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volume 2
july 1999

Popular music and processes of social transformation


  The case of rock music in former East Germany
  by Peter Wicke
  In September 1996 the European Music Office published its report on "Music in Europe". The second part of this study was titled "Music, Culture and Society in Europe" and edited by Paul Rutten. It contains six critical essays and five case studies on the cultural value of music in the European Union. This critical contribution on rock music in the former East Germany was written for the occasion by Peter Wicke.

  Photo right: Bernauer Strasse, July 21th, 1998; 1998 © Heiko Burckhardt, dailysoft.com

In the Bernauer Strasse in Berlin some concrete segments and parts of the backland Wall now have been transformed into a Memorial of German Separation. Rock music, Peter Wicke argues, played an important role in the collapse of the Berlin Wall. "It was as a result of rock's paradoxical and contradictory position within the political processes of East Germany that it came to play a role in the events of 1989."

1 The collapse of the Berlin Wall. There are many lessons to learn from the events of 1989 which transformed Europe so fundamentally. One of them concerns the socio-political dimensions of cultural forms such as popular music which are rarely displayed so graphically as it has been the case in the events leading to the collapse of the Berlin Wall 1989.
  The idea that "cultural" processes are relatively autonomous within the matrix of wider social processes, and that such cultural processes are inalienably necessary to the viable formation and maintenance of both intersubjective and subjective identities is hardly new. However, the events in East Germany of 1989 provide a unique opportunity to examine the dynamics and political consequences of the interactions between culture, identity, and other dimensions of social process within a quite unprecedented conjuncture of social and historical forces. The unique and unprecedented nature of these events lay in the way in which the failure to maintain an adequate level of cultural life and as a consequence an adequate level of interaction between cultural life and processes of identity led to the collapse of an entire social system. By imposing a highly restricted and conservative understanding of art which had its roots in the Enlightenment of the Eighteenth Century on the cultural life of a people within a modern industrialized society, the state and party bureaucracy created conditions in which manifestations of modern cultural life could be found only in the margins and cracks of the social system.
  The collapse of the Berlin Wall was not, of course, the first signal that fundamental changes were impending in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. The dramatic events of October and November 1989 were preceded by the strikes and civil unrest in Poland resulting from the failure of the economic system and the consequent rise of Solidarnosc, the gradual implementation of elements of a market system within the economy of Hungary, and the promotion of perestroika and glasnost by Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union. Within the context of these changes, brought on by deep-seated and unavoidable economic problems, the sudden collapse of the Stalinist social system in East Germany took on special significance. The way in which the changes in East Germany occurred were unprecedented historically. It was a characteristic of Stalinism that it always maintained a broad range of effective — not to say violent — measures that could be invoked on behalf of the state to repress any resistance or opposition.
  It was quite remarkable, therefore, that such a system could collapse because people simply and literally walked away by using the first available hole in the iron curtain, that opened by Hungary on its Austrian borders. Even the mass demonstrations that occurred shortly thereafter — most noticeably in Leipzig — as a consequence of this mass exodus were not so much demonstrations as they were a symbolic distancing from the system. People were quite literally voting with their feet. While it would be wrong to suggest that the economy of East Germany was immune to the same kind of serious problems evidenced in other parts of Eastern Europe — problems which in the fullness of time would have led to similar developments for similar reasons — these problems were not directly implicated in the events of the summer and autumn of 1989. Rather, it was the absence of viable forms of everyday culture — an absence, to be sure, that was rendered more piquant by the image of consumer culture coming from the West through West German television — that led to the collapse. Extant forms of everyday culture were simply not sufficient to underpin vital processes of social reproduction.
  The salient conditions of this absence can be traced most graphically by reference to the history of rock music in East Germany. On the one hand, the Stalinist authorities in East Germany constantly resisted the presence and development of rock music, whether Western or German. On the other, faced with the inevitable presence and the discernible political benefits of rock music — whether Western or German — in providing a viable everyday cultural form for young people, these same authorities never succeeded in integrating it fully within the political system. It was as a result of rock's paradoxical and contradictory position within the political processes of East Germany that it came to play a role in the events of 1989.
