Germany has had an extraordinary impact on the history of music, producing composers like Bach, Beethoven and Brahms between the 17th and 19th centuries, and pioneering cabaret and later electronic music in the 20th. Capturing time honored folklore, the twists of history and timeless sentiment, music is one of the most important elements of Germany’s culture. Throughout its illustrious musical history, Germany has produced great German singers from turn-of-the-century classics across the wide spectrum of rock, disco, punk and pop.
Here are our favorite five of the many successful German singers of the last century, some of whom have gained international recognition. Because of the dominance of the English language in popular music, you may not have heard of all of these artists, but you may be sure they are household names for everyone in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.
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1. Marlene Dietrich
Marlene Dietrich is known best as an iconic film star of Hollywood’s Golden Age, famed for her glamor, defiance of traditional gender roles and affairs with both men and women. But Berlin-born Dietrich was ever, at heart, a cabaret singer. It was on the cabaret stage that she began her career, and her most famed roles in The Blue Angel and Morocco were cabaret singers. Cabaret was the style of art with which she entertained Allied troops in World War II and it was to the cabaret stage that she returned for the final years of her career, which lasted into the mid-1970s. In songs like “Lili Marlene” and “Falling in Love Again”, Dietrich has bewitched generations with her rich and melancholic voice, as unforgettable as her larger-than-life personality. Dietrich finally settled in Paris for her later years and after her death in 1992 was laid to rest next to her mother in Berlin.
2. Till Lindemann (Rammstein)
The famous (or perhaps infamous) lead singer of the German metal band Rammstein, Till Lindemann is known to be one of the most charismatic frontmen to have graced the genre. The East German shock rocker first entered the world of music in the GDR punk rock scene of the 1980s, under much scrutiny from state authorities. He then rose to international fame around the turn of the millennium as the newly formed Rammstein shook up the rock scene with songs like “Mein Herz brennt”, “Sonne” and “Du hast”. Lindemann has a distinctively rich bass voice and a magnetic stage presence, often amplified by pyrotechnics, bizarre costumes and stage stunts so provocative that they have even resulted in his arrest. Whether you’re a metal fan or not, Lindemann’s caliber as one of the great rock performers of his generation is undeniable.
Gabriele Susanne Kerner or Nena is perhaps the most widely recognized star of the Neue Deutsche Welle (German new wave) music. She was born in Hagen in North-Rhine Westphalia and began her musical career at the age of nineteen. Most of her international fame comes from her song “99 Luftballons” which was released in 1983 and shot to number one in Germany.
She recorded it in English as “99 Red Balloons” the following year and it topped the British charts and reached number two in the USA. The song addresses Cold War fears in almost comically chirpy analogy, ringing a German anti-war sentiment around the world. It is one of the most famous German songs of all time and made Nena the single most successfully charted German pop singer in history. Nena has revived her career by rereleasing some of her older songs. Her incredible voice and upbeat lyrics are fully on display in “Willst du mit mir gehen” (Do you want to come with me) or “Wunder gescheh’n” (Miracles happen).
Christa Päffgen, better known as Nico, began her career as a teen model and actress, starring in several of Andy Warhol’s experimental films of the 1960s before he introduced her to the band The Velvet Underground, with whom she began her career as a singer. After releasing the hit album The Velvet Underground and Nico she began a successful solo career with such albums as Chelsea Girl and The Marble Index. While she crafted an enigmatic public persona and style that has made her a lasting icon of goth culture, her deep, entrancing voice that journalist Richard Goldstein famously described as sounding “like a cello getting up in the morning” enraptured audiences around the world. Although she had a troubled life, cut tragically short in 1988 by a biking accident, Nico was an inspiration to such great musical icons as Siouxsie and the Banshees, Morrissey and Björk.
5. Kim Petras
One of the most popular German pop singers in the world today as well as an icon of the transgender and wider LGBTQ+ community, Kim Petras began her music career in her teens and has since become widely beloved for her electronic, bubblegum pop and a sense of style that is one part meta-ironic excess and one part love-letter to Paris Hilton. Ever pushing the boundaries of the “pop princess” paradigm, the 30-year-old Petras now draws over 3.5 million Spotify listeners monthly with widely beloved songs including “Can’t Do Better” “Coconuts”, “Heart to Break” and of course her breakout single “I Don’t Want It At All”.
And the music plays on
Getting to know German music and the musicians behind it can really help you practice your German and give you plenty to chat about with your German friends. While this list has some of Germany’s all-time greats, there are many more stars to discover as well as a constant stream of new, talented up-and-coming artists who are emerging all the time, so be sure to keep an ear open!
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Leona has her roots in the South of Ireland, where she grew up on her family farm. She went on to study World Politics at Leiden University College, The Hague and then completed her MPhil in International History at Trinity College Dublin. Leona has now settled in Berlin, having fallen in love with the city. In her spare time she is working on perfecting her German in anticipation of her doctoral studies, during which she plans to study modern German social history. Her hobbies include bouldering, dancing and reading a healthy mix of history books and corny fantasy fiction. You can find more info about her on LinkedIn.