I listen to plenty of songs in different languages, but only one is in German: “99 Luftballons”, by Nena. Anyone intimately familiar with 1980s pop culture will remember this song as one of the most popular ones of the decade. The song reached #2 on American charts, and was #1 at some point during the early 80s in Germany, Austria, and Sweden. Interestingly, the version of the song that garnered so much popularity, even internationally, was the German version. They attempted to popularize an English, but it never became as popular as the original. I thought this was interesting, because it raised the question as to why people preferred to listen to a song they couldn’t understand the lyrics to, rather than a song they understood perfectly.
The first theory I have is concerning the subject matter. The original German song is a protest song, the lyrics telling of a gross overreaction by the military at the sight of 99 red balloons in the sky, with catastrophic consequences. The English version hints at the same theme, but has a more roundabout or sardonic tone to it, never exactly indicating what is going on. The English version also implies a hint of mischief, the speaker “I” within the song having been the one to buy and deploy the harmless red balloons. Perhaps the more hard-hitting message of the German version, whether inherently recognizable in the singer’s voice or researched by fans of the song, is part of what made the German version so popular.
The second (and perhaps more likely) theory is that the sound of the two songs contrasted one another so much, that people preferred listening to the song with the German words, even though they couldn’t be understood. The German language possesses an intensity that English lacks, especially in the eyes of a native English speaker. It is similar to English in that they are both Germanic languages, so they sound slightly similar to begin with, with hard sounds and an abundance of consonants. However, there is something inherently interesting or intriguing about a language you don’t understand. Perhaps the audience of the early 1980’s thought the German words so enigmatic, they would rather not understand it than listen to an English version. Language is interesting that way — we are always most intrigued by that which we don’t understand.
Overall, the song “99 Luftballons” is one of the most well-known German songs of our time, and rightly so. It is rare that the original foreign language version of a song becomes more popular in the mainstream than the translated version, but this song seems to be the outlier. Hard-hitting, political, and an excellent song all around, it might be said that it’s no wonder this song made it to the top of the charts in America as well as Germany.
Here is a link to the song’s lyrics, a side-by-side comparison of the original German, the direct translation into English, and the tweaked English version of the song: http://www.inthe80s.com/redger3.shtml