2 A rare case study. The history of rock music in East Germany demonstrates how paradoxes and contradictions within the political and economic system could provide spaces within which indigenous cultural forms and values sufficient for sustaining social reproduction could develop, only to be repressed by that very same system. The state management of indigenous rock music and the repression of the values provided by this music as a basis for social reproduction resulted in a cultural void for young people, an emptiness and boredom that inevitably turned any investment in forms of alternative culture into an act of resistance. This music, therefore, became already in the sixties a central and contested cultural symbol, signifying the political attitudes of young people. Beginning with the 11th Conference of the Party's Central Committee December 1965 where the condemnation of this music by high rank party officials, led by the opening statement of Honecker, played a prominent role rock music was linked to social values and patterns of behaviour which stand for processes of individual self-determination as opposed to interactions within the party controlled realm of the social.
  For all these reasons, the collapse of the Stalinist regime in East Germany and the role of rock music in that collapse provide a rare case study in understanding the effectivities of culture in modern societies. It has been a characteristic of modern societies that they have evidenced, through their reproductive processes, and albeit in different ways, full and vibrant everyday cultures. The complex, contradictory and constantly shifting relations of these cultures to other processes in the social formation have provided points of entry through which understandings of culture's importance to the reproduction of social formations, its relative autonomy within such reproductive processes, and its vital role in intersubjective and subjective processes of identity can be gained.
  In a unified state system musical activities can only take place within structures put in place by the state. It is only through such structures that musicians can receive payment and be provided with musical equipment and the necessities of life. Musicians are thus inevitably situated within the political structures of the state and, as a consequence, within lines of communication that allow them to influence political processes. The state systems of Eastern Europe were not however noted for their love of popular music and, in particular, for their love of rock music. The cultural activities of most of these states were organized and administered according to premises drawn from traditional "high culture" notions of what constitutes "good art". However, even within a unified state system such as that of former East Germany, rock music had an intrinsic power of its own. This power derives from the fact that, unlike literature, the plastic and representational arts, and film and television, popular music was a very difficult cultural form for state authorities to control. This was the case for three reasons.
  First, it was in practice impossible for state authorities to adequately define musical content and therefore to make adverse ideological judgements on it. Musical activities which the state did not like would in all likelihood attract the attention of the state security services. However, the state authorities of Eastern Europe never put themselves in the very difficult position of becoming involved in the question of the desirability or lack of desirability of particular musical forms. Such discussions were impossible for these state authorities to frame in such a way that they could definitively and successfully identify politically undesirable elements within the abstract, structural and textural sonic processes of the music itself. These state authorities would therefore forbid the lyrics of the music they found objectionable or declare the non-musical activities of the musicians or their fans to be politically unacceptable. The critical point to understand here in grasping the importance of rock musicians to the collapse of the former GDR is that although state authorities might have refused to support certain kinds of music through state structures, and although they might have decided to make life extremely difficult for musicians and their fans, it was always possible for musicians to conceptually separate their music from those criteria in terms of which the state was harassing them, and challenge state authorities to once again find reasons in terms of which to make life difficult for them. The nature of music in other words made possible a game of cat and mouse between musicians and the authorities.
  Second, unlike most other forms of culture and mass culture, the practice of popular music does not presuppose that it has to exist in a material form — although it may do in the form of sheet music, records, cassettes and CD's. Even if it became possible to make an adverse ideological judgement against a particular piece of popular music — because of its lyrics, for example — the music as such could not be confiscated. It could continue to exist through performances independent of any of the material forms in which it might be embodied and which themselves might be subject to confiscation. Additionally, music has one material form, that of the cassette, which is highly transportable and whose circulation is as a consequence extremely difficult to control. Since recording on a cassette could be done privately — in contrast to the recordings put on records and CD's — the cassette in practice provided a suitable medium through which ideologically unacceptable music could circulate successfully.
  Thirdly, in contrast to the public practice of all other forms of culture and mass culture, the technological and material requirements for a public musical performance are minimal.
3 The power of rock music. The power of rock music thus derived from the impossibility — at least for politicians — of conceptualizing its ideological "content", from the fact that it could survive independently of any form of material embodiment, and from the fact that public performances were difficult in the extreme for the authorities to control. Against this background, and understanding the real influence of mass reactions in a unified state system and the very real fear of it that existed in the minds of political leaders, it becomes easy to understand why the most popular rock musicians in fact possessed considerable political power. This was a power, therefore, that state authorities could not ignore. Neither was it a power that could be arbitrarily repressed. Either course of action would have been to put the power of the state in peril. The only rational course of action for state authorities, whether they like it or not, was to attempt to institutionalize the musicians and the music within the state, and attempt to control its influence by articulating it to the ideological interests of the state. As a consequence there existed in the GDR as in all Eastern European countries a large and expensive set of state-run institutions whose purpose was to provide the support necessary for rock musicians. Those institutions have been guided by two principles.
