Aug. 27, 2008 -- Move over Heidi Klum and Hugo Boss. The new ambassadors of German popular culture have arrived in the United States, but they're not what you'd expect.
Tokio Hotel may sound like a new Japanese resort, but it's actually a group of four rocker guys whose singer is often mistaken for a girl but is actually the identical twin of the dreadlock-haired guitarist. Puzzled yet? The band scored two No. 1 albums in its native Germany, and yet most of the band members aren't even old enough to legally drink here.
Tokio Hotel's sharp rise to fame, from playing school concerts and weddings a few years ago in its hometown of Magdeburg, a hundred miles southwest of Berlin, to currently selling out venues in New Jersey, San Francisco and Chicago, can arguably be seen as Internet-driven. The band has amassed a frenzied fan base of mostly young women who take the title of the band's first English album, "Scream," seriously -- by doing just that at a mere glimpse of the band.
Wendy is a young fan from Brooklyn, N.Y., but jokingly claims, "Ich bin ein Deutsch!" She thinks the band is "hot," but also found the music to be so powerful it "can bring tears" to her eyes. "Tokio Hotel ist der beste!," says Doris, 18, who says she is learning German because of her interest in the band.
"I've spent over $600 this past week for all the tickets I just bought and the traveling I have to do," said Kiila, a 20-year-old student who plans to attend as many concerts as she can on the band's tour through North America this month. She spent four days hanging around Times Square near MTV's studio in the hopes of meeting the band, which recently hosted the network's show "TRL."
Like the launch of some resplendent blitzkrieg, Tokio Hotel is eager to conquer American shores. Its success abroad draws comparisons here as the "Jonas Brothers of Germany" -- if the Jonas Brothers were a long-haired, sexually ambiguous-looking act, blending genres from pop to glam rock to hip-hop.
Tattooed lead singer Bill Kaulitz, 18, is rarely seen without black eye makeup and with his hair, also dyed black, styled in a gravity-defying lion's mane. Born in the Internet and video game era, he already seems astutely aware of the power of the visual, and credits the Internet with the band's breakthrough outside Germany. "Especially as newcomers, it's really important to have the Internet, where people can talk about you and listen to your music," he said in accented English. When thousands of fan Web sites, blogs and YouTube postings began sprouting up worldwide, its record company noticed.
"The fans outside of Germany send us e-mails, they come together and shoot a video or something, and they say please come to wherever, Israel, whereever," Kaulitz said. So the band did -- not only Israel , but France, Italy, Switzerland, Russia and other countries, often selling out stadiums and fulfilling a kind of prophecy of the band's chosen name -- which band members changed from "Devilish" in 2005 -- which evokes their love of foreign destinations.
"It was always our dream to travel the world and play in big cities and ...," Kaulitz starts to say before his twin, Tom, chimes in, "and to stay in good hotels!"
Although the two often complete each other's thoughts, Tom Kaulitz, who plays lead guitar, prefers the almost opposite look of his sibling -- baggy clothes, a sports cap around blond dreads and a lip piercing. Drummer Gustav Schäfer and bass-guitarist Georg Listing complete the four-member band.
Adoration: From Internet to Miles-Long Fan Letter
Several female fans admit to first being intrigued by the band's looks and mash-up styles, but insist they became hooked, some even obsesses, when listening to the songs. In Germany, the band is a household name, and girls stalk its recording studio, hiding with cameras behind bushes. Pieces of the Kaulitz twins' former school bus stop were auctioned off last week on eBay for thousands of euros (no bids though). The quartet once received a fan letter that was more than 7 miles long. (They didn't read the whole thing.)
The Goethe Institute claims increasing interest in its German language classes because of the band, especially in its Paris branch. The San Francisco office organized a concert ticket giveaway earlier this year, and deputy director Anna Weber said in one day without any promotion "we got 80 to 120 e-mails. We got so many phone calls, you have no idea. We thought they were unknown here."
The Internet has made it easy for fans to chat and share stories with others around the world who share their passion. After a concert ends, girls post videos and pictures from their cameras and phones capturing the band's performances, it seems, from every possible angle.
The boys have mastered the quality of being exotic, and yet approachable, online. They make video appeals for fans' award votes and post weekly "Tokio Hotel TV" Web episodes as a way "to take the fans with us." The band was stopped only momentarily in March, when it had to cancel several concerts so Bill Kaulitz could have surgery to remove a cyst on his vocal chords.
These teenage rockers are becoming accustomed to the idea of growing up in front of the eyes of a 24/7 media world. "Our whole life changed from one day to another," Kaulitz said. "We have so much inspiration. It's everywhere. ... So I always have a pen with me and a laptop, and I write everything down." The band has started to work on its new album, which it will release in German and English. The band writes and plays its own music but is helped by a team of four producers. "We are like a big family," Kaulitz said.
That family seems to have landed on a winning combination of lyrics laced with "emo" angst, wrapped in a flamboyant pop-rock package. It's PG-rated but still edgy enough for younger fans. Songs range from catchy pop anthems to anti-suicide messages to appealing rock ballads. Tokio Hotel seems to straddle the line between boy band fad and hopeful rock icons, but where it will eventually end up is unpredictable.
Tokio Hotel Vs. Miley Cyrus
"Scream" landed in U.S. stores in May and peaked at No. 39 on the Billboard 200, selling quite a bit less below the multiplatinum status the band achieved in Europe, but you wouldn't know it by the Internet hype. This month fans voted online to give Tokio Hotel two MTV Video Music Award nominations for best new artist and best pop video, pitting the band against best-selling artists like Miley Cyrus and Britney Spears. "We think we have no chance, but it's just great being nominated," Bill Kaulitz said.
Right now, the band is just awestruck at the attention they are getting in America. "The fans voted so much for us, it's a great feeling," Tom Kaulitz said. "It's really a big deal for a German band to have the chance to go to the U.S."
One would have to go back almost a generation when a German band last achieved huge crossover success in America. In the 1980s. The Scorpions topped the charts with songs like "Rock You Like a Hurricane" and artist Nena scored big with her Cold War-era protest song "99 Luftballoons." Incidentally, watching Nena as a child was what inspired Bill Kaulitz to become a singer, he said.
But for every "next big thing," there can be an eventual backlash. "I don't really want them to get really famous here," posted "Isabella" on Tokio Hotel's U.S fan site. "Getting big also brings about the question of them losing sight of their German culture."
As fans grow, so do "haters" of the band, who create and upload anti-Tokio Hotel videos and Web pages. The Internet has other dangerous downsides. Recently in France, a young man was arrested for allegedly posing as Bill Kaulitz in chat rooms, convincing young girls to send him naked pictures, which he then posted on the Web. The band says it doesn't have personal accounts like MySpace, other than its official Web sites, just for this reason.
But most of the fans simply want to concentrate on the good stuff, like one young brunette who waited on a New York City street to see the band when it visited. She is crying but smiling, her teeth lined in braces. "I got Bill's autograph. .... I got their autograph, and I love them!" she cried, wiping tears from her eyes with neon-polished fingertips, just another uber-happy Tokio Hotel fan.