What do 99 balloons have to tell us about war?
There’s something about 80s pop music that makes me so happy. I don’t know if it’s their overuse of synthesizers, or the random themes they explored. I mean "Walk like an Egyptian"? "Tarzan Boy"? "Big in Japan"? These are really random and quite great songs that are on the top of my feel-good playlist. I used to believe that all of these songs were inspired by random stuff these bands thought about and decided to make an equally nonsensical song about it, until I listened closely and read the story behind Nena’s “99 Luftballons,” or as it is known in the English version, “99 Red Balloons,” which I also thought it was just as random as well. It turns out I was totally wrong. In fact, it has a very interesting and deep meaning behind.
English version (1984)
So, let’s put a little bit of context. After playing for years in a not so very successful band called The Stripes in Hagen, Gabriele Susanne Kerner (a.k.a. Nena) and her boyfriend decided to take the record company's advice and move to Berlin to boost their career, which they did. A year later, with a new band, they became a huge success all over West Germany. One of their greatest hits was, of course, “99 Luftballons,” the song that launched them internationally and made everybody dance throughout a decade. After the huge success, interviewers would ask stupid and generic questions to them, until one of them thought what everybody was thinking at the moment. What the hell does the song mean?
Goldfinger's 1999 version
The story was that Carlo Karges, the band’s guitarist, was happily enjoying the Rollings Stones’ concert in Berlin in 1982 and in the peak of the show hundreds of balloons were released. As he watched them flying and disappearing into the sky, he started wondering what would happen if they actually headed towards the Eastern side of the city. What would people think about these things? And just like that, with a simple experience, they created this super hit song that was, in fact, conceived as a protest song. So, now let’s go to the anecdote of the song.
Nena's 2002 re-make.
One day someone sets free 99 balloons to the air. One general of the army sees it and sends a group of pilots to investigate since, according to the song, he believes they're UFO. They obey, only to discover that they are balloons, but since they don’t want to be laughed at, they decide to put on a show and they start shooting them down. Now, we’re talking about the eighties in Berlin. They’re still living the paranoia and fear of the Cold War, believing that an imminent war is about to happen anytime soon. So obviously, noticing that a group of pilots is having some sort of air battle, the leaders of all nations become alert and a nonsensical war starts. The 99 balloons are down, and devastation has hit the world. By the end, the narrator releases the hundredth balloon, which she watches fly away in the middle of the havoc.
ARIA's 2016 cover
The song is a comment of a new generation that was born in a flawed system, where everyone lived afraid of living the last "normal" day of their lives or wondering if that small talk they had with their beloved ones would be the last words they shared. They didn’t experience the war but it was still a quite vivid memory of their collective imagination. We talk so easily about the Cold War and how World War III didn’t happen at the time, but we don’t take some time to think how people lived in constant fear and paranoia waiting for the worst to happen. This song is a great portrayal of that hysteria and collective psychosis, of how governments engage in conflict without really seeing the consequences and impact of their actions, and how, at the end of the day, all those balloons are a representation of our dreams and hopes.
Here's the original 1983 German version:
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