Opinion

Joseph Beuys Likes New Wave and New Wave Likes Him

Joseph Beuys sings his heart out in "Sonne statt Reagan" (screen capture by author)

When I hear of German performance artist Joseph Beuys, I think of felt, fat and riding in an ambulance to live in a New York apartment with a coyote in “I Like America and America Likes Me.” I certainly don’t think of a hilarious attempt at New Wave pop.

While scrolling through my Twitter feed yesterday morning, I came across Joseph Beuy’s video for “Sonne statt Reagan,” a political message hidden in a goofy ear-worm of a song.

Written and recorded in 1982, “Sonne statt Reagan” translates to “Sun instead of Rain.” Changing the German spelling of rain, “regen,” to Reagan, Beuys was clearly criticizing American politics. However, its pretty much impossible to get past Beuys hardcore bouncy dance moves and microphone shakes to the apparently serious political comments underneath.

To get a sense of what “Sonne statt Reagan” is about some of the lyrics to “Sonne statt Reagan” translate to:

But we want: sun instead of Reagan, to live without weapons!
Whether West, whether East, let missiles rust!
He wants to provoke those bastards in the East, even those without nuclear weapons, But your war over crazy goals just doesn’t work, Reagan — there are too many of us!
Cut it out with your nuclear strategies, your Russian haters, your nuclear fallout.
Hey, wrinkle-face, the jig is up, take your missiles back home with you.

In all my years taking art history classes when we would learn extensively about Joseph Beuys, I was never shown this video and I’m wondering why. Of course, it does appear that Beuys, despite the number of musicians in the video, pressed a button on a keyboard and decided to record a song. But so did most musicians in the 1980s (see Fred Schneider from the B52’s solo effort). Looking back, the 1980s were all about regret — the economic boom, new coke, hair metal — and it seems that art historically Beuys’s attempt at New Wave is no exception.

Beuys had wanted this song to be seen as a work of art instead of a pop song, which I’m certainly behind. I mean, look at him move! Rock it, JB!

 

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