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Fighting for the Right (to) Party? Discursive Negotiations of Power in Pre-Unification East German Popular Music

Edward Larkey

Chapter Excerpt

This chapter examines the workings and internal contradictions of East German popular culture in the 1980s through a discussion of three songs, “Werkstattsong” (1981),“Die Gräfin” (1983), and “Halb und Halb” (1987), by the rock bands Pankow, Silly, and City, respectively. These East German bands negotiated and renegotiated their positions within the constraints imposed by the Communist Party while responding, at the same time, to pressure from the international entertainment and recording industries to project a clearly defined public identity. The bands’ strategies both reflected and influenced the identity strategies of the individuals and groups that made up their audience in East Germany. By examining this parallel, I hope to add to our knowledge of popular music’s role in constituting sociocultural groupings among those with contingent and transient sociopolitical identities. This interaction of band and audience occurred against a backdrop of the culture industries’ globalization on the one hand, and increased state suppression of potentially subversive cultural products on the other; in the course of this chapter, I bring to light the local resistance, accommodations, and adaptations that emerged in response to the pressures of globalization and question the state’s capacity to regulate the flow of cultural goods across borders.

The songs I have chosen, which were released at a time when the popularity of GDR [German Democratic Republic] rock music was in rapid decline, illustrate the bands’ dual objective: to state a serious position about problems and issues inside the country while projecting rock music’s expected energy and sense of fun for their audiences. The bands had to negotiate the fundamental tensions between their positions as rock musicians in the GDR (subject to the restricted discourses of GDR institutions obsessed with security and distanciation toward Western rock) on the one hand, while they contended with the subordination and ultimate incorporation of rock within capitalist discourses outside the country on the other. Discursive negotiations of power refer, therefore, to the bands’ attempts to: a) counteract state monopolizing strategies for naming music and circumscribing music behavior; b) develop critical, heterodoxic, and contested reflections on social reality in the country; and c) increase circulation of their music within the domestic and global music industries’ prescribed genre discourses. Examining these negotiations contributes to a deeper understanding of how music is used to provide “the social space with material-cultural resources for feeling, being and doing,” for structuring “motivation, energy and desire,” and material “for action and experience” (DeNora 2000: 125–30).

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