Sunday Night Journal, April 23, 2017
Sunday Night Journal, April 30, 2017

52 Albums, Week 17: Nena (Nena)

Unlike Mac, I tend to regard the pop music of the 1980s as something of a nadir, but that is not to say that there was no gold amongst the dross. Back in January I sang the praises of The Pogues. At the time I said that what most interested me in songs was the lyric, and this is undoubtedly true, so it is strange that one of the albums that gave me the greatest joy as a teenager was one which, at the time, I could hardly understand a word of. This was Nena, the debut album of the band Nena, which was fronted by a singer whose stage name was also Nena. Somebody has put the whole album on YouTube.

I’ve never forgotten my mother, whose tolerance for pop music seemed to be restricted to The Beatles, complaining at my father “always listening to screechy women” when driving. Kate Bush or Stevie Nicks would have been the immediate culprit, but he also listened to operatic sopranos a lot, especially Kiri Te Kanawa. Just a few weeks ago, to my astonishment, my elder daughter said almost exactly the same thing of me, when I was listening to Jean Ritchie. I will never understand the appeal of Kate Bush, but the appeal of Nena was her far-from-screechy voice. As a result, assertions that German is an ugly language have always struck me as bizarre, although like any language it can no doubt be spoken in ugly ways. The band was quite a spare formation of guitar, bass guitar, drums and keyboard, producing a fairly typical German New Wave sound (not otherwise my favourite), supporting the singer’s voice and very much subordinate to it.

They are really only known in the UK for “99 Red Balloons” – originally “99 Luftballons” – one of the singles from the album.

By the time the album came out, though, I was living on the Continent. The track that most spoke to my twelve-year-old imagination was “Indianer”, which I now can’t help thinking must have been inspired by Karl May: 

But by the age of 14 or 15 my sympathy was with the Reggae-influenced “Ich bleib’ im Bett”: 

The most characteristic in terms of upbeat, boppy energy, however, might be the band’s breakthrough single in Germany, “Nur geträumt” (also on the album), or perhaps the opening track, “Kino”, about a late-night trip to the cinema: 

Nena, the singer, is the only entertainer I can recollect ever having anything like a crush on (contemporaries salivating over Madonna or Kylie Minogue I could only regard as dolts), but for decades the album Nena was all I knew her for. She has apparently had a steady career in Germany ever since 1983, but was a one-hit wonder elsewhere until a (pretty negligible) single recorded with Kim Wilde in 2002 (by no means an improvement on Nena’s original). Somehow the fact filtered through to me that she had recorded part of the soundtrack to a German comedy of modern manners, Vollidiot, in 2007. And just last year she released a new album, Oldschool, which has a couple of nice numbers on it. The best is certainly Genau jetzt

What really brought her back to my attention, though, was the highly entertaining Cold War spy series Deutschland 83, broadcast here last year, the soundtrack for which features quite a lot of German New Wave pop.

—Paul has been reading the blog since 2008, when Janet drew his attention to a discussion about Brideshead Revisited. He currently trains translators in Brussels.


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Walked into my German professor's office in a Midwestern university circa some time in the early/mid 80s and was very amused that he had a poster of Nena hanging in there. When asked about it apparently a student had given it to him, not sure if he was a fan. I will always think of that when Nena comes up.

I like her voice a lot.

I listened to the full album again to write the piece, and then all the items in the post when you put it up yesterday. I'm a little surprised how pleasant it still is to listen to.

I haven't listened to everything you included but what I did listen to was enjoyable, though not the kind of thing I'd go out of my way to hear again very often. I do like her voice very much--it has a sort of relaxed, very un-shrill quality, but is still strong. I like "Genau jetzt"--if the whole album were as good as it I'd want to hear it (though I'd want a translation of the lyrics). What exactly does the title mean--"right now"?

I like Kate Bush's best work a great deal, by the way. I wouldn't be surprised if one of her albums turned up here before the end of the year.

Hounds of Love is one of my all-time favorites, Mac.

Yes, it's a great one.

I've never heard of Kate Bush.

With some trepidation, this is Kate Bush with a song that made it to the top of the UK singles charts:

Yep, that's our Kate--flaky but brilliant. She was only 19 when she wrote and performed this in 1978. Her work got richer but no less eccentric.

Slightly surprised you hadn't heard of her, Robert, but then she was never all that widely known here, though the fans she did have tended to be fanatical. Oddly enough, a certain type of young man found her very appealing. ;-)

Poor Paul, he doesn't like Kate Bush and now she has taken his Nena post hostage! I love those old 70s music videos - haven't seen that one since the 80s.

Were you one of those young men? :-) You'd be about the right age I think. I didn't hear much of her till I was 40 or so, when a co-worker lent me that best-of called The Whole Story. Actually still haven't heard a lot of her stuff.

I was just out of college when 99 Luftballons hit the airwaves. I wasn't particularly taken by it, largely because there was so much other stuff that sounded like it at the time. But it was one of those catchy records that made it out of the "underground" and onto the pop charts when New Wave stuff was beginning to show up more frequently in the American mainstream.

I didn't really hear much of Kate Bush until Hounds of Love (1985), but holy cow! What a way to break into the American scene!

I heard about her long before I actually heard her. Like Madonna in that respect. But with her it was "Huh? Is this what all the fuss is about?!?" While with Kate it was "wow".

Madonna was largely a "Top 40" phenomenon and by the time she arrived on the scene (early 80's) I hadn't followed that sort of pop chart music for years. I did hear her, though, largely via younger friends. Other than the fact that she was an attractive young woman who dressed funky and tended to sport her sexuality, I didn't understand what all the fuss was about, as I thought both her voice and her music were pretty average.

Everything is a matter of taste, of course, but looking back people like Madonna and Michael Jackson seem immensely talented and amazing singers and dancers compared to the dreck at the top of the charts since then.

I don't really hear that stuff but now and then I get brief glimpses that make me think you're right.

Hard to tell, really, now that everything can be digitally manipulated. In the little bit of today's pop music that I hear, it seems like there's an awful lot of auto-tune going on, which makes me wonder how much "live" music is really live.

I don't even care. Whether it's produced 100% by people or 100% by robots, what little I hear sounds awful. As for auto-tune, I'm sure it's used in ways that are not detectable, to fix mistakes and such. But I absolutely cannot abide it as an effect, when the vocal slips and slides around in humanly impossible ways. For me it's the aural equivalent of the smell of spoiled food: a physical "get this away from me" reaction.

I have to say, though, that Taylor Swift seems to be a genuinely gifted songwriter. I've heard people say the same about Lady Gaga, whom I've always gone out of my way to avoid because her whole persona, starting with the name, is off-putting to me.

On a totally tangential and insignificant note, my kids went to Notre Dame with Taylor Swift's brother. My daughter had a class with him. Every now and then Taylor would show up on campus and it would instantly get out via texting and she would suddenly have a "flash mob" crowd following her.

Does that mean the family is Catholic?

I believe that is the rumor.

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