Sunday, May 13, 2012

99 Luftballons

Here's a very memorable '80s song, that also is very much a reminder of the history and politics of that era: "99 Luftballons" by German singer Nena. The song came out in German in 1983, followed by an English version in 1984.

The song is a protest song about the fear of nuclear war, which was often present in the midst of the Cold War. The Cold War, the sometimes tense competition between capitalist democracy and communism, was a fact of life since the late '40s, until the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 (with the Soviet Union falling shortly after in 1991).

The early '80s saw an uptick in the tensions between East and West, as both superpowers (the United States and the Soviet Union) installed new nuclear missiles in Europe. According to Wikipedia:

While at a June 1982 concert by the Rolling Stones in West Berlin, 
Nena's guitarist Carlo Karges noticed that balloons were being 
released. As he watched them move toward the horizon, he noticed 
them shifting and changing shapes, where they looked like strange 
spacecraft (referred to in the German lyrics as a "UFO"). He thought 
about what might happen if they floated over the Berlin Wall to 
the Soviet sector.

Both the English and German versions tell about two children who 
buy 99 balloons at a toy shop and release them into the air, where 
faulty East German radar equipment registers the balloons as 
incoming weapons. The government immediately put their troops on 
red alert and scrambles fighter jets to intercept, which ultimately 
triggers anuclear war between East and West. In the apocalyptic 
aftermath, the song's narrator stands in the rubble of the city and 
finds a single remaining balloon. Thinking of someone, she then 
lets the balloon go. The music was composed by Uwe 
Fahrenkrog-Petersen, the keyboardist of Nena's band, while 
Karges wrote the original German lyrics. 

In the United States, the song was released in both German and English language versions, and I remember my friends and I would sometimes talk about which version sounded better. The German one always won hands down.