"I've been to a lot of amazing parties, just not in the last decade."
Berlin scenery. Photo via Pixabay
I figured that when I moved to Berlin last fall it would be the equivalent of relocating to a far flung neighborhood of Brooklyn. The recent influx of priced out young Americans meant I was landing in a strong expat community full of folks that were at least prototypically familiar. Spending a year here was going to be easy I told myself, and then came the German lessons. I was struck by the tightly engineered structure of the language. Our teachers talked about positions and triggers, which verbs needed accusative and which needed dative. They circled nouns and objects and wrote numbers underneath them identifying where they should always be in a sentence, unless of course they shouldn’t be there in which case they’d be found over here. Along with everything else in Germany, our tutors reminded us, there is a system.
It’s only thanks to a thousand year-long shadow of intercultural exchanges like, say, war, that English is so flexible in comparison. There’s a system inasmuch as there’s a system for playing with Legos: Sure you could put that here, but wouldn’t it look better over there? Think about the way you ask someone to turn off a light. You either say “Can you turn off the light?” or “Can you turn the light off?” and no one with even a basic grasp of English would be confused. There’s no real distinction in meaning, but that rubbery syntax is an important look back at the development of modern English as a mercifully mongrel language. (You can only ask the latter in German, by the way.)
All this got me thinking about techno here in Berlin. While you can feel the weight of lyricism when Woody Guthrie or Chuck D do their thing, but listening to Drexciya or Robert Hood is an exercise in translation and interpretation. Techno has no explicit narrative—at least none that you can find in the music itself, an ideal arrangement for a city that operates in a language with so many rules and bounds. It needs its political heft to be thrust upon it, which is a valuable exercise in mutability for kids who may think life is a series of neatly organized compartments. Here was personal freedom that could speak specifically to German sensibilities until, eventually, the sound started to leave the message behind.
Andy Beta’s excellent look into the taut string between the heyday of Detroit techno, its subsequent, commercialized format in Manchester and Belgian exports, and the black-and-white boomerang narrative surrounding contemporary Motown gave me pause about my current home in Berlin. I came here understanding that techno’s low rolling thumps and smashed hi-hats interspersed with the occasional house and, to my surprise, disco cameos were going to be the main soundtrack to my nights out. (I also didn’t know about the genre’s local past as an outlet for the former East Berlin’s outcasts until Felix Denk and Sven von Thülen’s indispensable Der Klang der Familie.) It was fine, a chance to expand my musical horizons in a city that was by all accounts techno’s new beating heart.
The folks who showed me around the city are defensive about what constitutes “techno” so I feel like I should do them the courtesy of providing a quick primer on the genre. Techno is a large subgenre under the umbrella of electronic music and shares some anatomical characteristics with house. But where house, which developed in Chicago, took its cues from popular music like disco and funk, its Detroit counterpart techno adopted a sort of inverted compositional structure preferring a Gatling gun of crashing snares and hi-hats to driving bass lines. Techno can be sonically stark and cold which may be it’s such a fitting soundtrack for clubs inhabiting former power plants and factories, but you can still dance to it which was an exciting prospect until I started to take a good look around.
If you watch the DJs for an entire night at megaclubs like Berghain or Tresor, or at smaller settings like Chalet or Renate you’ll notice an immense level of concentration: heads bowed, eyes running up and down their rigs as if a good set were something that could be solved by adjusting a level here, splicing a sample there. It seems like an appropriate ethos in Germany where as a newcomer conversations can seem like you’re painting by numbers. Turn around to face the crowd and you’re struck by the hollowness that has overrun ostensible techno clubs the world over. The groups of English lads blowing their gaskets on coke and molly share DNA with the day glo bros at Electric Daisy Carnival just like the girls swaying in a rhythmic Berlin two-step could be readily exchanged for their counterparts in Verboten or Output in Williamsburg—even when heavy hitters are spinning seriously deep sets, far too many people are just there to party rather than take the experience in. Techno isn’t the sound of scared, anxious folks trying to escape the heel of communism anymore, it’s the soundtrack to the world’s cheapest bender.
Clubgoers at Chalet in Berlin. Photo via R.A.
Berlin’s astoundingly affordable everything makes it attractive for nearly anyone who can afford the plane ticket and scrape together a living—or at least pretend to—as a freelancer or artist in order to satisfy Germany’s lenient immigration service. Americans have 90 days to apply for the relevant visa: artists need to present a cogent body of work, have a healthy amount of cash in their bank account, and a “mission statement”; freelance applicants need to have a couple jobs nailed down and provide proof to their case worker. Both are good for two years, though you can also just skip the process and enroll in one of the city’s universities which run a few hundred dollars per semester. (You still have to share your bank statements so the German government knows you won’t be sleeping in Görlitzer Park at night.) Berlin has an (official) 11% unemployment rate but still throws parties from Thursday night until Sunday afternoon because an expensive night out might run you €50.
