Vanessa Mai - Schlager (Review)

Martin_Canine VANESSA MAI

Schlager. A title that, in combination with the sound and the cover artwork, which shows a close up of a tattooed bottom lip on the front and a picture of a nude Vanessa Mai with her private parts covered by flowers on the back, couldn’t come off any more cynical. The wild electro beat of Love Song made of creaking synths and pulsating bass, with interjected anglicisms is an Amigos fan’s worst nightmare - and is very welcome for every club goer.

It’s difficult to explain the phenomenon of the schlager genre to foreigners, but it is essential to understand the very idea when describing what makes this album so outstanding. While the original meaning of schlager was essentially “a successful and famous song” (similarly to the English term “hit”, which is also used in this context in German nowadays), people soon started using it for a specific type of German language music. While old schlager songs could be compared to the French chanson or the American jazz standards, the genre hasn’t been like this since the 80s anymore. The music has gotten simpler, the lyrics duller and it’s all become way more sugar coated. Sometime between the 80s and the early 2000s, schlager became synonymous with very harmless music for beer fests, residents of the more conservative countryside or swooning middle aged women, depending on the artist. It has soon gotten the reputation of being a genre for elderly people, which actually isn’t that far from the truth. If you listen to the music of Amigos you know what I mean. The schlager genre developed certain unwritten rules - there were only a limited number of keys, instruments, topics, moods and structures allowed, and everything that was considered schlager had these distinctive traits as if any alteration would result in a ban. Schlager stars, whether they were very young, middle aged or very old, which was all common, were all extremely clean and tried to appear like your average everyday person - they did so on special schlager TV shows or festivals, where the genre is promoted in. Nevertheless, albums of the genre sold insanely well, receiving multi-platinum certifications and repeatedly hitting number one on the charts. Schlager also has another thing that’s different from any other genre: schlager singers, even those who only had one hit, stay famous for decades, and still frequently attend schlager festivals and shows performing their best known track. Not unlikely schlager listeners are the most loyal of fans, and never grow out of their musical taste. Only in recent years, mostly due to the blockbuster success of Helene Fischer, schlager was allowed to get a more modern update. Fischer’s image was that of a recent pop star, she had spectacular shows, added a bit more synthesizer and harder drum kicks, and was also very present in modern media that usually ignore schlager. Her style slightly stepped out of the before mentioned comfort zone but without straying too far away, making her popular both in schlager and pop circles. I expected Fischer to be the first singer to finally fully depart from any boundaries of the genre, but it would turn out I backed the wrong horse.

Already in the promotional phase of her newest album, Vanessa Mai caused media attention when releasing the single Wir 2 immer 1 featuring popular rapper Olexesh. If that doesn’t sound particularly spectacular to you: a schlager singer and a rapper together on a song are as if a Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart opera was performed in cooperation with Sid Vicious. There have been feuds between both fans and artists of the two genres: simplified, schlager stars, being the “good guys” hated rappers for being the “bad guys”, and vice versa. The first ones are unrealistically clean and friendly, the other ones are aggressive and vulgar. The collaboration track broke this tradition. And it is one of the year’s most irresistible pop earworms, with a chorus that arrives with a bang and a beat that’s immediately recognizable. The odd couple works together very well, with mutual respect for each other’s approach. But there’s also a fun story with the song that highlights how difficult a song like this has it being understood: in the pre-chorus, Mai sings “Zu viel Worte in meinem Kopf”, which translates to “too many words in my head”. Due to the fact that the much rougher hip hop community was also drawn to the song, different expectations of the lyrical content rose, and there was a debate whether Mai actually sings “Zu viel F--ze in meinem Kopf” (“too much p---y in my head”) instead, which of course got the schlager fans upset. No, she doesn’t sing it, but it’s one of the more notorious misheard lyrics of the past few years, and it shows what happens when two worlds clash.

Schlager comes as a double album with 24 full length songs overall. The first disc is filled with a bunch of sound experiments and crossovers that stretch the album title to its absolute limits, the second one features reworked versions of her older songs (some of which were originally recorded with her former band Wolkenfrei), and therefore a more conventional idea of modern pop schlager. In any way, there is so much joy to get out of the album, so many ways the album entertains with and so much to explore for everybody that it’s virtually impossible not to call it miles ahead of any other release the genre had to offer recently. Each of the songs has the potential to be a hit single in its own right, there aren’t really many tracks that pass as fillers.