  First, they were securely grounded in traditional high culture concepts of what constitutes "good art". The thinking was that workers should benefit from the best kind of entertainment possible, and what was considered best in these circumstances derived from traditional bourgeois notions of art. This kind of thinking was common among the old Left also on the West in the late 1950s and 1960s. The difference, of course, was that it had few practical consequences for the lives of working-class people in the West. In the GDR, such thinking had significant implications for the everyday realities of the majority of people. However, it was not so much the case that this dominant perspective changed substantially the everyday workings of popular entertainment. Various forms of popular entertainment such as rock music have their own economic and political dynamics which cannot be changed by ideological decree. The effect of attempting to organize popular entertainment according to the ideological precepts of high culture was rather to provide a series of irritants and impediments to these inherent economic and political dynamics.
  The second principle which guided these institutions, and which was linked to the first, was that popular entertainers, as "artists", should be kept free from commercial influences. In terms of traditional high culture concepts of art, the inalienably commercial and therefore political character of the production and consumption of art in any modern state — whether East or West — comes to be ignored in different ways. In both political systems, art is taken to exist independently of commercial and hence political realities. In the West, traditional concepts of art are put into operation in a manner which is largely illusory. This is because art in the West has ultimately to be financed in the same way as any other enterprise: books have to be balanced and deficits dealt with in a financially responsible manner. In practice, therefore, the question of which art in the West attracts financial support is rarely decided independently of questions of cultural politics and ideology.
4 An intrinsically political process. The feature of Western political systems which nonetheless allows the illusion to persist that artistic processes are intrinsically free of economic and political considerations is the relative independence of the state from the broader economic systems within which it is situated and to which, ultimately, it must also answer. In subsidizing art, the state can foster the illusion that it is simply administering the wealth of its citizenry on their behalf according to criteria which are artistic and eminently not political. Corporations, which have more recently entered into the business of subsidizing art and "high quality" entertainment can also argue that the criteria according to which their decisions are made are artistic and essentially not economic. The illusion can thus persist that "good" art is a-political, that financial support can be put in place on purely artistic grounds, and that financial and political questions do not figure inherently in artistic processes.
  In a state system such as that of the GDR, all matters of finance were administered from within the system's political processes. As a consequence, there was no way in which decisions affecting the financing of art or entertainment could be argued to be made in a manner significantly independent of these processes. However, because the principles of a market economy were officially and formally expunged from the state's political processes, it became possible to administer money in a way which was in theory independent of the politics endemic in any market system. The flow of money to popular entertainment was not therefore constrained by financial considerations such as those operating in the West. It could therefore be an explicitly political decision that the criteria according to which money was handed out were not, in fact political, but artistic. And the proof of this lay precisely in the way in which money could be handed out in a patronizing fashion according to criteria having nothing to do with responsible fiscal management. If money became short, more could simply be printed; without the inevitable Western consequence of inflation, because money in a political system such as that of the GDR was not related to value and did not have to be because of the absence of a market — prices of commodities were as arbitrarily fixed as was the cost of labour through wages.
  Because economic and political realities have not, on the whole, been ignored in the West in which art has been supported financially, the tendency has been for huge and complicated bureaucratic systems for the administration of art not to be put in place. However, because economic and political realities were, in effect, ignored in the way that the GDR supported art and entertainment, a huge and complicated bureaucratic system for the administration of art and entertainment was unavoidable. Once again, therefore, the consequence of these purely ideological processes — that is, ideological processes not grounded in economic and political realities — was less to change the actual workings of various forms of popular entertainment than it was to get in the way of them. The point at issue here is central to an understanding of the cultural contradictions which resulted in the dissolution of the GDR. In any social system displaying a developed manufacturing division of labour — i.e., any system in which goods are manufactured and services provided through the combined, specialized knowledge and skills of different people — market forces cannot help but develop.
  These forces develop because it is necessary to find a way to evaluate and reward the isolated instances of labour whose combination facilitates and results in the production of goods and the provision of services. Isolated instances of labour have in other words assigned a realistic value in terms of which they can be related to one another — as they are in the overall labour process — and their fruits exchanged. The only rational way to effect this is in terms of the real cost of each instance of labour that is put into the production of goods and the provision of services. This cost, in effect, is constituted through what is needed in order to reproduce the labour force — to keep it alive and in a fit condition to work. However, it is very important to realize that the conditions according to which labour is reproduced are not simply given by nature, but are mediated culturally within any society. Since value is thus negotiated culturally within certain material constraints and not simply given, the assignment of value to labour is as a result an intrinsically political process.
