Erdmöbel’s apolitical pop

A few days ago, Peter Unfried of the left-leaning German daily taz interviewed Markus Berges, singer and songwriter for the German pop band Erdmöbel. I’ve raved about Erdmöbel before in this blog, and here’s a short summary: the lyrics are drenched with longing, but not sentimental; the music is graceful, hook-ridden, and elegantly orchestrated.

In short, Erdmöbel are the most interesting pop band in Germany.  If they sung in English, they would be beloved of pop conoisseurs worldwide, as are Beth Orton or Everything But the Girl. But for now, only those of us boneheaded enlightened enough to have learned German can fully enjoy these gems. (But yes! Buy the records for the music alone, if you don’t understand German.)

The goody-two-shoes green/socialists of the taz are suspicious. Isn’t it a little frivolous to just make lovely pop songs? The title of the article, "Rock against Nothing At All", is almost an accusation.  Like a dog worrying at a bone, taz writer Unfried tries to get some sort of political opinion out of Berges. 

Berges is much too clever for that.  He toyed with punk when he was younger, he admits, but quickly found it a dead end; people who have to demonstrate their principled rejection of bourgeois conformity box themselves into equally boring little ghettos of non-bourgeois conformity, and end up just whining about the world in general.

Well, fine, the taz writer says.  But aren’t you then just producing relaxing adult pop that permits high-IQ capitalist drones "to go out next morning and pursue [their own] individual economic goals full of elan?"

You can almost hear Berges sigh.  "You can’t just pull an Ermöbel song out of an automat to satisfy a certain need," he objects.  Unfried visits a concert.  The music is gorgeous, he admits, but Ermöbel have short hair, don’t call attention to themselves, and seem focussed on the music.  Suspicious, Unfried resumes the inquisition.  Can taz readers be sure that Berges doesn’t vote for the conservative party (CDU)?  Berges smiles: "I understand the impulse.  I’d also like to be sure that someone whose art I treasure doesn’t vote CDU.  But that’s all nonsense.  Because I know that art has its own independent existence, even if it’s just a pop song."

Umlaut-Grumpiness Connection Myth Debunked

I sent an email to David Myers asking him about the umlaut article.  Prof. Myers was kind enough to send me the following response:

This is a misreported story that took on a life of its own.  I’ve never done research on German speech and personality (this was an utterly mistaken press report misattributed to me that has recycled for several years).  But here is what I do report in my introductory psychology text:

Saying the phonemes e and ah, which activate smiling muscles, puts people—believe it or not—in a better mood than saying the German ü (rather like saying the English e and u together), which activates muscles associated with negative emotions (Zajonc & others, 1989).

Zajonc, R. B., Murphy, S. T., & Inglehart, M. (1989). Feeling and facial efference: Implications of the vascular theory of emotions. Psychological Review, 96, 395–416.

Let us set the record straight.  The original press report was unreliable, Professor Myers does not stand for the proposition that frequent pronunciation of umlauts "causes German grumpiness."  He has only cited, in passing, a study that appears to support a much more limited proposition.  If I didn’t have a day job, I might actually want to track down the Inglehart & Murphy article.

The decision to wait and see whether I could find out more about this theory has paid off.  I believe this is the first time anything approaching journalism has ever been committed on German Joys.  I promise it won’t be the last!

Tërrïbly Ünhäppy Germans

Marginal Revolution points us to a study by an American professor which blames umlauts for German grumpiness: "Hope College psychology professor David Myers says saying a vowel with an umlaut forces a speaker to turn down his mouth in a frown, and may induce the sadness associated with the facial expression."  English, he claims, involves broad ‘ah’ and ‘eh’ sounds which require you to mimic smiling motions.  This story was originally reported back in 2000 by the BBC

Hat-tip to Marian Wirth, valued German Joys Commenter and freshly-minted blogger, for the link.

Now to the substance: I have my doubts. I’m not going to address Myers’ theory in detail, because there’s not enough information about it in the article to draw an informed conclusion. I have an email in to Myers to see if he published his results anywhere; I’d love to learn more about the methodology and conclusions.

