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The evolution of German pop music

From Marlene Dietrich in the 1920s to the influence of The Beatles and the rise and fall of Nena's Neue Deutsche Welle, German pop has changed a lot in the past 90 years. A Frankfurt exhibition takes a closer look.

Pop music was about fun and protest, hedonism and politics - and the exhibition in Frankfurt's Museum of Communication, which opened Thursday, includes it all. Marlene Dietrich and Pur to Ton Steine Scherben and Die Fantastischen Vier, the greats of the mainstream German music scene are there. 

The show starts in the 1920s, taking into account the spread of the radio as a new medium.

"In addition to the radio, the grammophone and records also  became popular,"  Jan Christoph Greim told DW. The new devices made listening to - and collecting - music a personal experience. Greim is the curator of the exhibition "Oh Yeah! Pop Music in Germany!" that includes roughly 200 exhibits, as well as more than eight hours of sound and video material.

Exhibition Oh Yeah Pop Musik in Germany“ in Frankfurt (Photo: Martin Luther)

Watching and listening to 90 years of pop music in Germany

Elvis Presley's fan mail

Frankfurt is one stop on the exhibition's tour, which includes four other cities. Greim says he wanted to honor the special significance of the show's  planned locations. In Frankfurt, a focus is on presenting the army broadcaster AFN which spread the American way of life in the US-occupied zone of West Germany after World War II.

Visitors equipped with headphones can listen to works of 140 musicians, while studying posters and record covers presenting both subversive as well as mainstream styles. Among the exhibits are a suit James Last wore on stage and a duffel bag used to send fan mail to the King when he was stationed as a GI in the German town of Bad Nauheim.

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Curator Greim raves about the golden 20s, as well as the development of pop music in postwar Germany. "The 1920s also saw revolutionary changes in the status of women, who went out by themselves and even smoked and drank in public. And cocaine became the first trendy drug." 

The exhibit on the famous ensemble Comedian Harmonists shows how the Nazis later differentiated between "Aryan" and "non-Aryan" artists.

Rise and fall of genres

"The postwar era is also very interesting," notes Greim. Following the Elvis hype and rock 'n' roll, the Beatles came to influence bands in both East and West Germany, including The Lords in the West and the Sputniks in the East.

Karlheinz Stockhausen (picture-alliance/akg-images)

Composer Karlheinz Stockhausen - the father of techno?

In 1965, the first music show for young people called "Beat-Club" was aired on German television.

Also honored in the exhibition is German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, who is seen as one of the pioneers of electronic music, greatly influencing pop icons like Frank Zappa and the band Kraftwerk. Some of his admirers even see Stockhausen as the father of techno.

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"Oh Yeah!" also shows how music styles that originated as youth protest movements lose their power after being commercialized. "The so-called 'Neue Deutsche Welle' went downhill  after becoming popular," says Greim. Once record companies discovered that a lot of money could be made with the genre, which included Nena and Falco, numerous copy-cat bands sprung up. "The 'Neue Deutsche Welle' could not survive this inflationary development," Greim adds.

The exhibition that originated in Bern, Switzerland, where the city's Museum of Communication put together a show on pop music in Switzerland, runs in Frankfurt until February 25, 2018, before moving on to Berlin, Leipzig and then Stuttgart.

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