For many of the American expats I’ve met, Berlin is that rose tinted vision of a rising Detroit without the messy reality that the city is in much more of a transitional period than the trendpieces from outsiders would have you believe. Ron Fournier, a Detroit native and National Journal columnist, says his hometown “was never as bad as people told me it was. And it’s not as good as they say it is now.” But for people constantly on the look for the next scene the idea that Detroit is a place that people actually call home is tangential. The gray areas that leave breathing room for critical thinking aren’t important since Detroit has been reduced to binary, either alive or dead.
Those gray areas are less distinct in Berlin. A lot of the folks I talk to here believe the city is exactly as good as advertised and that the coming changes—real estate speculation, party tourists, rising rents—are quickly chipping away at their utopia. With its context on the cutting room floor, that techno is just another bump in the dark.
You can’t blame anyone for their lack of existential baggage, though, and the flocks of kids coming through Berlin’s two equally shitty airports aren’t here because they’re oppressed outsiders looking for a world that will accept them. They’re here because it’s the safe bet. The rents are half what they are in New York or London, and the parties seem to go on forever. The beers—and drugs—are good and cheap. It’s low-hanging bohemia.
That fantasy may be starting to fray. Berlin isn’t approaching New York’s overheated development boom, but rents here are rising are twice the national average as if making up for lost capitalism. New tenant protection laws introduced by the regional government are attempting to pump the brakes on the market and read like a struggling 20-something’s wishlist: rent increase caps and “compulsory renovation” abuse restrictions were introduced in 2014; broker fees are in the process of being shifted from renter to landlord. (Some landlords have exploited loopholes to increase rents beyond the current caps because that’s what they do best.)
The new rules have a dual purpose. They’re meant to torpedo a burgeoning demand for on demand housing from visiting club kids who crash at AirBnBs that function solely as proxy hotels, an accusation that has been aimed at the apartment sharing site before. Additionally, they’re meant to try and keep a lid on a ballooning housing crisis where poor and typically elderly citizens are being pushed out by young professionals and speculators. Berlin does not have a shortage of affordable housing in the same way that, say, San Francisco or New York does, but that doesn’t mean the danger of ghettoization isn’t at the table or, in the words of Andrej Holm, a Berlin sociologist working on gentrification issues, "The danger for Berlin is not that it will become like London, but that it will become like Paris, with the poor and elderly carted out to the edges of the city."
The centrifugal pressures are familiar to many outsiders but less so to Berlin lifers who consider low rents essential to the city’s identity. That’s not too crazy an argument either considering the 70 mile long slab of concrete separating the market from central control came down just 25 years ago and many on the eastern half of the capital are still attempting to catch up. East Berlin is still threaded with squats and communal spaces that aren’t so much a relic of Berlin’s socialist past as they are a reaction to its absence. People latched onto the freedom of choice. No one was telling you where or how you could live for the first time in decades, which is why for many the rapid introduction of the invisible hand seems like the past repeating itself in gentler terms. They’re being told where to live without anyone having to say a word.
For those that can afford to stay in Berlin’s central zone they’re seeing a change that sits somewhere between the demise of DIY rock venues in New York and defanging of hip hop’s political sensibilities. The music isn’t worse today than it was 20 or 30 years ago, but people are experiencing something environmentally distinct from the way techno came about. The clubs that were epicenters of counterculture in the 90’s are still playing an uncompromising brand of techno to people who wouldn’t have been caught dead there until a couple years ago. The music isn’t watered down for a new and wider audience, which actually may be an effective bulwark against a complete whitewashing of the musical culture here. It isn’t the same sterilization panic that you might see in another rapidly gentrifying city because of the administrative brakes at work, and that can be something of a palliative prospect for folks who are worried about techno losing its place in Berlin’s soundtrack.
Still, the influx of party seekers and techno-bohemians is a difficult situation to come to grips with for a lot of the people who were here when reunified Berlin was synonymous with urban decay and poverty. Berlin’s role as a refugee camp for first wave gentrifiers who have been pushed out of their trendy neighborhoods by strollers and developers means the cultural differences are sliced thinner than they are in Brooklyn or London, but resentment isn’t a foreign concept here. Berlin is quickly burning both ends of its “poor but sexy” motto. It seems that the music and the message that were once wrapped so tightly don’t even speak the same language anymore. As one old grizzled old timer put it to me at dinner one night, “I’ve been to a lot of amazing parties, just not in the last decade.”
Follow T.M. Brown on Twitter.