At the beginning of the new Netflix movie Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, aspiring musicians Lars (Will Ferrell) and Sigrit (Rachel McAdams) are workshopping material that will hopefully be good enough for Söngvakeppnin, the Icelandic talent show for a Eurovision place. But performing at a local bar, their attempts at presenting something new are cut short by patrons who clamour for Ja Ja Ding Dong, which the pair half-heartedly agree to perform. It’s an old hit, and exactly what the title suggests: oompah rhythms, accordion accompaniment, and lyrics halfway between nursery rhyme and sexual innuendo.
Ja ja ding dong (Ding dong)
My love for you is growing wide and long
Ja ja ding dong (Ding dong)
I swell and burst when I see what we’ve become
Ja ja ding dong (Ding dong)
Come, come on, baby, we can get love on
Ja ja ding dong (Ding dong)
When I see you I feel a ding-ding dong
Ja Ja Ding Dong is a quintessential example of schlager, one of the most maligned genres of European pop music. The eyerolling of Lars and Sigrit to their own song is appropriate for a style that’s deemed parochial, superficial and old-fashioned; this very newspaper once dubbed it Germany’s most embarrassing musical genre and online publication the Awl asked in 2017: Is Schlager Music The Most Embarrassing Thing Germany Has Ever Produced? “Listening to schlager gives you some notion of what American pop music might sound like without the African influence – in a word, cheesy,” writes John Seabrook in The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory.
Schlager is mostly found in German-speaking nations and Scandinavia, and consists of either an overly cheerful or overly saccharine melody with extremely superficial or absurd lyrics, bordering on nonsense – with an occasional sprinkle of actual gibberish. It causes an unshakeable urge to hum. Eurovision hits such as Waterloo by Abba (1974), the joyous nonsensical romp Diggi Loo Diggi Ley by the Herreys (1984) and the more ballad-like Ein Bisschen Frieden [A Little Peace] by Nicole (1982) are all examples of schlager or are, at least, indebted to it.
But even though it’s become a punchline once again, I love schlager, and unironically so. I love the frequently occurring one-two rhythm – the oompah! – and the cheerful, sweet melodies and lyrics, which, while lacking wit and bite, are unbridled expressions of joy. I dare you to listen to the schlager renditions of Rosamunde, or Anton aus Tyrol praising his own virility, for example, without cracking a smile. I also love the way this bright, shiny thread is woven so closely into the fabric of pop music.
The first piece of music that was labelled as schlager is the Johann Strauss waltz An der Schönen Blauen Donau (The Blue Danube) described in the Wiener Fremdenblatt newspaper in 1867 as “ein entschiedener schlager” (a clear hit). It also referred to operetta lieder, such as Johann Strauss’s drinking song Im Feuerstrom der Reben in Die Fledermaus and Das Macht die Berliner Luft Luft Luft in Paul Lincke’s Frau Luna: these ensemble numbers use repetition, rhyme, and an upbeat rhythm to conjure what we would now call an earworm.
Schlager was also popular in Weimar Germany, and it actively celebrated the frivolous joys of life, including desire and infatuation, with a generous use of double entendre. The harmony ensemble Comedian Harmonists, in their song Veronika, Der Lenz ist Da (Veronika, spring is here), mention asparagus, a clear phallic symbol, sprouting and growing; in their Maskenball im Gänsestall (Masquerade in the goose coop), they address their love interest by saying: “It’s May, come lay an egg with me.”
The Third Reich dampened salaciousness and frivolity, but schlager triumphantly returned after the second world war; its innate cheer also became a celebration of the German economic miracle. This had another interesting consequence: in the mid-1950s, schlager started borrowing melodies and harmonies from the south of Europe, as a result of more Germans spending their holidays in the Mediterranean. Italian-born singers such as Caterina Valente and Rocco Granata contributed to this crossover.
When Germany was inundated by English-language pop and rock, schlager inevitably took a backseat. Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix embodied the spirit of the new rebellion; bigoted conservatives dismissed it as “negermusik” and fell back on schlager, beginning its unlucky association with parochialism and traditionalism.
“It’s considered arch-conservative and bourgeois,” ethnomusicologist Julio Mendivil told Deutsche Welle, which labelled schlager as Grandma’s Music in 2011. “Schlager evoked consoling images of a beautiful and romantic countryside and painted a distorted, idyllic picture of Germany that excluded any reference to the horrors of the war and the atrocities of the concentration camps,” Mendivil wrote in German Pop Music: A Companion, taking issue with the “schlager dream”, and its pretence of Germany being a clean slate.
But while a treacly, oldtime-y version of schlager still exists (Tausend Träume Immer Noch by Amigos is a great example), starting in the 1960s, schlager began incorporating elements of pop and dance, merging with mainstream disco: a good early example of this is Moskau by the band Dschinghis Khan.
