After days of reading one depressing news story after another about the pandemic that has turned our world upside down, I was desperate for anything that would brighten my spirits.
And there it was, miraculously playing without my having clicked anything: a video by the beloved Berlin band Die Ärzte for their new song “Ein Lied für Jetzt” (“A Song for Now”.)
The band’s three members trade off stanzas about the restrictions on movement that COVID-19 has compelled governments to impose, each beginning with the line “I’m sitting at home, bored”.
Then they all join in to promise their fans a new album and declare that they are giving them this song to tide them over. The key line, repeated four times, sounds like something from a public service announcement, such as the extremely popular one that Vietnam recently distributed — it went viral on TikTok — to promote hand-washing: “This little bit of quarantine is not the worst thing in the world.”
Because this song wasn’t commissioned by the German government, however, the impact of this message is stronger. Die Ärzte’s fame is inextricably bound up with its history of running afoul of the authorities. But instead of mocking the demand for social distancing, they vigorously embrace it.
Nearly four decades of making music that repudiates what Americans think of as “political correctness” made it possible, however perversely, for Die Ärzte to amass a lot of credibility with their fans.
For a band that once got in deep trouble for singing that CDU Chancellor “Helmut Kohl beats his wife” to suggest that they are staying home because CDU Chancellor Merkel says so – “Die Kanzlerin, sie sagt, ‘Bela, bitte bleib Zuhaus” – is remarkable.
To be sure, the irony of this transformation from outsiders into de facto spokesmen for an increasingly unpopular regime is not lost on them.
Merkel’s directive is followed by the news that the long-running children’s television program Die Sendung mit der Maus (“The Show with the Mouse”) is now being broadcast daily – a wholesome public service – but also that Pornhub has made its premium service free for everyone during the crisis.
This is a classic move for Die Ärzte, toggling back and forth between the innocent and inappropriate in ways that don’t readily translate outside of their native context.
References like this one to Die Sendung mit der Maus are a major reason why Die Ärzte – unlike Trio and Nena, German artists of their generation who temporarily managed to cross over into English-language radio during their heyday – are unknown in the United Kingdom and the United States.
But Die Ärzte hold a special place in the heart of many German speakers, particularly ones who were teenagers in the 1980s and 1990s.
Despite lyrics that consistently exceeded the bounds of good taste, like this nod to Pornhub, and sometimes went much further still – a number of their records were censored in the Federal Republic – Die Ärzte’s bouncy pop-punk sensibility protected them from the sort of condemnation that hard-core rap acts in the United States faced.
I was introduced to Die Ärzte while I was an exchange student in the Federal Republic of Germany during the 1986-1987 academic year. For most of the fall semester, I spent as much time as possible with friends who shared my love of music but knew a lot more about the subgenres that would soon be classified as “alternative”.
Most of the music they listened to was British or American. They loved memorising lyrics in English, especially the button-pushing sort, which provided me a welcome opportunity to participate in their conversations as an expert.
Having my father tape my vinyl copy of the Violent Femmes’ second album, which was hard to find in Europe, gave me more caché.
But they also took their mission to help me learn German very seriously. That’s where Die Ärzte came in.
In contrast to other German-language artists who were working in a punk vein, Die Ärzte did not scream or mumble. Indeed, part of the reason why their outré content stirred up so much controversy is that it was communicated with excellent pronunciation and grammar to match.
For a beginner like me, this made their music invaluable. Over thirty years later, I still use songs by Die Ärzte to keep my German from atrophying.
Some of them I still know by heart: “Ich war gerade auf dem Weg in die Stadtbibliothek/Da habe ich mein Herz verloren/Ich sah dich stehen am Wegesrand mit einem Buch in deiner Hand/Ich war sofort verknallt bis über beide Ohren”.
It didn’t hurt that even outwardly chaste lyrics like these came with an aura of transgression.
Almost every one of their songs broke with convention, whether in subtle ways – in the song above, the guy is aghast at his beloved’s attempt to get him into bed – or extreme ones – like “Hannelore”, the one about Chancellor Kohl and his wife, and “Geschwisterliebe”, a gleeful account of brother-sister incest that the band was forced to take off later pressings of their third album.
For many youth who grew up in the tumultuous decade between Kohl and Merkel, the band served as a potent “cure” for conformist tendencies uncomfortably reminiscent of Germany’s totalitarian past and, in the East, present.
No matter how immature the button-pushing wordplay of Die Ärzte’s lyrics may have seemed to parents and the bureaucrats acting on their behalf back then, it now conveys a strange kind of maturity.
Because, unlike the symbolic transgression perpetrated by the far-right, both then and now, Die Ärzte’s lyrics never strayed beyond what Germans call Verarschung, a brand of humour in which pretence and prudery are relentlessly mocked.
In a nation where taking ideas seriously has led to incalculable horror, the distance provided by irony serves as a bracing tonic.
Part of the reason why Die Ärzte inspired so much outrage in their early years is that they drew attention to the increasing popularity of a British-style tabloid mentality in German media.
As over-the-top as their song “Geschwisterliebe” appears when considered in isolation, it was really just a distillation of the constant stream of sensational content being purveyed by mainstream publications like Der Stern, one that persists today. There’s even a trendy clothing line called Gescwhwisterliebe.
If the band caused offence, it was largely because they were making manifest the psychological undercurrents latent in German culture.
That’s why, no matter how delightful “Ein Lied für Jetzt” is, the song is also deeply unsettling. Part of the reason why Die Ärzte are now aligning themselves, however provisionally, with the same powers they used to mock savagely is because the authority of those powers is increasingly unsteady, beset by forceful challenges from national populists who are keen to dispense with every convention of postwar everyday life in the Bundesrepublik.
Chancellor Merkel and her sober-minded allies in the government need all the help they can get to make Germans do their bidding. And Die Ärzte have done their part, without turning their back on the irreverence that made them famous.
The punchline of this new song is a perfect example: “Masturbation and music are the best medicine.”
In a world where internet trolls are constantly berating the supporters of liberal democratic values for being “cucks” who lack the will to impose themselves on others, this praise of onanism comes off as good citizenship.
Photograph courtesy of Frank Schwichtenberg/Wikipedia. Published under a Creative Commons license.