German TV seeking a little rap music

December 11, 1993|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Berlin Bureau

BERLIN -- "Yo, Deutschland raps!"

Somehow it just doesn't work, does it? Not even in Germany.

Perhaps it's the idea of grinding a hip-hop beat between all those harsh German consonants, with words as long and heavy as freight trains. Or maybe it's the thought of Public Enemy in lederhosen.

More likely it's because Germany's popular radio stations hardly play any music with German lyrics, whether it's rap, pop or heavy metal. Disc jockeys seem to be the only radio performers who speak the native tongue, and they're usually saying something like, "Hier ist das neueste Stueck von Phil Collins."

Dieter Gorny, for one, has had enough.

Mr. Gorny is striking a blow for change as manager of VIVA-TV, a sort of German MTV that went on the air this month on cable systems in Hamburg, Bremen and two other cities. VIVA is banking its hopes on a single, crucial pledge: that at least 40 percent of its music videos will be in German.

Someday, that is. Maybe.

"Because right now," Mr. Gorny says, "the songs just don't exist."

So far VIVA has only been able to fill about a quarter of its air time with German-language videos, and even that has taken some stretching and repetition.

"Germany in this area is really an underdeveloped country," Mr. Gorny says, "and this is a tragedy because it is the biggest music market in Europe and the third-largest in the world."

The problem is not with the popularity of German musicians. Pop singer Herbert Groenemeyer, for instance, fills huge sports stadiums for his concerts.

But German musicians have trouble getting air time on many pop stations, and it's even harder for them to place videos on MTV's European telecast.

MTV hardly needs them. The network produces one telecast out of London for all of Europe, and in its six years Germany has become its No. 1 audience, with 1.2 million viewers.

The result, one of VIVA's investors has said, is that, "The only time German pop is shown on TV is during the pee break."

In placing blame for this, Mr. Gorny doesn't make blanket condemnations of the United States and "cultural imperialism."

Sure, he says, part of the problem is the way the multinational giants of the recording industry work with radio stations in marketing certain musicians worldwide.

This tends to shut out home-grown talent.

But none of this has stopped France and Italy from developing thriving popular music industries in their own languages, he says.

In France there's even an 8-year-old boy who has cut a couple of No. 1 hits just by mumbling mindless phrases to a trendy beat.

Memories of war

The difference, Mr. Gorny says, is that the lingering shame of World War II and the Holocaust has made Germany squeamish about asserting its identity.

"For years it has been really impossible to talk about anything to do with nationalism," he says. "That is a very dangerous word here. Therefore we have no orientation toward German lyrics in the music industry. This situation shows very clearly the broken cultural identity in Germany, concerning not only popular music but all of popular culture."

Thus, one sees German teens wearing Oakland Raider jackets and Levi's jeans while dancing to American rap lyrics they don't understand, even when the words are sprinkled with profanities and references to guns and violence.

Rap love songs

Germany's handful of rap and hip-hop bands seem to be on another wavelength from their American cousins. Take, for instance, VIVA's inaugural video, a rap number by Fantastisch Vier (Fantastic Four) called, loosely translated, "Too Cool for This World."

It's a love song. Other songs by the group have tended to be playful, humorous, as are much of German rap.

That's because there simply isn't the identity with gun violence and street culture that exists in the United States. Nor are people in Germany running around with handguns, with innocents dying in the cross-fire. As Mr. Gorny diplomatically puts it, "It would be impossible in German to make rap music within a real hip-hop idiom."

The same goes for rock music.

"There are no cultural roots for us in a Bruce Springsteen song," Mr. Gorny says.

Not that there isn't a sinister edge to some German music. A handful of heavy metal bands such as "Storkraft" have built a following among skinheads with rough, anti-foreigner lyrics. But not only would the station refuse to play them, but the government has banned such music.

Mr. Gorny hopes VIVA will stimulate a rebirth of German popular culture among the young. Some German musicians and would-be musicians are hoping so, too.

"We are saying, 'Here we are, we are waiting for your ideas, and now there is a place to play your music,' " Mr. Gorny says.

Advertising medium

VIVA also has a pitch for potential advertisers. "We have said from the beginning that pop music is much more than just music," he says. "It is a lifestyle identification factor. It is also a means of transport for built-in consumer messages."

Mr. Gorny feels VIVA can be profitable in four or five years. In the meantime, it's budgeted for up to $90 million in losses during the first three years.

Its owners include some heavyweights, as well as some names not readily associated with German culture -- German subsidiaries of Warner Music (United States), Sony (Japan), Thorn EMI (Britain) and Polygram (Netherlands). Each owns roughly a fifth, while German entrepreneur Frank Otto owns most of the rest.

For now, even VIVA feels hemmed in by other cultures as it refines its format. Its look and style are similar to MTV's, and many of the titles of the various shows and segments are in

English, such as "Spotlight," "SuperNOVA" and "Freestyle."

"We are still in discussion about the titles," Mr. Gorny explains. "The German titles are sometimes not too trendy, or catchy."

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