29
Jul 09

NENA – “99 Red Balloons”

FT + Popular45 comments • 6,866 views

#532, 3rd March 1984, video

1984 was pop’s year of war. I’m not talking about Macca or Nena or Frankie: it was the moment I most keenly felt the charts as a battleground. There was a cosmic struggle raging in the Top 40 between the awesome and the terrible and in some huge and undefinable way it mattered which side won each week. Before this point I’d experienced the charts as a source of pleasure – the bad stuff rubbed up against the good but it hardly bothered me. After this, my concept of what pop included started to expand – the war continued but with the Sunday evening chart only one of its (many, many) fronts.

Unfortunately, looking back the actual sides in this private war weren’t truly determined by some righteous perception of perfect pop. Instead the casus belli in 1984 was simple and grubby: was it a girls’ record? Did they like it? Did they sing it? If so – to the dumper! Nena very much included – I hated this record fiercely: it was silly, it was sappy, it squelched. And to make it worse, Nena’s offhand, gamine bounce brought on that special pre-adolescent kind of “DO NOT WANT” where the “NOT” cuts in and out like a bad radio signal.

The version of her song we got – unlike almost anywhere else, the US included – is the English version, with the lyrics more rewritten than translated. The shift in emphasis matters. Both versions sing armageddon as a domino topple – once the baloons set the process going, the end of the world is an inevitability. But in the German version this happens with little human input – the people involved are tools of the process, and it’s a sad parable of a world doomed by systems. The English version is more savage. Here humanity gleefully digs its own grave, in a Strangelove style vision of a war nobody starts and nobody survives but everybody deep-down wants. “This is it boys! This is war!”

This version fits the music a lot better – its quickening tempo, its sense of release, the way the groove gradually liberates itself from that opening duck-walk and lets the song become a swirling, bumping kids’ party before it suddenly stops for the sad little coda. The downside is that you have a fine, husky voice singing lyrics in a second language and getting the phrasing slightly off – poor puns like “standing pretty” get worse when sung so haltingly. German, in any case, is a very underrated rock language – those thick crunches of consonants! So migration works an odd trick on “99 Luftballons”, changing it into a sharper song but a tweer performance.

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Comments

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  1. 26
    Tom on 30 Jul 2009 #

    #24 The military-machines-are-toys thing is a pretty common ‘clever’ metaphor to show the FOOLISHNESS OF WAR – the film War Games came out the years before this. and obviously we’ve not seen the last of the war-as-game in this year’s Popular entries. So I just see it as of its time rather than particularly ineffective.

  2. 27
    Jonathan Bogart on 30 Jul 2009 #

    I agree with the gutsy in German/twee in English thing — which is why I like the English version more!

  3. 28
    anto on 30 Jul 2009 #

    Brilliant review of a number 1 which from a distance of 25 years seems vaguely baffling – A bouncy Euro-pop tune about nuclear destruction sung by a lady with untrimmed armpits?!?!
    I don’t feel particularly strongly about 99 Red Balloons, but I think some of those dull protest songs about Iraq could have done with a less grey earnest approach and a bit more pop colour.
    The early eighties trend for anti-nuke songs is one of pops stranger digressions there was the Young Marble Giants eerie ” Final Day ” there was Enola Gay and Hammer to Fall (bombastic) there was 1999 and 2 Tribes (defiant) and ” The Unforgettable Fire ” which is possibly the best thing U2 ever did. Also that preposterous Ultravox video where Midge Ure drives home from work and discovers World War 3 has broken out by looking in a telly shop window in the rush hour as well –
    typical huh?

    p.s That comment about the pre-pubescent DO NOT WANT just stings with reality. The male ego never denies a need for girls as much as at the point where they are about to become the major obsession.
    Top class writing.

  4. 29
    rosie on 31 Jul 2009 #

    Well really! What’s all this nonsense about not shaving armpits?

    Armpits, assuming that they are otherwise clean – and you do wash them, don’t you guys? – are the source of the body’s natural sexy scent. Only the marketing arm of Big Business could think of removing that and replacing it with synthetic chemicals.

    Do you boys shave your armpits? No? Well why should us women!

    ;)

  5. 30
    Erithian on 31 Jul 2009 #

    Hi Rosie – I think those of us who have mentioned the armpit thing are metaphorically raising an arch Teutonic eyebrow at the fuss that was made about it 25 years ago. But I wonder whether we’re more or less hidebound now by supposed ideal body images? Beth Ditto, for instance, makes a more political thing about her weight than, say, Alison Moyet, for whom it was all about her extraordinary voice. I’m offering no conclusions, just setting it up for discussion.

    I’d have been quite happy if the natural scent of the bloke next to me on my train last night could have been replaced with synthetic chemicals, mind you.

  6. 31
    JonnyB on 1 Aug 2009 #

    Oh dear. I always thought it was a song about balloons.

    I’ll listen to it again. Lyrics sort of pass me by a lot of the time, which is a bit odd cos I’m a writer an’ all that… but when I listen to music it’s the tune and production and stuff that grab me, and it never really occurs to listen out for the words unless there’s a particularly grabbing line somewhere. Obviously there are exceptions. Anyway, what a great pop song! Of all the ones written about in this series, this has subsequently earwormed the most – by far.

  7. 32
    peter goodlaws on 1 Aug 2009 #

    I’m with JonnyB at # 31. I too simply thought that this was a puerile nursery rhyme about playing with balloons and shut my ears to it. The silly playground-type melody only reinforced my view that this daft little piece of jelly and ice cream Euro pop was one to just sneer at until it went away to “Junior Choice” where it belonged. I now realise I could have been wrong.

    I have no opinion about Nena’s hairy armpits and cannot recall discussing them. Mind you, I bet any passing red balloon gave them a wide berth. 98, 97, 96…

  8. 33
    intothefireuk on 5 Aug 2009 #

    I don’t get the passion for this. Clunky anti-nuke lyrics, passe synth sounds and and and hairy armpits to boot! A novelty at best surely, I didn’t like it then and certainly don’t now.

  9. 34
    Doctor Casino on 6 Aug 2009 #

    This is a 10 for me but I appreciate Tom’s writeup. I think the English version has plenty of drama, and some very nicely shaded bits to the lyric – particularly the lines identifying the doomsday pilots as “99 knights of the air”… “Everyone’s a superhero – everyone’s a Captain Kirk!” On one level it’s mocking the heroic pretensions of these bringers of death and catastrophe, and at the same moment I think it’s really sympathetic to them – they are magnificent in their terribleness, just like the Bomb itself.

    Phrasing it that way makes me want to add the Smiths’ “Ask” to anto @ 28’s list (“If it’s not love, then it’s the Bomb that will bring us together”), plus their “Stretch Out And Wait” with the discussion of the end of the world floating over the conversation like a mushroom cloud. Oh, and “It’s A Mistake” by Men At Work….

    Ha, just found an ILX post where I say basically the same things as above, but also add “Party At Ground Zero.”

  10. 35
    thefatgit on 8 Oct 2009 #

    I have a lot of time for the German language in pop. It’s the idea that a language that doesn’t lend itself readily to poetry/lyrics can pop up in music and be instantly intriguing. I heard the english version on the radio and was dismissive of it. On hearing the German version, it seemed to take on a more charming identity. So Nena was the springboard into a fascination with europop and eurorock. Propaganda popped into the charts, although I was pretty peeved most of their Secret Wish album was sung in English. Delving deeper, I came across albums by The Scorpions, Einsturzende Neubauten, Die Toten Hosen and of course the daddies that were Kraftwerk. Certainly some meaty morsels there. Three years hence, I hear a Slovenian band called Laibach cover an Austrian band (Opus) singing Life Is Life in German and become blown away by it(and their Beatles covers too).
    It’s amazing to me how certain songs can lead you down an interesting path musically and culturally. All because of Nena’s 99 Balloons.

  11. 36
    Tooncgull on 21 Oct 2009 #

    Out in South Africa, we got the German version on the telly – I know that because in those fledgling video recorder days, I recorded and rewatched the music vids from that period for years – but got the english version on the radio.

    I much preferred the German version. It seemed to “scan” better too. But mostly, being 20 in 1984, I fancied the pants off Nena in the video. I guess that swings it.

  12. 37
    James K. on 13 Dec 2009 #

    I’m surprised that the German lyrics also mention Captain Kirk. I would have figured that was unique to the English version. Was Star Trek popular on the Continent?

    It’s interesting that the English version of the video is cut differently from the German version (at least in the versions available on YouTube). Was it because the German version featured non-red balloons prominently, or because they blew up?

  13. 38
    rosie on 13 Dec 2009 #

    James T^H K @37: Is it possible that non-English-speaking popular cultures are more receptive to English-language popular culture than Anglophones are to culture in other languages? How many other Nena songs got much airplay in Britain?

  14. 39
    DV on 28 Dec 2009 #

    I used to be fascinated by how whenever you saw the German version of the video, demure English language Nena transformed into this hairy armpitted monster lady.

    There was a completely dreadful version of this song re-released by Nena in an “Errinern-Sie Mich!” way just before the invasion of Iraq. Seek it out if you like bad music.

  15. 40
    Brooksie on 4 Mar 2010 #

    @ Erithian # 21 “certain parts of the UK media made an inordinate amount of fuss about the fact that she had hairy armpits and wasn’t afraid to show them off.”

