Like some otherworldly space ship, the cast and crew of the top-ranking German-language television show, "Wanna Bet?" has landed on the outskirts of Salzburg in Austria. The show, one of the most successful in Europe, offers an entertaining mixture of ordinary people making outlandish bets (hence the title) and celebrity interviews and performances. And today the show's hundreds of crew members and technicians are invading the city. Security staff patrol the area, would-be audience members queue at the front entrance to the venue. Backstage, some of the highest-profile members of the entertainment industry are all hands on deck.
Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, the singer behind some of the most popular operatic albums in Europe, has just finished her sound check. Oscar-winning British actress Emma Thompson is picking up her backstage pass. Pop singer Shakira, rock icon Beth Ditto of the band Gossip and composer Andrew Lloyd Webber are in hair and make-up. And Lena Meyer-Landrut is sitting on a sofa in her dressing room, awaiting her turn. In a black cocktail frock, grey knit cardigan and large, black glasses, with a somewhat wide-eyed look, Meyer-Landrut comes across more like an intern for the show than someone who is about to perform on it.
Bigger than the Beatles and Michael Jackson?
Only a few short weeks ago, the only place 18-year-old Meyer-Landrut was singing was in the shower. In April, after winning a national competition to determine who would represent Germany at the Eurovision Song Contest in Norway, Meyer-Landrut made it into the German singles charts. Her songs rocketed to No. 1, No. 2 and No. 4 on the charts. Germany has had singles charts for the music industry since 1959. But neither the Beatles nor Michael Jackson achieved what Meyer-Landrut has. By early May she had already recorded her first album and in one week she will represent Germany at the Eurovision Song Contest in Oslo. The performance for "Wanna Bet…?" is to be her last public outing before Oslo -- after this, she will have to study for upcoming end-of-secondary-school exams.
Meyer-Landrut is popular with her fellow Germans -- and not just because the Eurovision contest, which has seemed a little stupid for quite some time now, has become meaningful again. It is possible the whole country has fallen in love with the teenager from Hanover because she is the first great hope the country has had to win the annual song contest in years. The Eurovision sees singers, voted for by judges and viewers in each of 38 participating countries, compete at a grand, glitzy finale. The 55-year-old contest, which is produced by European public broadcasters, is seen by as many as 125 million viewers, making it one of the world's most widely-viewed television events. In the past, it helped launch the careers of artists including the Swedish band Abba and Canadian singer Celine Dion.
Just An Average Girl from Hanover
What little the Germans knew about Meyer-Landrut until recently can be summed up in a few sentences. Her grandfather was the head of the Office of the Federal President under Richard von Weizsäcker, who was the president of Germany between 1984 to 1994, as well as the German ambassador to Moscow. Little is known about her parents: She mentions her mother often but never her father. She is an only child and she is far-sighted. She doesn't play any musical instruments and she cannot read music. The subjects in which she will sit exams are biology, history and sports. She has a tattoo on her left, inner arm, and she is smaller in real life than she appears on television. She's an average German girl, apparently. And when reporters ask her friends about her, the answer is often: "She's a bit of a nutter."
There are another couple of suppositions one could add. One might imagine that the mother of a teenage girl who was about to graduate from high school would not be completely overjoyed when her only child came to her, out of the blue, and told her, shortly before final school leaving exams, that she was going to be a contestant on a major international television show. "And I really want to do it." The fact that Meyer-Landrut didn't even tell her friends that she had entered the contest is also interesting. She says it is because she wanted to avoid silly comments. But it also indicates that she is someone who was self-aware enough to make a decision like this without consulting anyone else.
A not inconsiderable part of Meyer-Landrut's charm also comes from the fact that she prefers not to answer questions about her private life. "It's about the music," she replies in these instances. "I am sitting here because I won the show, 'Our Star For Oslo.' And members of my family have nothing to do with that. Anyway, my life is totally boring."
She Dances like Joe Cocker and Sings like Ali G.
Meyer-Landrut is a funny sort of a star. She took ballet lessons as a child but when she dances on stage she looks more like rock musician Joe Cocker than a ballerina. Her voice makes an impression but it seems uncontrolled. One of the many "Lena moments" during the program in which she competed to go to Oslo came when the host asked her about her breathing technique while singing. Her succinct answer: "I don't have one."
Meyer-Landrut's success can also be credited to a plan of action developed by German entertainment industry giants. Last year, German public broadcaster ARD and the television production company Brainpool, responsible for the successful late night show "TV Total," as well as several versions of talent shows similar to Pop Idol, decided to try and find a German representative for Eurovision. The endeavor was headed up by "TV Total" host Stefan Raab, who himself competed in the Eurovision Song Contest in 2000.
