Soundtracking Germany: Popular Music and National Identity

Soundtracking Germany: Popular Music and National Identity
by Melanie Schiller

Rowman & Littlefield International, London, England, 2020
288 pp., illus. 26 b/w. Paper, £29.95
ISBN: 9781786615961.

Reviewed by
Beate Peter
July 2020

Discussing national identity is very timely and much needed. Events such as Brexit or COVID-19 have further intensified a debate on the nation state and national identity through a renewed demarcation of particular groups and belongings. Melanie Schiller joins this discussion with her book on German national identity and popular music, just published in paperback. She does so by introducing national identity as a construct that is created through narration.

Heavily influenced by the work of Homi Bhabha, Schiller introduces three dimensions of national narrative: metaphorical, metonymical, and melancholic. Schiller discusses particular time periods of German post-war history and through carefully selected tracks argues that [German] national identity displays all three dimensions. Germanness is constructed through the focus on a joint national past, which aims to somehow fix a German national identity (metaphoric). This method of constructing identity is constantly contested by Germany’s citizen through their everyday experiences, which offer alternative perspectives or challenge geographical, social or cultural borders (metonymic). If these two dimensions are derived from Bhabha’s modes of narration of a national identity, then it is the melancholic mode, Schiller’s own contribution, that offers the most insight into the German psyche. The melancholic mode is characterised by an unspeakable past that has a permanence in the present: “This state of melancholy hallmarks the nation’s endless self-repetition, and, moreover, it is in uncanny (re)appearances and alienating moments when the suppressed past and current anxiety become visible in the present as in fact being tantamount to it” (p. 23).

The songs that are chosen to illustrate these modes of narration are known beyond Germany, and they are contextualised excellently in periods of Germany history. It is, in fact, one of the strengths of Schiller’s books: her comprehensive knowledge of German history and her ability to present it in an accessible way. Schiller begins her analysis of songs immediately after the end of the Second World War and shows how popular music was used to create a German identity despite the absence of a German nation. She moves on to discuss the beat generation and their construction of Germanness as a “silencing of the unspeakable past that would become the dominant trope of the following decades” (p. 85). Although this mode of identity narration in itself might not be surprising, it is through the case studies that break with this mode that Schiller offers some new insight. Discussing Kraftwerk and DAF, Schiller covers the decades that German popular music is most known for outside of Germany. In the chapter on Kraftwerk and Autobahn, Schiller includes a close reading on the album cover, which adds incredible depth to her discussion on spatiality and the German motorway. Her suggestion that Kraftwerk introduce a dimension that focuses on becoming (in addition to memory and identity) might offer a new explanation for Kraftwerk’s popularity both nationally and internationally. DAF’s ‘Der Mussolini’ is situated in the metonymical mode, challenging a reading of the nation as constitutive of a joint national past. But this particular chapter achieves so much more: It clearly distinguishes the German punk movement from the British and explains how “the [German] language itself, as it is transported to a new [punk] context, is perceived as inextricably entangled with its Nazi heritage” (p.155). As a result, Schiller argues, (West) German punk’s rebellion is articulated through its toying with fascism. Her argumentation becomes even more powerful when discussing DAF’s playing with fascism in relation to the band’s queer performance style, another challenge from the margin. Yet, the main message from this chapter is Schiller’s conclusion that only by speaking the unspeakable does it become possible for Germans to start including the past into their construction of the nation. The analysis of the final song offers a new perspective on techno as the soundtrack of German unification. Schiller suggests that techno was cleansed of its musical (racial) past and reappropriated by the Germans in order to create, once more, a joint national past. In her reading of both the song “Wir sind wir” and the accompanying video, it is argued that the German nation is portrayed as a victim but also as a nation of success. This chapter evidences in much detail how far apart the two German nations, East and West, must have been and felt during and after unification, if such selective narration was needed.

This book is a pleasure to read. Although the first, theoretical part of the book is, at times, very detailed and potentially loses sight of the overall argument, the selection of songs and their discussion is illuminating. Schiller’s knowledge of German history is extremely helpful when contextualising the music and making the case for national identity as a permanently negotiated idea. Schiller’s analysis finishes with a song from 2004, and it would be interesting to see what insights a discussion of later popular songs, such as Andreas Burani’s 2016 football anthem “Auf uns” would offer.