Nena (pronounced [ˈnɪna]; born Gabriele Susanne Kerner, 24 March 1960) is a German singer-songwriter, actress, and comedian who rose to international fame in 1983 with the New German Wave song "99 Luftballons". In 1984, she re-recorded this song in English as "99 Red Balloons". Nena was also the name of the band with whom she released the song. The re-recording of some of her old songs rekindled her career in 2002. In 2007, she co-founded Neue Schule Hamburg.
Gabriele Susanne Kerner (Nena) was born on 24 March 1960 in Hagen, North Rhine-Westphalia, West Germany while her family lived in the nearby town of Breckerfeld. She spent the earliest part of her childhood in Breckerfeld and later lived in Hagen. She acquired her nickname, based on the Spanish word "niña", or "little girl", at the age of three, while on a vacation to Spain with her parents. In 1977 she left high school before graduation, and in the three following years she was trained as a goldsmith.
Nena's musical career began on 2 July 1979 when guitarist Rainer Kitzmann founded The Stripes band and, on the basis of having seen her dancing at a local disco, asked her to audition for the position of the lead singer. The group had a minor hit with the song "Ecstasy", but never achieved mainstream success and disbanded on 3 March 1982. In May 1982 Nena and her then-boyfriend Rolf Brendel moved to West Berlin, where they met future band members guitarist Carlo Karges, keyboard player Uwe Fahrenkrog-Petersen, and bass player Jürgen Dehmel. Together, they formed the band Nena. In 1982 "Nena" released their first single, "Nur geträumt", which became an instant hit in Germany after the band appeared on the German television show Musikladen on 21 August 1982. The single reportedly sold 40,000 copies the day after the song appeared on the show and reached No. 2 in the German charts.
1982–1987: International success and band breakup
In 1983, the band released its first album Nena, which contained the singles "99 Luftballons" and "Leuchtturm". "99 Luftballons" became a number one hit in West Germany and the Netherlands in 1983 and went on to major international chart success the following year, an English version hitting No. 1 in the UK and the original German version hitting No. 2 in the US, behind Van Halen's "Jump". In 1984, Casey Kasem's radio show American Top 40 introduced a "mixed" version of the song, "splicing" the German and English versions together. It was also a huge hit in many other countries, and to this day it is one of the best-known German rock songs in many parts of the world.
In May 1984 while on a tour in the UK, Nena made the headlines of the British red-top press for having unshaven armpits. At the time this was not uncommon in continental Europe but was considered unusual in English-speaking countries to the extent that some people consider it explains the commercial failure there of the follow-ups to "99 Luftballons". Nena, baffled by the attention generated, asked the girlfriend of her manager to shave her and has remained clean shaven ever since. Referring to the "huge indignation" the issue raised, Nena, in her memoires published in 2005, wrote, "Can a girl from Hagen, who dreams of the big wide world and is in love with Mick Jagger, have no idea that girls can't under any circumstances have hair under the arm? Yes she can. I simply had no idea!"
Although "99 Luftballons" was Nena's only hit in the English-speaking world, the band continued to enjoy success in several European countries in the following years. Nena's next international single "Just a Dream" (an English language re-issue of "Nur geträumt") reached No. 70 in the UK charts in 1984; it had "Indianer" on the B-side. A dance version of "Just a Dream" was released in the 1990s to a new audience and became a club anthem. The band split in 1987, and Nena went solo thereafter.
1989: Launch of solo career
Nena's first solo album Wunder gescheh'n was released on 5 November 1989. The title track (German for "Miracles Happen"), composed by Nena herself, relates to the fact that Nena was at the time pregnant with twins, but release of the album that appeared just four days before the fall of the Berlin Wall (on 9 November) and the fact that she performed the song at the end of the Konzert für Berlin three days later has ever since associated it with that historic event. It was to prove to be her last major hit of the 20th century as throughout the 1990s her albums and singles – although often critically acclaimed – were less commercially successful. In 1993, following the indifferent performance of her second solo album Bongo Girl, Sony decided not to renew Nena's recording contract, and the label which distributed her third, RMG Music Entertainment, disappeared shortly afterwards.
2002: Return to prominence
In 2002, Nena celebrated her 20th anniversary on stage with the album Nena feat. Nena, a disc consisting of newly arranged recordings of her hits from the 1980s. This album marked a "comeback" for Nena, and spawned a number of successful chart entries. The remake of "Anyplace, Anywhere, Anytime" as an English-German duet with Kim Wilde was a hit in various European countries, reaching the No. 1 spot in the Netherlands and Austria, and No. 3 in Germany, in 2003.