However, I can’t see how umlauts could be the culprit here. Some background for non-German speaking readers, umlauts are the two little dots on top of a, o, and u in the German language.  They change both the pronunciation and the meaning of words considerably.  ‘A’ in German is pronounced like the ‘o’ in ‘gone,’ while ‘ä’ is more like the ‘a’ in ‘bake.’  ‘O’ is pronounced a lot like the English ‘o,’ but ‘ö’ is pronounced like "er."  Pronouncing ‘u’ with an umlaut is tricky, it’s a sound halfway between ‘u’ and ‘e’ that non-native speakers almost never master.

What I don’t understand about the theory is that rough equivalents of the umlauted sounds of ‘a’ and ‘o’ exist in English, so the umlauted ‘u’ is really the only way in which umlauts introduce a sound into German that doesn’t exist in English. I have tried smiling while saying umlauted vowels, and it seems to work just fine, it’s only a little tricky with the ‘ü’, since you’ve got to tighten your cheek muscles a bit to really get it right.

Mr. Wirth noted another potential objection: If Germans are so glum because they have a few umlauts, what about Finns and Turks, who decorate their vowels (and even their consonants) with an almost-ludicrous variety of diacritical marks?

As I said, I’ll withhold an analysis until I get more details. But color me, so far, not yet convinced.

German Words of the Week: Schreibtischtäter

This week’s GWOW is a triple-combination special.  First, the root: Täter (pronounced as in "Pass the taters, Maw!").

It’s derived from the neutral word tun, or "to do."  So a Täter is "doer."  However, a we don’t like the things Täter do: they beat people, scratch cars, embezzle money, smuggle drugs, kill animals, burn embassies, and such like. They are criminals.

There are different sorts of Täter. A Triebtäter is someone who’se motivated by unwholesome drives or urges (Treiben), an "urge-criminal," or sex offender. 

You can have some sympathy for an Überzuegungstäter, though.  What he does is, of course, wrong, but he’s a "conviction-criminal," operating on the basis of his sincere convictions (Überzeugungen).  This is about the nicest thing you’re allowed to call George W. Bush in most German newspapers.

Now to the pièce de résistance: Schreibtischtäter.  We’ll need to do some (light) German compound noun math to understand this word

Schreib (write)    X  Tisch (table) = "write-table", or desk.

Now plug the result of the above equation into the next phase:

Schreibtisch (desk)   +    Täter (criminal) = desk-criminal.

A desk-criminal kills with his pen.  He sits at his desk in the Ministry of Internal Security, or Refugee Resettlement, and decides the fate of a single human being — or thousands of them –with a simple check-mark on a form, or by filing folders in certain cabinets. 

More about a simple "Transportation Administrator" who became history’s most notorious Schreibtischtäter here.

The German Joys Cultural Trivia Contest Part I: The Pink Austrian Mercury

Yep, it’s a new contest. This contest will reward those of you who, like me, have wasted spent invested countless thousands of hours exploring the hidden treasures of European culture, broadly defined. 

This contest is not designed to increase traffic to my site.  It’s designed to reduce it.

Here are the rules.  I ask one or two questions.  The questions relate to one particular work of art (remember — broadly defined).  The first person to answer these questions correctly, either in a comment or in an email to me, wins the contest. Your answer has to identify the work of art that provides the answer to the question. 

Don’t go thinkin’ you can just Google up an answer.  The questions are all going to be Google-proof, I guarantee you (at least the English and German versions of Google…)

What does the winner win?  They win a few DVDs, lovingly created by me, filled with huge amounts of beautiful music.  You win, you give me your address, and you’ll get the DVDs.  Promise.  I’ll ship them anywhere in the world. Restriction: Nobody who knows me gets to play! 

Simple, eh?  So here are the first two questions:

1.  What do you have to trade to get the Pink Austrian Mercury?

2.  What other colors from that set did the old man have when he died?

Yes, these questions have answers.  In fact, you can answer both of them in 5 words. 

No, I won’t give any clues.  Good Luck!

