The culture of Cologne is unique —and it’s not easy to understand from the outside. Cologne is the fourth largest city in Germany, yet it often feels like a small town. It’s not unlikely that you will bump into famous artists or writers when visiting the local dive bars. Abstract thought and Kölsch, the local beer, seem to go together well. There are historical reasons for this. Cologne is probably the most modern of German cities. During the period of National Socialism, the local history of which you can explore in the excellent exhibitions in EL-DE Haus, the town served as a hub for sending soldiers to the Western front. This is why Cologne was heavily attacked by Allied forces and large parts of the inner city had to be rebuilt in the 1950s. Cologne’s architecture and city planning owes a great debt to the progressive spirit and austere designs of the post-war avantgarde. Yet all the modern clarity and abstraction has not diminished one of the most characteristic traits of the Colognians: their conviviality.
“‘Drink doch ene met’ — ‘Have a drink with us’ — that’s part of my way of life,” says Wolfgang Voigt, one of the founders of Kompakt Records and the musical mastermind behind the ambient project GAS. Voigt was born in Cologne, and when he was younger his uncle sneaked him into the concerts by avantgarde composers like Karl-Heinz Stockhausen at the academy of music. In the late 1980s, he discovered acid house and has since combined the two genres under various guises.
Voigt embodies a lot of what makes the culture of Cologne so unique. Distinctions between high and low, sophisticated and proletarian are frequently broken down here and open up a space for a genuinely popular modernism. The city’s music scene is probably the best example of this attitude. The long-lasting influence of music magazine Spex (which moved to Berlin in 2007) has instilled a preference for pop music that is both witty, challenging and catchy in Cologne. The founders of A-Musik, probably the only avant-garde record store in Germany, also possess a deep knowledge of and affection for reggae music and African pop. The local hip-hop and beatmaking scene around the label Melting Pot Music combines nerdy crate digger knowledge with smart reflections on everyday life. And the brains behind off-space Gold & Beton organise noise concerts and a tribute show to Rihanna with equal enthusiasm.
To a certain extent, Cologne’s preference for a convivial and intellectual pop culture can be traced back to the city’s penchant for carnival celebrations. Many non-locals mistake “Karneval” for mere drunken revelry, whereas people from Cologne cherish it as a way to show their sense of humour and mock the authorities at the same time.
These are exactly the ingredients that make up Germany’s most notorious late-night television show, which just happens to be filmed in Cologne: “Neo Magazine Royale”, hosted by Jan Böhmermann. The show is produced by a team of graduates from the KHM, Cologne’s media arts academy, which is famous for their high-brow courses based on critical theory. Böhmermann caused a diplomatic scandal in 2016 when he broadcast a smear poem full of racialised stereotypes about the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Erdoğan in turn sued him for violating majesty, but no German court considered the case fit for trial. This was partially because Böhmermann presented his poem as inauthentic speech — explicitly stating beforehand that everything he was about to say violated broadcasting codes. The incident not only sparked legal reform, but also initiated a debate about the limits of free speech and everyday racism in Germany. This captures the uniqueness of Cologne’s culture all too well: it is only here that a joke on TV can spark a national discussion on the limits of free speech. Or as the locals say: “Typisch Köln!”
(by Christian Werthschulte)