November 5, 2020 | Arts and Culture
taking the plunge into bilderbuch
“This is called ‘The polar bear plunge’/ Are you ready?/ If you don’t jump on the count of three/ You do not get your five dollars.“
–– Bilderbuch, “Plansch”
The first Bilderbuch (translated: picture book) song I heard was a nonsensical song called “Bungalow.” The next song I heard was “Plansch.” More than a hundred listens in, I now understand that the song is a critique of capitalism, the hope that money can solve all problems, with visuals of rich people lounging in their pools; but when I first heard the song I could only understand three moments: A sample of an American woman telling giggling children that they have to participate in the polar bear plunge, the words “jump, jump, jump”, and the word “Plansch”—the light hearted and silly word in Austrian German for “splash”—which I misunderstood as the far more serious “plunge.” The guitar, heavy with reverb, and the repeated and ethereal sounds of “Plansch” felt like they were connecting to my soul. Maybe I resonated so much with Bilderbuch because I didn’t have to understand their words to understand their spirit, but what I could understand described my experience exactly. Less than a month before, I’d moved to Graz, Austria. I was racing at light speed through an experience that I couldn’t fully understand. I was living alone in a foreign country. I didn’t know German until a week before I moved. I had taken a massive plunge into the unknown—the most shocking thing I’d done to my system in all 19 years of my existence.
A man who would later become my boyfriend understood that I was a music fiend and that I was desperate for GOOD German language bands. Not just music in German that was listenable—my German classes had provided plenty of that already—but music that was good and also happened to be in German. He’d seen Bilderbuch live at a festival a year prior and suggested them to me a week or two after we first began talking. The day after, I listened to one of their songs, then another, then a whole album, and then they became the only band I listened to for the next month. They were alt-rock, psychedelic rock; their Wikipedia page told me they were art-pop, but none of those labels explained my obsession. I kept waiting for the initial charm to wear off, but three years later my relationship with that man is over and I still listen to Bilderbuch at least once a week, sometimes multiple times a day.
Bilderbuch’s songs are sung in a peculiar kind of Denglish (Deutsch/English) where the German words are incomprehensible, and the random English words dropped in make no sense. Many of their songs have short phrases in English like “Sneakers 4 free” or “I <3 stress,” scattered throughout the mainly German lyrics. Sometimes they throw in some French or Spanish as well. This kind of fragmented understanding that I grappled with in every single one of their songs was the same kind that I faced everyday on the streets, where people spoke German in heavily accented dialects that my beginner German courses had neglected to mention. Often people would give up on my seemingly failing German and address me in their flailing English, which was even harder to understand. It didn’t help that the German spoken by young Austrians was peppered with English slang, and I sounded overly proper when I tried not to break into English every other word. In German, “cool” is pronounced exactly the same as in English, American accent and all. I didn’t sound cool in German. Everything sounded out of place. But in Bilderbuch’s songs there was music that communicated meaning in ways where the words didn’t matter, and the words I could understand were a balm instead of an added confusion.
Once I began to actually understand the words of Bilderbuch’s music, six months or so into my stay, I had to make sense of the fact that they are both a profoundly silly and profoundly serious band mixed into one. Many of their songs simply list consumer items: cars, prosecco, fancy watches, and so, so, so, much juice and soda (is there a band that sings more about soft drinks than Bilderbuch? I challenge you to find one). The chorus to “Softdrink” is simply a list of sodas “Coca Cola, Fanta, Sprite/ 7up, Pepsi, alright/ Alright, alright, alright, alright, OK!” When I started listening to them, their hit single was a song titled “Bungalow,” which begs a friend to come by in their Skoda (a cheap European car) and eat snacks that the singer’s mother has prepared—and of course there is plenty of soda to drink (would it be a Bilderbuch song without that detail?). But their other songs deal with long distance relationships, missing home, or the spiritual void of the internet. The song “Europa 22” deals with feelings of failure and freedom across borders. Maurice Ernst, their Eurotrash-looking lead singer, has described their song “Babylon,” which describes listening to Jesus and Mohammed while relaxing at a party, as very critical of religion. Another song, “LED go,” criticizes the Internet Age—dwelling on the idea of being infinitely connected and yet utterly alone.
On the six-hour train rides I’d take to Budapest to visit my uncle, a friendly face who spoke a familiar language (Hungarian is my mother tongue), I’d see the gorgeous mountains and cliffs and castles out of my train window, hear the song “Gibraltar,” and burst into tears. Despite the beauty of the country around me, I wished that my views would be of beat-up Bank of America ATMs or sagging New England architecture instead. I hung onto the words “distance, long distance” the only English in a song which mournfully contemplates a failing relationship, as my mind misinterpreted all the languages I heard—Hungarian sounding like German, German sounding like Hungarian that I suddenly couldn’t understand. The music perfectly articulated the feeling of missing people and places that were out of reach.
Bilderbuch was the background of my new, independent life, the accompaniment to the feeling of having a space that was mine where I chopped potatoes and washed dishes and sang to myself in my own kitchen. It was the soundtrack to me losing my first job and crying as I wandered Graz’s streets trying to understand why. It was the music that played as Graz transformed from a foreign city to my new home. A year after I first heard them, Bilderbuch was also the sound of me leaving my new life behind. At the end of the year, as I left on a plane with the two suitcases that held my entire life, Bilderbuch’s “Investment 7” was playing in my ears. “Mein siebtes Investment bist du” they sing: my seventh investment is you. Whether the song was about a new shirt or a true love (I am still unsure), it rang true.
When I first started listening to Bilderbuch they made me feel homesick in a way that only a certain kind of electric guitar can. Now, when I listen to them, they make me homesick for the life that I left behind in Austria. If I listen to Bilderbuch with my eyes closed, I can see the streets of Graz, the grounds of the Karl Franzen University, the inside of the trams that rattled by my apartment. I can smell the coffee from the local chain TRInkBEsseresKAffe that I frequented often enough that the baristas knew my name and order—where a 35-year-old man named David would save me a seat and ask me if I was ok if I missed a day. I can see the bar that floats in the river and changes color at night, and the stupid art museum that is a lumpy eye sore, the pulsing blue alien heart of the city. Bilderbuch was my most listened-to band during my year in Austria and every single year thereafter. Since the first day I heard them, all of my walks, everything I saw and still see, has a song of theirs behind it. Just like my year in Austria, they have become part and fiber of my being. I took the plunge and Bilderbuch is my reward—my own five dollars.