I will never forget the look that Ben, the German exchange student living with my family in high school, gave to Paul, a clever classmate, when he dropped the H-word: Hasselhoff. Though I didn’t get the joke at the time (beyond finding it amusing that my host brother was being mistaken for the Baywatch star), Ben’s eyes seemed to pierce Paul’s soul, silently commanding him to hold back on the Hasselhoff humor or face serious consequences. Since our stay in Germany, we’ve caught on that the Hasselhoff thing comes up a lot for Germans. Rumor has it that he’s “big,” as they say, in Germany.
“It happens every time I have visitors here,” revealed Ayla Kiran, our host in Berlin. “One of the first things they ask is ‘Is he really a star here?’ ” Denials or explanations must then be made to put the whole story into context, and, if all goes well, put it behind them.
See how David Hasselhoff brought down the Berlin Wall in this video from First Night 1990, less than two month’s after the fall of East Germany:
On behalf of Ben, and Ayla, and all Germans, it’s time to put the story out there and settle this once and for all. It’s true, David Hasselhoff does have a special place in the hearts of Germans. But it’s more complicated than that. Germany (and Austria and Switzerland) do deserve some blame for their lack of taste (or unique sense of humor, depending on how you look at it), but they were also a victim of history.During the late 1980s, David Hasselhoff, who was reaching his peak of popularity in the United States as an actor, released a pop music album in Europe that rocketed to success off of the strength of the hit single and title track “Looking for Freedom.” The song was a loose cover of the 1978 euro-hit “Auf Der Strasse Nach Suden” (On the Road to the South), and captured the number one spot on the singles charts in Austria, Switzerland, and West Germany by late spring. It would be an exaggeration to describe the song as good, but, admittedly, it was not far off from the standard fair of dance-pop of the time, save for the fact that it was being sung by a TV lifeguard.
For some context, “Looking for Freedom” was competing for the number one spot with the likes of Fine Young Cannibals (“She Drives Me Crazy”), and Roxette (“The Look”) — needless to say, it was not the proudest moment in pop music.The album was not released in the United States — Hasselhoff, though popular, was already somewhat of a parody of himself. Besides, the shift from the actor/entertainer to singer had been tried before (think Eddie Murphy), with mediocre results. Somehow, this genre-shift didn’t seem to bother Europe, or maybe it just didn’t register.
Meanwhile, Berlin’s infamous wall clumsily separated the rival siblings of East and West Berlin, like a line of tape down the middle of a shared room. After 28 years, tensions were flaring, and the stalemate was reaching its breaking point. Pressure from asylum-seeking East Germans was threatening to burst the wall open at its iron and concrete seams.
First, communist Hungary removed its travel restrictions with Austria, allowing thousands of East German tourists to escape to Austria and enter West Germany. Exacerbating the situation, Czechoslovakia began to honor asylum seekers showing up at the West Germans embassy in Prague. First it was hundreds, then hundreds of thousands.Hasselhoff’s song pumped away relentlessly in the discos of West Berlin, while weekly protests grew steadily, from a symbolic gesture to a historical event. On Nov. 4, over 1 million people were gathered outside Alexanderplatz in East Berlin.
Finally and miraculously, on Nov. 9, because of mounting pressure, it was announced that certain checkpoints would begin allowing passage from East to West. Due to internal confusion, and continued protests, a guard finally acquiesced, opening the gates to West Germany.
The ensuing euphoria lasted for months, as families and friends reunited for the first time in a generation. Hope, change, and yes, freedom, were in the air. That December, Leonard Bernstein played a concert in celebration of the end of an era — a diplomatic effort that brought together orchestra players from both East and West, but it was the following concert that would go down in history.
To ring in the New Year, there was no question as to who could best symbolize hope, freedom, and a new beginning. After spending almost two months at number one, “The Hoff” performed “Looking for Freedom” live at the Berlin Wall in front of hundreds of thousands of Germans.
The evening’s proceedings were immensely important for Germany’s self-image, as well as its image toward the world. After years of tension, the party was a release of epic proportions. First Night Berlin 1990 no doubt figured among the biggest parties on the planet.
Hasselhoff sat atop a moving platform, decked out in the most technologically advanced outfit of the moment, doing his best to sing along to the backing track. From the looks of the YouTube video, it may have been his greatest moment, and for many Germans, the performance symbolizes the most exciting period in recent German history.
Both Germany and Hasselhoff don’t make the papers quite as much as they did back then, but they share a moment, for better or for worse, that can never be taken away. “The Hoff,” thanks to his Baywatch days and recently videotaped antics, may be more of a joke to Americans, but through his indelible voice, a nation found freedom, and that’s why David Hasselhoff is big in Germany.
The musical legacy of the fall of the Berlin Wall isn’t limited to “Looking for Freedom.” Another popular anthem from the time is “Wind of Change” by Scorpions, which was actually written in response to the drastic changes that were taking place in Germany and the Eastern Bloc during the early 1990s. The epic power ballad, with its signature eerie whistling and pointedly political lyrics, topped the charts in Europe and reached #4 in the U.S. and stands as a truly great example of music written about the events in Berlin.