February 11, 2010
So last night I was over at SureShot's, and somewhere in the middle of the conversation, I'm still not sure why, he started singing out "Manchmal möchte ich so gern mit Dir ...". In an almost solemn voice, suitable for a musical. "You know that, don't you?", he said, "that Roland Kaiser feeling?"
It's the Kitsch that Binds Us, and Sets Us Apart
Um, I didn't know what the hell he was talking about.
"Komm", he said, exasperated at my Ami cluelessness, "you've lived here all this time."
The song was apparently a Schlager. Germans just love their Schlager (the word is presumably related to "hit"), popular music from German artists with German lyrics, with something of a 70's flair -- many of the popular numbers really are from that era, although they're still making them to this day. Kitsch is a German word, and Schlager form the Platonic ideal of Kitsch; an explosion, a fountainhead, a tsunami of schmaltziness. I'm certain that this is the music they play over the loudspeakers of Hell -- how could there be a worse psychological torture than having to listen to this stuff through all of eternity? And yet, I rarely see Germans getting more animated and loose than when the Schlager are playing. There are places around the Reeperbahn in Hamburg with jukeboxes fully loaded with the stuff, blasting out one after another all night long, while everyone in the place bursts out joyfully singing along, and I look around feeling bewildered and stupid. Every year, the weekend-long Schlagermove is one of the biggest parties in Hamburg (so much that they have three of them planned just for this year), complete with a parade of floats down the Reeperbahn, sort of a self-consciously lowbrow answer to the Love Parade. Everyone there is decked out in garish, hippy-ish outfits, the more outlandish, and the more outrageous the color contrasts, the better. I've had a great time when I've been there, but when everyone is singing along with the Schlager, I have to grin and move my lips as if I know what I'm doing.
I started typing at SureShot's laptop. "No, no," he said, knowing what I was up to, "no Roland Kaiser, not now, please ..." But he asked for it.
(It's about a guy imagining telling his neighbor that he has the hots for her, but he can't risk going through with it. "You'll lose your husband, and I'll lose my friend ...", cue the ominous minor chord.)
I've been in Germany for going on my 24th year now, and SureShot was amazed that I didn't know the first thing about Roland Kaiser, or most other Schlagersänger for that matter. To be sure, I'm now versed in German cultural references I never could have imagined 24 years ago, but you have to grow up with this stuff, or else it might as well be from Mars. "I grew up in America," I told him, "let me show you the kind of thing I know and you've never heard of," and started tapping at his laptop again.
I brought up the video, and he watched me wide-eyed as I sang along with the entire song.
Just in case he might have thought that this is some special and quirky talent that I have, I assured him, "every American can do that."
(Important technical note: that video is the version from the first season, with "and the rest" instead of "the Professor and Mary Ann", a crucial point for a Mary Ann man like myself. But I decided not to confront him all too quickly with such advanced topics.)
In Inglourious Basterds, a Brit disguised as a Nazi officer blows his cover when he holds up three fingers to indicate the number three. His German adversary spots him right away -- "you're just as German as that whiskey there!" -- but I didn't know what the hell was going on until it got explained later in the movie. He held up his index, middle and ring finger, which to a German is impossibly weird and a dead giveaway -- they hold up the index finger, middle finger and thumb. I asked my German friends if that really stuck out to them so much, and they said well yeah, obviously, and they were just as amazed that I would have done the same thing that the outed Brit did.
If I had to spot a spy pretending to be an American, this is how I would do it. "Finish this song for me: 'Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale ...'" If they can't do it, you've got your spy. I've never met and couldn't imagine a Yank who can't sing the song, and everywhere else, they're blissfully unaware. Try to picture that, if you're an American reader -- a universe of television, and no Gilligan's Island anywhere to be found.
What's the true meaning of a nationality? What is it that makes an authentic German, and a genuine American? It's the kitsch. If you're a True German, you know your Roland Kaiser; if you're a Real American, you can sing the Gilligan's Island theme song. God bless.