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Fans at a live concert, Copyright: Fotolia/Anna Omelchenko
Image: Fotolia/Anna Omelchenko

Charting a nation

Julian Tompkin
May 28, 2015

From the fall of the Berlin Wall to World Cup triumphs, the German music charts have measured the mood of a nation for over half a century. But what secrets do the charts reveal about a country and its people?


It can make you chuckle, just as it can make you sob. It is both the soundtrack to triumph and to otherwise inexpressible sorrow. It has been used and abused by despotic regimes, and it has voiced the emotions of collective liberation. Indeed, few art forms synthesize the mood of a nation quite like music.

"Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything," Plato wrote. Indeed, beyond the seemingly superfluous year-on-year pop culture trends, the ability of music to both channel and alter our mood has been exhaustingly documented, from the faculties of neuroscience to those of musicology, psychology and anthropology.

Our music tastes reveal a great deal about us as individuals, as they do about us collectively as a people and nation. For more than 55 years, the German Music Charts - the Offizielle Deutsche Charts - have been a barometer of the country's emotional state, its cares and, at times, carelessness. This month, the charts have undergone a historic overhaul to incorporate German streaming figures and a wider spectrum of contemporary musical genres to better reflect music tastes.

Helene Fischer, Copyright: Universal-Music
Helene Fischer is one of Germany's most successful recording artists everImage: Universal-Music

Bucking international stereotypes

A peek at the top-selling singles and albums across the entire history of the charts reveals a telling fact about the Germans, and one many would prefer remained classified information: their indefatigable love of kitschy schlager music, that is, their unique brand of folk. Indeed, counter to Germany's reputation for being po-faced, austerity-mongers displaying an unhealthy obsession with order, the music charts tell a very different story: Germans love to boogie.

A turbo-charged cousin of American country music, the schlager is typically the soundtrack to many an après-ski shindig - replete with dinky beats and cringe-worthy catch-cry choruses. And the Germans cannot get enough of these syrupy party anthems, with current reigning schlager queen Helene Fischer claiming two of the biggest selling albums in German history, "Farbenspiel" and "Best Of."

Similarly, in the singles charts the most successful song of all time was another hands-in-the-air schlager banger, dropped in 2007 by DJ Ötzi & Nik P. "Ein Stern (... der deinen Namen trägt)," or A Star (…which bears your name). It was a certified phenomenon in Germany, hitting the top spot and staying there for 13 weeks. Austrian native DJ Ötzi was also responsible for that other banging global party tune, "Hey Baby," in 2000, which went on to become the unofficial anthem of the World Cup in 2002.

The first official German music charts, drawn from sales data, were started by the music magazine "Musikmarkt" in 1959 and originally compiled monthly before going weekly. The very first number one album in German history that very year was the soundtrack to the Broadway musical "My Fair Lady" - perhaps a sign that Germany had finally rediscovered its smile a decade and a half after World War II.

In the name of freedom

But cheerful tunes couldn't prevent the fact that the country's division became physical in 1961 with the building of the Berlin Wall. That year, the absurd and confused zeitgeist of a nation was reflected in the year's best-selling single, "Babysitter Boogie" by Ralf Bendix, followed up with the smash hit "Babysitter Twist." Bendix later retired to Monaco and watched the royalty checks roll in.

David Hasselhoff at a protest for the protection of the East Side Gallery in Berlin, Copyright: REUTERS/Tobias Schwarz
David Hasselhoff, pictured here at Berlin's East Side Gallery in 2013, proved a surprise hit in GermanyImage: Reuters

But as the adage goes, where there is life there is hope, and in 1989 that hope manifested itself in the fall of the Berlin Wall. While David Bowie and Pink Floyd have legitimate claims to being the voice of change in Germany, its official hero came from a somewhat unexpected quarter: daytime TV. Better known for dashing about in red bathers, "Baywatch" actor and perennial hero David Hasselhoff somehow became a real-life hero (if just for one day, as Bowie sings), inadvertently capturing the mood of a jubilant nation with his song "Looking for Freedom."

The single became the biggest hit of the year and Hasselhoff certified his place in German history by performing the song on New Year's Eve in front of the Berlin Wall.

The gradual and sometimes painful reconciliation between East and West Germany - known as die Wende, the turn - was very much mirrored in the country's music purchases over the coming years, most famously captured by the German band Scorpions and their seminal anthem, "Wind of Change," in 1991 - the year after Germany was reunified. The single also propelled the band to the top of the album charts that same year, with their aptly titled "Crazy World."

Scorpions. Copyright: Oliver Rath
Scorpions are celebrating 50 years with a farewell tour, documented in DW's co-production "Forever and a Day"Image: Oliver Rath

During the divided years, East Germany had no official music charts, though it did have radio and television shows where people could vote for their favorite tunes, shows like "Tip-Disko" and "Beatkiste." The country's reunification meant a rebirth for Germany's official music charts, which today are based on data including sales, downloads and streaming figures.

Measuring the mood

In 1997, the world was shaken by the news that Lady Diana, Princess of Wales, had died in a tragic car accident in Paris. Although having long done away with their own monarchy, Germans joined the world in mourning Princess Di, and the year's soundtrack reflected their collective sorrow with the top three singles: "Time To Say Goodbye" by Sarah Brightman and Andrea Bocelli as number one, followed by Puff Daddy and Faith Evans with "I'll Be Missing You" and Elton John's own ode to his friend, "Candle In The Wind."

Germany is a culture steeped in political satire and the spirit of Bertolt Brecht. So when in 2002 Chancellor Gerhard Schröder was surprisingly reelected amidst a nationwide controversy over tax increases, the people responded in kind through music, propelling the parody tune "Der Steuersong" - The Tax Song - by "Die Gerd-Show," a satirical radio show hosted by Elmar Brandt, to the top of the charts and certifying it the year's best-selling single.

This year of cheap laughs came after a year of deep reflection in 2001, following the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York, which saw Germany turn inward to the homegrown all-girl group No Angels, which provided the year's most successful single and album. Enya's "Only Time" - which was widely adopted by radio in the US to reflect the national mood in the wake of the terrorist attacks - was 2001's second biggest selling single in Germany.

Ode to joy

But as it brings solace in tragedy, music brings joy in triumph - and there are fewer bigger triumphs in the German psyche than winning the football World Cup. While there is no data for the country's 1954 win, in 1974 Germany channeled the ecstatic zeitgeist with The Rubettes' feel-good hit of the summer, "Sugar Baby Love," followed up in 1990 with Matthias Reim's thumping "Verdammt, ich lieb' dich" (Damn, I love you).

In 2006, World Cup fever truly infected Germany, which hosted the tournament that year, with no less than four soccer-related songs crashing into the top 10 singles charts: Bob Sinclar's anthem "Love Generation" topping the charts and Sportfreunde Stiller coming in at number five with the unfulfilled national World Cup anthem, "'54, '74, '90, 2006."

Andreas Bourani, Copyright: Mathias Bothor
The 2014 World Cup gave Andreas Bourani an extra boostImage: Mathias Bothor

And what better way to celebrate the country's recent 2014 World Cup victory than with…Helene Fischer, who topped both album and singles charts that year, bringing together Germany's two great national loves: football and schlager. Her mega-hit "Atemlos durch die Nacht" (Breathless through the night) paralleled "Auf uns" (To us) by young crooner Andreas Bourani, and both stars performed at the players' victory reception in Berlin.

In the sage words of Heinrich Heine: "Where words leave off, music begins."

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