What is ‘schlager’? Our Culture editor, smelling faintly of beer and with party music still ringing in his ears, has emerged from Dortmund’s Grosse Westfalenhalle with the answer. Boom!
I mean, if they were English they’d be stout yeomen (and yeowomen); reminiscent of the meaty Dutch, they’re the burghers of Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” on a night out. They have come in their tens of thousands. They are big, they are drunk on lager, they are German. But mostly? They are drunk on schlager.
In line for Schlagerbooom at Dortmund’s Grosse Westfalenhalle is a capacity crowd in the stone-washed blue-collar of industrial Germany. A damp, bone-cold late October night brings 17,000 schlager fans out as if it’s midsummer. Hell, they’re hardy and there’s Friday-night humour here in spades, from work boots and teetering heels to Gore-Tex with pockets. There are big rings and bold perfumes, special-occasion handbags and shop-fresh tans, the hen-night regalia of pink Stetsons and fluoro feather boas, hairdos with a kaleidoscope of highlights and baseball caps branded with the logos of high-performance engine lubricants. And, every so often, lederhosen and dirndls. In schlager they trust – the Ruhr is ready to roar its approval.
Schlager, then: it’s German pop music but it’s more than that. It’s party music, good-times music, dance music and schmaltzy music all at once; it’s music that generations sing along to together. In terms of staging, fashion and guile it’s sort-of folk music updated to the early 1980s but no further. Although schlager, in this Schlagerbooom “international” incarnation, has adopted traces of contemporary pop – a whisper of hip-hop here, a suggestion of electronica there – it’s done in a schlager-ish way. It transforms everything it touches; makes it unreflective, major-chord and camp. It is the stray red sock in the washing machine of contemporary European pop: everything comes out pink.
“What is schlager?” I ask a group of double-denim girls rushing the entrance. “We are schlager!” they scream. And they are. Everyone here is, sharing nips from bottle and flask, shouting the punchlines to each other’s jokes, all jolly and wine-warm despite the weather.
Here are some people who aren’t schlager: old-money types in Munich aren’t; cool cats in Berlin aren’t; art-school students in Leipzig aren’t; architects in Hamburg aren’t; money men in Frankfurt aren’t. But the rest of Germany? They are. And they buy schlager CDs and schlager tickets and so schlager is big business. Big enough and popular enough for Das Erste and orf, the principal public broadcasters in Germany and Austria respectively, to televise almost the entire four hours of tonight’s Schlagerbooom. I did my research and ate before I came but I’m now worried that my single, refreshing beer in the hotel is going to be nowhere near enough to take this schlager bull by the horns. People are singing and dancing in the queue to collect their tickets.
There’s a bit of a shove getting into the hall. After all, schlager’s great diva Helene Fischer is headlining, the babetastic Vanessa Mai will be pouting suggestively at cameras one to six, old troupers Howard Carpendale and Karel Gott will bedew the eyes of the oldsters and that neue schlager heart-throb Andreas Gabalier will be, in his trademark shades and mid-thigh-length lederhosen, ensuring there’s not a dry seat in the house. The event – an as-live concert for television where each performer sings a song or two – is produced and presented by the 35-year-old sometime schlager singer and full-time big deal Florian Silbereisen. Florian and Fischer are the on-off royal couple of schlager and some of the crowd’s Helene Fischer Ultras aren’t sure who’s worthy of whom. Most guys think Florian’s not good enough for Helene; most girls the opposite. One thing’s for sure though: Florian’s worked really hard putting tonight together and he’ll be damned if he’s not in every single shot unless it’s another performer actually singing live on stage. Then it’s OK.
Well, it’s going to have to be OK because drei, zwei, eins – and we’re go! With so many big names on the bill, viewing millions primed on sofas from Schleswig to Leibnitz and the brimming, heaving Grosse Westfalenhalle ready to party, showtime is not left to chance. Bounding out of the traps come Florian and his two pals in bum-freezer jackets and little bow-ties, full of patter, banter and asides to camera. Winking and joshing, they’re incredulous that they’re here at all. Us? Here? On television across large swathes of central Europe introducing all your favourite singers? Well, if that’s a crime they’re well and truly guilty as charged! Fireworks! Cheerleaders! Huge furry teddies! Acrobats! Gospel singers? Why not!
To an absolute landslide of applause, foot-stamping and cheering, Helene Fischer sashays onto the stage and owns it. She’s good and this medley is not letting anyone get bored for a nanosecond: chanson becomes something a bit techno becomes a stirring slice of traditional lieder. Then she’s off and Florian and his mates are back on stage mugging and shadow-boxing and busy putting the hype into hyperbole. Woooooo! The lady in front of me is looking at pictures of schnitzel on Instagram. What? Is she hungry? Is this the best way to enjoy schlager? Is this an act of unfettered gastro-musical patriotism? It’s amazing.
And it just keeps on being amazing. “Jüüüüüüüürgen Dreeeeewsssssss!” squeals Florian to an almost weeping crowd as Jürgen Drews, the septuagenarian archduke of schlager, twirls girlishly onto the stage. Jürgen is in a brocaded cream three-piece morning suit. His hair? Leonine. His tan? Ha! Perma. Jürgen is somewhere between a schmaltz Beethoven, a lounge Jagger, Siegfried & Roy and their lion. Jürgen makes Valentino look like a navvy. Jürgen has a restaurant in Mallorca. I love Jürgen. He obviously sang a song but I was too intent on staring at his face to hear what was coming out of it and I think this is largely the point of Jürgen.
Vanessa Mai is a proper pop star who happens to sing in German and is tonight on the bill of Schlagerbooom. She’s great with the crowd and teasingly dressed as a 1980s cheerleader at an American high-school slumber party. I say slumber party because there’s no skirt to go with it. Half the crowd really, really don’t mind. Karel Gott is the biggest-selling Czech performing artist in history. He’s had 77 years to achieve the feat and he’s The Man, really; Florian, now in black tie, rolls out a red carpet for him and Karel; the éminence grise of the whole thing is stately as a galleon.
But this is Schlagerbooom, friends, and those three minutes of nostalgia and reflection will be made up, natürlich, by a dated four-to-the-floor techno beat. Look! It’s Ross Antony, the UK’s best (only?) schlager singer, dressed like a child surrounded by children and a man-sized koala in Rupert Bear’s yellow check trousers. All right! Here’s Mickie Krause looking like he’s lost Kitzbühel or it’s lost him. Boom! It’s Santiano. Who? Something that sounds somewhere between Metallica and The Chieftains. Celtic black metal, anyone? Me neither. Ooooh! Prince Damien’s here, like the thought Sacha Baron Cohen had before plumping for Brüno. Welcome back, DJ Ötzi! Schlager is all about artists like Ötzi who have released albums called Greatest Party Hits, Never Stop the Alpenpop and Das Album. Next it’s ddc, the Dancefloor Destruction Crew, the sort-of urban-dance troupe that you have to have now, television producers believe, or your children won’t watch. Then it’s Symphoniacs, a handful of boys scratching away at violins like Grade II Nigel Kennedys before the good old techno beat swoops in to save the day again to make everything… the… same… After a strong start, time seems to be folding out like an endless, extendable, horrible ladder.
But up in the gods and down on the floor the crowd is still on its upward, schlager-tastic, beer-fuelled trajectory. Glasses and glasses and trays and trays of Brinkhoff are handed over people’s heads, threaded through railings and behind seats, sloshed down flared denim and party frocks to be chastised with a good-natured “tut-tut” straight from the at-least-it’s-not-water-my-old-mucker school of thick-fingered bonhomie. When in Dortmund, then…
Three big, fast Brinkhoffs later and I’m starting to see the point in schlager again. Sure, Howard Carpendale’s on stage, perched on a stool and wreathed in dry-ice in a misreading of nonchalance; he is an invitation to open a thesaurus. He is like a sad, stuffed lion in a provincial museum; like Donald Trump doing Bryan Ferry; like an old barn about to fall down. But so what? This isn’t about criticism. This isn’t even really about music. They all appear to be miming, and with a cavalier approach to matching their mouth to the sound of the booming speakers. This is beyond anything like that. This is a Friday night out on the beers after a long week polishing ball bearings on Daimler-Benz’s production line. Put it this way, when you’ve spent the better part of 30 years in quality control at ThyssenKrupp you probably let it slip a bit when you go to the record shop or fancy a night out. Schlager is to music what a demolition derby is to Formula One. Schlager does not bear sober scrutiny. Chill out!
The arbitrary pyrotechnics continue, the techno beat goes on and the whole night is reminiscent of an endless cruise-ship entertainment. But I’m perfectly happy about it now that I’ve found the formula in plastic cups 0.57 litres deep. The night, the genre and many of the performers remind me of the career of Tom Jones after he was a big star in the 1960s and 1970s but before he was rehabilitated in the 1990s by duetting with indie bands and becoming a bit of a lovable rogue – when he was just an uncool, unloved, perma-tanned 1980s lounge act. Guess where he still sold out? You guessed it.
These well-maintained, municipal entertainment halles and messes in the unlovely industrial towns of Germany are the green, green grass of home to performers who remind their legions of fans of youth, romance and good times. The snake-hipped Farah drainpipes may have been traded in for a deathless pair of elasticated chinos a while ago but it will take a while yet to neatly fold their dreams.
Schlagerbooom was far too long but it was so friendly. The X Factor is about breaking hearts more than making stars. Schlagerbooom is more like a purist’s version of Eurovision, before it suffered irony overload or had a social conscience; when it was just entertainment. Schlager is like a football match at which everyone is cheering the same team.
Helene Fischer is back for the final number of a long but amusing night. I squeeze out of my seat, eager to see if I can catch the singers backstage. The crowd are so happily drunk and so eager for fun that as I stand, I start a Mexican wave by mistake. I join in with that I’ve started – 10,000 people cheering and waving and sloshing Brinkhoff on their neighbours – but it’s for them to finish. What is schlager? Es ist das.