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22/02/2007

"As if" eroticism

Boy group Tokio Hotel's second album "Zimmer 483" comes out tomorrow, flaring up controversy among fans and foes over singer Bill Kaulitz' androgynous eroticism. By Elke Buhr





Tokio Hotel. © Thomas Rabsch. All photos courtesy Polydor Island Group

We've watched this band grow in the truest sense of the word. When Tokio Hotel, the boy group from Magdeburg, appeared on the cover of Bravo teen magazine in summer 2005 – and practically every week after that – singer Bill Kaulitz and his twin brother Tom, the group's guitarist, were just 15. Base player Georg and drummer Gustav were bearlike boys of 17 and 18, who covered their bulky shoulders with fan t-shirts of heavy bands. Bill and Tom, however, wore their polished subcultural outfits with a breathtakingly childish air – Bill's voice hadn't even broken, and smaller shoulders have never graced a leather jacket.

The wide world of showbiz has never lacked child stars. But that would be the wrong term for Tokio Hotel. Bill and Tom, born in September 1989 in East German Magdeburg - just months before the fall of the Wall – are the products of a world in which pop culture clutches kids in first grade. Bill and Tom were part of the pop lifestyle long before they met their first producer, who trained them in instrumentals and vocals to prepare them for a major label. At just seven their step-father shoved guitars into their hands. Tom has been styling his blond dreadlocks and wearing baggy pants since he started school, and Bill styled himself like the early David Bowie at just eleven, with a glamorous spiked hairdo and black eye makeup.





In the meantime Bill's voice has dropped a storey, and the band is making it big. Their second album "Zimmer 483" will come out tomorrow; the single "άbers Ende der Welt" (beyond the end of the world) is already at top spot on the German charts, and Stern is not the only magazine to dedicate an amazed story to "Germany's most successful band." At home the band has long filled every venue they play, and now they're setting their sights on international success. Their debut album "Schrei" hit gold in France, where they were one of the best-loved newcomers last year – a rare feat for a German act. And word has it that in Russia, Tokio Hotel is driving teenies to German lessons in droves.

Adults, for their part, can't stop themselves from wondering what on earth is driving the Tokio Hotel phenomenon.

As so often in the realm of pop, the reasons for the band's success hardly lie in the music alone. Because their music is average. Straightforward pop-rock with catchy melodies and a well-calculated mix of stolen Metallica riffs and romantic ballad elements. Everything is played on the safe side, and the production is technically perfect. The lyrics are sometimes a bit coquettish – "young, but X-rated" goes one song. Mostly however they're pathetic freedom incantations for pubescent souls: "Scream! Until you're yourself," is the imperative to which thousands of fans join Bill in raising their tender fists. The new songs on "Zimmer 483" have a rockier feel to them than the first album, but they keep on pushing the old themes: this time instead of going "Durch den Monsun" (through the monsoon), we go "beyond the end of the world" but wherever it is we still have to go there in a hurry, at best in a catchy format with standard guitar riffs.



Nevertheless: as opposed to what many say, Tokio Hotel is no casting band, and both producer and band members plausibly assert that the songs are written collectively, and that some were even written years ago when Bill and Tom were just 130 cm tall and had a band called "Devilish". It would be hard for a perfectly marketed band like this to seem more believable. But above all Tokio Hotel, and especially singer Bill Kaulitz, are astonishingly sovereign in live performances. It's the charisma that counts.

On stage, Bill turns into the kid kaiser of the German pop scene. In an effortless flirtation he wraps thousands of screeching girlies about his little finger. He writhes like Iggy Pop's grandson, and has perfected all the major gestures of sing-along animation, conducting the undulant hysterical masses with utmost elegance. In tandem with his young, mostly female fans, the androgynous David-Bowie-child Bill Kaulitz develops a striking form of sexual energy, an eroticism of the 'as if.' At the same time as he re-enacts all the age-old, bow-legged rock poses, he charmingly buries them as well.

For young girls, Bill is the ideal (imaginary) object of love. He is definitely a boy, definitely a star, but never seems threatening in his manliness. Always very clear about his heterosexual orientation, Bill nonetheless come across like a girl when he gives his makeup tips with a smile in Bravo interviews. With him sexuality is like a game, with all its openness and ambivalence.



Tokio Hotel in 2005

But unfortunately puberty is not exactly the phase in life when the sexes get along best. What is attractive for girls is evidently extremely irritating for many boys. "They're a bunch of fags," is they typical put down by Tokio-Hotel detractors. An out-and-out battle has broken out between attackers and fans, wonderfully documented in the respective Internet forums.

"Tom I love you! You're so sweeeet!" we read in innumerable entries – along with international entreaties like "Please come to Kazakhstan!" And should a rash blogger publish a critical sentence about Tokio Hotel, he can be sure he'll soon be getting thousands of mails from irate girls. Female teenies pull out the guns of the powerless: they form hordes and get on people's nerves. The band's attackers, by contrast, post a short film called "We're cripples and fags" wherever they can. In it, an off-tune boy's voice sings a below-the-belt parody of the song "Durch den Monsun."

Tokio Hotel is consequently also an object of strife. Seldom have up and coming machos reacted so sensitively to a boy band as they have to Tokio Hotel, and the reason is clearly the gender confusion caused by Bill. There is hardly a verbal invective from the group's adversaries that does not say Bill looks like a girl and sings like one too.





Guitarist Tom Kaulitz in 2005

"If you think they're fags, you're a fag too," a female fan by the name of Angie recently retorted in a self-made film posted on YouTube. It got 700,000 clicks – by band haters and fans unhappy with the girl's heavy-handed pathos, to judge by the comments. Only very infrequently does someone toss in the lucid argument that what really annoys people about the band is not its singer's sexual orientation, but the fact that an advertisement for a Tokio Hotel ring tone is broadcast every five minutes on MTV.

Germany's next generation of machos shows a rather spine-chilling face in their criticism of Tokio Hotel – and that 30 years after David Bowie shook up people's notions of manliness in pop stars. But allergic reactions come not only from obtuse youth who label everything that differs from the norm with the word "fag". Comedy programmes on RTL announce a parody film about the vain child Bill with the derisive words "the metrosexual star."

Who would have thought it was still possible to annoy people in the haggard world of pop? Bill and Tom, Georg and Gustav deserve our thanks just for having shown us that. That doesn't mean we all have to go out and become "Billists". The word refers to adherents of the religion founded by fans in a self-ironic reaction to press reports comparing enthusiasm for the band with a new sect. The principles of Billism are: 1) Scream until you're yourself and 2) Live every second. And aside from "go to Tokio Hotel concerts," the highest commandment of Billism is tolerance.

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Tokio Hotel's debut single "Durch den Monsun" (through the monsoon) went to top spot in the German charts in summer 2005. "Schrei" (scream), their debut album, followed. Their second album "Zimmer 483" will come out on Friday, and be featured in an extended German tour.

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The article originally appeared in German in the Frankfurter Rundschau on February 22, 2007.

Elke Buhr is a journalist and editor at the Frankfurter Rundschau.

Translation: jab.
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