Having regalvanised her career by virtue of her 1980s hits, Nena reestablished herself as a force with entirely new material with the 2005 album Willst du mit mir gehn which quickly achieved platinum status and climbed to No. 2 in the German charts. The first single from the album, "Liebe ist", reached No. 1 on the German charts in early 2005, and was the theme song for a German telenovela, Verliebt in Berlin. It reached the top position 22 years after "99 Luftballons", the longest span between first and last number one in German chart history (see Liste der Nummer-eins-Hits in Deutschland).
In October 2007, Nena released a new album entitled Cover Me, made up entirely of cover songs. David Bowie, Rolling Stones and Rammstein are three of the bands covered. She also released the single, "Ich kann nix dafür" in April 2007 for the film, Vollidiot, and her cover of "She's a Rainbow" by the Rolling Stones in the US and the UK. In 2009 she recorded and released a new version of her hit song "99 Luftballons", which more closely follows the 1980s original, in contrast to her 2002 version. This song was first performed in Germany on 6 September 2009. Some parts of the new version are in French.
Since 2009: Own record label
Since 2009, Nena's releases have been published by her own record label, The Laugh & Peas Company, which also promotes the work of her daughter's group (Adameva) and that of one of her protegé's from The Voice of Germany, Sharron Levy.
Nena released a new single on 4 September 2009, called "Wir sind wahr", and a new album on the 23rd: Made in Germany. The autobiographical ballad from the album "In meinem Leben" became her fourteenth Top 10 hit in Germany, taking her to 12th position in the all-time list of top-ten hits in Germany, the third highest placed German act and top German female. She has developed an interest in the teachings of Indian mystic Osho (Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh) in recent years, and practises his meditation methods, an impression of which is featured in the "Wir sind wahr" video. She also collaborated with the popular techno-rap artists Die Atzen to produce a new single, "Strobo Pop". In 2011, she contributed vocals to the track "Let Go Tonight" by Kevin Costner and Modern West.
In late 2012 Nena released her 11th solo studio album, Du bist gut, which peaked at No. 2 in the German charts, although the tracks released as singles from the album were not as successful as those from her previous albums since her 2002 "comeback".
Nena's next album, Oldschool, which was produced by the German rapper and hip hop artist Samy Deluxe, was released on 27 February 2015. Distribution rights for the album were agreed with Sony Music, 22 years after the company dropped Nena as a recording artist. The album maintained Nena's 21st century chart success pattern (Top 5 in Germany, Top 10 in Austria, Top 20 in Switzerland) but the first two singles released from the album failed to chart. However, for the first time in Nena's career, another track from the album ("Magie"), which was not released as a single, crept into the lower echelons of the German singles chart solely by virtue of downloads. Then, in April 2016, fourteen months after Oldschool's release, the third single from the album, "Genau jetzt", returned Nena to the German Top 30 singles chart for the first time in six years.
Since 1997 (and as of 2016, with dates announced for 2017) Nena has toured Germany and its neighbouring countries annually, typically performing between 15 and 50 concerts every year. In 2003, Nena took the stage during the Howard Jones 20th Anniversary concert at the Shepherd's Bush Empire in London to sing "99 Luftballons", with both German and English lyrics. In 2004, Nena went on stage at the Mayday Music Festival, in Dortmund, accompanied by the techno duo Toktok. She sang the song "Bang Bang", and was later joined on stage by DJ Westbam to perform "Oldschool Baby". In March 2015 Nena promoted the release of the Oldschool album with a "club tour" of 16 smaller venues (for 200 to 700 people) including her former primary school. A recording of one of these concerts – at the SO36 club in Berlin on 4 March 2015 – was released as Nena's sixth live album Live at SO36 on 4 March 2016, exactly one year later. Later in 2015 Nena announced her intention to perform live in the US for the first time by way of a similar "club tour", which was initially planned for the spring of 2016 before taking place as a 3-date "mini tour" in September and October.
Besides her singing career, she has also acted in the 1983 musical comedy film Gib Gas – Ich will Spaß (released in the US as Hangin' Out) opposite fellow musician Markus Mörl, and voiced the character Saphira for the German dub of the movie Eragon and the role of the Princess for the German version of Arthur and the Invisibles alongside Tokio Hotel's Bill Kaulitz. Kaulitz has also stated on many occasions that Nena is his favourite singer.
Nena was one of the coaches on The Voice of Germany for 3 seasons before announcing her withdrawal from the show in March 2014. In April and May 2016 she was one of the participants in the third season of Sing meinen Song, a show in which well-known artists perform each other's songs and judge their favourites. In October 2016 it was announced that Nena would appear in 2017 as a juror in The Voice Kids together with her daughter Larissa.
In 2007, jointly with her partner Philipp Palm, Thomas Simmerl, and Silke Steinfadt, she founded the Neue Schule Hamburg, a school following the Sudbury model.