5 Two crucial consequences. Artefacts and commodities as a consequence develop values in terms of the degree to which they are wanted and procured by people within a political context of negotiation articulating the cultural norms and expectations which obtain within particular social situations. What this means, in effect, is that any notion of the economic value of an artefact or commodity has to flow from and be conceptualized in terms of an understanding of its negotiated, cultural value. If this fundamental point is not understood, and if a political economic system is put in place in which the value of commodities and the cost of labour through wages are arbitrarily decided without reference to endemic market forces, then two crucial consequences follow.
  First, formal political mechanisms need bear no relation to these endemic market forces — which have their own politics — and are thus free to become completely self-referring and self-reproducing and — without an external, cultural, political and economic court of appeal — to become essentially undemocratic and repressive.
  Second, since life as lived in the everyday world — which includes real processes of production — develops its own political economy independent of the political structures imposed upon it, a fundamental contradiction arises in which neither the imposed or the endemic political economies can function to reproduce adequately the conditions of people's everyday lives. Various forms of popular entertainment in the GDR therefore developed their own political economies which inevitably came to be in tension with the assumptions underlying the structures put in place for their administration. The institutional infrastructure put in place to facilitate the production and dissemination of rock music was thus maintained financially by the state without any reference to the music's endemic political economy. This meant that rock music's infrastructure was planned and organized by the GDR state in a manner completely disassociated from and arbitrary in relation to the very processes it was intended to serve. The infrastructure, in effect, served itself, which is the same thing as saying that it served nothing more than the internal economic processes of the state.
  For instance, the state recording company (VEB Deutsche Schallplatte — the only one) was assigned a certain amount of money each year in order to produce records. The revenues from the sale of records were, on the other hand, administered by another state organization, the same one which administered revenues from all retail outlets in the country, regardless of what they sold. The point is that there existed a complete structural separation between processes of production, distribution and consumption. The function of the retail outlets was to receive commodities, sell them and collect the revenues. The function of the record company was to produce records and provide them free to the retail organization which would then pass them on to specific outlets. The centrally planned budget for the record company on the one hand, and the centrally planned revenues which the retail organization was responsible for realizing had no direct link and therefore bore no relation to one another.
  The conventional wisdom was that such a separation of functions afforded a proper opportunity for the economy to be planned through state political processes in the best interests of the population, since it was at the level of central state planning that the necessary balance between costs and revenues within the whole economy could be achieved. The point that bears reiteration, however, is that such planning could, and always did, occur in complete disassociation from the endemic and inalienable market forces that did exist. In the case of rock music, therefore, the administrative structures put in place by the state served as little more than a hindrance to the daily activities of rock musicians, determined as they were to a significant extent by the exigencies of endemic market forces. On the level of rock musicians' daily activities, it was in practice impossible to separate the economics of production from the economics of consumption.
6 Negotiated spaces. The paradox inherent to the state-determined institutional structures within which rock musicians were able to negotiate for their spaces of action was — at least from the point of view of the ideology of the state — that rock musicians were in effect given just as much opportunity to create spaces within which to distance themselves from the high culture premises of this ideology as they were to create spaces within which to distance themselves from the everyday lives of audiences — by subscribing to these premises. It has to be understood that the contradictions outlined between the assumptions on which the state apparatus for rock music was established and the realities of endemic market forces in any case created structural spaces within which rock musicians could manoeuvre. It was, in a sense, the aim of the state apparatus to control these spaces by making them subject to the political processes of the state.
  However, in setting up structures to administer and control these spaces, it was not possible for the state to create structures which would guarantee that rock musicians would manoeuvre in one direction rather than another. This was especially the case because audiences themselves intuitively realized the opportunities afforded rock musicians by the state-run system, and put pressure on the musicians to use these opportunities in certain political directions rather than just as a means of furthering their own careers. This active pressure exerted on musicians by audiences fed, of course, into the influence that the most popular GDR musicians already had within the deliberations of the Committee for Entertainment Arts because of their popularity. This popularity and influence became politically charged and provided a politically effective channel through which ordinary young people in the GDR could give vent to their feelings and opinions.