    If all of the women you’d seen in your life had shaved armpits, you could be forgiven for being shocked at the sight of unshaved armpits. Saying she “wasn’t afraid” implies she was being deliberately defiant – she wasn’t. She just didn’t know better as it wasn’t the norm in Germany for all women to shave their armpits. It was just a simple case of cultural ignorance. It is the norm in Germany now.

    “like there’s one ideal image you have to conform to.”

    There are always boundaries, that’s as true now as it was then. It’s easy to say there shouldn’t be, but unless people en-masse go against the norms then nothing changes. Men still can’t wear kilts without sniggers, and they still can’t wear makeup without mockery. Everyone is expected to conform.

    @ Rosie # 29 “Armpits, assuming that they are otherwise clean – and you do wash them, don’t you guys? – are the source of the body’s natural sexy scent.”

    BO is the term you’re looking for, and it’s only sexy if you already find the person attractive. If you don’t and you smell their armpits it’s a downer, that’s why people use deodorant.

    “Only the marketing arm of Big Business could think of removing that and replacing it with synthetic chemicals.”

    Not really. The use of scents to cover the body’s natural smells goes back to the dawn of humanity. Big-Business just commodified it.

    “Do you boys shave your armpits? No? Well why should us women! ;)”

    Because you’ve been doing it for years. The fact that men expect it now really isn’t their fault. For what it’s worth some men don’t care. Most men don’t have moustaches anymore because women don’t like them, if you aren’t used to seeing them they can make men look ‘creepy’. Back in 1900 most women didn’t shave their armpits and most men had moustaches, but things change. Maybe 100 years from now nobody will cut off their body hair at all?

    As for the song: Peppy, nicely catchy Euro synth pop sung by an attractive lady. Why not? It’s not amazing but it certainly has enough of a tune to stand up as a # 1 – ably reflected in its worldwide chart success.

  16. 41
    flahr on 21 Nov 2010 #

    I would really like to hear a remix/cover/whatever of this with the first hook – the lumbering one with the handclaps under it – removed, so it’s just the rushing one that sounds like it’s played on the steel drums. Faster, dammit, faster!

  17. 42
    malmo58 on 13 Jan 2012 #

    My first single – I was 12 at the time, just liked it as a catchy pop tune and thought Nena was a nice young lady. And the ‘you and I in a little toy shop’ at the beginning moved me – here she was singing about her and me being friends.

    With repeated listening I came to appreciate the war message, and always found the ending, in which she thinks of the friend she sings the song to as she lets the balloon go (how did she lose him – did he die in the war or has the aftermath just left them separated?) incredibly poignant.

  18. 43
    hectorthebat on 29 Nov 2014 #

    Critic watch:

    1,001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010) 1-1001
    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Swellsville, Chuck Eddy (USA) – The 100 Best Singles of the 80s (1990) 80
    VH-1 (USA) – Nominations for the 100 Greatest 80s Songs (2006)
    Theater van het Sentiment, Radio 2 (NL) – Top 40 Songs by Year 1969-2000 (2013) 7
    Spex (Germany) – The Best Singles of the Century (1999)

  19. 44
    malmo58 on 17 Apr 2016 #

    Just a thought : she says they blew up all the balloons in the bag, so what happened to the 100th? Did they burst it blowing it up too hard, or did it burst before it rose high in the sky?

  20. 45
    Phil on 18 Apr 2016 #

    #39 – I’ve just watched the German language video; Nena stays fully-clothed throughout (not that that was what I was watching it for, I hasten to add).

    I don’t think the two versions are so very different (although the translation is certainly not an improvement; the cadences of the original just fit the song better). Summarising, one line to every four:

    German version
    I’m going to sing a song about 99 balloons
    If you’re ready, I’m going to sing about 99 balloons get on with it – Ed.
    99 balloons were mistaken for UFOs from space
    A general despatched a squadron
    99 jet fighter pilots thought they were Captain Kirk; there was a big flash
    The neighbours[sic] were upset
    99 war ministers smelt a fight
    And declared war – who’d have thought 99 balloons could do all this
    After 99 years of war there are no victors, no jet fighters, no war ministers
    …just a balloon

    English version
    We buy balloons in a toy shop and let them go
    An automated early warning system mistakes them for incoming missiles
    Red alert
    The war machine springs to life
    99 war ministers meet
    ‘This is it boys, this is war’
    99 jet fighters
    …ordered to ‘clarify and classify'[sic]
    It’s all over and there’s nothing left
    …except a (red) balloon

    What gets lost in translation, oddly enough, is the first strike – which was precisely the political edge of the song at the time (NATO was refusing to rule out a first strike, even on German soil).

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