Home > Culture, Music, Politics > Krautrock, the Rural Alberta Advantage, and the Musical Politics of Location

Krautrock, the Rural Alberta Advantage, and the Musical Politics of Location

I dedicated an hour to the above, Ben Whalley’s BBC Four documentary on the development, spread and influence of the West Germany popular music strangely dubbed “krautrock”, the other night. It got me thinking, as most things do. Thinking about the politics of location in music, that fraught and nebulous practice of representing the metaphoric nature of a certain place at a certain moment in time in sonic terms.

West German musicians of the ’60s and ’70s faced steep obstacles in their efforts to craft a new Teutonic sound, inhabiting, as they did, a nation split down the middle that was still haunted by having orchestrated both the most terrible war and most infamous genocide in human history a mere two or three decades before. Located on the literal front lines of the Cold War (especially in West Berlin), disconnected from any allowable expressions of nationalism and with a generational gap intensified by the complicity of their parents in the Third Reich, it should be no surprise that the dominant musical mode in the West German cultural underground was one of extreme experimentation.

In nations with a milder, relatively less drastic recent social history like England and America, the volume, attitude, and fashion of rock and roll was enough of an inversion of their culture’s existing values to satisfy rebellious tendencies. In West Germany, with a Communist sattelite state next door, former Nazis teaching in schools and running hospitals, and former concentration camps just off the autobahn, such a pose seemed insufficient for a generation seeking a radical break from the legacy of the last half-century. Post-war and post-reunification Germany’s sharp turn into social democracy and galloping liberality was pre-conditioned by its dark journey into the blackest fantasies of the extreme right. It’s worth remembering that there’s a reason that Germany has elected Andrea Merkel and banned nuclear power rather than dabbling in the crackpot right-wing schemes that infect the American political landscape. Perhaps the United States requires a similar authoritarian cataclysm to turn its back irrevocably on dangerous conservative demagoguery, though I hope not, because such happenings are rarely bloodless affairs.

But my point stands: some power chords and punkish sneering was hardly enough to rebuild a musical legacy for Germany. I admit to scoffing at the ridiculous art-fuckery of the Krautrock principals shown in the documentary, but I also acknowledge its veracity and even its inevitability. When every conceivable instrument of your country’s modernity has so recently been hijacked by utter and complete evil, what choice do you have but to build new foundations? Even if that means recording electronic operettas in 16th-century Bavarian country houses, singing into cement mixers, or turning yourself into human robots? If that’s what needs to be done to forge a new cultural identity, then so be it.

The question that follows irresistibly upon this statement is, “What is so fundamentally German about experimental electronic music, though?” And it’s a good one. Kraftwerk, certainly, had a larger social critique in mind with their performance-arty re-contextualization of the efficient industrial artifice so identified with 20th-century Germany, while some of the lesser known krautrock movement acts sought to recapture the natural heritage of the German countryside through ambient soundscapes. But what makes it so German, to my mind, is its very uncompromising extremity. When Germany was bad, it was as bad as anything could be, so when it comes to artsy musical pretension, it should be no surprise that they also went full bore.

The documentary’s coda, however, briefly detailing Brian Eno and David Bowie’s carpetbagging aesthetic appropriation of the new Germanic minimalism for the latter’s seminal indie-rock Rosetta Stones Low and ‘Heroes’, suggests that the musical politics of location are more fluid than we’d like to think. Bowie, of course, was ever a chameleon anyway, but what was a specific trait that encouraged his artistic explorations has now been enfolded into the mass melting pot that is the worldwide “alternative” culture. Even Bowie’s then-revolutionary descent into isolated Berlin became a mere artistic travel destination to grant currency and edginess a decade and a half later, when U2, the world’s biggest band, made Achtung Baby in Berlin with Eno to both rejuvenate and fatally over-inflate their public profile.

HometownsThese thoughts seemed to dovetail with my recent decision to give indie critical darlings the Rural Alberta Advantage another belated opportunity to impress me. I gave them a brief chance a few years ago, before they released their full-length debut Hometowns and Pitchfork told all of the cool kids that it was okay to like it. My feeling at the time was that although Toronto-based Alberta ex-pat Nils Edenloff’s songs made overt attempts to address the experience of the Prairies, referencing the Frank Slide, the 1987 Edmonton Tornado, and bad drivers on Lethbridge-area highways, they did so in the context of standard-issue, trend-chasing indie rock tropes that had more to do with insular, entitled Toronto hipsterdom than any sort of “authentic” Albertan social reality. The intent was all in the right place, but the chosen vernacular was all wrong. Being Albertan became more of an attention-grabbing gimmick for the band than an essential part of their aesthetic vision, and that turned me off.

My revisiting of the band has mostly confirmed this original impression. For my money, artists like the Wheat Pool and Corb Lund display a more honest and appropriate approach to the big-sky sadness and rural dysfunction that characterizes my home province. That both bands embrace considerable elements of country music, Alberta’s real dominant musical culture, probably increases this impression in my mind. But straight country is profoundly unhip in the urban subculture that spawned the Rural Alberta Advantage, unless it’s highly filtered through the indie wringer.

“Edmonton” was maybe the only RAA song that overcame the group’s lamentable weakness for poses that please their metropolitan scene fellows (in whatever metropolis they find themselves in) above all. The titular invocation of the only city that ever felt like home to me certainly helps its case, I admit. But then messy, hopeful Edmonton, with its echoes of the displaced rural working class and irruptions of educated bohemianism, has a fleeting romance and poeticism that Alberta’s economic and ideological engine, Calgary, distinctly lacks, and Edenloff gets that in this song. Maybe it’s simply tribal allegiance that has convinced me that Edmonton is the ephemeral art to Calgary’s vigorous commerce, but I don’t really think so. And even if it has skewed my view, is not activating buried tribal loyalties central to evoking the romance of any specific place and time? Is that fundamentally different from what krautrockers were doing in ’60s and ’70s West Germany, or do both plants grow from a very similar seed? I suspect the latter.

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Categories: Culture, Music, Politics

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