“99 Luftballons” was the iconic—and, it turns out, accidental—Cold War protest song that rang out on both sides of the Berlin Wall in 1983, and would become forever associated with the hair-trigger realities underlying life in divided Germany. The song made the German singer Nena, and the band that carried her name, an international star.
Nena toured Europe, the U.K., and Asia—but never came here. Now, a mere 33 years later, that injustice is being rectified: Her “99 Luftballons Over America” mini-tour hits New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco for three dates at the end of September and the beginning of October. (There are still a few tickets for the U.S. shows available; you can buy them here.)
As delightful as it will be for my fellow teutonophiles and ’80s music fans (and other cool people) to behold Nena’s famed stage presence and signature ethereal rasp in person, it still boggles my mind that an act with a No. 2 Billboard hit never played a single U.S. tour date. Why? “I just don’t know. We played Japan twice, a lot of other countries, the whole of Europe—I really don’t know,” she tells me during a recent phone interview from her kitchen in Hamburg, Germany. But, she says, she never gave up on playing in the U.S., which she’s always wanted to do—and finally, earlier this year, she had a serendipitous run-in with a German-born booker who now works stateside. “It’s happening now, and I’m just happy about it! I was ready for it—and for whatever reason, this year, I knew it was going to happen.”
That the singer of the official anthem of the finger hovering over the red button (ya burnt, “Land of Confusion”!) is arriving on our shores right now (which is also the title of her new single) is not lost on me. As far as I’m concerned, it’s not a moment too soon, given that our own proverbial hundredth luftballon—orange rather than red, with approximately 500 percent more hot air—seems poised to drop.
And, given that Nena, too, is an ’80s celebrity making a surprise American resurgence (except, you know, a welcome one), I had to know. What does the “balloon chick,” as she calls herself in this video announcing the American dates, think of one Donald J. Trump?
“I talk a lot about this issue with my American friends,” she admits. “We are all kind of worried, to be honest. I’ve never met Donald Trump, and I can’t say he’s my enemy. I don’t think it’s good to create a feindbild,” she adds, using a terrific word that literally translates to “concept of the enemy,” and basically means a created image that invokes hatred or fear (hmm). “I don’t think in terms like that,” she says, “but of course I’m not his biggest fan.” (Alas, there goes my secret dream of Trump using “Luftballons” at a rally and the irony being lost on him.)
But, friends, no matter what Nate Silver says, all is not lost. Nena has wise words for us in our time of crisis. “I believe in the power of human beings,” she explains, “and as long as you want to change something in the world, you should get up in the morning at 5 and meditate for peace in the world. We can change the world when we start to feel responsible for that.” If that sounds woo-woo to you, just remember that when she was growing up, “The adults around me always told me: You, as a single person, you can’t do anything about what happens in the world.” And then she and her band only wrote the most politically important song of the Cold War.
By the way, not only does Nena embrace her limited American exposure with characteristically ethereal niceness—“For me it’s a big, big present [to play in the U.S]. I’m humbled! I was kind of a one-hit wonder in your country. Now I have a chance to show a little bit what I do!”—she was also delighted to tell me all about how that song accidentally became a political touchstone.
As the legend goes, band guitarist Carlo Karges, who wrote the lyrics to “Luftballons” (and unfortunately passed away in 2002), was inspired by a 1982 Rolling Stones concert in West Berlin, where at one point a bunch of balloons were released that floated in the direction of East Berlin. Karges wondered what might happen if the balloons flew over the Berlin Wall, “because a simple balloon could cause a war because of a big misunderstanding.” However, Nena says, “it was never meant to be a specific political song. The message was that misunderstandings between people can cause everything, can cause a butterfly effect. We were never a political band with our lyrics—but we were always people who wanted peace in the world. ‘99 Luftballons’ was this sort of a song. It was always a peace song.”
The same, she says, goes for “Genau Jetzt,” which some intrepid lyric-interpreters (ahem) took to be a gentle commentary on islamophobia, the refugee crisis, and other social problems challenging Germany at the moment. “As long as you connect the song with what’s going on with my country, it’s fine with me,” she says, “but I didn’t do it on purpose.”
On, finally, to even more important things—possibly the most important thing. Does Nena, who has only visited the U.S. a few times and professes no favorite city here, know that “99 Luftballons” is an American karaoke mainstay, despite our nation of monolingual idiots’ general lack of German knowledge? She laughs when she hears this, hard. “I didn’t know that. I know that it appears in a lot of American movies and even on The Simpsons. But nobody ever told me that it’s a karaoke hit.”
Well, how could it not be? For 33 years, it was the closest we had to hearing it live.