Today, I chanced to hear the song “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen three times in a single day. Which is quite unusual, because even though there are umpteen thousand cover versions, it isn’t played all that often.
The first time was on the car radio while driving to the supermarket. The second time was on TV, used as background music for the crime drama Countdown. The show is pretty good, too. Interesting, not quite linear narrative structure with several flashforwards, a bit of pleasant banter and sexual tension between the leads, a dash of humour. This one actually looks like it was produced in the 21st century, which is still rare in German TV.
Whatever one may think of RTL – and the swamp of reality shows, talent shows, lifecoaching/advice shows and crappy stand-up comedy that makes up much of their programming annoys me as much as anyone – their homegrown dramas and sitcoms at least try to be innovative and many of them are worth watching. It seems to me that whoever is in charge of drama at RTL at least watches the imported US and British shows they’re broadcasting, takes notes and adapts the techniques, styles and ideas to their own programming. It doesn’t always work, but at least they’re trying.
Meanwhile, the two public stations, ARD and ZDF, broadcast quality drama from Britain, Scandinavia and sometimes the US, but they never learn from it. Instead, they write and film crime and family dramas like they used to do it twenty to thirty years ago and it’s looking increasingly dated. Often, the same public TV shows I watched as a kid are still running today, sometimes with the same actors. It’s zombie television and soon zombies will be the only ones watching.
Back to the three hallelujahs (and doesn’t that sound suspiciously like the title of one of those Italian westerns of the 1960s), the third rendition I heard today was actually the weirdest one. I was walking across the schoolyard during the lunch break. On the playground, a couple of kids are swinging on some kind of carousel like contraption. I cast a glance at them to check if they’re not killing each other or making any other mischief. But before I continue my way into the administration wing, I hear something strange:
The kids are singing. And the song sounds familiar. I venture closer and notice that the song is Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”. Why are kids singing “Hallelujah”, I wonder? After all, the song is probably older than their parents. Did they learn it in confirmation class or what?
By now I am close enough that I can make out the words and suddenly I realize that the kids are not singing Cohen’s “Hallelujah” at all, but a gag song called “Deine Mutter” (Your mama), which consists basically of a bunch of not very funny Yo Mama jokes set to the tune of “Hallelujah”. I’d actually heard part of the song on a student’s mobile before, but hadn’t made the “Hallelujah” connection, probably because I was busy telling the student to switch off the music and put the phone away, otherwise I’d confiscate it.
I don’t know who on Earth had the bizarre idea to sing Yo Mama jokes to the tune of “Hallelujah”. To be honest, I don’t get Yo Mama jokes at all. It’s a type of humour I just don’t get. Never mind that they usually manage to be classist*, racist**, sexist*** and fat-phobic**** all at once, which is quite a feat even for a joke.
Yo Mama jokes are also a fairly new phenomenon in Germany. We did not have such jokes when I was growing up. In fact, the US habit of insulting not the other person but his or her mother always struck me as bizarre. I assumed the popularity of such jokes in the US was a cultural phenomenon, linked to different family structures and ideas about family loyalty and family honour in certain subcultures in the US.
But nowadays, German kids occasionally resort to insulting each other’s mothers, usually when backed into a corner. A while ago, I had to break up a fight between two boys who had started insulting each other’s mothers. “Keep your mothers out of this! It’s not okay to insult each other’s family.”
I suspect the Yo Mama jokes leaked into our culture via rap songs, videos or maybe the internet. There’s probably a paper, a Master’s or even a PhD thesis somewhere in there.
* Most Yo Mama jokes, whether German or American, allude to poverty and what is perceived to be lower class culture. The first verse of the song the kids were singing today is about the mother shoplifting at the fashion discount chain Kik, which is infamous among many kids for making clothing they wouldn’t be caught dead in. Among adults, Kik is infamous for exploiting its worker.
** American Yo Mama jokes seem to imitate the features of African American Vernacular English.
*** Mothers are obviously female.
**** Eighty to ninety percent of Yo Mama jokes refer to the mother being fat.