Friday, 16 October 2009

Dark fairy tales

From the Guardian Books Blog, Adult content warning: beware fairy stories: a known-but-worth-repeating reminder from David Barnett that fairy tales have roots in very dark mythologies that were considerably sanitised to become children's stories.

This links somewhat to a chat I had recently with one of the organisers of the Budleigh Salterton Literary Festival, who said nice things about JSBlog but thought the taste in music "unusual". It's a fair cop - but I'll slightly justify it by explaining that I like music with cross-genre style and layers of meaning. The music of the German industrial metal band Rammstein is a case in point. Whatever the classification, their music is highly eclectic and often powerfully operatic, particularly with the unusual vocals of the lead singer Till Lindemann. I first encountered Rammstein via their Sonne, whose lyrics are, taken literally, in praise of the sun
Sie ist der hellste Stern von allen
Und wird nie vom Himmel fallen

She is the brightest star of all
And will never fall from heaven
However, the song underwent a number of turns in meaning. It was originally written as an entrance song for the Ukrainian boxer Vitali Klitschko (the portion of the lyrics "1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, aus" being a clear allusion to a boxer being counted out). But ideas for the video went through various possibilities that led in the direction of a sun that was more terrifying than the darkness; after a draft that took it to be commentary on the first atomic explosion, it finally settled on fairy tales: the final Sonne video depicts a group of miners in thrall to a malign gold-addicted Snow White.

Rammstein's Rosenrot (Rose Red) has similar deeps, with strong allusions to "Schneeweißchen und Rosenrot", a folktale collected by the Grimm Brothers, and Goethe's Heidenröslein (both the latter and the Rammstein lyrics are about a boy picking a rose). The video for Rosenrot expands the story into a human drama, itself very folklore-like, about a wandering monk who is seduced into murdering a village girl's parents, upon which she immediately betrays him.

My current Rammstein favourites are Mein Herz Brennt (My Heart Burns) and Ohne Dich (Without You), which are very different. Mein Herz Brennt is characteristically scary, an exposition of childhood terrors.
Sie kommen zu euch in der Nacht
Dämonen Geister schwarze Feen
sie kriechen aus dem Kellerschacht
und werden unter euer Bettzeug sehen

They come to you in the night
demons, ghosts, black fairies
they creep out of the cellar shaft
and will look under your bedding
The narrator appears to be an evil Sandman figure. According to the FAQ at the Rammstein fan site, the lyrics derive from a German children's show introduced by Das Sandmännchen (The Little Sand-Man). This benign character, based on Hans Christian Andersen's Ole Lukøje, would begin with the words
Nun, liebe Kinder, gebt fein Acht.
Ich habe euch etwas mitgebracht

Now, dear children, pay attention.
I have brought you something
before telling a bedtime story. Rammstein's song subverted this (in the original version the bad Sandman explicitly said he had killed the good one) to bring a figure telling a far darker story:
Nun liebe Kinder gebt fein acht.
Ich bin die Stimme aus dem Kissen.
Ich hab euch etwas mitgebracht.
Hab es aus meiner Brust gerissen.
Mit diesem Herz hab ich die Macht
die Augenlider zu erpressen
Ich singe bis der Tag erwacht
ein heller Schein am Firmament
Mein Herz brennt.

Now, dear children, pay attention.
I am the voice from your pillow.
I have brought you something.
I have ripped it from my chest.
With this heart I have the power
to blackmail your eyelids
I sing until the day awakes
a bright shine in the firmament.
My heart burns.
Then again, such an inversion recalls folklore yet again, as in the widespread motif that Saint Nicholas has a dark counterpart (variously called Knecht Ruprecht, Krampus, Père Fouettard, and so on) who will punish bad children. Ohne Dich, on the other hand, is a simple and expressive song about loss of a loved one, whose lyrics could have been written by any of the 19th century German romantic poets:
Ich werde in die Tannen gehen
Dahin wo ich sie zuletzt gesehen
Doch der Abend wirft ein Tuch aufs Land
und auf die Wege hinterm Waldesrand
Und der Wald er steht so schwarz und leer
Weh mir, oh weh
Und die Vögel singen nicht mehr

I'm going to go into the fir trees
There where I last saw her
But the evening is throwing a cloth upon the land
and upon the ways behind the edge of the forest
And the forest it is so black and empty
Woe is me, oh woe
And the birds sing no more

- unofficial translation by Jeremy Williams
The "Doch der Abend wirft ein Tuch aufs Land" is such a beautiful metaphor. See the video of Ohne Dich, which uses the setting of an alpine ascent. (Note that "Weh mir" and "Oh weh" are not as archaic in German as their literal translations in English).

