Dr Tom Smith, a lecturer in German at the University of St Andrews, opens up about his insatiable love of languages and his research into the constructions of race in Berlin’s techno scene.
Tell us about yourself
I first discovered my love of languages as a ten-year-old on holiday in Germany. I’d love to say it was a meaningful intercultural discovery that sparked my interest – in fact it was the realisation that with German I could order junk food behind my parents’ backs.
My love of languages and their insights into different cultures can be insatiable. Most recently, since my move to Scotland, I’m even learning Scottish Gaelic: Tha mi ag ionnsachadh Gàidhlig!
But it was always Germany that most captured my imagination. If I came for the Pommes mit Mayo, I stayed for the music. I was always a keen viola and piano player, and discovered electronic music one fateful early morning in 2007 in Tresor, one of Berlin’s classic techno clubs, then newly reopened. When I graduated university, I worked for the European Union Youth Orchestra and had the pleasure of working backstage at concert halls across Germany, Austria, Switzerland and German-speaking Italy. And as I returned to work on my PhD at UCL and eventually embarked on my job in research at St Andrews, I started finding the importance of music everywhere in German culture, even when I wasn’t looking for it.
What is the area of your research?
My specialism is postwar and contemporary German culture, especially literature, film, television and music.
I’m currently researching constructions of race in Berlin’s techno scene. Techno emerged in 1980s Detroit, when young black musicians began experimenting with electronic music, drawing on electronica by Kraftwerk, Yellow Magic Orchestra and other pioneers. This music from Detroit found its moment in early-1990s Germany, where techno became a huge international industry.
Detroit’s techno pioneers used electronic music to imagine alternatives to the city’s racially segregated society. But in Germany too, techno got caught up in assumptions around race. For many German clubbers, early techno was associated solely with white European artists: Dr Motte, Westbam, and so on. Some white fans were fascinated by techno’s African American origins and idolised black DJs from Detroit. Projecting blackness onto the US, though, often reinforced the impression that German club culture was overwhelmingly white. Meanwhile, many Germans of colour expressed discomfort with techno altogether because of this dominant whiteness.
Yet the scene has always been diverse, collaborative, and even utopian. My work shows how German DJs, promoters and clubbers of colour shaped the development of techno and used art – magazines, flyers, photographs, poems, novels, film and television – to explore their place within the scene.
What is the importance of this research?
There is a common question running through my research: what happens if we place the views and perspectives of marginalised people at the centre of our understanding of society?
My book, Comrades in Arms, for example, explores outsiders within the East German army: queer men, intellectuals, conscientious objectors. Focusing on their perspectives changes our view of even the most rigidly masculine institutions. The army’s concerns about homosexuality and about men who couldn’t live up to the demands of training shaped military policy and day-to-day life on base. Meanwhile, ordinary men found small but important ways to express their identities even in East Germany’s oppressive conscript military.
The same is true in the techno scene. Collectives like No Shade now fight to represent women, non-binary and minority musicians trying to make their careers in electronic music. The emerging histories and exhibitions documenting Berlin’s techno scene often make these perspectives seem marginal. Yet from the very beginning, techno musicians have imagined technological utopias where race, gender or sexuality no longer present barriers to creativity and community. The writing, music and visual art around the techno scene show this creativity, and challenge us always to question our assumptions and the limitations of our own perspectives.