Friday, July 22, 2016

"99 Luftballons" by Nena

Top 10 Alert!
Gold Record Alert!
Song#:  1726
Date:  12/10/1983
Debut:  74
Peak:  2
Weeks:  23
Genre:  New Wave, Synthpop

Pop Bits:  Nena is actually a German band named after its lead singer. Gabriele Kerner got the nickname Nena (Spanish for "little girl") while her family was on vacation in Spain. She first fronted a band called The Stripes, which recorded one LP in 1980. After that band broke up, Nena and her boyfriend made a move to West Berlin and created the band Nena. The group was signed to CBS and their first single, "Nur geträumt," hit #2 on the German chart. Their next single was "99 Luftballons" and it went directly to #1. The successes spurred a self-titled debut album that also went to the top of the chart. As "99 Luftballons" began to hit #1 in other European countries, it started to get attention in the States. Epic took a chance on the song and issued it as a single backed with an English version titled "99 Red Balloons." Surprisingly, it was the German version that got traction and it started to climb the Pop chart eventually getting to #2. Unfortunately, the song's success didn't translate into further hits in the US and because it was their only charting song, the band got tagged as a one-hit wonder (#10 on VH1's list of Greatest One-Hit Wonders). Luckily, they continued to have good success in Germany and other European countries until their break up in 1987. Lead singer Nena then went solo and initially didn't have much success. She experienced a resurgence in 2003 and since that time has has seven Top 10 hits in Germany. In 2005, she got her second #1 with her song "Liebe ist." In doing so she set a record on the German chart for the longest span between #1's, with "99 Luftballons" being her first. She remains a major star in Europe and was a judge for three season on the German version of the TV competition program The Voice.

ReduxReview:  I still find it surprising that the German version of this song caught on here. Our culture has never been that open to hearing pop songs in other languages. Only a handful of foreign language songs have reached the Top 10. So when this song started to make the rounds on pop radio, it was certainly attention getting. And the fact that it didn't really have a true chorus made it even odder. I think the music was just so infectious that it made the song hard to resist, especially the groove the band establishes after the initial opening. I must admit that I kind of connected with the English version more because I wanted to understand what the song was about, but these days I'll take either one. Although Nena couldn't make a go of it in the States after this hit, they certainly had a pop culture moment with this song. It is still well-remembered and has been referenced in many TV shows (The Simpsons, Scrubs) and movies (The Wedding Singer, Boogie Nights).

ReduxRating:  8/10

Trivia:  The English version of the song, "99 Red Balloons," is not a direct translation of the German version. The English lyrics, written by Irish musician/songwriter Kevin McAlea, takes liberties and the story told is a bit different from the original. The band actually did not like the English translation as they thought it was too direct and almost political, but they still recorded the new lyrics. Since that time, Nena has never performed the English version in concert. While the US and Australia preferred the German original, the UK and Canada liked "99 Red Balloons" better and it hit #1 in both countries.

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