All About the Heimat

Music as Politics in 1980s Germany

Teenagers were milling about. Bright colours shot off the portable mirror ball. The DJ stepped up to his console to cue the first track.

Nothing to get nostalgic about. Klaus Meine, The Scorpions.

This was the moment I’d been waiting for. But when the first notes rang through the cavernous room, I was dumbfounded.

When my German host brother told me that we were going to drive to a disco, I was excited. I’d been in the country for six months by then without having what I imagined to be a classic European experience. Disco had long since died in the United States, but here it still lived.

I remembered how much I’d loved the dance hits around the turn of the decade: Donna Summer, Chic, McFadden and Whitehead, Gloria Gaynor, and even – I’m proud to confess – the Village People.

And how much it had hurt to turn away from the genre suddenly finding myself in a school where nobody seemed to listen to the stereotypically black music I’d fallen in love with.

This trip to a disco would wash the shame from my secret pleasures. Or so I had believed.

So why was AC/DC playing?

I had been assured that Let’s-Fetz, the group that ran this mobile disco, was top-notch. When gas costs a fortune, you aren’t going to travel for a show unless there’s a powerful incentive.

Even though everybody seemed to be having a good time, the experience was far removed from my idea of a dance club. Only the disco ball suggested a connection to Saturday Night Fever.

By this point in my year as an exchange student, I knew that contemporary European disco music differed substantially from the songs I’d loved in elementary school.

I’d spent the first five months of my year in northern Germany with a different host family and had made friends who were into the sort of music that would have been regarded as strange by most of my high school classmates: Goth rock and the synth-pop derided as “Euro fag” fare.

Nevertheless, I could detect traces of the rhythm-forward quality of the disco songs I loved in the records they played, especially in the twelve-inch remixes popular in dance clubs, such as New Order’s global hit “Blue Monday”.

Even if the Manchester band didn’t sound “black” to me, they at least had an aura of metropolitan exoticism that distinguished them from the relentless suburban whiteness I had found suffocating in high school and driven me to become a huge Prince fan on the sly.

This sensibility was entirely absent from the Let’s-Fetz playlist. The beats were often thundering, but not in a way that worked on the dancefloor.

Aside from the couples awkwardly holding onto each other during the occasional power ballad, the only action at the event was inaction, with clusters of boys and girls eying each other from the margins.

The longer I stayed at this Let’s-Fetz event, though, the less disappointed I felt. Maybe I wasn’t getting to relive sixth grade, when I had spent all my time with black kids. But many of the songs coming over the PA were ones I loved.

They called out to a different person, not the one who had temporarily identified against his race in elementary school, but the one who had grudgingly made peace with it over six years in a small private school.

This wasn’t a place to break out the dance moves I used to practice secretly in the dank basement of our split-level home, but to stand in the back and awkwardly nod my head to the beat.

Staying in a small town halfway between Stuttgart and Munich, I had inadvertently ended up in a close approximation of my Southern Maryland home.

Although I had been so desperate to get far away from that home the previous year that I decided to leave the country instead of just heading off to college, I now found myself longing for its minor comforts.

Despite Let’s-Fetz being the antithesis of everything I associated with the word disco, listening to one hard rock song after another was proving to be a remedy for homesickness.

Since coming to Germany I had tried hard to cultivate an edgier sensibility, forcing myself to experiment with culture that would previously have disturbed me. But the new Charles was proving no match for his retrograde predecessor.

I have frequently thought about that strange paradox in the decades since. From a personal standpoint, my experience serves as a powerful corrective to the naïve notion that taste develops in tandem with knowledge. Because no matter how much my expertise has grown, I still suffer from feelings of cultural homelessness, which can be alleviated by returning to the kind of music that the Let’s-Fetz DJ played that night.

Indeed, I’ve been doing just that while working on this piece, listening to songs I heard that night, the same songs I heard on Washington D.C.’s hard rock radio station D.C. 101 in high school, to return to a time and place when I took my home for granted.

Even tunes that have never been favourites of mine, like the German band Scorpions’ “Rock You Like a Hurricane”, help to ground me. And the songs I always stop to listen to when they come on, for which I instinctively turn up the volume, now fill me with a powerful feeling of security.

Take AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long”. The song is pure sexual fantasy, from a perspective that aligns with conservative male heterosexuality, which is sexist at best. But although it appealed to my teenage self on that basis, long before I’d had actual sexual experiences, that wasn’t the only thing in the song calling to me when I heard it that night at the Let’s-Fetz mobile disco.

It’s also a song about revisiting an experience of pleasure. Or rather, it’s a song about deriving pleasure from the past instead of the present.

In that sense, “You Shook Me All Night Long” isn’t about sex so much as what can substitute for sex in its absence. That’s why the song distils the essence of rock and roll so effectively, thematising what first made that kind of music exciting.

When I listen to “You Shook Me All Night Long” now, I experience this quality in a different register. I still get excited. But the song’s sexual dimension has been muted. Instead of substituting for sex in its absence, the song now serves to remind me of what it felt like to take pleasure in that substitution.

The sense of security the song conveys now derives from reestablishing a connection between my current self, preoccupied with all manner of problems that have little to do with sex, with that remote teenage self who could so easily be transported into the realm of fantasy.

