In the U.S., Nena is best known for “99 Luftballons,” a German-language global hit that reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1984, then became a hit once again in English as “99 Red Balloons.” Nena herself never loved the English version, which sounds more like a protest song than the charming and absurdist original. “I don’t want to say I never liked it,” says Nena, speaking from her home in Hamburg, Germany, as her grandchildren play in the background. “But I never felt it.”
The question comes up because Nena will soon perform a show each in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York — her first concerts in the U.S., aside from some promotional appearances in the ’80s. In Germany, she still plays arenas and appeared on The Voice of Germany. Imagine if Debbie Harry still had the career of Gwen Stefani and you’ll get the idea.
Except that Nena — née Gabriele Susanne Kerner, who got her nickname from the word “niña” during a family vacation to Spain — doesn’t take herself quite so seriously. Her new song “Oldschool” pokes fun at her status as an ’80s icon (“You may remember me / From a few classics / From the ‘80s / It feels fantastic”), while the video for “Genau Jetzt” (‘Right Now’) features both her mother and her daughter, and two of her children are backup singers in her band. And, of course, none of Nena’s American pop star peers ever founded their own elementary school.
Billboard talked with Nena before her trio of U.S. shows about that school, why CDs still sell well in her home country and who sounds better in German: The Beatles or David Bowie.
Will these shows really be your first U.S. concerts, aside from some promotional appearances in the eighties?
Yes — and I’m so excited. Some of my band is American and they always say, “Nena, when are we going to play in our country?” Somehow I felt it was the right time. I make my decisions not with my mind but with my heart.
You’ve always said that you prefer the song “99 Luftballons” in German. What’s the story behind the English version?
It’s all because of Rodney Bingenheimer! When Christiane F. (the German actress who was the subject of the book and film Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo, “We Children of Zoo Station,” about a teenage drug addict in Berlin) went to L.A. to promote the movie, she brought some records and Rodney picked out our album and started playing that song 20 times a day. He made it a hit in the U.S. The record company started freaking out, saying they had to have an English version of the song. I would never have done a translation, since I love the song in German, but we got someone to translate it. Although, Americans always say they prefer the German version.
Was it hard to sing in English?
English is a nice language — in my first band we had English lyrics because in 1979 it was not popular in Germany to sing in German. It’s when you translate from German to English — that’s what I don’t like so much. The rest of the songs [including “Just a Dream” (“Nur geträmt”) and “Hangin’ on You” (“Ich häng’ an dir”)] were translated by Lisa Dal Bello, a Canadian singer-songwriter who came to Berlin to work with us, and that was a different situation — she was in the studio with us. I like them better.
On one of your new songs, “Oldschool,” you sing about being an ’80s pop star. Most pop stars don’t joke around about themselves.
It was fun — I try not to be too serious about what I do. Imagine having a worldwide hit like “99 Luftballons,” which doesn’t even have a chorus! It’s very serious on one side — but also funny.
While we’re on the subject of the past, you turned 56 this year — how do you still look 35?
[Laughs.] I have no answer for this. I think it’s not a matter of what I do, it’s a matter of how I feel. I take care of myself. But I enjoy a bourbon sometimes.
You have three grandchildren. Do they understand what you do?
The youngest is three and he doesn’t understand. The other two are six and they realized about a half-year ago that their grandma is kind of famous. They think it’s funny when grandma appears on TV.
You also founded a grade school in Hamburg, Neue Schule Hamburg, right? How did that happen?
Years ago, a German newspaper, Die Zeit, asked me what my dream was, and spontaneously I just said, I want to found a school. We were the first people in Germany to found a school like this (a Sudbury school, where children take responsibility for their own education). We trust the children and we don’t think we have the right to put them in prison like school seemed to be to me — my school time wasn’t very happy.
Since this is Billboard, we have to ask you a question about the music business. In Germany, CDs still sell really well (physical sales accounted for 69 percent of the country’s music business by revenue in 2015). Any idea why?
Maybe we still like to buy an album from a store? Or maybe [many Germans don’t like] credit cards? I don’t like credit cards. I have a ritual: after each show, I take some money home — I work and I want to get paid. Of course I don’t take all of it in cash, but I want that ritual.
You’ve performed “Helden,” David Bowie’s part-German version of “Heroes,” and I’m sure you’ve heard the two songs the Beatles sang in German [“Komm, gib mir deine Hand” (“I Want to Hold Your Hand”) and “Sie liebt dich” (“She Loves You”)]. Who sounds better in German?
I would have to say the Beatles. They sound a bit more natural.