99 Red Balloons: pop as a protest
Nena’s 1983 smash hit 99 Red Balloons is a reliable staple of every 1980s compilation CD and the soundtrack to many a drunken wedding disco. Yet its catchy-like-a-cold hooks belie a more serious political message.
The song was inspired by a trip to a Rolling Stones concert in West Berlin, 1982. Nena’s guitarist Carlo Karges witnessed balloons (unspecified in number) being released as part of the performance. As they drifted over the stadium, they formed a UFO-like shape, making Karges wonder how they might be received if they happened to pass over the Berlin Wall into East Germany.
A seed was planted that became the song.
In the original German version, 99 Luftballons, describes pilots going to investigate a strange, shifting shape in the skies. Finding only balloons, they shoot them down in an overt display of power so as not to appear silly. This display of force throws surrounding nations into a panic, they fight back, and a cataclysmic and utterly pointless war ensues, with no winners: “99 Jahre Krieg ließen keinen Platz für Sieger.” All over a bunch of balloons.
The English version is slightly less subtle, with some of the nuances lost in translation. The band complained in interviews that the song was heavy-handed and didn’t work. As a result, Nena has never performed 99 Red Balloons live, despite it being the band’s biggest hit.
It’s claimed the band wanted it to be a pop song, not a protest song.
But I think the two things work pretty well together.
History has served us plenty of serious musicians singing about politics, but these days commercial pop has the potential to be the most powerful vehicle of all. In these times of diminishing attention spans, you’ve got to make it catchy.
Pair that with an increasing number of mainstream pop stars happy to throw their hat in the ring when it comes to politics, you’ve got a potent combination.
Here are some more contemporary pop hits with a serious message:
Formation — Beyoncé
In the lead single off Lemonade, Beyoncé takes a firm political stance. The video received criticism for being anti-police (it still won a Grammy).
Born This Way — Lady Gaga
The queen of the underdog, Gaga’s whole brand is built on accepting who you are. This pro-LGBTQ track screams self-acceptance from the rooftops. And is an absolute banger.
Where Is The Love? — Black Eyed Peas
Not being a pea-head myself, I only recently realised that this smooth chart-topping groover is about racism.
Q.U.E.E.N — Janelle Monáe
Creative tour-de-force Monáe wrote this song following a conversation with Erykah Badu about the treatment of marginalised people, particularly African American women.
Same Love — Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
Pop/hip-hop smash from 2012, and unoffical anthem of the same-sex marriage campaign in Washington at the same time. Macklemore wrote the song to critique hip-hop’s traditionally homophobic stance.
American Idiot — Green Day
Originally penned as a critique of George W. Bush in the wake of the 9.11 attacks, the song has seen a resurgence in popularity since Trump has been in office. Can’t think for a moment why.
In these uncertain times, there will be more like these coming down the line, I have no doubt. As western civilisation winds in ever-decreasing circles, under constant threat of vanishing up its own self-serving arsehole, is there anything left to do but sing and dance to a catchy song?
This post was written as part of the #write52 community writing project, a great thing, truly terrific, the absolute best.
I’m Penny, and I sometimes sing 99 Red Balloons in the covers band I’m in. I used to sing part of it in German, until there was a German person in the audience who told me I wasn’t making any sense.