be seen as he tossed pieces of belly dance sounding music pieces together to create catchy disco tracks.
The 70s evoked an athmosphere of liberty
The music of a Fadoul on the other hand wasn’t as polished. It was raw and coarse, probably recorded in a single run by simplest means. And not only the production conditions created this punk aesthetics, that must have been completely novel in the region by that time. Also thematically he dealt with the dirty banality of daily life between sex, drugs and violence.
No easy topics in a region that today is confronted with strict conservative islamist movements. In a region where – for example in Morocco and western sahara – homosexuals still face repressions or where opposition members are persecuted. In which, like in Algeria protests are struck down by violent force and people are tortured.
But talking to all the musicians of the time Jannis Stürtz could trace, he found out that especially the 70s evoked an atmosphere of liberty among the young and the glimpse of a liberal society to come. The state even sent musicians to the world exhibition to represent their country, like film composer Ahmed Malek from Algeria, known to many for his neat orchestral soul pieces. Also former members of Dalton, who played straight funk and smoth R’n’B, said that didn’t want to know anything about religion and wanted to adapt to a liberal life style.
But all in all it was due to the low degree of popularity of most of the musicians that protected them from persecution or repression. It’s very questionable if such a vibrant avant-garde pop scene could evolve and exist today in these partly crisis shaken countries. So much the better when enthusiasts like Jannis Stürtz, who are aware of the musical heritage, make sure it gets the appreciation it deserves, even after decades. And this doesn’t only count for the west, where the music has been reissued. Also in the countries of its origin awareness grows about the heritage most people didn’t even know it existed.
After the Germanwings crash last year the events of Munich could once again affect people suffering from depression. Because many will take the disease as the actual reason for the massacre.
The very first thing that came into my mind when I heard about the Munich shooting on Friday was “please don´t be a Muslim, please don’t.”, for this would open up all doors for Germany´s right wing bastards to vomit all their verbal diarrhoea and hatred out into the world. As I followed the news coverage all night, I rotationally felt disgusted by speculations and stupid reporter´s questions, thankful and deeply impressed by the professional public communication policy of the Bavarian police and just heartbroken and devastated by the fact that most people that died that evening not even celebrated their 20th birthday yet.
But now that it seems to be clear, that there was no connection to ISIS whatsoever and the search for a reason to explain why an 18 year old kid would randomly kill other kids even younger than him, public debate came up with something just as dangerous as connecting someone´s cultural origin with terrorism: When they found out the shooter suffered from depressions, people would go mad all over again asking: “Are deppressed people potentially dangerous?”
Of course asking for the offenders´ motive is one of the most imortant things in the investigation process, so raising the question wether his condition was in any kind linked to what he did, is legitimate, I don´t doubt that. But since there is still a lot of stigmatism in society about depressive people it is very important to rely on a sensitive news coverage. But some papers´ headlines the following days read exactly the way i was affraid of: Berliner Kurier for example had “Not IS, differently ill” in their sunday´s issue. Earlier today Schweriner Volkszeitung put up a video on their page titled “Amok in the head: shooter in Munic was depressive” (to be found here). Now “Amok in the head” is of course a book, but the way it is used in the headline by directly contrasting it with the word “depressive” suggests we know the reason now, why the 18 year old ran amok (the video comment itself is legit though). Statements like these carelessly put a disease, that millions of people suffer from, right next to insanity and danger.
Stigma and Alienation
Especially the yellow press loves to dig in someones past and present mental health issues as the reason this someone fucked up big time. All these headlines in the past days reminded me of the news coverage about the Germanwings pilot who intentionally crashed a plain in the french alps killing 150 including himself last year. The common opinion seemed to be: was depressed, yeah that explains it.
The problem with a coverage like that is, it fuels clichés and stigma, that is already there in society, alienating the people concerned, because they are affraid to open themselves up to anybody.
One might think there is a whole lot more of awareness about depression than, say, 10, 20 years ago. And it´s partly true, there are campaigns to draw more attention to it, there are lots of people sharing their experiences in social media (#notjustsad, project semicolon) and sometimes some journalists are even engaged in publishing something about it in mainstream media every once in a while. Yet, whenever people talk about depressions, who obviously not have any personal experiences with it, you hear the same chlichés all over, that make the people concerned think twice whether they better should shut up about it in fear of beeing somehow excluded or stigmatised.
Having some minor issues my own I was always interested in mental illnesses. A while ago I spent some time with someone suffering from depressions. Not only was he very open about it, he would also allow me to write down what he told me, because to him, increasing awareness about the condition is very important.
M. is a mid 20s student in Berlin. The creative and more sensitive type. He´s a very sympathetic and funny guy, liked and loved by many as he helps and listens to everyone, always joking around, talking shit, sarcastic, ironic, not yet zynical. In short, he´s the guy you´d never think of suffering from depressive episodes since he was 17.
