German Emo Boys
How Tokio Hotel conquered the 'tweens of Europe.
An American looking at the nominees for best band in the upcoming MTV European Music Awards might take pause: Fall Out Boy, Good Charlotte, Linkin Park, My Chemical Romance, and … Tokio Hotel? The same oddly spelled combo shows up in the best inter act category, i.e., the "Band That Has Been the Most Interactive With Fans and Online," alongside Fall Out Boy, Depeche Mode, 30 Seconds to Mars, and My Chemical Romance. Fairly big hitters all, so who's Tokio Hotel, and what's it doing there?
In short: Tokio Hotel is a relatively new rock quartet with a massive teen and preteen following in Europe. Like many such phenomenons, it's easy to miss if you're either male or well on the other side of puberty. But what's most fascinating about the band isn't the size and dedication of its fan base. It's that Tokio Hotel hails not from one of Europe's pop and rock strongholds, such as England or Sweden, but from Germany—and that it sings in its native language.
Devilish, as Tokio Hotel first went by, was formed in 2001 by four boys barely in their teens: twins Bill (vocals) and Tom (guitar) Kaulitz as the undisputed sexy leaders, and bassist Georg Listing and drummer Gustav Schäfer as the stoic rhythm section. Bill participated in a German version of Star Search in 2003, but the fortunes of the band really turned in 2004, after it was picked up by a group of songwriters and producers from Hamburg. They fine-tuned the band's music and image: emo-ish rock played by style-obsessed teens. The latter aspect would become the band's calling card—the Kaulitzes embody the most visually outrageous moments of early-'80s new wave, making their guyliner-sporting rivals in MTV's best band category look like junior brokers at Morgan Stanley. Tom favors oversize clothing and long dreads reminiscent of Boy George, while Bill is an impossibly androgynous creature in pancake makeup and teased-out, frosted hair.
After a quick name change ("Tokio" being the German spelling for the Japanese city and "Hotel" a reference to constant touring), Bill and Tom's excellent adventure began in earnest in 2005. Within two years, Tokio Hotel fever spread from Germany to neighboring countries via catchy, goth-tinged pop-punk singles such as "Durch den Monsun," "Rette Mich," and "Übers Ende der Welt," as well as the Schrei and Zimmer 483 albums. Girls in Scandinavia, Italy, England, and even Israel—shocker!—started singing along phonetically. France is the country where the band is the most popular, after Germany, with albums and DVDs squatting the upper reaches of the charts and the fall 2007 tour selling out in minutes. An online video captured throngs of French girls waiting for the band outside its hotel. Most of them are in black, many are in leather jackets. When a musician finally emerges, the scene suddenly turns into an outtake from Hitchcock's The Birds as he gets engulfed in a feverish, shrieking swarm. (Passions seem to run milder in America. Even Miley Cyrus doesn't seem to elicit such intense love, and when someone made a tearful video defending Britney Spears after the starlet's latest televised debacle, most viewers assumed it was a performance art-type ironic gesture.)
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.