This approach, coupled with Italian and Spanish influences, yielded gems such as Arabesque’s Caballero, DJ Ötzi’s schlager-Eurodance hybrid Pronto Giuseppe, and Frau Kapitän by Calimeros, an ode to the Med. While they are by no means high art, their entertainment potential is undeniable, and the cross-pollination with – even appropriation of – southern European pop certainly enriched schlager’s sound. (As an Italian who spent most of her childhood and teenage years in German-speaking environments, I am not offended by this, but delighted.)
Its versatility was even clearer in Sweden, whose own brand of schlager is more familiar thanks to their biggest music export, Abba. Their harmonies, countermelodies and synthetic sounds became the standard in pop music in the following decades, all of which are quite indebted to schlager. “Abba took the flowing melodic element in Swedish folk songs and hymns,” writes Seabrook, “and added elements of schlager music.” He says the group keep schlager “at arm’s length, but you can hear it in the wheezy organ sounds in Take a Chance on Me.” The kitschy exoticism of Fernando and Chiquitita, a marked oompah base for I Have a Dream, and outsized sentimentality for The Winner Takes It All – this is all quintessential schlager.
Swedish schlager has a distinctive quality, wherein happy-sounding songs have an air of melancholy, and vice versa: this has been widely adopted in mainstream pop music as the hallmark of producer Max Martin. In an interview in the New Yorker from 2014, Tove Lo described Swedish pop as having “clear but simple lyrics, is a lot about the melody, and also having a little bit of melancholy or a darker sense to it, to not make it too sugary or too bubblegum.” Take the Swedish Eurodance hit Dolce Marmellata by Domenicer, whose upbeat tempo is counterbalanced by a somewhat sombre vocal track, or Danish pop group Aqua’s 1997 hit Barbie Girl, a schlager-infused number whose minor key adds an uncanny element to the otherwise upbeat melody, and has made the tune age particularly well.
Schlager gets a further boost by our willingness to embrace camp, and over-the-top “so bad they’re good” cultural products. Films such as The Room and Showgirls have gone through a cultural redemption, first by becoming cult-like sensations, then by getting movies made about them, namely the feature film The Disaster Artist and the documentary You Don’t Nomi. Pre-Raphaelite painters were mostly dismissed as kitsch until they were reassessed in the 1960s, and now major museums host retrospectives. Holst’s Planets suite was frowned upon by refined cultural elites, but became a foundational work for movie soundtrack composers (Hans Zimmer and John Williams above all). Celine Dion, once a dismissed as a treacly chanteuse has been embraced as a quirky fashion and music icon.
Schlager has a substantial camp component: the juxtaposition of sweeping music and mundane lyrics treads the line between farce and seriousness. Nicole’s Ein Bisschen Frieden is a perfect example, said by Schlager scholar André Port le Roi to have won Eurovision 1982 for a “very typical German mixture of emotionality with a hysterical apocalyptic mood”. Leaning into that camp potential, schlager managed to partially reinvent itself in the 2000s, to the point that, each year, Hamburg hosts the Schlagermove music parade, a gathering of 500,000 (only 50,000 attended when it started in 1997). Conchita Wurst’s Eurovision-winning drag performance of Rise Like a Phoenix is a perfect example of schlager and camp; Evighet by Carola (2006) and Take Me To Your Heaven (1999) and Hero (2008) by Charlotte Perrelli show how schlager continues to work well with Europop. By folding schlager into wider pop forms, these artists have made it less conservative and nationalistic, and by casting those nationalistic elements as camp and silly, they detoxify them too.
In the last decade, singer Helene Fischer, known as the “queen of schlager” has sold more than 13m records. Her most famous hit Atemlos durch die Nacht combines Schlager’s signature sentimentality with a grittier sound, and, language notwithstanding, it has all the elements to be a global pop anthem in the same vein as Lady Gaga’s Rain on Me, whose own Europop influences are blatant. What schlager is perhaps now losing in kitsch, it is acquiring in wider palatability.
“If you really want to know what makes a song powerful, I would say look at how the memory works,” said physiologist Harry Witchel when analysing the structural perfection of Abba’s Waterloo in 2005 for the BBC. “Memory works either through strong emotions or through repetition – that’s how we normally teach. And Abba songs allow for both of those things to occur.”
This also applies to all aforementioned schlager hits: their melodies, coupled with their repetitive and alliterative lyrics create a pleasant cycle of repetition and emotions rooted in escapism. The meaninglessness of the lyrics, the ahistorical dream-Europe the songs evoke, and the forgiving framework of camp mean that schlager can now mean almost anything to anyone. Just as Strauss’s Die Fledermaus transports the viewer into an amusing comedy of errors, or the Blue Danube to that very river, so schlager hits give us the illusion of an idyllic reality, where all that matters is love, sun and vacation – somewhere you can finally feel a ding-ding dong, whatever you want that to be.