There’s a great pair of parallel scenes in the brilliant German television show Deutschland 83, where Martin (aka Moritz), the young East German spy, attends a party on his first day in the West and sees a roomful of drunk Germans screaming along to “99 Luftballons,” by German pop icon Nena.
Moritz has not two days earlier witnessed exactly the same scene at his home in East Germany, presumably thanks to pirate radio. “Wow,” he remarks to a partygoer, “this song really is everywhere.”
In the early ’80s, as Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech helped the Cold War to go perilously balmy, Nena (birth name Gabriele Kerner) was everywhere—including here. Along with other hits from the German New Wave such as Peter Schilling’s “Major Tom (Völlig Losgelöst)” and Falco’s “Rock Me Amadeus,” “99 Luftballons” was the rare German-language pop song to chart in the English-speaking world, reaching No. 2 in the US—and that was even before Nena released an underwhelming English version that reached No. 1 in the U.K. (The original’s chorus has a piercing reference to on their way to the horizon that always makes me tear up. The translation just says floating in the summer sky.)
But while the undeniable bass synth line, and general Eurotrash New-Waviness, made “99 Luftballons” a huge international hit (and Nena an international superstar, until she dared bare an unshaven underarm in front of a bunch of English prudes), for German youth on both sides of the Berlin Wall it was a cultural touchstone, a screaming protest anthem about mutually assured destruction that you could use as a soundtrack for dancing your ass off. (Or, given that these are Germans we’re talking about, jumping up and down aggressively.)
Whether it was because of the armpit debacle or the rest of her oeuvre’s lack of Zeitgeist, Nena hasn’t had another chart-topper outside of Europe, but she has remained iconic in Germany, where she has had 14 top-10 records, including “Irgendwie, Irgendwo, Irgendwann” (somehow, somewhere, sometime) and “Nur Geträumt” (only dreamt).
But all that might change. Now 56, Nena’s back with a new single, “Genau Jetzt.” That means “exactly now,” and if the video is any indication, she may once again have hit upon Germany’s unique role in a pivotal moment in history.
In addition to featuring both the singer’s 74-year-old mother Ursula and her 24-year-old daughter Larissa, “Genau Jetzt” features a multiethnic and LGBT-spectrum cast, all looking imploringly into the camera. Meanwhile, in her signature rasp, Nena whisper-sings this chorus over lush, ethereal instrumentals (courtesy of Samy Deluxe, to whom this German article refers as a “Rap-Wunder”):
Perhaps it’s too late.
Perhaps it’s too soon.
Perhaps it’s exactly now.
And although the lyrics don’t have the same direct references to Kriegsminister (Minister of War) and Trümmer (rubble) as “99 Luftbaloons” did, the final verse does seem to have a direct plea for Germans to reconsider the Fremder (both “strangers” and “foreigners” or “aliens”) among them. (I’ve put my Ph.D. in the language of Rilke and Nietzsche to excellent use and provided a full translation here.) Once again, if you have a little time for Nena, she’ll sing a song for you. And once again, it’s just right for exactly now.