I’m still in love with Gabriele Susanne Kerner. In 1984, she was 24 and I was 14. We had a relationship in my head, heart, and loins. Gabriele Susanne Kerner is better known as Nena. Nena rocked a pair tight-ass jeans, high tops, and a leather vest as she strolled in Grafenwehr mud.1 Nena, in America, was only known for “99 Luftballoons.” Nena is a famous anti-war singer because of this little German pop song. “99 Luftballoons” is invariably on every 1980’s one-hit wonders compilations. To reach a wider (American) audience, Nena recorded this song in English. This English version sucks because a true anti-war song carries more punch when sung in German. Germans know war and their language sounds appropriately war-like.2
Luftballons is literally translated as “red balloons” and is in reference to the Cold War saying of “the balloon has gone up.” The balloon going up meant that a war between the Soviets and NATO had begun. This saying is actually older and from World War I. Numerous histories and historians recount that “… when the balloon goes up is a phrase used to imply impending trouble. This relates to the use of observation balloons in the First World War. The sight of such a balloon going up nearly always resulted in a barrage of shells following soon after. The expression was re-inforced during WWII when the hoisting of barrage balloons was part of the preparations for an air raid.”
Nena was constantly seen, in 1984, wearing those jeans and her trade mark black and white Chuck T high tops. Thin German girls in jeans and high tops have a special place in my heart. She wasn’t pretty, or hot, in your traditional sense. She looked different from the girls I saw walking around my junior high in Tennessee, but she reminded me of the teen girls I saw the year before when I lived in Germany. Nena wasn’t leg warmers and dangle ear rings. Nena was youth slighted tinged with anti-authority mixed with European fashion sense. Nena represented modern and worldly. Nena was Deutschpunk with her keffiyeh scarf.3 When strolling the parkplatz outside a Horten department store, I would see German girls who were Nena copies… I wanted to kiss all of these Deutschpunk lovelies. My time at the Bad Nauheim Fußgängerzone was always spent imagining these girls as my sweethearts.
Nena reflected a significant portion of German youth that had not known the devastation of World War II. The “new” German youth of the 1980s didn’t fully appreciate what their grandparents and parents had endured. Nena and her fellow Deutsch youth were rebelling to what they saw as a crazy world that was governed by two superpowers that seemed to be on the verge of using her country as a battlefield. If war had come, American and Soviet tanks were going to grind German soil to mud like they had done in 1945. Nena strolled and sung in the German mud of Grafenwehr to protest this possibility.4
Nena was my dream girl. She was fresh, new, and a little rough. Today she is 51 and smoking hot. In 2009, Nena redid “99 Luftballoons” and I am glad to see that Nena has aged gracefully.5 I’m still in lust for and in love with Nena. I don’t want to choose between 24 year-old Nena or 51 year-old Nena. Fortunately, I don’t have to choose. I can have both of them and allow them to represent different times and places in my life.
Nena and I have moved along in our separate lives, yet we have been connected. She is not fully aware of our connection, but as an artist with a catchy tune, she has to be aware there are 41 year-old men whose inner-14 year-old boys still yearn for her. Nena still makes music and I’m still listening.6 When Nena strolled in that mud, she was making tracks on my heart.
1. I got to “play” in Grafenwehr mud from 1995-1998. It is a military training area in Bavaria, Germany and the only place I have experienced dust, mud, rain, sunshine, and snow all in a single day. It is also the location of one of my coldest shits EVER. Grafenwehr training area has concrete shitters and toilet seats do not exist. You have to sit on concrete. In Bavarian winters, concrete toilets are extremely cold.
2. Give a German an armband and a marching tune, and they will be in Paris within a week.
3. Claire was a classmate of mine at Frankfurt American Junior High School. Claire’s mom was a Department of Defense Schools System teacher. She was not an Army brat. Claire rocked a keffiyeh scarf and it went well with her braces. I swooned for Claire and always attempted to sit by her on our daily 45 minute school bus ride from Bad Nauheim to Frankfurt. On an unrelated note, seems keffiyeh scarves are even the rage today with German Bundeswehr soldiers serving in Afghanistan.
4. I have no idea if Nena and her band intended to visually represent the possibility of Germany becoming a muddy battlefield in their video, but in my mind that is exactly what she and they are doing.
5. Nena today: