Lyrical Credentials


It was this past Halloween that I began curating my ultimate collection of 1980s music on Spotify. Of course, I added all of the classics, such as "Take on Me" by A-Ha and numerous Prince songs, yet I came across one song that I latched onto more than the others: "99 Luftballons" by Nena.

At first listen, the song appears to be a stereotypical early 1980s New Wave classic, equipped with funky bass lines, powerful drums and harmonic synth-waves. In short, it was an all-round fun song to listen to. However, my mind had an itch I was unable to scratch whenever I listened to the single -- I couldn't understand the beautiful voice of the singer, Nena, for she sang in German. With this, I began translating the lyrics and discovering a whole new meaning to the song.

"99 Luftballons" is a bittersweet letter to the Cold War, coming from divided Germany during the early 1980s. It was a protest song used to show how quick it could end, especially where and when the song was written. The story begins with the innocence of two children buying balloons from a toy shop and ending in a nuclear holocaust. If you think that is a crazy story for a song, you'd be correct. However, the rest of the song goes into detail on why war broke out and how something as simple as balloons set off trigger-happy countries into total nuclear war.

The song itself is a chilling reminder of mass hysteria, the uneasy tension during the Cold War and the unforgettable feeling knowing we have the capabilities to end it all with the touch of a button. But without my curiosity, I would have thought it was a cute German dance song.

I think lyrics mean a lot more than people would like to admit. For a long time, I used to be someone who listened to instrumental music or listened to music solely for the music-part of a song. Finding such music in the modern day was difficult, so I mainly listened to instrumental Big Band music from the 1930s and 40s. This pathway eventually led to vocal Big Band music, which pipelined to a specific song that I (now) hold very close to my heart: "One More Tomorrow" by Frankie Carle. This song was, technically, my introduction to lyrics that have hidden contexts, and made me fall in love with lyrics and the stories they tell.

"One More Tomorrow" was written one year after the war in 1946. On the outside, it appears to be a typical wishy-washy romance song that lovelorn teenagers would listen to at that time. However, with the context, it is a story of tragic loss. For the duration of the song, it is sung from the perspective of a widow whose husband was lost at war. Throughout the song, she (the widow/singer) would yearn for "one more tomorrow" with her husband while the band that accompanies her cries in musical agony. Before I knew that context, I felt incredibly single. After the context, I cry to the song (but I still feel incredibly single, too).

There are other such songs like this that have more ominous undertones, like "Pumped Up Kicks" by Foster the People and "Christmas Kids" by ROAR, but many people will skip over those lyrics and vibe to the beat instead -- and more power to them. I have nothing but respect for people that listen to music just for the music, me being half that person, too. But, music should also tell a story. Music was created to pass along stories when writing wasn't available, and now we must continue that tradition, whether it be fiction or not. Lyrics are a powerful art form and tool, and I truly believe that they deserve more credit than given.

Opinion by Cameron Haughawout