Tuesday, July 10 2001, 5:31 PM
Berlin, once Hitler's headquarters and the Hauptstadt of hate, once the home of the most potent symbol of the Cold War standoff between capitalism and communism, is now the capital of a unified Germany committed to the West and liberal democracy. And for over a decade on one weekend in July, Berlin has also become the capital of Love as hundreds of thousands of ravers from across the globe have poured into the city on the Spree to dance in the Love Parade, one of the world's largest outdoor celebrations of techno music and culture.
But for much of this year's run-up to the Parade there has been precious little love lost in Berlin as parade organizers, the city's political leaders, and citizens groups have battled over the parade's location and its status as a political event. In the process, they've done German popular culture quite a service, politicizing an event that had long slipped under the radar of public debate in the country.
The Affäre der Love Parade began earlier this year when organizers went to secure the necessary permits for the second weekend in July, the Parade's traditional date, only to find the Tiergarten, Berlin's Central Park and the Parade's site for the last half dozen or so years, already booked by a citizens initiative called "Save the Tiergarten."
If that weren't bad enough, it soon became public that "Save the Tiergarten" had usurped the Parade's traditional date in order to protest the Parade itself and the environmental damage -- trampled plants, trees with urine-soaked root systems, garbage galore -- the dancing hordes annually inflict on the park.
But an entertainment juggernaut like the Love Parade can not be stopped for long. What once was a small-time local music carnival has become a massive cash cow. And many, many, many interests now suck from the techno teat. Club owners, DJs, Parade organizers, hotels, restaurants, travel agencies, bars, all profit directly from the Parade. City boosters have also become quite adept at reaping social and cultural capital from the event, using the parade to scrub away some of the taint of Berlin's tortured past and present the city as a leading advocate of global consumer cosmopolitanism. Thus, after some grousing, Parade organizers moved the parade to the next weekend, July 21st.
Problem solved. To quote the this year's parade's motto, ravers around the world were now free to finally "Join the Love Republic."
Not so fast, Mr. DJ.
Recently, city officials threw a new wrench into the works by announcing plans to revoke the Love Parade's status as a political demonstration and to demand that the event's organizers register the Parade as a commercial endeavor. This seemingly small change actually involves a fair amount of change. Then as the sponsors' of a political demonstration, the Parade's organizers were in past years not responsible for financing the city services necessary to put on and clean up after such a massive public event. As a commercial endeavor, they would not be so lucky.
Their material interests at stake, Parade organizers declared their resistance to the city's plan and insisted on the fundamentally political nature of the event. As the event's spokesman Enric Nitzsche noted, the Love Parade is a political demonstration par excellance because the many ravers that come to Berlin each year stand for a worldly, tolerant togetherness. Mmmmmm. It seems the horseshit meter has finally peaked.
Reading the various accounts of Berlin's Love Parade dust-up, it's hard to avoid the impression that one is reading the script of yet another political soap opera concocted by the media. After all it has all the ingredients: the scheming politicians fighting for political capital; the greedy, hypocritical parade organizers, who, with crocodile tears streaming, worry about the demise of their unique 'culture' while keeping a very nervous eye on the bottom line; the sanctimonious citizens group bent on spoiling everyone's fun; and, of course, the chattering class of journalists and commentators ready to supply the wider public with color commentary of the conflict as it unfolds in all of its spectacular glory.
But the debate about the Love Parade is more than mere political melodrama, it is a significant instance of politicizing popular culture and dragging into the public domain for political scrutiny. Once just a quirky, small-time expression of the techno community's devotion to its music and its DJs, the Love Parade has evolved into a powerful institution in the city, one with complex and deep ties to many facets of urban life in Berlin.
Economically, the Parade has become an impressive profit generator, attracting millions of Marks into the city and enriching a select few promoters and club owners. Culturally, it has marked the ascendance and legitimation of a mass cultural form dedicated less to enlightenment, democracy and the development of a critical consciousness, than to leisure, dancing, more leisure, drugs, leisure, leisure, leisure, dancing, and more drugs. Finally, in a city with no small amount of racial tension, economic deprivation and other social ills, it has allowed the German majority to pay lip-service to the ideals of tolerance and equality and the city's political elite to position Berlin as a cosmopolitan, fun-loving city, one ready and willing to receive those global flows of capital everyone's always talking about. Once such a behemoth is institutionalized, it is often difficult to jar the public into taking a critical look at the potential monster created in its midst. And indeed, any critique of the Love Parade has in the past been confined to the margins, the exclusive purview of cranky leftists and spoilsport moralists who don't take drugs.
That is, until "Save the Tiergarten" almost derailed the whole thing with their sly protest. The organization's actions have pierced the parade's facade and jump-started a debate about the wider significance of the Love Parade as a cultural institution. Whatever their motives, "Save the Tiergarten", has forced Berliners to consider for a moment the relative costs and benefits of encouraging hundreds of thousands of people to dance in public to the boom-shaka-boom of the techno beat. Time will only tell whether this thematization will produce a lasting change in the attitudes of the city's wider public. But in a public culture saturated with images, stories, and opinions manufactured by media outlets, spinmeisters, and pr hacks, simply getting some grass-roots discontent on the public agenda is a feat in and of itself.
And hopefully, techno culture will learn something, too. Unlike rock-n-roll or hip-hop, techno, as one of the genres of popular music with a mass audience, has never been particularly politically sophisticated either in its critique of society or in its reflection on the political and economic conditions that mediate its existence. If the sub-culture is lucky, this latest incident in the politics of techno will force ravers to reflect more deeply about both the possibilities and the costs of all those beats. Who knows?, it may actually move them work for peace, love, unity, and respect instead of simply tracing their outlines in the air with glowsticks.
John Brady is a member of the Bad Subjects Collective.