A TYROLEAN MEDITATION ON THE LYRICS OF DJ ÖZTI´S SCHLAGER HITS
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.
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:
It may seem a little odd that in 2003 this song was placed for 16 weeks No.1 in the German and for 23 weeks No. 3 in the Austrian single charts. And it leaves an even funnier aftertaste if we take into consideration that the melody in the background is in fact a carnivalesque cover version of a traditional children’s song titled A Ram Sam Sam. But if we take into consideration the aspects mentioned before, we could also understand the Burger Dance as a highly critical meta-text commenting on Schlager’s fixation on economic success and its willingness also to use most obscure means to exploit music for the mere sake of profit. The use of a children’s song in this respect could therefore be an ingenious, sophisticated move to highlight the simplicity and one-dimensionality of a greedy music industry that cares more about repetitiveness and catchy hook lines than about originality and quality.
These pieces fit together even better if we also take into consideration the incorporation of the line “Glory, Glory Halleluja” which was famously used in a traditional American marching song composed for the abolitionist John Brown in the early 1800s and was later transformed into the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Brown dedicated all his efforts to fight against slavery and even used violence to kill pro-slavery supporters and to organize raids. In connection to the list of companies mentioned in the song, one could therefore even interpret the Burger Dance as a sarcastic and a thoroughly self-aware comment on the dictatorship of capitalism and consumption. However, we should also consider the proverb “honour to whom honour is due” and point out that DJ Ötzi’s version was after all a cover of another song titled The Fast Food Song performed in 2003 by the British pop group Fast Food Rockers. By the way: After the release of this particular song the English newspaper Guardian stated in a comment that “The Fast Food Song sucks. [And] culture has collapsed into product placement“ (Jeffries, The Guardian 2003). And probably it really has collapsed into product placement, for the sake of pointing out the downfall of a rotten music industry and its faithful slaves.
But in addition to the Burger Song DJ Ötzi has numerous other very successful hits, his best-known being Ein Stern (...der deinen Namen trägt) (transl. A star which bears your name). The song was recorded in the beginning of 2007 together with Schlager musician Nik P. (Nik Presnik). In both Austria and Germany the song received a double-platinum status and also the entire album Sternstunden was awarded platinum. In May 2009 the single established a new record for longest-lasting single in the German Top 100 with 107 weeks. The lyrics are of classic romantic yet simple nature and tell a lover’s oath to another. The story is basically organized like this: Character two is promised to be given a star with his/her name by lovestoned charater one. So let us have a look at the first verse and the chorus:
I am not going to judge the quality of the lyrics, but will solely leave it open to debate whether if the finesse and artfulness of the classic love-theme could have been developed in a more cunning way or not. But based on Richard Wanger, who once published an article about summer hits in the style of O-Zones Dragostea din tei, one could characterize the nature of this song to be of “disarming simplicity” (Wanger 2004: 144). It is a rather classic Schlager song that suits the discourse perfectly in so far, as it suggests the idea of an ideal world in which love is true, pure and everlasting.
The musical structure is simple, easy to grasp and as a hybrid of Schlager and “folksy” music it is a classic example of why critics often accuse songs of the respective genres to be rather kitschy. The depicted theme is in fact of so classic nature that it might make sense to connect it to a sociological study carried out by Mechthild von Schoenebeck. Von Schoenebeck argued that folksy Schlager songs are especially successful in a society that is coined by social and economic uncertainties (Von Schoenebeck 1994: 25f). According to her study, values like the classic role models of male and female, traditional ideals and a deep connection to one’s home country also have a high significance in these parts of society. Schlager shows and songs therefore function as a means of stress management in a world that is coined by uncertainty. A song about the everlasting love between a man and a woman, not dependent on anything except their own, can therefore be exactly what a society needs that in the same year has just been shaken by a financial crisis caused by the collapse of a gigantic real estate bubble.
All in all Gerry Friedle’s songs and his image as DJ Ötzi are a very well-arranged model. He presents a perfect balance between the guy next door and a well-known member of high-society lifestyle. His songs basically include all of the traditional Schlager-themes that are listed by various scholars: Love, a deep connection to the home country (most notorious in his first big hit Anton aus Tirol or even in his cover of the John Denver classic Country Roads), the longing for a lost lover (Tränen, transl. Tears) and the enthusiasm about the upcoming party weekend (Gemma Bier trinken, transl. Let’s drink some beer). Cultural scientist Christoph Marek describes him as a lucrative mixture of the Ralph Lauren-wearing Party snob and the down-to-earth Tyrolean (Marek 2006: 54). Gerry Friedle therefore resembles the classic concept of a “gestandenes Tiroler Mannsbild”, the image of a self-confident, strong Tyrolean man who can be a passionate lover on the one hand and a restless adventurer on the other.
DJ Ötzi is a stereotypical mix of postcard-idyll with the flair of a sentimental Heimatfilm, but teleported into a 21st century party paradise. Even the artist name “DJ Ötzi” on the one hand refers to a Tyrolean Valley (Ötztal), his birthplace (Oetz) and to the groundbreaking archeological find of the mummified Ötzi. The connection to Tirol and its nature, which has always been one of the most frequent themes even in authentic Tyrolean folk music, always resonates in a more subtle manner, for example when he is hiking in his music videos, when he wears traditional Tyrolean lederhosen and samples characteristic yodel-sounds in his songs.
In regard to economic success the model DJ Ötzi seems to be flawless. Most of his hits are cover versions spiced up with a disco beat and an occasional folksy smack. They follow the classic recipe for hits and usually consist of simple lyrical content, plain choruses, are easy to dance to and enjoy a significant promotional support by the record label. In sum it can be stated that DJ Ötzi’s Schlager songs and videos can be regarded as an actual treasure chest if one wants to take a relaxed, but also enlightening look at Tyrol’s mainstream music business. Because, as the proverb “In every rumor there is a little bit of truth” already suggests, it could additionally be said: “In every Schlager there is a little bit of truth as well”.
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