BY Klaus Walter in Profiles | 24 FEB 14
Featured in
Issue 13

Languages of Love

Austrian band Ja, Panik’s utopian Esperanto

BY Klaus Walter in Profiles | 24 FEB 14

Film stills from the music video for LIBERTATIA, 2013, Courtesy: Staatsakt, Berlin

A bilingual magazine like frieze d/e is the ideal place to discuss the music, and above all the lyrics, of Austrian band Ja, Panik. Or so one might think. Whereas frieze d/e keeps its two languages more or less separate, these lyrics are mixed together, making them eminently hard to translate. For example: ‘Siebenmeilenshoes’ takes the German for seven-league boots (Siebenmeilenstiefel) and replaces the ‘boots’ part with the English for ‘Schuhe’. Or this line: ‘Ich bin M.I.A., gone with the wind’. Should the acronym be replaced by its equivalent in German military parlance, or left as the stage name used by Mathangi Arulpragasam? And how about ‘Ich sah mich zeitlos free in space’? This might of course be rendered as its inverse equivalent: ‘I saw myself timelessly frei im Weltraum’. Ja?

Sung by Ja, Panik, what comes across on paper as a heavily laboured gimmick actually sounds fantastic, irresistible. But why does pop Esperanto work for this band when similarly polyglot outings by other musicians are such wretched failures? Most recently the Dresden band Polarkreis 18, with their 2008 hit Allein Allein, keep the languages neatly apart: English for the verses, German for the chorus. An obvious if hardly adequate explanation lies in Ja, Panik’s origins. A few years ago, the band moved from their rural home of Burgenland, Austria, via Vienna, to Berlin. Their AustroGermanEnglish is thus the result of a life journey through differering language zones that has ended, for the time being, in one of the most polyglot cities on the planet. It is also the result of a pop socialization in which the Falco phenomenon played a significant part, as Andreas Spechtl, the band’s singer, has often remarked. Falco, that Viennese exception, is the only person ever to top the American charts with a song in German – even if it had an English title: Rock Me Amadeus (1985). In the early days of pop-rap, Falco mashed up various idioms and sociolects into a peculiar pidgin. His delivery benefited from the fact that the smooth Viennese way of talking is more compatible with bubblegum American than angular high German. Ja, Panik benefit from this same vernacular advantage. Fortunately, they have neither Falco’s oily persona nor his garish, swaggering sound.

The sound of Ja, Panik is new. Forming in 2005, the band initially played noisy punk. On their last album DMD KIU LIDT (2011), this was condensed into a compelling cross between post-punk and the sound of Bob Dylan’s ‘wild mercury’ phase. (DMD KIU LIDT is an acronym: ‘Die Manifestation des Kapitalismus in unserem Leben ist die Traurigkeit’. In English, that would be TMO CIO LIS: The Manifestation of Capitalism In Our Life is Sadness.) Now, on their new album LIBERTATIA (2014), awkward post-punk has slowly given way to a shimmering, not entirely polished, third-order pop based on the layering of quotations. In the manifesto accompanying the album, Ja, Panik write: ‘LIBERTATIA ist der Look of Love, wenn die Nacht am tiefsten’. The second half of this phrase quotes the title of the third album by Berlin anarcho-rock band Ton, Steine, Scherben from 1975, and the first half is a double quotation: Burt Bacharach’s evergreen The Look of Love (penned in 1977; recorded by Dusty Springfield, Sergio Mendes, et al.) and the song of the same name by Sheffield newwave band ABC from their 1982 album The Lexicon of Love. Ja, Panik refers then to one of the crown jewels of the ‘British pop summer’, as that year became known in Germany – when bands like ABC, Scritti Politti and Heaven 17 synthesised the glamour of Bowie and Roxy Music with the post-punk politics of the Thatcher era. LIBERTATIA follows in this tradition. In terms of sound, this is down to Tobias Levin who produced the album and who seems to have grasped precisely where the band is heading. It would be wrong to call this new development on LIBERTATIA progress – I like DMD KIU LIDT too much for that. Instead, it involves a balancing act, continuity and a break similar to the development made by Hamburg indie-pop band Blumfeld from album to album – also associated with Levin.

On Wikipedia, Libertatia is described as a ‘possibly fictional anarchist colony’ in Madagascar, founded by pirates in the late 17th century. For Ja, Panik, Libertatia is a place of desire, a utopian social condition, a formula for happiness: ‘Wo wir sind, ist immer LIBERTATIA / world wide befreit von jeder nation / nur unsre sisters und brothers / … und all die anderen lovers.’ (Where we are is always LIBERTATIA / free of every nation, weltweit / only our Schwester and Brüder / and all the other Liebenden.) The multilingualism feels totally natural here, at the sametime as persuasively expressing the belief that any reterritorialization of the world wide web is as impossible as the renationalization of languages (not to mention their renaturalization). The mongrelizations, bastardizations, crosspollinations and trans­migra­tions are here to stay. In fact they are on the increase and no wall you might build will stop them. (This also makes ‘translation’ virtually impossible, as shown by the examples above.)

When Spechtl rhymes ‘lover’and ‘brother’, he recalls Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker, who has noted that these words often follow each other in his own songs, prompting him to give his 2012 collection of lyrics the title Mother, Brother, Lover. Spechtl distantly resembles Cocker, both sharing an affected dandyism and the awkward movements of the scraggily built. Both know that a little uptightness is good under the current dictatorship of the terminally laid back. Cocker is a chronicler of the British class system, and aporias of ‘sex and class’ have seldom been better translated into pop than in Pulp’s 1995 song Common People. ‘LIBERTATIA is class consciousness’, the Ja, Panik Manifesto declares with apodictic force. Issues of class usually play no part in German pop, and the exception here may well have something to do with Christiane Rösinger, the founder of Berlin indie-pop band Die Lassie Singers, who has a close working friendship with Spechtl: ‘I really do have what may be an old-fashioned kind of class consciousness,’ she says in Berthold Seliger’s book Das Geschäft mit der Musik (2013): ‘When I meet someone for the first time and then find out that they come from a poor background like me, there is a connection.’

Calling up class consciousness, in the song Dance the ECB from their new album Ja, Panik get to grips with the European Central Bank and, fearlessly paraphrasing DAF’s 1981 hit Der Mussolini, Spechtl sings to a cheerful disco beat: ‘Shake the government / shake its police / dance the ECB / swing die Staatsfinanzen /sing ihnen ihre Melodien / zwing sie zum Tanzen’ (those last three lines in English, with none of the lyrical subtleties read: swing the state finances, sing them their own tunes, force them to dance). Before this politico-rhetoric becomes predictable, they change tack. Three songs later on, the song ACAB is not referring to the famous anti-police slogan ‘all cops are bastards’, but to ‘all cats are beautiful’ – an allusion to the online scourge of ‘cat content’. In the video for the title track LIBERTATIA, the band take an affirmatively subversive approach to another current pop phenomenon: the trend towards nakedness as clickbait, à la Miley Cyrus, Amanda Palmer etc. In the bathtub, bubbles covering their private parts, the band members scrub each other’s backs, extending their form of Esperanto still further – to include sign language.

Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Klaus Walter is a writer living in Frankfurt am Main. He works for various radio stations, including