But they wanted to do things a little differently. In the past German contestants had already either been successful in German entertainment in their own right, or else they were "manufactured" artists, groomed by seasoned entertainment industry professionals especially for the contest. But this time, in the first co-operative venture between private broadcaster ProSieben and public channel ARD, they decided to put together a talent show which would seek out what is known within the industry as "authentic" performers. That is, performers who were not manufactured by music managers and who had their own artistic style and who were determined to continue to be themselves.
"You can't make a star like Lena, you have to find them," says Frank Briegmann, the head of Universal Music in Germany, one of the most powerful executives in the country's music industry. "You can outline specifications, in that you can say, we want artists who are authentic, who have their own ideas, who don't fit into a (tight) corset. So you communicate that and you hope that these kinds of artists turn up. And after that you take care of them."
And along came Meyer-Landrut -- with her homemade English accent (she has never been to England), her turns of phrase, now known among fans as Lena-isms, with the enthusiasm with which she sang and with all these funny little quirks that saw her chattering her way into her audience's heart.
The 'Nude Pictures' Scandal
Early in May Meyer-Landrut also came under fire for what some in the media called "nude pictures" of her. In fact, the singer, who says she always wanted to be an actress, appeared in a docu-drama sitting in a pool with a young man. Apparently viewers get a glimpse of her chest. Interviewed about it, Meyer-Landrut simply told German reporters that it was just a role she played. "I was acting and that means it was not my privacy. Give me one reason why I should be upset about this. IN our family we have always said: today's newspaper is used to wrap the fish in tomorrow."
Meyer-Landrut's meteoric rise to the top has been different than the usual one-hit-wonder tale of celebrity among reality TV stars, too. Yes, everyone can have their fifteen minutes of fame these days. You can win a talent show, but it is also still possible to sit your final exams -- because there are other things in life, too. That is down-to-earth Meyer-Landrut's message and that is why people love her. "I don't want to rehearse any choreography or practice being a character. That's too exhausting," she says. "The most important thing is that I am happy within myself."
Meyer-Landrut's performance on "Wanna Bet…?" in Salzburg in April was something of an experiment. But how will she fare beyond the television talent show? Can she perform on one of the entertainment industry's biggest stages? And how will she behave when she doesn't have to perform in a competitive situation?
Next to the Real Stars, Meyer-Landrut's Limits Become Clear
Appearing alongside the world renowned stars that are on offer this evening the limits to Meyer-Landrut's talent are visible. Next to Shakira, who can really dance, and Netrebko, who can really sing, Meyer-Landrut comes across as an 18-year-old with little stage experience. And next to Ditto, an indie-icon for lesbians and overweight girls everywhere as well as style icon to Karl Lagerfeld, Meyer-Landrut comes across as fairly tame. Still, she's quick witted in her talk with the host of the show. It made me feel sick, she says when asked what she thinks of the Russian opera singer. But then the well-brought up young lady quickly rescues the situation by adding, "I thought it was super. I'd listen to it again -- seriously."
Last up on the show tonight is the world famous German heavy metal band The Scorpions. The group just released a new album, their 17th, and are starting on a world tour to support it. The seasoned musicians rock out: The musicians are all over 40, most of them closer to 60, and despite their ages they perform in undignified black leather pants. But the Scorpions were not always like this. Forty years ago they too were young men from the German provinces -- in fact they come from the same town as Meyer-Landrut, Hanover.
Dreams of Pop Stardom
Meyer-Landrut is not as far removed from the heavy rock band as one might imagine, either. Music, and especially pop music, is all about desire and dreams. And these are not the dreams of the cool kids sitting in the cool clubs of New York, London and Berlin. These are the dreams dreamt in the bedrooms of children everywhere from Hanover to Dubrovnik.
Most of these teenagers in provincial cities around the world still do the same thing: They hang posters of their idols on their walls, they listen to the same song over and over again, and they look up videos and live performances on YouTube. They dream of exciting, different lives. Many of them pose like their heroes, most likely singing into a hairbrush, in front of the mirror. A few of them even dare to take that act out of their bedrooms. But only a few manage to turn their own love and enjoyment of pop music into something that others can relate to, too. At that stage their dream becomes reality and their new reality, the fodder for other's dreams.
The fantasies engendered by pop music are still the same, the European community is growing closer and there are cities like Hanover all over this continent and further afield. Additionally, although the 17-year-old Eurovision candidate from Azerbaijan is also a contender, betting shops all over Europe are calling Meyer-Landrut the favorite to win the Eurovision. In the past these forecasts have been fairly reliable. The view from Germany: There is no reason whatsoever why the love of the German-speaking fans for their new star Meyer-Landrut should be confined to just one country.