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Berlin’s new rulers are DJs, not despots

2014 April 28
by Zoe Strimpel
This is About Blank, where hordes of partyers queue to spend their weekends genuflecting to the gods of fun - incarnated in top DJs

This is About Blank, where hordes of partyers queue to spend their weekends genuflecting to the gods of fun – incarnated in top DJs

I’ve been spending a great deal of time reading Alexandra Richie’s history of Berlin, Faust’s Metropolis. It’s a sweeping chronicle of Europe’s most fearsome city since its first settlers, a story of countless wars, despots and almost endless violence, in which life is built up and destroyed as regularly as waves crashing on a beach. The desire of Berlin’s (all-male) leadership to conquer, destroy, taunt, control and lie is astounding, from the early Christian conquistadors right through to Erich Milche of the SED. It’s no coincidence that what is now Europe’s most responsible country is run by a woman.

Berlin had ups and downs – times of relative tolerance and cultural glory. But one feature runs through its history with particular tenacity and strength: the thirst for and play of power. Germans clustered around rulers, from heads of state of army generals, hero-worshipping them. In the 20th century they worshipped or died. Dictators (usually short, deformed men with terrible moustaches) are defined by their obsession with power for its own sake. But in few places has the almost erotically-charged fixation with power – personal and military – held such sway as in Berlin.

The party stamp: no fun allowed without it

The party stamp: no fun allowed without it


Ruler of the crowd

Ruler of the crowd

Well, times have changed in Berlin. Students are more concerned with defending Lampedusan refugees and the rights of sex-workers than imbibing the spirit of the Germanic earth. “Deep” and “house” has replaced “blood and soil” as the rallying call of the youth.  Now the “volk” spend their weekends in scruffy clubs, marketed through subversive messages like “love techno, hate Germany”. (This is the slogan of the collective behind About Blank, a club in a post-industrial, former Communist stronghold with a big garden and an amazing sound system, one of Berlin’s most revered clubs.)

But – even when violence is out of the question – some things will never change and the dynamics of power is one of them, with a leader and followers.

Today, during a session of daytime “cappuccino” clubbing at About Blank, the presence of power and worship seemed strong to me. The clubbers were all dressed up in respectful uniform for the occasion: vintage high-top sneakers, square or round sunglasses, very high-wasted faded jeans for the women, bizarre irregular hair arrangements for the men. Admittedly it wasn’t too stringent a uniform: I wore my cycling leggings from Dorothy Perkins and some Nike trainers and looked more like an American tourist looking for Unter den Linden than someone accustomed to getting past bouncers at hidden clubs.

Some had been at this same “party” since Friday night; nearly 48 hours. They swayed and some looked bleary, barely hanging onto awakeness, despite the drugs. But mostly it was a jolly affair, in good spirit. Above all, the power of the DJs in Berlin is phenomenal. People cram into industrial-size clubs all round the city for entire weekends without leaving, first doing anything to get by the bouncer (the Berghain bouncer is so powerful and mysterious, with seemingly random and self-determined decisions, rather like a despot, that he has his own agent), then bobbing and swaying in formation before the Grand Ruler of the Night and the Party – the music-spinner.

The DJ controls the crowd and the crowd cleaves devoutly to the DJ’s mysterious moves – he or she exerts control over their bodies, their mood, their vocal chords, their pockets, their whole weekends.

Furthermore, the culture of exclusive leisure is a ruler in itself, determining who has cultural capital and who does not. The new urban aristocracy are not people born into posh or rich families; they’re the people who know where the best parties are happening, and this means, where the parties are happening with the highest density of people who define themselves by their clothes: either inspired by the cutting-edge art world (the high jeans, the slanty hair); the politically-charged dreadlock wearers; the deeply scruffy-on-purpose; the glamorous. All were there; a very small proportion of clubbers looked neutrally-apparelled, or clad in Zara or H&M.

The tyranny of cool is alive and well; and while DJs, bouncers and exclusive nightclubs have no profound or sinister relation to the politically-powerful power-mongers of Berlin’s long history, the adherence – bodily and financial – that they command from seas of young people bobbing about before is a curious example of how power never disappears, it only shifts, and in this case, gets its groove on.

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