  This they encouraged the rock musicians to do on their behalf both through their now institutionalized basis for power and through the lyrics of their songs. The content of lyrics thus became increasingly important for audiences in relation to a band's sound, thus creating a situation that was the reverse of the dominant trends in the West, where a band's sound is arguably connected in some very important ways to its success.
  The musicians were placed in a position where they had to deal with the consequences of these structural contradictions. Because the most basic necessities for practising as a rock musician were controlled and supplied by the state, the musicians were hardly in a position where they could back away from politics and "do their own thing". As a consequence, the safest posture for the musicians to adopt was that of being the democratically elected representatives of their audiences. This posture was safe because the state authorities, for their part, had little alternative but to accept this role for the musicians because of the delicate balance of power that existed within the GDR political system.
  There was more than just a rhetorical symbolic significance to the fact that the annual rock festival in the GDR was held in the legislature [in the Palast der Republik which housed the Volkskammer]. The symbolic significance had political substance and weight because of the real political power of the rock musicians. In this context it has to be understood that unified state regimes are extremely sensitive to the exercise of mass power on the part of the people — a power to which the rock musicians were more than capable of giving significant expression in the particular case of the GDR. Since the economies of such regimes are built into their political systems and are not semi-independent of them, as they are in the West, there is no set of institutions — in this case economic — effectively independent of the state through which social and political stability can be maintained. In contrast, the power of rock musicians in the West is manifestly and inescapably mediated through economic processes and not through the political processes of the state.
  As a consequence of all these institutional and political processes, rock music became part of the political discourse of the GDR. In this guise it was taken seriously by audiences, musicians and politicians alike. Politicians up to the highest levels watched the development of rock music very closely and as a consequence of their observations attempted to react to these developments in ways they felt to be appropriate to their conservative views. In terms of these reactions politicians placed as highly in the state system as Honecker himself intervened personally in creative processes to force musicians into negotiations over matters as detailed as the content of one line of a lyric. Yet regardless of all these attempts to negotiate at the political level the consequences of the basic structural contradiction implicit in the practice of rock as a state activity within the GDR, it was not possible to deal effectively in this way with the contradiction itself. As a result, the state system of the GDR collapsed under the weight of its own cultural inertia. It was no coincidence, therefore, that it was the rock musicians who first publicly identified this inertia as a major political problem, and who first publicly took the stand which precipitated irreversibly the political crisis that led to end of the GDR.
7 Two conclusions. Two conclusions can be drawn from this delineation and analysis of the structural forces underlying the dissolution of the GDR, one political, the other theoretical.
  First, events in the GDR demonstrate in a manner not profiled nearly so graphically and explicitly in the West the fundamental importance of cultural processes meaningfully related to the everyday lives of people to the survival of a society's political and economic fabric. This importance demonstrates additionally the impossibility of dealing with the question of culture's relatedness to processes of social production and reproduction in a purely abstract and theoretical manner. Abstract concepts such as "authenticity" and "commercialism" can become dangerous tools in the hands of policy makers if their effectiveness and relevance is not tested against the actualities of political and economic processes inalienably implicated in artistic and cultural processes themselves.
  Second, and relatedly, the delineation and analysis presented here would seem to demonstrate beyond any reasonable doubt that to conceive of artistic or cultural processes on the one hand and commercial processes on the other as essentially separate and in opposition to one another is a theoretically suspect proposition whose social and historical roots go back to the beginning of the Nineteenth Century. Paradoxically, the industrial and commercial conditions of the modern nation state guarantee that artistic and cultural processes are inalienably and unavoidably commercial, and thus inalienably and unavoidably political. The notions of "authenticity" and "commercialism" that have characterized the discourses of the "classical", the "folk" and the "popular" in music in particular have arisen as part of an attempt to avoid the real consequences of modernity as these have been manifest in both the West and the East. What is needed in scholarly work on rock in particular and on other forms of "popular" music in general is less of a retreat from — and an essentially un-theorized resistance to — "the forces of commercialism", and a more critical approach which seeks to understand these forces in a more complete and sophisticated way as indelible characteristics of the artistic and the cultural. In more practical terms this means the development of the conceptual spaces for a cultural policy which mediates between the commercial forces of the market and the cultural forces of the social.
  This essay originally appeared in: Rutten, Paul (ed.), Music, culture and society in Europe. Part II of: European Music Office, Music in Europe. Brussels, 1996, 77-84.
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