October 31st, 2005

operesque

Kitsch sunset

It's one of life's little ironies that I've come to Berlin—surely the world's most kitsch and pastiche-friendly city—at a time when my own interest in kitsch and pastiche is dwindling. This might explain why I've hardly seen Stereo Total since I've lived here, despite declaring them in 1999 "the best band in the world" and releasing the compilation Total Pop on my Analog Baroque label. In an excellent interview in the current edition of English-language Berlin magazine Ex-Berliner, Francoise Cactus talks about her circle of Berlin peers (Peaches heads the list) and describes how it took leaving her native France to make her embrace her Frenchness and start drawing, in her songwriting, on the Chanson tradition.

The list of Berlin artists (or artists who've spent time in Berlin, or go down well here) who use kitsch, pastiche and humour in their work is endless; Peaches, Chicks on Speed, Gonzales, Kevin Blechdom, Felix Kubin, Andreas Dorau... There are also kitsch-formalists like Jason Forrest and Jamie Liddell who've adopted the city as their spiritual home. And it doesn't stop at music; sometimes the whole city feels like one big flohmarkt, a junk stall through which hipsters rifle for cool and funny retro stuff. Nazi kitsch would be a step too far, but there's plenty of affection for communist kitsch in the form of endless ostalgie and DDR souvenirs, or the sudden upswelling of affection for the massive, ugly gold-mirrored Volkspalast, the former East German parliament building which is about to be demolished.



Just this morning I've written a profile, for an American magazine, of a Berlin designer whose work cocks a snook at the Bauhaus; the legitimate mixture of attraction and repulsion underpinning his feelings about Modernism is surely one of the defining characteristics and chief motivations of kitsch irony. One reason Berlin seems so wedded to kitsch is that it's a city without a strong commercial ethic; life here is cheap, allowing people to make whatever art they want rather than trying to work within the formulae of what's "commercial". But pop music is a commercial format, so what emerges in Berlin pop is a kind of "artificial commerciality", an ironic and ambivalent use of commercial formulae by people who consider themselves artists, but remain fascinated by retro and mainstream tat. This ambivalence (and there's a connection with guilty pleasures, a sense of the lure of sin) explains the resemblance of a lot of Berlin pop to gaudy Greatest Hits compilations on East German labels like Amiga; today's Berliners, removed from the direct pressure of the commercial, identify easily with the communist citizens of the non-commercial DDR, both repelled and fascinated by a capitalism that seems distant and rather exotic.

Now, I identify very much with what Francoise Cactus says in Ex-Berliner about coming to terms, away from her own culture, with the Chanson tradition. I've also come, belatedly, to the conclusion that what I do (especially live) is a kind of Scottish vaudeville act. Perhaps it's no co-incidence that my most Scottish-sounding albums were made in New York and Tokyo. Folktronic imagined a very Celtic (and electronic) Appalachia, and Oskar Tennis Champion drew heavily on Ivor Cutler and Stanley Baxter in songs like "The Laird of Inversnecky" and "Scottish Lips". The album where I sound most Scottish, though, is surely Summerisle, my 2003 Berlin collaboration with Anne Laplantine. Here, on songs with titles like "Fingal Martin's Mistress" and "The Tailor of Dunblane", I sing with a light Gaelic accent about traditional Hebridean industries like spinning, fishing and weaving. Any more Scottish than that and you'd be living in a lighthouse in Stornoway.

Luckily, my odd, stilted, fragmentary phrases of pig-Japanese and Anne's cut-up guitar and computer techniques lift Summerisle away from cliché and pastiche. This is cute formalism, not kitsch formalism, and not pastiche of folk groups with names like The Spinners or The Weavers. So while I can admit that songs like Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" achieve semi-greatness because of their mastery of over-the-top pastiche (listen to BBC Radio 4's excellent dissection of the song, Rhapsody in Bohemia), that's no longer the place I'm heading. Even if it's very much the place I live.