Commentary: Tokio Hotel making jump across pond

German group gaining traction in U.S.

MUNICH -- Four long-haired young men from across the pond have come to the U.S. They send massive crowds of teenage girls into a frenzy in their native country, and now they're in the States playing clubs and appearing at the MTV Video Music Awards in Hollywood.

They're Tokio Hotel, from an unlikely pop birthplace -- Germany -- and when they started out, frontman Bill Kaulitz and his identical twin brother Tom, the band's guitarist, were only 13.

Now, five years later, the Kaulitz twins and their slightly older rhythm section, Georg Listing and Gustav Schaefer, have redefined the term "teen phenom." Besides selling almost 3 million CDs and DVDs, racking up 13 platinum records in German-speaking territories and packing stadiums throughout western and central Europe and Japan, they've transformed the fringe esoteric image of German pop into the new global teenybopper cool.

Girls in such countries as Poland and France are learning German in order to understand Bill Kaulitz's lyrics of teenage disaffection. And there have been worried editorials in Israeli papers about whether the country's next generation of Jewish mothers is aware of the historical implications of this current youthful passion. Tens of thousands of Israeli fans signed a petition to get Tokio Hotel to play in Tel Aviv last year, and the band obliged -- to a huge open-air crowd.

But if the Tokios can make it anywhere, can they make it in New York? The band has been to the U.S. a handful of times in the past year, the second time appearing on "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" to promote the release of their first English-language album, "Scream." The Los Angeles Times described them as a "young emo-glam outfit" who sound like "the Jonas Brothers covering Guns N' Roses."

Their most recent U.S. stop was last week on "Jimmy Kimmel Live!"

The Tokio Hotel youngsters owe their precedent-setting success at home to "the professional and meticulous work of a team of producers and managers who maintain control over their 'product' at all times," German music journalist Olaf Tost says. "Bill Kaulitz, with his androgynous, vulnerable and yet energy-laden persona, is something of an emotional anchor in the sea of teenage angst for his fans."

One of the main members of the Tokio team, producer and co-writer David Jost, describes meeting Bill Kaulitz for the first time as a life-changing event. "I was 100% certain they were going to break the roof in Germany," he said shortly before the "Late Night" performance. "I would have bet the whole German music and media industry on this. But of course I never expected this thing to take off internationally."

The U.S. fan base was built mostly via the Tokios' YouTube channel, updated with professionally made and English-subtitled videos at least once a week. The intro to the channel declares triumphantly, "It's only a matter of time before the hysteria follows them stateside."

"A band from Germany getting big all over Europe -- with the chance of even more -- that happens every 20 years, maximum," Jost says.

Tost is a bit more skeptical.

"They may have some temporary success in the U.S. But for the long term they might not have the 'special something' -- like (German hard rockers) Rammstein does -- that makes them different from other bands," he says.
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