Happy Thursday, internet. With the week winding down, we wanted to bring an upbeat song to give everyone that little extra push to get to Friday. That’s why today we’ll be covering the eighties German pop hit, “99 Luftballoons”, by Nena. Or, more accurately, the English-translated version, “99 Red Balloons”.
So far this week, all of the songs we’ve covered have shared a subject matter of war in some way. Monday, we looked at Bob Marley and The Wailer’s “War/No More Trouble”. Tuesday, it was Prince’s dance hit single, “1999”. And yesterday, we looked at Queen’s famous collaboration with David Bowie as we tackled “Under Pressure”.
Like a lot of our songs this week, “99 Luftballoons” was written in the eighties during the Cold War, and coincidentally, also deals with war as a major theme. But before we get too far into the song itself, let’s get a little context first.
“99 Luftballoons” comes from the German band Nena’s self-titled 1983 album. The single was such a big hit, that an English version, “99 Red Balloons” was released a year later. While the English-translated version still manages to retain the spirit of the original, it’s not a direct translation, and took some poetic liberties. This didn’t go unnoticed by the members of Nena, who have never played the English version live, sticking always to the original German version.
However, seeing as how I am not fluent in German, we’ll be looking at the lyrics to the English version today. But out of respect for Nena, the music video above contains the original German lyrics.
99 Red Balloons Lyrics
As usual, we’ll first start by looking at the first verse of the English version, and see the story that it sets up.
“You and I in a little toy shop
Buy a bag of balloons
With the money we’ve got
Set them free at the break of dawn
‘Til one by one, they were gone”
“99 Red Balloons” is a simple enough song that we don’t need to concern ourselves with searching it for hidden meanings or interpretations. It’s a song that tells a story, so all we need to do to extract meaning is to follow the narrative. Here we simply get the setup. Two people whimsically set free a bag of balloons into the air.
“Back at base, bugs in the software
Flash the message
“Something’s out there”
Floating in the summer sky
99 red balloons go by”
Here we get an interesting twist in the story, as a military base picks up on the flying balloons, but mistakes them for an unidentified flying object.
Once the balloons are mistakenly identified to be some sort of threat, the English version describes the overreaction by the military and government.
“99 Decision Street
99 ministers meet
To worry, worry, super-scurry
Call the troops out in a hurry
This is what we’ve waited for
This is it boys, this is war
The president is on the line
As 99 red balloons go by”
The two lines to highlight here are, “This is what we’ve waited for / This is it boys, this is war”. And here, we can see what the English version is suggesting. It can be seen as a commentary on governments being so eager to go too war that they’ll use any excuse. Or, it can be seen as them being too stupid to see the “threat” for what it actually is.
The last verse brings our story to a conclusion, while painting a picture of death and destruction that came from one innocent act.
“It’s all over and I’m standin’ pretty
In this dust that was a city
If I could find a souvenir
Just to prove the world was here
And here is a red balloon
I think of you and let it go”
The story told in the lyrics of “99 Red Balloons” comes full circle in the end, as many great stories tend to do. But it also opens up an interesting alternative interpretation. In the first verse, the narrator releases balloons with another person, possibly a significant other. But by the end, the narrator walks through a destroyed city alone, and seems nostalgic for the other.
Is it possible that the English version of “99 Red Balloons” works as an extended metaphor that traces the arc of a relationship? Maybe. The first verse could represent the novelty and happiness of a budding relationship, and by the end, the narrator is searching for a souvenir that could prove it mattered. To be honest, it’s a bit shaky, and I’m not too sure it holds up. But that’s part of the fun of exploring alternate interpretations.
That about wraps up our discussion for today. Be sure to give the German version, “99 Luftballoons” a listen. I promise, you’ll have that bass line stuck in your head all day.