And ever since he hears things like “well, I guess you´re just having a hard period right now. We all have been there. Don´t worry, it´ll pass”, while others speak of it as some kind of abnormity, resulting into statements about how they could never ever be friends with someone like this, not to speak of actually be with someone like this. These perceptions might be as bad as wrong, but to M. they are not too harmful, because they are quite easy to come by with full openness. He´d just tell people how it really is. And he assures me, that most people he was opening himself up to reacted beautifully while – in many cases – hearing for the first time what it is like to have depressions.
“What you don´t want to have is people mystifying it”, he says. “People who would romanticise something they don´t understand.” Because often people only see the beauty of decadence and hedonism that sometimes comes with it. Depressions are often connected to sensitive, creative people, authors, artists and musicians. And watching how they act in public, people think to glimpse the mystified version of the enviable world they think these people live in with all the drugs, with all the sex, hedonism and ecstasy. It can seem as something very desirable. It´s no wonder kids are idolising icons like Kurt Cobain and even pursue to be like him.
What these people don´t see is, that there might be a reason for all this decadence and hedonism which oftentimes is actually just pure escapism from a reality they are not able to stand anymore. M. recalled a conversation he once had with a friend about the topic that strongly shocked him. Since she was a very sensitive person she asked him what was wrong, realizing he was not feeling very well back then. And so he told her. After exchanging some standard phrases you would say in a situation like this she said the following:
“Oh, it must be so hard for you to deal with this, in a way I admire you, because I don´t know if I ever was strong enough for that. You know, sometimes i wish I had problems like this”
Him, shocked: “What?!”
“Yeah, you know, my life is so boring somehow, I feel so ordinary and when I listen to you, all this going out, your experiences with drugs, the hedonism and all these amazing stories you told me in all this time we know each other, I think, how could I just let myself go as well, try things, give myself to the night and see what happens…”
In the first moment he was just speechless. Then he exploded:
“Don´t ever say anything like this, you should be very very happy, that you don´t understand this world. That you stay home in your ordinary flat, having your ordinary friends you do ordinary things with like go to the movies or have dinner together. That you´re not driven to ecstasy, to go out every chance you get, sniffing anything you get, fucking everyone who lets you and dancing the whole night through until you finally collapse and sleep the whole weekend. I know it sounds intriguing, but in the end there is a reason why people go down there. Be happy, that you don´t know anything! You don´t want to be down here with us in the pits!”
M. never felt any kind of special for having this problem. As I said, most people he entrusted himself to reacted beautifully. But after hearing these naive words coming from a naive girl that meant no harm, for wich he can´t even blame her, he felt like a freak for the very first time in his life. As something you would look at in a zoo, beeing stunned and fascinated, something exotic. But guess what, nothing is exotic here.
He then explained to her, what it´s really like to have a depressive episode: That you are not depressed the whole time and actually function like a normal person for most of the time with normal feelings like sadness, happiness, confusion, joy, excitement etc. But when depression knocks at your door every once in a while and finally takes you with it, it is like someone punches you in the face right in the moment you wake up in the morning and keeps doing so for the whole day, until this someone gets tired in the evening, what makes you feel slightly better, which makes you not want to go to bed, beacuse you want to savour these precious moments in wich you don´t feel completely shit, but in doing so you develop sleep disorder and everything gets worse.
And now transfer these face punches to your mind, your feelings. You are unable to feel the slightest bit of joy. If something good happens, like having a good time with your friends, you perfectly realise that normally this would make you happy. But instead you just feel down and miserable. And soon your memories of the good times you had before your depressive episode will be in shadows as well. It rips you from every nice memory you have even while experiencing them. There´s just no joy left. There are no reasons for it, only triggers.
Suicide thoughts vs. beeing suicidal
Let´s say you have an argument with a friend and you feel bad for it. You settle the argument and think everything should be fine now. But instead another problem like you think you´re shit at your job suddenly pops up and you just continue to feel shit. And this goes on and on and on and first you try to fight every single of these problems hoping to be able to solve them and everything gets back to normal. But this just never happens and one day you just resign because you don´t have any energy left. That´s the moment when you might start thinking about different ways of how you could kill yourself. Not that you´d ever do it, but it´s a comforting thought you could, as a last resort. This is not yet beeing suicidal. That symptom´s called having suicide thoughts, which means you suffer from medium heavy depression. M. couldn´t tell me anything about actually beeing suicidal, since he´s never been there.
“In fact, almost every one has some kind of issues, we´re all burnt children in a way, we´re all freaks. As for me, in my social environment there´s practically no one who hasn´t issues. There´s someone who used to puke the shit out of himself every time he ate something, there´s someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder, an alcoholic, someone with borderline disorder and finally the one who once jumped out of a window in order to end all this shit.”
