Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Der Man in Schwarz

US American culture is readily embraced by Germans. But even in a market that's as receptive to American culture as Germany is, some US artists seem to be more readily accepted than others. In literature for example, John Irving is a big favorite here, as is Philip Roth. Cormac McCarthy, on the other hand, or Michael Chabon don't seem to appear in bookstores here anywhere near as often.

One classic American musician who is incredibly popular in Germany is Johnny Cash. Here in Deutschland, Mr. Cash's music appeals to people in a way that isn't clouded by the artificial categories that are so important to marketing in the States. Cash's music crosses all boundaries in Germany, appealing as easily to a burnt out old hippie-type as to a twenty-something punk. I hear Johnny playing as background music in department stores and on the radio and his CD's stand in the bookcases of almost every home I visit here.

My own radio interests here don't include Johnny Cash. I admire him and his music, but I don't travel to Germany to spend my time listening to American popular music. In Essen the radio dial is dominated by the WDR stations, with WDR Eins focussing on current popular music and WDR 5 offering a broad range of news and cultural offerings. I doubt if many of my acquaintances here listen to WDR5 very often: it has a reputation of being just a little spießig. But I enjoy the variety and novelty of the station. There's just nothing like it in the US.

I often wonder how Germany can offer this kind of entertainment: what's the business model, and how do they pay their bills? The answer is, of course, that Germany is a socialist economy. Until recently, the government ran all radio and television. If you own a radio, you pay an annual tax on it, and those taxes go to supporting public programing, like WDR5. The catch is, WDR has to serve a wide audience to maintain the government support they depend on and their constituents include organizations like the Catholic and Evangelical churches (which, incidentally, are also state-run institutions here.) And that's why WDR5 can sometimes be just a little stodgy. Every morning at 6:05, I listen to a piece produced by a prominent religious figure in the region and they're rarely very dynamic. The speakers are all so damned earnest, so unctuous, so anxious to please. They talk slowly,  and their arguments are formatted in a way that reminds me of the ads the white-haired guy on Wild Kingdom used to do:

The hammerhead tortoise has a shell to protect him from wild predators and you need protection too....

But this morning's piece, by Diplom Theologe Markus Potthoff from Essen was really quite entertaining and he made his point with a quote he attributed to Johnny Cash: 

Das Christentum ist nichts für Weicheier

Loosely translated, it means something like, Christianity is not for sissies. It's entertaining for me because it uses some of the great vocabulary German has to describe sissies: Weicheier, Shattenparker, Warmduscher... And ironic too, because, no matter what they do to escape it, all of these religious commentators wind up sounding like a bunch of Weicheier. But today at least, I listened eagerly to the Kirche in WDR5 address, and I'll continue to be a faithful listener, even following the station on-line when I'm back in the States. Tomorrow at 6:05 there will be another preacher greeting me from the electronic pulpit, but at noon I'll be listening to a Hörspiel about a fictional dominatrix who runs a shop in the government quarter of Berlin, beating up on Muttersöhnchen for fun and profit. Public radio in Deutschland makes for strange bedfellows and reminds me every day that I'm not in Kansas anymore.


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