German Emo Boys
How Tokio Hotel conquered the 'tweens of Europe.
A side effect of the band's popularity in France is that for the past year or so, a record number of girls has started signing up for German lessons. In June, Le Monde reported that the director of the Goethe Institut's cultural services in Paris was distributing lyric sheets to language teachers. "I'm really happy that we have something like Tokio Hotel to motivate kids," said Kornelia Zenner, who oversees lessons at the Goethe Institut. But for how long? In the past year, Tokio Hotel started translating some of its material, releasing the English-language Scream (which combines songs from the first two albums) in Europe. This led to soul-searching on the part of the fans, most of whom seem to actually prefer the German versions. "I'm an Elton John fan so lyrics making sense isn't a requirement for the song to be good," a devotee posted on a forum.
While Nena may have climbed up the charts with "99 Luftballons" in '83, German music has never made a dent in the American mainstream—like everything else that's not in English. (If Shakira needs to abandon Spanish, you know there's no hope.) And so it made sense that Tokio Hotel's debut U.S. release, which came out on Sept. 11, would be a CD single of "Ready Steady Go" (originally "Übers Ende der Welt") and "Scream" ("Schrei"). It made even more sense that it would be sold only in Hot Topic stores—an association with the titan of goth-lite mall fashion is natural for a band whose image is a crucial element of its success.
The Kaulitzes are sexy in a nonthreatening way, which explains their appeal to 'tweens but also a corresponding mountain of animosity. The biggest attacks are lobbed by boys, who sometimes target the music but more often go for Bill Kaulitz's gender ("Is he a girl?") and sexuality ("Is he gay?"). Many seem unable to comprehend why males would spend so much time on makeup and clothes, and simply cannot deal with Tom's androgyny. The haters devote a stupefying amount of energy to the band. Just go to dailymotion.com and type "anti tokio hotel"—parodies, ad hominem attacks, and all-around derision flow out. Just one example: Someone posted a video of young drummers to show that Gustav isn't that good for his age. As an article in the Frankfurter Rundschau recently mused, "Who would have thought it was still possible to annoy people in the haggard world of pop?"
Even as Tokio Hotel prepares for its next moves—master English, start drinking legally—it will be interesting to see if more European acts, emboldened by its success, realize they can cross borders despite shunning the pop-rock mainstream's lingua franca. They won't mean much to insular England and America, but they could have more impact on future identity politics in the European community than all the Brussels bureaucrats put together.
Elisabeth Vincentelli is arts and entertainment editor at Time Out New York and the author of Abba Gold.
Photograph of Tokio Hotel © 2007 Universal Music GmbH.