I mention this because my personal response to the music I heard at the Let’s-Fetz mobile disco helps explain another way the experience serves as an important corrective.

Most of the German teenagers who were present that night were not from backgrounds that made them very worldly. Either the children of farmers or blue-collar workers from small towns, they didn’t have much experience of cultural diversity.

Many of my classmates had travelled so little that they thought it was a big deal for me to make the seventy-minute trip to Stuttgart every month.

My brother’s tenth-grade social studies class at the local Gymnasium devoted an entire year to studying how Hitler came to power. The teacher said he wanted to help students heed the warning signs their grandparents had missed. While this seemed an extremely worthwhile endeavour, much more helpful than the rapid breeze through the centuries of my own high-school history classes, it came to a strange end.

As the conclusion of the school year approached, my classmates excitedly told me about the field trip that functioned as a capstone for the course, a reward for all their hard work. Many of them had older siblings who had made the trip before them and reported glowingly on their goings-on.

Although the purpose of the field trip was to visit the concentration camp at Dachau, which the Nazis were already using before the start of World War II, that wasn’t why they were looking forward to the trip. The tour of Dachau was something they had to endure in order to be given a few hours to wander around Munich without chaperones.

Even as a teenager, I found the idea of conjoining a sombre historical site with visits to beer halls deeply disturbing. What I recognise now, however, is that this wrongheaded decision wasn’t my classmates’ fault. They were simply happy to be getting to spend time in a big city.

Yet for all of their provincialism, all of them had seen dozens of American movies that conjured a fantasy of teenage life, ones which felt even more remote to them than it did to me. And they loved the same rock songs that I’d grown up with back home in the States.

If I felt estranged from the exciting world depicted in that culture, it must have been much more alienating for them. This was clearly another case of substitution, with that culture standing in for something they were unlikely to experience personally.

I decided to look up Let’s-Fetz, to see whether I could find anything about it on the forgotten recesses of the Internet, perhaps someone my age reminiscing about life in the 1980s.

To my astonishment, the small firm still exists, in the same portion of southern Germany, halfway between Stuttgart and Munich, as it did when I was an exchange student. Not only that, Let’s-Fetz recently celebrated its fortieth anniversary holding a bigger version of the kind of events I attended then and, what is more, mainly playing the exact same music.

As if to underscore this sense of time standing still, the flyer for the event shared online displays the firm’s name and the words “Tour Disco” in the Fraktur font, which Germans use to conjure a sense of their distinct cultural heritage, the very one that the Nazi Party deployed to signal its break with the insufficiently nationalist Weimar Republic, during which the same Roman fonts used in England and France predominated.

While I don’t want to draw erroneous conclusions from this typographic decision, I can’t help but be disconcerted by its implications.

Even when I attended Let’s-Fetz events in 1987, most of the music played was somewhat dated. By and large, it testified to the popularity of what we might call the Long 1970s, an era in which many working-class and rural youth were devoted to a hand-me-down counterculture, several steps removed from the revolutionary sentiments of the 1960s but still vaguely associated with rebellion against a culturally conservative status quo.

By the time I was in Germany, of course, this rebelliousness had been even further watered down by the passage of time. It was well on its way to becoming a kind of cultural conservatism in its own right. That doesn’t mean that it correlated with political conservatism yet. But it was clear that the right circumstances might lead them to converge.

And they eventually did. After the heady days of reunification that followed the end of the Cold War and the sense of optimism cultivated in its wake, a backlash began to develop as the European Union was trying consolidate its power throughout the continent.

Although the financial crisis of 2008 affected Germany less than most of its European partners, the strains it put on international cooperation took a toll.

Once the German economy stagnated and concerns about immigration mounted, the far right began to make significant progress, expanding from its base in the comparatively backward states of former East Germany to win support in the more sparsely inhabited areas of West Germany where I had lived.

These distressing trends are bound up with a kind of existential homesickness, particularly among people of my generation.

Just as Donald Trump and his ilk have managed to mobilise the sense of missed opportunities felt by white men like me, who resent having come too late to enjoy the Baby Boomer party and too early to enjoy the fruits of millennial high-tech, his counterparts have been doing the same in Germany.

But even if politicians are able to tap into the idea of Heimat, with its self-reflexive conservatism, the home that comes to mind is not likely to match up with the early twentieth-century stereotype exploited by the Nazis.

Instead, it will probably resemble the sort I witnessed as an exchange student in the 1980s, one that feels more historically remote than it actually is for two reasons. First, because it predates the rise of the consumer internet and second, because it is inextricably bound up with a divided Germany.

The desire to feel secure in uncertain times is understandable. Certainly, with all the stress and strain that Germans have experienced in recent years, from the refugee crisis to the pandemic to the war in Ukraine, the impulse to return to what now feels like a simpler time must be strong.

Nevertheless, nostalgia is politically worrisome. When most of one’s pleasures are retrospective, remembered instead of encountered firsthand, it’s hard to take constructive actions towards a better future.

Rather than fondly recalling a time when they could still feel shook, Germans of my generation need to realise that they can still shake things up in a positive way.

Photograph courtesy of Nick Ares. Published under a Creative Commons license.