Music for the Apocalypse #24: 99 Luftballons/99 Red Balloons, by Nena

by Apocalypse Womble

’99 Luftballons’ was originally a German song (above), written after Carlo Karges saw red balloons being released into the sky at a concert in West Berlin, and wondered what would happen if they were to float over the Berlin Wall. The song supposes children innocently buying balloons and releasing them accidentally triggering nuclear war, as the balloons are mistaken for weapons. The success of the song saw it translated into English(below), becoming a major hit in translation as well.

For many years I never listened properly to the lyrics, and so didn’t realise what this song was about. It is one of the more gloriously cheerful songs about nuclear war, and all the more poignant for it when you realise what it’s actually saying. And it’s a complex imagery the red balloons could signify weapons used carelessly, but the balloon itself is such a symbol of harmless innocence – of carefree, floating play. It’s a hopeful symbol cut through with a childhood nostalgia that must always be bitter sweet – appropriate for a loss of innocence motif. And the colour – red – is surely symbolic. It’s highly evocative of poppies, and though the coincidence in English of ‘balloon’ and ‘bloom’ is presumably not intentional, a balloon is, in and of itself, like a flower – the red head on the slender string must seem like a bloom on top of a stalk. From one symbol of senseless loss of life to another.

And yet the simply joy and childish delight of a balloon cannot be done away with. The single balloon released in remembrance at the end is sad, to that extent, but cannot but be also a symbol of hope. A nice mix for the post-apocalypse campfire, methinks.

And the English version:

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