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Opium or philosophy? A Tyrolean meditation on the lyrics of DJ Ötzi´s schlager hits

By David Prieth

Dj Ötzi, detalj från cd-omslag-
Dj Ötzi, detalj från cd-omslag.

Cheerio, Nanana, Nanana
Cheerio, Nanana, Nanana
I’ll keep my promise
Tiroler are true
(DJ Ötzi – Cheerio)

Both singles with the longest periods of chart success in Austria are cover versions of older songs. They were both sung by the same Tyrolean and do both belong to a musical genre which Theodor W. Adorno once described as “opium of the people”. And as if this wasn’t enough, the author of this text recently witnessed a conversation between a foreign visitor and a local in the city of Innsbruck, which started with the apparently harmless question: “What do people in your country associate with Austria?”, but was in return answered with: “Hitler, skiing and DJ Ötzi”. The first two facts can, due to historical, geographical and economic importance, easily be understood. However, the fame of Tyrolean Schlager/Pop-musician Gerry Friedle also known as DJ Ötzi triggered off a passionate debate about the image of Tyrolean musical culture and especially about the quality of its lyrics. The crux of this matter was not solely the content of Friedle’s verses, but also the questions concerning the distorted representation of Tyrolean everyday-life and culture. It is obvious that a great deal of music that is widely referred to by the term “folk music” or more accurately “folksy music” merely coquets with well-known traditional, countryish attributes. And it is also evident that a lot of the music which is played at events, that advertise themselves with a down-to-earth and rustic image, does in fact belong to the hard to grasp genre of Schlager. In addition they often feature lyrics that are so simple and dull, that they make it hard to believe that the term “lyrics” is in fact connected to the concept of lyric poetry. It is no secret that the currently starting winter season in Tyrol will as usual be a fruitful breeding ground for Après Ski high life and passionate Schlager romance.

But after all, it is true: With his Schlager songs Gerry Friedle sold about 16 million records, which makes him one of the best-selling Tyrolean musicians ever. And as a Tyrolean myself, as an active musician and not least as a passionate student of literature and culture, I find it quite interesting to take a closer look at the phenomenon of his music and the world depicted in his lyrics. It may admittedly sound a little challenging to deal with verses like “The Pizza Hut, the Pizza Hut! Kentucky Fried Chicken and the Pizza Hut!” in a constructive way, but after all they too serve as a transnational representation of Tyrolean artistry and are – by definition– pieces of art. Although I’m not claiming to have found an academic approach that might be expedient to unveil the previously unrecognized genius of DJ Ötzi’s Burger Dance, I will have a look at the subject matter in a rather objective, respectful way. Because even if one assumes that Friedle did not try to tell us something profound with his songs in the first place, they could nevertheless be very interesting pathways to more substantial themes.

Dj Ötzi. Foto: Ohtar CC

It is sensible to start our discussion with the very basic questions: What does Schlager actually mean? And: What defines the Schlager genre and dissociates it from others? These questions, as easy as they may sound at the beginning, are in fact pretty hard to answer. Numerous scholars of musicology describe the definition of Schlager as either very difficult or probably not even possible. However, the origins of the term “Schlager” in connection to a piece of music can be traced back as far as to the year 1870. Before then it belonged to the merchants’ and businessmen’s jargon and was used to describe goods that sold very well. Another approach would be to see the term as a German equivalent to the English “hit” and therefore a definition for a song that precisely hit the taste and need of the current audience and, as a result, did also sell well.

Therefore it is no surprise that scholars primarily point out the genre’s commercial aspect. According to Bardong the economic dimension is therefore already present in its basic terminological level (Wolther 2006: 2005). One can say that as a genre, Schlager starts at the point where music primarily begins to become a product and its production and distribution becomes a business. Other frequently used terms are “trivial”, “short-lived” and “dance tunes”. This already gives a rough idea of Schlager as a concept. We see that it does not necessarily need to restrict itself to a certain genre, but that other factors, such as profitability and purpose are much more relevant.

Particularly with regard to DJ Ötzi’s music, Theodor W. Adorno’s thoughts on Schlager music are interesting. In his introduction to sociomusicology Adorno talks about the fact that Schlager aims at addressing a “lonely crowd”, because it already expects people who are not capable of speaking for themselves and those who are not in full control of their emotions and experiences in the first place (Adorno 1962: 37f). This can either be a result due to a principal lack of articulation or because they have been crippled by the taboos of civilization. Thus Schlager should supply those with a substitute of emotion who are trapped between their working places and the reproduction of their working power. These thoughts can rather easily be linked to an interview with Gerry Friedle, who sums up the recipe of his success as “make it simple” (Stampf-Sedlitzky 2000) and his aim as “I want people to forget the stress of everyday life” (ibid). About his cover version of the song Anton aus Tirol he even says: “The song manipulates – in a positive way. […] Even someone who thinks it’s stupid, sings along” (ibid).

It is no surprise in how many ways one of DJ Ötzi’s biggest hits, ”the Burger Dance”, fits into all these categories. If one has only a brief look at its lyrics, the song’s remarkable simplicity unfolds itself in all its glory. Its essential part is a list of different fast food chains, while a brief frame story animates the listeners to participate in a specific dance, a rather basic step sequence performed at live performances and of course in the official video. In order to illustrate my argument further, we shall look at excerpts of the lyrics in more detail and I will also produce a translation of the German parts into English: