Merkel’s Decade: A new Germany dances to a lighter rhythm

Blonde Barbarella Helene Fischer is the undisputed golden girl of German language pop

It’s almost 9pm and 34 degrees in Berlin’s austere Nazi-era Olympic Stadium. In this open-air arena filled with ghosts of the past, the capacity crowd of 60,000 kill time in the balmy present by performing successive Mexican waves – two hands raised, folks, not one.

After a modest entrance of spurts of flames, fireworks, confetti, streamers and dry ice, a tiny woman appears onstage wearing a yellow cape-bikini combo with golden boots.

This blonde Barbarella is Helene Fischer, the golden girl of modern German entertainment and the most successful singer you have never heard of. By the end of the evening she will have sung 30 songs, one while whizzing at high speed over the crowd in a harness.

This week, to get the pulse of today's Germany after Angela Merkel's first decade in power, I've visited some of her most fervent supporters in rural regions and talked to a hunger-striking welfare critic at the Brandenburg Gate.


But you can learn a lot about the 10-year-old Merkel Republic by crowd-surfing the 10-year-old Helene Fischer phenomenon.

Fischer was born in 1984 in Siberia to an ethnic German family that moved here when she was four years old. She studied at a musical theatre academy but it was her television debut in a music show a decade ago that launched Helene Fischer into Germany’s entertainment stratosphere.

A decade and 10 million records later, her latest album, Farbenspiel, went platinum after just five days and has since sold more copies than the combined population of Munich and Cologne.

With a remarkable voice similar to, but warmer than, Celine Dion’s, Fischer could easily be an international singing star – if it weren’t for material that, for good or ill, has rooted her firmly in Germany.

Fischer is the queen of Schlager, a popular German musical genre with songs that sound like a collaboration between Dana and Dana International. With predictable harmonies, derivative melodies, a thick coating of synthesiser sheen and throbbing dance beats, Schlager is difficult for non-natives to warm to, though it occupies a place in German hearts similar to that of country music in the US.

"Schlager is music for the woman who works all day in a bakery, has to take care of the family and rarely has a moment for herself," says Maite Kelly, a member of the (in)famous Irish-German "The Kelly Family" band, in a weekend television programme devoted to the phenomenon. "It's music to help that woman get through the day."

After decades in decline, shunned as unfashionable and provincial by younger Germans, Schlager is now experiencing a massive revival. The high point so far has been Fischer’s 2013 hit Atemlos (Breathless), an anthem for the modern Germany that has been viewed a staggering 30 million times on YouTube.

With an addictive chorus and a sing-a-long "Oh-oh" bit in the Lady Gaga tradition, you can employ Atemlos like a nerve agent at a Germany party or wedding: within seconds everyone is smiling and dancing uncontrollably. The song is such a fail-safe bringer of good cheer that, should Ireland ever need another loan from the Germans, I'd suggest playing Atemlos in the negotiations to secure better terms.

Inferiority complex

The Schlager revival is part of a wider embrace of German-language pop music here than enabled sales advance 16 per cent in 2014 alone to €556 million. German-language pop has a market share up from just 13 per cent in 1990 to 52 per cent today.

Shaking off reservations about home-grown, German-language pop has come just as Germans have shaken off their inferiority complex about themselves. A new Germany has emerged in this past Merkel decade, bookended by two World Cup miracles: when the planet partied in Germany in 2006 and last year, when the national side brought the cup home.

Waiting for them at the Brandenburg Gate last year were half a million fans and Fischer singing Atemlos.

"One look from you told me: this is our time," she sang. The song has touched a nerve that Nick Hornby described in "High Fidelity": "Sentimental music has this great way of taking you back somewhere at the same time that it takes you forward, so you feel nostalgic and hopeful all at the same time."

Fischer is modern Germany's perfectly-calibrated poster girl – sexy but not too sexy, and far from universally loved. But the longer I watch her in action, the more she reminds me of Angela Merkel. It's an unlikely comparison at first glance, but dig deeper and you see two successful public figures who sharply divide opinion while operating at the top of their chosen game. Both employ talent, flawless preparation and perfect execution to score success, all wrapped in a down-to-earth presentation so impenetrable that, whether it's real or not, is eventually moot.

Back at Berlin’s Olympic Stadium, after two hours of Fischer, I feel like I’m watching the Hajj at Mecca transformed into a massive, outdoor disco. After a final rendition of Atemlos Fischer sends her fans home dazed but happy.

As they stream out, I ask a few why they like her. Listening to the answers, it strikes me that they could be talking about Angela Merkel. “She’s good at what she does and she’s stayed natural and down to earth, despite her success,” said Jeanette, a 42-year-old fan from Halberstadt in eastern Germany.

As its first decade ends, the Merkel republic is a very different Germany to the one writer Hugo Hamilton portrayed a decade ago. In 2004 he described in a Guardian essay "the loneliness of being German".

A decade and one euro crisis later, we’re all of us still working out the rules of the new European poker table. But, like it or not, Germany’s lonely self-loathing is dissipating. Whether they’re cheering Fischer’s Schlager, or nodding in approval at Angela Merkel’s politics, today’s Germans are enjoying a new freedom to be the people they’d like to be.

Series concluded

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin