I enter the gym and prepare to stretch. I can’t work out without music, and since the MU Rec Center’s choice of tunes troubles me (Katy Perry? Really?), I opt for my own. The sound of clanking weights and the exaggerated grunts of meatheads are suddenly drowned out. An a capella enclosed harmony begins, followed by an ominous voice: “Wer wartet mit Bessonenheit, der wird belohnt zur rechten Zeit. Nun das Warten hat ein Ende, leiht eure Ohr einer Legende.”* (Whoever waits patiently will be rewarded when the time is right. Now the waiting has an end, lend your ears to a legend.) The Teutonic, wrath-inspired music I’m listening to is Rammstein, whose style would not be possible without its lead singer, Till Lindemann.
Chances are you’ve at least heard of Rammstein. You may even know their most famous song, Du Hast (You have). The band produces a unique blend of contemporary progressions, contrasted with hard, industrial rock. Rammstein began as a collection of former East Germans, singing in their recently re-unified country. The band now sells out concerts from Perth to Tokyo, New York to Mexico City, and countless locations in Europe. Their success is undeniably the result of their unique style in music, which of course would not be possible without the voice of Till Lindemann. Keep in mind that in the original German, Rammstein’s texts rhyme and are poetic. Translations of their songs rarely grasp the full meaning of the lyrics, especially since Lindemann writes in a complicated fashion that often makes use of puns and riddles.
Lindemann’s contribution to Rammstein is two-fold: he almost exclusively authors the lyrics to Rammstein’s songs, and is the lead actor in its live performances. His singing style combines guttural articulations and more proper traditional singing. This combination is enhanced by Lindemann’s baritone-bass vocal range. It is also complicated by the content of the lyrics.
Lindemann writes about subjects such as politics, sadomasochism, love, heaven, violence, incest, hate, sex, mourning, disaster, homosexuality, cannibalism, and more. These topics often result in controversy. The band seems to relish such controversy, or they wouldn’t continue to base their self-described art on controversial topics. I would argue that their style of music is the product of being former East German citizens. Their style is rebellious, and the more people are offended by them, the better.
A perfect example of this is the song Bück Dich (Bend Down), which explicitly deals with gay sex. When this song was released in the mid-90s, I suspect the Internet was lacking in accurate translations of the song’s meaning. As a result, non-German speaking listeners wouldn’t have known that what they were listening to was a graphic depiction of gay sex. Only when seeing it performed live were audiences able to ascertain what the song was about. Lindemann, leading the band’s keyboardist onstage bound and gagged (bondage itself is not a topic in the song lyrics), then later simulating sex with him, provided a performance that didn’t need a translation.
Another aspect of Rammstein’s performances are their use of pyrotechnics. Fire doesn’t need a translation. Lindemann often ascends the stage in a specially designed coat that is set aflame. Or he uses a flamethrower. Or he shoots arrows from a flaming crossbow. This is something that Lindemann loves because he is uncomfortable about being on stage and having nothing to do. Rammstein’s fireworks are a huge factor in the band’s concert success. Without it, I doubt that non-German speaking audiences would be as inclined to attend a Rammstein show.
Another facet of Lindemann’s style is his engagement with the crowd. The admittedly shy Lindemann often finds support from the crowd, who will sing the choruses to popular songs or shout key phrases on Lindemann’s command. This is not unique to German crowds, but occurs with foreign audiences as well. In Spanish speaking countries, Lindemann doesn’t need to sing Te Quiero Puta (I love you whore): the audience does it for him. Additionally, during songs such as Ich Will (I want), Lindemann will ask the crowd: “Can you hear me? Can you see me? Can you feel me?” Each question receives a resounding response from the crowd: “We hear you! We see you! We feel you!”
As the author of the band’s texts, Lindemann has demonstrated a poetic side. With Du Hast (You have), Lindemann states that “You have me,” however the lyrics are not quite so simple. In German, du hast does mean “you have,” however when spoken, du hast sounds exactly like du hasst. The latter, with two s’s, actually means “you hate.” Thus, when Lindemann speaks the words, “du hast mich,” the listener can interpret the song either way. During live performances Lindemann doesn’t try to dispel the confusion of his words. Distraught, he recites wedding vows gone awry, making it clear that no, he does not want to be faithful for the rest of his days. Du Hast is what made Rammstein famous worldwide, as is evidenced by this Glee inspired a capella rendition found here.
Since Rammstein has often been accused of being a Nazi band, Lindemann wrote a song detailing the band’s political stance in Links 234 (Left 234). During live performances Lindemann will march onstage in military fashion, though he makes it clear when singing: “They want my heart to beat on the right, but I look down and see it beating on the left.” Lindemann’s commentary is also unrelenting when it comes to geographic location. He sings about America, Mexico, Paris, and Moscow. He refers to the Russian capitol as a “harlot”, which is the “most beautiful city in the world,” but will only provide you with a good time if you pay her.
Lindemann can also show his softer side. Casting away the guttural barking, Lindemann hints at his own relationship woes in Ohne Dich (Without you), a depressing song accompanied by a string interlude: “Ohne dich kann ich nicht sein, ohne dich. Mit dir bin ich auch allein, ohne dich. Ohne dich zähl’ ich die Stunden, ohne dich. Mit dir stehen die Sekunden, lohne nicht.” (Without you I cannot be, without you. With you I’m also alone, without you. Without you I count the hours, without you. With you the seconds stand still, no reward.) Another example of love-angst would be Seemann (Sailor), where Lindemann bids a female companion to seek salvation through him. Lindemann even lent his talents to the band Apocalytica, singing the German version to David Bowie’s Heroes. It is interesting to hear the lyrics to this song in German, given the fact that Bowie’s version of Hereos was written in a divided Berlin. Lindemann singing about standing by the Berlin Wall, all the while kissing his lover, is touching given his history in Communist Germany.
Lindemann has now embarked on a solo project, leaving fans wondering what his new work will be. Lindemann admits to having a tortured soul, which comes to light in Haifisch (Shark): “And the shark has tears, and they run down his face. But the shark lives in water, so you can’t see his tears.” The chorus to Haifisch is a play on Bertolt Brecht’s lyrics in Mack the Knife. I suspect that Lindemann’s solo work will produce similar ideas. Torment can be productive, and in Lindemann’s case, he channels that torment into poetry and performing. Whether he can produce the same type of live shows on his own is another question. His writing style, however, is likely to remain complicated and controversial.