The schlager would reach its peak in the first half of the 20th century. By the end of WWI, the schlager was seen as a specific (German) genre, although individual schlager were quite diverse musically. The variety, cabaret and revue shows popular at the time became the "home" of the schlager during the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich. This coincided with the advent of film and radio, in which media the club shows were routinely featured. Indeed, schlager would be caught up in the rubric of "mass production."
After the German defeat in WWII, schlager survived, in part because of the genre's mutability. As Sunka Simon points out in "Der Vord're Orient: Colonial Imagery in Popular Postwar German Schlager", schlager offered a nostalgic escape to Der Vordere Orient (the "near east"), which often didn't go much farther than vacation spots in Italy or Spain (sometimes Mexico); at the same time, schlager re-purposings of Native American imagery allowed younger Germans to, as Simon asserts, invest such portrayals "of the noble Indian with the hope for an ecologically based humanism of tolerance, [and] singlehandedly root for the underdog in a world order ruled by US economic and military power and reinvigorate one's sense of teutonic superiority via Old Shatterhand's [Karl May] exploits" (92).
Although the schlager had a renaissance in the 1990s, by the mid-2000s this seems to have passed. As the Economist noted in 2005, Heino's "valedictory tour may prove the last breath of the Schlager. 'The Hitparade', a popular television show that once featured them, is long gone. They have disappeared from the Eurovision song contest--indeed several recent German entries have been parodies of Schlager songs. Germans now prefer genuine Volksmusik, for instance on 'Musikantenstadl', a television show, or ordinary German-language rock bands."
So what is a schlager song? Simon calls it a mass-cultural product "aimed at effortless consumer recognition" and it "generally consists of two to four verses (A,B,C,D etc.) with the title chorus or hook-line (X) interspersed between each of them. Sometimes, a schlager will instead begin with a hook-line or the title chorus itself, which is then frequently repeated through a fade-out or the final chorus: (X) A X B X (C X D) Xn."
Schlager can be ballads, anthems, and possess characteristics of their earlier progenitors, such as folk songs, jazz, and opera arias; more recent schlager can include rock, techno, and hip-hop elements. Thematic content varies widely as well: from traditional hearth-and-home nostalgia to current issues like environmentalism and drug abuse. Schlager songs are often contrasted with chansons or lieder (folk/art songs with a more elitist cache; for example, Schubert's lieder, set to Goethe poems), and volkslieder, which are more popular than chansons or lieder, but, unlike schlager songs, are not as strongly tied to commercialism and mass culture. Schlager are seen as disposable, immediate, and contrived.
Clearly, the schlager song strikes a nerve: but why? What is so significant about this seemingly trivial song genre, or, better yet, what interests consistently stress its triviality? For this, Currid explores a number of critical approaches.
First, he stresses that an ideological critique, while useful to a degree, can only work if it is properly historicized, something he feels theorists like Habermas, Althusser, and Adorno don't quite accomplish. That historical perspective, in turn, will Currid claims, help re-theorize the schlager. The schlager-subject is constantly shifting in history and, in doing so, it can be seen distrupting the various ideological apparatuses that constitute the "public" and "private" of 1930s Germany. Young girls singing along to schlager songs and imitating schlager singers challenge prevailing ideas of femininity and privacy; a prostitute can have her own schlager "through which she is able to sell her own thoroughly commodified mode of intimacy." (96) Schlager-subject and bourgeois-subject are thus at a certain level incompatible, even though they can easily (in this period) be a part of the same "public." The schlager can be retained, embodied, recognized, and re-recognized, as part of a new kind of mass public in a broadcast age. Therefore, Currid concludes that anti-schlager polemics react to "where the affect of subjective interiority that mimics the bourgeois subject is disrupted by the complete serialization and standardization of bodies and feelings, where privacy is exposed as part of the commodification it pretends to avoid." (99)
Currid makes the link here between the violence of mass culture and the schlager itself; the German term (schlager/schlagen) contains the same dual meaning of "hit" as its English translation. There may indeed be something more here, as the nature of the "hit song" is to force itself onto the subject, not least by drowning out other music. For example, Louis Althusser says in "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses" that ideological (state) apparatuses require some element of force, as they "also function secondarily by repression, even if ultimately, but only ultimately, this is very attenuated and concealed, even symbolic." (98)
Currid goes on to talk about "organs of experience," though I find this doesn't necessarily help simplify matters. An organ of experience is a "contradictory" form, a "thoroughly ideological site" upon which social antagonism is contested by denying some experiences while simultaneously creating new ones. As a result, and this is the big takeaway, popular forms like the schlager are not the result of "mass manipulation" but nor are they necessarily purely alternative, methods of resistance. Context, or to put it in fancier terms, a semiotic approach, reveals which way the organ of experience that is the hit song will ultimately tilt as it totters between established and ascendant ideologies.
Uncritical mouthing of Hollywood ideology is rife in the film. A typical line is when one of the young heroes declares that "No one who likes swing can become a Nazi." Such an attitude assumes that swing (despite its supposedly "primal" nature) is a greater civilizing force than classical music. Well-known stories of Nazi commanders listening to Schubert lieder (not schlager songs!) while running the death camps reinforce this, and at one point in Swing Kids, a character switches the radio station from one playing swing music to the "officially-sanctioned station" playing – what else – Richard Wagner.
Most famously, when the Austrian ambassador visited the White House during the 1980s, Ronald Reagan had "Edelweiss" played, apparently thinking it was the Austrian national anthem. Meanwhile, the song was virtually unknown in Austria for decades, and The Sound of Music was only first staged there in 2005. In true schlager fashion, the Austrian production was panned by critics as boring and sentimental, while being popular among theatergoers – just like the original Broadway version had been.
In better films, the Schlager as "organ of experience" seems to operate more in an oppositional mode. For instance, Cabaret, based loosely on the stage musical, features a schlager-style song midway through the film; here one of the main characters, a visiting Englishman, has his beer garden outing interrupted by a spontaneous burst of song – "Tomorrow belongs to me":
Yet Youtube versions of "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" feature montages of Vikings, mothers holding newborn babies, waving American flags, etc. Thus we can see that even as Cabaret's writers used a (invented) schlager to make a specific point in opposition to one ideology, the pseudo-schlager becomes over and over a site for contestation and a chain of negotiated or even oppositional readings.
The film Brazil is set in a dystopian England, and has nothing to do with Brazil (the country) – the song is used as a orientalizing leitmotif for another conceptual place away from the totalitarian future of the film. The uptempo baseline underscores scenes of bureaucratic shuffling, while the melody appears in fantasy segments; the English-language version of "Brazil" is also heard, most notably at the end when the hero "escapes" to a catatonic state.
Not only have schlager songs sparked contested subjectivity during the Weimar and Nazi periods in Germany, but they continued to be controversial up to the present day. Schlager and "hit" songs in other contexts can reveal a host of issues concerned with splace, place, and music: they are caught up in complex webs of signification, highlighting the problematics of appropriation and reappropriation across various media; they reveal shifting relations between the nation, individual identity, and the other; and their international flows foreground the "hit song's" ambiguous status as both cultural and commodity form.