As you can see depression has nothing to do with beeing sad for a specific reason or with some twisted perceptions of someone just beeing a melancolic type embracing the dark. Nor it it something that would drive you to get a gun and shoot people.
No matter wether it´s daddy issues, mommy issues, beeing mistreated in childhood, rape and whatsoever, everyone is damaged. There´s just nothing special about it. And in case you´re one of the very few lucky ones in the world without any problems, please don´t treat us like vampires and be affraid of us or, above all, don´t be fascinated by us for we are neither dangerous nor special. We´re no children of the night. We´re just a bunch of nice and likeable freaks like you.
Male pop myths: Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil to become the world´s greatest blues guitarist. Keith Richards is immortal because he was conserved by all the drugs he took and if Stairway to Heaven is played backwards satanic messages can be heard.
Female pop myths: J.Lo’s got the greatest ass of all, Beyoncé’s got the greatest ass of all and Niki Minaj´s got the greatest ass of all. Oh, and Azealia Banks has the greatest tits.
Exploitation of the physical
Pop culture is a history of myths. They start with the performative, bodily with the creation of an artist´s image and – with the consumption of the recipient would transform into a specific narrative. An example: When lumberjack shirts became fashionable in the early 90s due to Kurt Cobain, bands like Guns ‘n’ Roses or Metallica have been still very influential. With all their glam and black leather jackets and wide stance performances, many misfit kids would feel alienated by this plain, artificial chauvinism and overcompensated display of masculinity. So in boycotting not only the typical style of rock music (the lone cowboy) but just any kind of style, Grunge fans would see wearing their lumberjack shirts and their old pair of jeans as a direct opposition to what rock music had become at that time: classic and reactionary (I mean, just think of Bon Jovi or Axl Rose for instance and you know what I mean). So with their non-style becoming a fashion statement, they created a typical punk narrative. That means that now the lumberjack shirt is not connected to one’s physical appearance anymore (for which you´d get bullied in school) but directly linked to your personality. Keep that in mind, for it will be important now:
In every area of socio-cultural interaction, of course, men find their way a lot easier in this world, so why should pop music be an exception when it comes to sexism? While men have no problem at all to leave the level of the physical for their narrative (you remember transcending into the spheres of the mystical like Robert Johnson or Led Zep or even freeing the body from earthly finiteness at all like Keith Richards), women mostly don´t leave this level. While the male body can have a function as a symbol for a greater idea, women often stay mere fetishes.
Fetishism, Exotism, Racism, Colonialism… all the -isms in the world
And this didn´t only start with Josephine Baker´s Banana Dance in the 20s that even combined fetishism with a racist exotism for a white, western audience in times of late colonialism, when they would see a black woman on the biggest stages of the US and Europe, dressed in a skirt made of bananas, shaking it out. I don´t think I have to give much more examples since it´s quite common knowledge that the female body in society is objectified and reduced to its sexual attraction. Therefore there´s something quite logical in it when the most powerful women in nowaday´s pop business, Beyoncé, Rihanna or Azealia Banks define their version of feminism over the physical in just using their bodies: using their self-expression in order to reclaim interpretational sovereignty and power of control over their own bodies.
Where the Banana Dance was created to please exotic male desires, the staged promiscuity of an Azealia Banks today is to be seen as empowerment. She does it because she wants it but don’t you ever think you could have her if she doesn´t allow it. In a way, this is an expression of power. And if not Banks, surely nobody ever tells Beyoncé what to do except she would ask you for your advice. So shaking all of her body parts in front of you actually is not to fulfil your deepest desires but actually to make you understand, that you cannot have her unless she wants you to. And nobody can tell me that she is in any kind of need to do so, because I – like almost anybody who understands a little bit of pop music – know, that she is one of today’s most important and relevant artists in the very sense of the word.
Female body, black body
And it´s no coincidence that all of the pop queens mentioned above engaging with this strategy are black women from the United States, since US history, if not to speak of the whole American Dream bullshit is mostly built on the destruction and exploitation of the black body to this very day, when we just take a look at the historical record of slavery, racial segregation and the epidemical killings of black people by the US Police like Ferguson in 2014 (german pop culture magazine SPEX published a very readable analysis about exactly that in their No 366 issue in January this year).
Pop culture always was an inherent materialist matter. It influences the bodies of its consumers as well as the bodies of its producers, interpreters and artists. Because pop functions through myths every protagonist acts necessarily performative and therefore through the body. While the male body always was an autarchic acting one, the history of the female body since the development of pop is that of a treated one. It is necessary to know, that especially femaleness in pop culture is necessarily physical, to understand, that also empowerment of women in the business works through the reconquest of the body.