Three Decades After "99 Luftballoons," Nena Comes to America

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Three Decades After "99 Luftballoons," Nena Comes to America

This election season, America isn’t the only country where disaffected, xenophobic voters are airing their grievances at the polls. Recent state elections in Berlin, Germany, brought heavy losses for the Christian Democratic Union, the party of Chancellor Angela Merkel. The results were payback, it seems, for Merkel’s decision last year to open her nation’s doors to hundreds of thousands of Middle Eastern refugees.

It’s a complicated issue, and one that German rock and pop legend Nena would rather not talk about—not with an American music writer who doesn’t sprechen sie Deutsch. On the eve of her first-ever U.S. tour—a three-city trek that kicks off Sept. 30 and comes more than three decades after her eponymous band reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the surprise 1983 German-language smash “99 Luftballons”—Nena prefers to focus on music.

“We could do a face-to-face interview and sit down and talk [politics], but it stresses me out to do it on the phone,” says the 56-year-old singer, songwriter, actress and author, days before flying from Hamburg to San Francisco to launch the tour. “I can’t give you a satisfying answer in one sentence. There’s so much going on here.”

Nena speaks better English than she thinks, but her fears of miscommunication make total sense—especially in light of her signature hit. Inspired by a 1982 Rolling Stones concert in West Berlin that ended with Mick Jagger releasing a bunch of balloons into the night sky, “99 Luftballons” imagines someone’s helium-filled party favors drifting over the Berlin Wall, getting mistaken for enemy aircraft, and kickstarting World War III.

The story befits a Twilight Zone episode, but with its funky slap bass, punky guitars, and cheesy New Wave synths, “99 Luftballons” is pop gold—the ultimate ‘80s Cold War jam. It’s appropriately dramatic yet subtler and more affecting than Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Two Tribes,” The Fixx’s “Red Skies,” and most of the day’s other nuclear-paranoia anthems.

It’s also eerily relevant in 2016, as Germany splinters over the refugee crisis and the United States and Russia butt heads over issues like Crimea and Syria.

“For us, it was always a song about misunderstandings,” says Nena, who remembers being instantly “touched” by the lyrics, penned by the band’s keyboard player, Carlo Karges. (Another bandmate, Jörn-Uwe Fahrenkrog-Petersen, wrote the music.) As Nena sees it, the song’s chilling exploration of the so-called “butterfly effect” has more to do with everyday human interactions than with international gamesmanship. “If you want to change the world, you have to start with yourself,” she says. “We’re all responsible for what happens in the world, what happens to us.”

That message didn’t come across in quite the same way on “99 Red Balloons,” the English-language version Nena released in 1984 at her label’s urging. Featuring lyrics by Irish musician and songwriter Kevin McAlea, who tweaked the story somewhat in order to preserve the melody and phrasing, “99 Red Balloons” was a hit in the U.K., Canada, and Ireland. In the United States and elsewhere, though, it was the original German version—first spun by legendary Los Angeles DJ Rodney Bingenheimer—that made the biggest impact.

Nena and her bandmates have long voiced dissatisfaction with McAlea’s translation, which some hear as silly and less nuanced. “The energy of the song was working,” Nena says. “There was no need to do a translation. The record company panicked. The whole vibe is different. We never felt it in English.”

The key differences come at the beginning, where McAlea opens the action in a “little toy shop,” and the end, where he replaces “99 years of war” with “99 dreams I have had.” “We sing about war,” Nena says, “but in kind of a poetic way. It just worked. People got it and still get it.”

The fact that Nena is finally coming to America at a time when “99 Luftballons” is timelier than it’s been at any point since the fall of the Soviet Union is pure coincidence. The tour is happening because the singer—a major star in Germany with 17 albums under her belt—found a booking agent that works with a lot of German bands, and because she’s always wanted to play here. While she’s sure to sing “99 Luftballons,” fans shouldn’t expect any political stage banter. Asked to comment on the coming U.S. presidential election, Nena says she’s “not a big fan of Trump” and leaves it at that. What she will say emphatically is that she feels good about the future—despite that nightmare scenario she still enjoys singing about every night.

“It makes no sense not to be hopeful,” Nena says. “It doesn’t make the world any better to be afraid or scared or paranoid. The world needs strong people with open minds. As soon as you get scared about what’s going on in the world, you’re weak. That’s not how I live my life.”