Heiner Lauterbach’s a-Drinkin’ and Whorin’

German actor Heiner Lauterbach, star of various films I’ve never seen, has something he wants to tell (G) us. "I drank and I whored!" runs the title of the article.  After describing why so few men are good at group sex, Lauterbach

…speaks just as openly and unreservedly about his 25-year addiction to alcohol. "I went to the bar at 11 in the morning and drank twelve hours straight. That was sometimes extremely amusing and sometimes rather stupid." Drinking was just plain a "banal thing to do," Lauterbach’s motive was simple boredom.

If there’s anything I’ve never associated movie stars with, it’s boredom. If group sex, drug abuse, and the adulations of millions of fans can’t dispel boredom, what hope is there for the rest of us?

German Word of the Week: Lebenskünstler

I’ve gotten a few emails recently about the distressing lack of "German Words of the Week."  Yes, it’s true, I have been neglecting this section of German Joys.  I admit it.  But the neglect ends now.

Oscar Wilde once purportedly said "I put my talent into my work, but my genius into my life."  A suitable introduction to this week’s entry, Lebenskünstler.  Literally translated, it means "life-artist."  Non-literally translated, it means, of course, much more. 

A recent documentary broadcast on German television showed recent immigrants to the United States living in the Roosevelt area of Queens. We met an undocumented immigrant from Ecuador who lived in a small part of house and worked in a beauty salon (overseen by another recent immigrant, from Vietnam).  We met a "coyote," who coordinated the smuggling of illegal immigrants to the U.S. 

We then met a Colombian (if memory serves) who had 8 children.  Since he broke his foot when he fell from a building at a construction site, he can no longer work in construction. Instead, he makes his living writing letters for other immigrants who cannot read or write.  They are almost invariably flowery love-letters to wives, girlfriends, or mothers.  (Fans of South American movies will be reminded of the main character in the Brazilian movie Central Station). He wheels himself around the neighborhood to various places where the undocumented gather.  He is always ready with a tale, ever-cheerful despite his precarious financial situation. 

He is a Lebenskünstler.  Someone who pieces together his living from various activities that, collectively, bring in just enough money to live.  No office, no suit, no boss, no rules. German has a word for such people, and English doesn’t.  There’s even a higher form of Lebenskünstler, and that is the Überlebenskünstler, or "survival artist."   Here we encounter a word that shows that English is, indeed, a Germanic language.   The word Überleben, literally translated, means "overlive," or survive.  It was used this way in John Donne’s Seventh Meditation: "my disease cannot survive me, I may overlive it."  Here it is used in German to refer to Africans who are not merely life-artists, but survival-artists.

So, GWOW fans, here is your fix.  I will return to the theme several times this week, to make sure the German Word of the Week remains a Word of the Week, and not a Word of the Month, or worse yet, Year…

Kafka’s Epigrammatic Mutilation Memos

Franz Kafka began his career in the Prague head office of the Worker’s Accident Insurance Bureau of the Kingdom of Bohemia on 30 July 1908.  During the next decades, Kafka published various rather idiosyncratic "literary" works that have gained some attention in specialist circles. His contribution to the development of the Bohemian insurance industry has, however, been neglected.

Until now.  S. Fischer publishers, as part of their Critical Edition of Kafka, has issued a a carefully-edited 1,024-page volume entitled Official Writings. The volume will be of interest primarily to the millions worldwide who, like me, have found themselves captivated by the story of Central European insurance during this time of upheaval and innovation. According to a recent review (German) in Die Zeit by Andreas Maier, however, there are also gems for the ordinary reader (my translation):

"Only a specialist would want to read this massive body of text in its entirety, but it is full of finds, for instance the sub-chapter in the "1909 Yearly Report" with the title Accident- Prevention Measures with Regard to Wood-Planing Machines. In this section one learns, for example (in gloriously lucid Kafka-sentences) what the difference is between round shafts and square shafts from a safety perspective: "Such and accident, however (with the latter type of shaft) does not occur without cutting off several joints of the finger — indeed, whole fingers themselves." Accompanying this description is a table depicting various types of mutilating injuries associated with these accidents.

Buy the entire 1,024 pages (for a mere 178 Euro) here. Should an English or American publisher be interested in an English translation of this book, I would be happy to consider all reasonable offers.

Actually, on second thought, perhaps I’ll pass.