PS: check out, via the comment thread, the Laibach cover of Ohne Dich. It's exquisite.
Till Lindemann has a poetry anthology, Messer (Knives), in print. The composer Torsten Rasch was commissioned by the Dresdner Sinfoniker to write a song-cycle, Mein Herz brennt, based around the poems; according to this interview on the London Philharmonic Orchestra site, Lindemann's chief influences are "the German romantic poet Rückert and French writers like Rimbaud". There's more about the collaboration at Music & Vision: see The Basic Essence.
- Ray


  1. Awesome post! Thanks!

    As you know, I'm a big fan. However, I actually don't like to listen to (and think about) song lyrics. I prefer either pure instrumental, or such incoherence that I can't tell what they're saying.

    One of my very favorite groups, Hanzel und Gretyl, has extremely(extremely) offensive lyrics. I just ignore the words and enjoy (love!) the music/sound.

    Here is link to a YouTube of one of their less offensive songs -- go through the long intro to get to the music. [Rammstein flirts with the same kind of offensive themes, but not nearly so explicitly.]

  2. Bad YouTube link in the previous. This should work.

  3. Excellent: thanks. If you don't know them already, check out Laibach, a Slovenian group who were one of Rammstein's influences. They embrace Nazi imagery full-on, to satirical/artistic purpose as part of the NSK art/political movement . I read it as showing the continuity between the imagery and language of totalitarianism and any other kind of inspirational song: for instance, Queen's One Vision

    One vision
    So give me your hands
    Give me your hearts
    I'm ready
    There's only one direction
    One world one nation

    becomes totally chilling when you associate it with totalitarian imagery as in Laibach's cover Geburt Einer Nation (though I admit I can't take it entirely seriously when the lead singer looks so remarkably like Wilson & Keppel).

    They do straight-ish stuff too: their remix of Rammstein's Ohne Dich is exquisite.

  4. I spent a lot of time listening to all the Amazon samplers of Laibach a few years ago and I can't remember why I didn't like them enough to buy. Jumping over to Amazon this minute and sampling a few, I think it's that they are too theatrical -- and (in a few minutes of listening which isn't fair) the music just isn't that good. But I definitely see where Rammstein is a descendant -- that's why I was listening to them; from comments to Rammstein CDs on Amazon.

    Rammstein is much, much better (I'm listening to Rammstein's Volkerball CD this minute, which is my favorite).

  5. Oh! I just listened to the Ohne Dich remix link you posted and that is nice. But it almost requires that you have the Rammstein version growling in memory while the lady is singing for full effect.

  6. I agree. There are fewer Laibach tracks that I like - as music alone - than Rammstein's. But there are some where the music is so-so, but which I love in combination with the video for the sheer visual/musical wit, such as Across the Universe and Life is Life.

  7. I was intrigued about your reference to St. Nick's sidekicks. In particular, the Wikipedia site indicates that my favorite, Black Pete, was of a different tradition. Having a Dutch sister-in-law I can vouch that their Sinter Klaas is a much more sinister figure than the emasculated Father Christmas or Santa Claus of British and American Christmas. Most interesting is how the Dutch, ostensibly a tolerant and, I suppose, politically correct culture hang onto this remnant of their imperial and slave owning past. Black Pete is strongly reminiscent of our own Minstrel past as is pointed out in this Blackface entry. (and note the black faces of the miners sucking up to Snow White).

  8. Dr C: oh, yes. Here's Sinterklaas. In European tradition it's always a "nice cop / bad cop" act. Somehow Britain missed out on this, but even in the 19th century we had a rather more archetypal Father Christmas who was a big beardy guy in a green robe.