31
Jan 05

GLORIA 1: THE CASE OF THE BILINGUAL BALLOONS

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GLORIA 1: THE CASE OF THE BILINGUAL BALLOONS

Thankyou for your many comments on the thorny question of whether Nena’s German original “99 Luftballons” is better than “99 Red Balloons”. We have fed the two records, your commentary, and any other relevant data into our infallible Poptimizer (see below) and can now publish its results.

LANGUAGE: As the recent success of Schnappi Der Krokodil proves, German is a formidable pop language, also one with a certain amount of novelty value (and dare we suggest snob value) for the English speaker. Several comments noted with approval the “angular” rhythms of German speech – certainly to the non-native it seems a good language for conveying urgency and avoiding whimsy. Is that what the song requires?

GENRE: Frank Kogan noted that “Luftballons” is a ‘new wave’ rather than a ‘europop’ song. But is “Red Balloons” europop? One might argue that the halting English presses the right buttons for many listeners. Also that the slightly twee English title, and the linguistic infelicities, actually subvert Nena’s neue welle style and make her into a more generic ‘kooky’ performer, pushing “Red Balloons” into the novelty hit market where much Europop plies its trade off-continent. So here is another point of division.

So far we see things dividing quite clearly. The German version is urgent new wave, the English version a girlish Europop novelty. Which of these is better? To decide that we must consider the song itself.

LYRICS: Of course it’s hard to properly assess the German lyrics, as an English speaker. But the actual story doesn’t vary between versions. Nena and her friend buy some balloons, which set off World War III thanks to the trigger-happy military, after which Nena finds a solitary balloon, all that is left in her ruined city. The main difference is that in the English version the balloons are red – which actually helps, in that it’s the colour of danger and Sovietness.

Now nuclear war is a serious subject and one which the German music scene might understandably have dwelt on. I was once in a car with a German who enthused over Fischer Z, massive in West Germany in the 80s due to their cold war obsessions. “99 Luftballons” would have fitted right in. But it’s a parable more than anything else, the story is pointed whimsy but whimsy nonetheless. For that reason lines and phrases like “hurry hurry super scurry”, “standing pretty”, “little toyshop” create and hold the mood very effectively.

So – the verdict? Her native language probably suits Nena’s voice and image better. But the childlike naif act of the English translation and performance is a better fit for the tragic tale of the balloons. It’s a very close call but the Poptimizer’s final verdict must be a win for English. Gloria not upheld.

(Check back for another Gloria later this week – or suggest your own examples…)

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