Let’s check out what disc 1 has to offer (other than the two songs I already mentioned).
There’s Fallschirm whose eurodance piano loop makes the song a perfect disco anthem like we haven’t heard since Gossip’s Move in the Right Direction. Glücksbringer uses a dubstep instrumentation in the pre-chorus and confronts schlager fans with thunderous hi hats and electro wobbles. Ich wollt dich nur für eine Nacht would make David Guetta proud with its stomping kicks and earworm hook, while Stärker on the other hand, a midtempo song about friendship, has something that reminds of the best of late 90s pop music.

The moment disc 1 ends and disc 2 begins, when her recent output transists into her previous efforts, it becomes very apparent how dramatic her sound has changed, even despite all the alterations on the new versions. It already starts with the singing: she had a strict and clear pronunciation in the older songs, while on the new ones she’s more casual, even somewhat seductive. Wolke 7, the opener of the second disc, is the closest the album ever comes to the currently typical sound of conventional schlager, with melody and lyrics staying within the range that Helene Fischer and Andrea Berg can also be found within. But even on this half of the album there’s always something exciting to discover: Jeans T-Shirt und Freiheit has a very slight Avicii touch with the way it combines acoustic guitar and techno beats, Es wird schon hell über Berlin is one really passionate yet danceable tune (“The sweat on the skin tastes like salty rain” is one of a handful of lines in which flavors are used to convey feelings), In all deinen Farben is a really beautiful love ballad and one of the very few downtempo moments, Sommerliebe has a soft dancehall vibe that conveys a summery holiday feeling without relying on an overly happy, annoying melody solely written to be stuck in your head, and SOS Prinzessin in Not may be the modern German answer to Kylie’s The Disco Needs You.

If Beatrice Egli’s Wohlfühlgarantie represents the many missed opportunities for schlager to evolve, being a work of a young artist that’s too afraid to break the formula, Vanessa Mai’s newest effort stands for taking risks and trying out refreshing new things. Like Egli, Mai owes her biggest hit to Dieter Bohlen, who is notorious for his repetitive and factory-like way of writing hit singles in no time. He produced, composed and wrote almost all songs of Mai’s last album, Regenbogen, which was her first number one chart success. Now, both artists released an album without Bohlen’s contributions (except for a superb remix version of Mai’s older song Ich sterb für dich), but while Egli did her best not to stray too far from her trademark sound even without her mentor, Mai has closed that chapter of her career and moved on.

In an interview, Vanessa Mai stated: “nowhere else there are such clear distinctions between music genres in people’s heads as in Germany. I don’t like that. I don’t want to miss one thing to try out another.” (“Nirgendwo anders gibt es in den Köpfen so tiefe Gräben zwischen den Musikrichtungen wie in Deutschland. Das gefällt mir nicht. Ich möchte nicht auf eines verzichten müssen, um etwas anderes zu probieren.”). And she’s absolutely right. While in the USA, pop singers and rappers have worked together for decades now, and in the last few years a new generation of genre bending artists rose, Germany has clear rules of what a genre can do, what its target group has to be and where its limits are set. Hip hop is still too hard and dark for most pop listeners, and if you try to interpolate too much guitars or bass into schlager, it’s seen as noise. However, Mai also stated that she loves schlager because it sounds very different and has another standing than 10 years ago. We owe much of that to Helene Fischer, but it’s Vanessa Mai herself who took it a step further.

With all that praise, we still shouldn’t forget that Mai, like almost all schlager stars, is a singer and performer, not a songwriter or composer. She also works as the album’s executive producer and ultimately is the boss behind the project that decides which direction the sound should go, but beats, melodies and lyrics are mostly credited to a team consisting of Felix Gauder, Lukas Loules and Madizin, among others. It’s these people who executed Mai’s creative vision. That doesn’t change that I truly believe that Mai identifies with the music she makes, and that she hates being labeled. She’s just more comfortable holding a microphone than a pen.

If Schlager becomes a success, and it probably will be with all the attention it has, it might be a game changer for the schlager genre. It might even help the whole German music scene break boundaries, as it was also noticed in the hip hop community due to its lead single. But maybe it will also remain a one time experiment, but one that proves you can also deliver fine crossovers in the schlager genre.


Update: The album immediately topped the German charts. The Austrian charts aren't out yet. - Martin_Canine