“Hast du etwas zeit für mich . . .” (“Do you have some time for me . . . ?”) is the storytelling beginning to German rock singer Nena’s biggest hit, “99 Luftballons.” It tells an apocalyptic tale of balloons innocently launched into the sky, triggering nuclear missile alert systems and setting off a nuclear war, and the song resonated way beyond Germany. The debut album Nena was released in German, and astonishingly “99 Luftballons” went to #2 on the US charts in the following year, 1984—in the German language! It was one of the biggest hits in a foreign language in the twentieth century in the US. Check out this live concert video that really shows the band’s energy.
Nena—the nickname of the lead singer, Gabriele “Nena” Kerner, and the name of her band—created an English-language version that reached an even bigger audience and went to #1 on the UK charts. That version, “99 Red Balloons,” was later covered by bands such as 7 Seconds. [Luft means “air” in German; the switch to “red” for the English title was for rhythm—but red also conjures up danger!] “Nur Geträumt” (“Just a Dream” in the English version), another great track from the first album, got a lot of play on US college radio stations in both German and English as well. Formed in 1982, the band released a total of four German albums and two international albums (with English and German tracks) before disbanding in 1987. Nena Kerner then began a solo career.
The blog title “Nena and Mozart” probably leaves you with a big question mark, which coincidentally was the title of Nena’s second album, ? (Fragezeichen), c. 1984. The photo at top shows that record plus the band’s debut release. There’s also a 1980s poster of the band in Times Square, which back then was still seedy and practically a required publicity photo op for any edgy rock band. Also shown is my battered Bärenreiter score of Mozart Lieder, some of which I performed on a recital back in 2017. Lieder are German art songs for voice and piano—although Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791) wrote some with mandolin. The lyrics of Lieder—Lied means “song” in German, and Lieder is the plural form—often already existed as a published poem when a composer decided to set them to music.
When I’m working on art songs in a language other than English, sometimes I listen to pop or rock music in that language, because it can be a good reminder of what a native speaker sounds like, even if the style is more informal than the kind of diction used for classical singing. Before that Mozart Lieder recital, I had been listening to the first two Nena records. As a teen, I used to love singing along with these songs in German, even though I didn’t speak a word of the language. I later studied German in college, but at the time I just tried to figure out what the words meant. Since English is a Germanic language there are some similarities. My favorite songs included “Vollmond” (“Full Moon”) and “Rette Mich” (“Rescue Me”).
For an encore, at the end of that recital, I sang Mozart’s “Sehnsucht nach dem Frühlinge” (KV 596), or “Longing for spring,” a merry-go-round-like song sung from a child’s point of view. Afterward, an older German couple came up to me with perplexed looks on their faces. They were stunned to learn that the song was by Mozart because in Germany, they explained, it is a well-known children’s folksong, called “Komm Lieber Mai.” It was so interesting to learn that Mozart’s song, written in 1791 (the year he died) in Austria, had morphed into a German folksong through two centuries of oral tradition—when a song is passed down from generation to generation by being sung rather than written down. The words are essentially the same too. When I looked online for this folksong version, who did I find had recorded it? Nena Kerner, on the 1990 album Komm Lieber Mai, the first of nine albums she did for children. I also found an animated version in a contemporary arrangement that acts out what the song means, in case you’re curious.
Nena (the singer) has had a long and successful solo career in Germany. And in 2003, she did a multilingual collaboration with singer Kim Wilde—“Irgendwie, irgendwo, Irgendwann”/“Anyplace, Anywhere, Anytime”—a #1 hit in Europe! It had been a hit for Nena and her band in 1984, and you can find the earlier version here complete with smoke machine and New Wave outfits. The German translation actually would be “Somehow, somewhere, sometime,” but “Any” is a better rhythmic substitution for the prefix “Irgend.” Enjoy!