Music. An important part of humanity’s development and it plays a large role in how we express ourselves. Some songs have a lot of meaning in them and sometimes said meaning can be difficult to interpret. That’s where I come in, 6 years of writing poetry and mastering imagery has led me to this point, to understand and decipher the lyrics of some of the most popular songs ever.
I wrote a song for my band last year in the previous school I was in, and it was received warmly. Granted, my singing was not as strong as some of the greats (Freddie Mercury, Whitney Houston, Tina Turner, etc.) the lyrics were thought to be well written. They may not have had such subtle messages as some of the songs I intend to decipher, but the lyrics were good enough for a bunch of 8th graders to rock out to. Enough about me, now for the meaty part. The song that will be deciphered this week is, drum roll please, …. (Drum, drum, drum, drum)…. the smash hit “99 Luftballons” by the German artist Nena.
The German version was originally released in 1983 and next year in English. As with most song translations, original meanings are corrupted and changed in order to fit with the song’s rhythm and lyrical flow. For example “Luftballon” literally means “Air Balloon” but is often shortened to just “balloon” in translation. In the English version, this is changed to “Red Balloon” in order to keep with the pace of the song.
There are several themes to the song which include: the cold war, the loss of dreams and probably some others that I haven’t connected yet. But those two will be the main focus of the analysis.
In order to understand the song, we have to refer back to the history behind it. The song was written in 1983, whilst Germany was split into sections during the cold war. The cold war was known for the tension between the two global superpowers of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the United States of America (USA).
If you recall, there was a massive panic over the Cuban Missile Crisis, some might say it was an overreaction. That is similar to this situation, refer to the English Version. The lyrics state that Nena and someone else releases 99 balloons into the sky and at the base, there is a system malfunction that says “Something’s out there”. Clearly, the machine is confused and believes that the harmless balloons might be missiles or bombs sent to blow up whomever’s base it is. Later on in the song, there is essentially an all-out war when 99 jet fighters are scrambled and the end of the song is the aftermath of the war that ensues the release of the balloons.
This song is clearly a statement on the fear that people lived in during the Cold War, more so in East and West Germany along with some Soviet Republics and the United States. Also at the end of the German version translated into English, it states “the world in ruins”, showing that the weapons possessed during the Cold War were powerful enough to destroy humanity. Fortunately, the song’s events never played out, and just six years after the original German version was released, the Berlin Wall was brought down in one of the most liberating events of the late 20th century.
Another explanation lies, once again, in the English version. “99 dreams I have had, in every one a red balloon”. Now, this may seem that all her dreams featured a red balloon, but what if it’s the other way around? What if each dream was represented by a red balloon, and maybe it’s not just her dream, but those of the German people?
Prior to the events of the fall of the Berlin Wall, countless families were split apart after the division of the country between the allied United States and the Soviet USSR. Those who could not cross before the construction of the wall in ’61 and had no travel papers had to get themselves through to the other side illegally. They had dreams to be with their families and friends, but these had to be let go due to the vigilant and dastardly Stasi, the East German Secret Police. I mean with the Germans once fearing for the Gestapo and the Russians with their NKVD and KGB, it was only obvious that once these two streams crossed, the outcome would be far from pleasant.
Anyway, the dreams that were mentioned in the song had to be related to some sort of dream of freedom or liberation from the Soviet occupancy. Also, if you look at the line of the English version that says “99 knights of the air”, it may be about soviet fighters. Wha, how, why? You might be confused, but the explanation is simple, the Russians were quite late to abolish feudalism, remaining well into the 19th century. Serfdom wasn’t completely abolished in all Russian territories until around the early 1890’s. Some would argue that feudalistic ideals lasted up until the October Revolution of 1917 when Tsar Nicholas II was overthrown by the Bolsheviks.
Again, off topic, the idea is that knights are one of the greatest symbols of feudalism (which thrived during the medieval era), and considering that Russia may have been one of the last countries to shift away from this ideology, the lyric could be implying that the lyric is about Russian fighter jets. And the Soviets were in East Germany, so that means that the Russians instigated the attack upon the 99 balloons. As for this current theory, it might mean that Nena was expressing that either she or the Germans (eastern and western) were letting go of their dreams after 38 years (1945 (the division of Germany) to 1983 (the release of the German version)) of separation, why the country was divided is another topic that is important to know, but would be too much of a deviation from this article’s main topic.
Could it be possible that Nena cleverly hid such depressing lyrics in such an upbeat song? Well, she did, but people didn’t really listen to them I guess, or maybe they did and they agreed with the lyrics and thought so highly of this German New Wave song that it propelled Nena to “One-hit-wonderism” (not an official phrase, but it should be).
There you go folks, “99 Luftballons” by Nena crudely analyzed. I didn’t decide to look into much of the imagery or the grammar (yes, theme can be shown through grammar) but rather the history and several key phrases of the song. And now the next time you listen to this upbeat, and frankly uplifting song, you can also breathe a sigh of relief knowing that Germany is free, no nuclear war occurred in the eighties and Nena was gracious enough to make an English version for those of us who butcher German pronunciations (that’s me guys, I am awful at staying away from the “angry German” accent).
Featured image from: http://deutschdrang.com/dir/2013/07/eine-stunde-lang-99-luftballons-99-red-balloons-for-an-hour/