Nena wrote an autobiographical book, Willst du mit mir gehn, jointly with Claudia Thesenfitz, a journalist. Nena's contributions are her disparate accounts of various episodes in her life. Most of Thesenfitz's contributions are excerpts from interviews of many of Nena's friends, co-workers, and relatives.
Since becoming a mother, Nena has released a number of albums consisting of songs for children. In the 1990s she hosted several TV shows, including Metro and Countdown Grand Prix, the German preselection for the Eurovision Song Contest, in 1998.
Influences and other interests and pursuits
In addition to citing the Ramones, David Bowie and Debbie Harry as early influences, Nena's main artistic source of inspiration and her favourite band is the Rolling Stones. Nena has covered their songs in concert and on her 2007 Cover Me album. In 1984 Nena said, "If I hadn't started listening to the Rolling Stones when I was 12 I'd have been a different person, a secretary or something like that."
Although Nena said she disliked the English version of "99 Luftballons" because it was too "blatant" and that the Nena band was neither political nor a protest band, she has occasionally publicly lent her name in support of political causes. She supports "Ehe für alle" (marriage for everyone) and, as a mother of five, a campaign against the German government's plans to scale back the state provision of midwifery services. Nena has been a member of various charity ensembles and supergroups including "Band für Afrika" (Germany's equivalent of Band Aid) in 1985 and "Marlon und Freunde" in 2006, whose Top 10 hit in Germany "Lieber Gott" raised funds for flood victims. Nena also supports local causes and in 2015 ran (in socks) 2.5 kilometres (approximately 1.5 miles) in aid of a Stuttgart children's hospice.
Nena is a vegetarian and won the PETA (Germany) award for "Sexiest Vegetarian of the Year 2010". She believes in Jesus and God and says that thanking him for every new day is the cornerstone of her spirituality.
From time to time suspicions of drug use have surfaced, particularly in light of Nena's high energy levels on stage. However, in his 2014 biography of the Nena band, Rolf Brendel, its drummer and Nena's boyfriend at the time said that although other band members experimented with drugs, Nena never did and frowned upon it. Brendel added, "Nena is naturally stoned, she doesn't need to take drugs."
Nena and the band's drummer Rolf Brendel split up in 1987, Nena's feelings movingly described in the song "Jetzt bist du weg" ("Now You Are Gone") from the band's final album, Eisbrecher. Nena then started dating Swiss actor Benedict Freitag shortly after the band separated in 1987. Benedict is the son of the German actress Maria Becker and Austrian-Swiss actor Robert Freitag. The couple had three children together, the first being Christopher Daniel, who was born disabled allegedly due to medical mistakes made during the birth that caused Nena to go into cardiac arrest. He died at the age of 11 months. In 1990 they had twins, Larissa Marie and Sakias Manuel. After splitting with Freitag, Nena started a relationship with drummer and music producer Philipp Palm from Stuttgart, with whom she had two children, Samuel Vincent (1995), and Simeon Joel (1997). The couple and the four children currently live in Hamburg. On Christmas Day 2009, Nena became a grandmother when Larissa gave birth to a girl, Carla Maria. Only two days later, Nena's son Sakias became a father to a boy named Noah. A third grandchild (Victor, son of Larissa) was born in September 2013.
Since 2010, her twins Sakias and Larissa have appeared as backing singers on stage and on her albums, and her youngest son Simeon joined her on stage playing keyboards during her first concerts in 2015.
- Europatour '84 (Denmark, England, France) (1984)
- Nena feat. Nena Live (Frankfurt am Main, 11 October 2002) (2003)
- Made in Germany: Live in Concert (Berlin, 24 April 2010) (2010)
- Gib Gas – Ich will Spaß (US title: Hangin' Out) (1983), dir. Wolfgang Büld
- Der Unsichtbare (1987), dir. Ulf Miehe
- Richy Guitar (1985), dir. Michael Laux, feat. Die Ärzte
- Tagediebe (ZDF telemovie) (1985), dir. Marcel Gisler
- Die Affäre Semmeling (ZDF miniseries) (2002), dir. Dieter Wedel
- Das magische Schwert: Die Legende von Camelot (1998) (Kayley, as singer)
- Tobias Totz und sein Löwe: des Löwen Freundin (1999) (Lea)
- Die Abrafaxe: Unter schwarzer Flagge (2001) (Anne Bonny)
- Peter Pan: Neue Abenteuer in Nimmerland (2002) (as singer)
- Arthur und die Minimoys (2006) (Prinzessin Selenia)
- Eragon: Das Vermächtnis der Drachenreiter (2006) (Saphira)
- Arthur und die Minimoys 2: Die Rückkehr des bösen M (2009) (Prinzessin Selenia)
- Arthur und die Minimoys 3: Die große Entscheidung (2010) (Prinzessin Selenia)
- Ra.One: Superheld mit Herz (2014) (Sonia)