On Nina Hagen, the Underrated, Unhinged Musical Genius of the Cold War

I have been very busy in the last few months (someone decided to give me an actual job for some reason? I realised I could go on long cinematic tirades and send them in to my university newsletter and they would actually publish them? I discovered new ways to get ebooks for free? I watched too many films?). I will make up for it by going on about my favourite singer (who is currently under-analysed and under-listened to) instead.

Anglosphere commentators have been obsessed with ‘girl power’ rock musicians for a while now. Some of these obsessions are justified, some not, but for the best part of a decade a specific group of alt-rock women have been ubiquitous in discussion – Kim Gordon, Kathleen Hanna, Courtney Love, Joan Jett, all of Sleater-Kinney. There is clearly a drive to centre a female outlook in criticism of a male-dominated genre, which I think is brilliant- but for one notable, curious omission. Nina Hagen, the German opera prodigy with the beautiful, eclectic, bilingual discography, is always left by the musical wayside, memory-holed. 1978’s monumental Nina Hagen Band album, which spans from reproductive protest (Unbeschreiblich Weiblich) to gorgeous prog-esque lament (Auf’m Friedhof – listen to it!) lies buried in the sand. 1982’s Nunsexmonkrock, although a) in English, b) a wonderful technical accomplishment, c) a stellar example of the sonic female psyche, has all but ‘been disappeared’. Angstlos (Fearless) and In Ekstase, Cold War masterpieces, are barely remembered, to say nothing for the low-stakes genius of 1991’s Street, maligned by even Hagen’s casual fans. Nobody I know in real life has heard of her. Some even announce proudly that they have not heard of her. I once played Naturtrane at a flat party and it totally killed the mood. When will the world wake up?

Listening to a Nina Hagen album is like stumbling into a simulated haunted house while also being on psychedelic drugs. Her songs are quotable, theatrical flights of fancy, often serving as political satire and sprinkled with surprise operatics (her vocal range once spanned around six octaves). My favourite of her spoken monologues is on Antiworld, where she recounts the exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac (‘Once upon a time…when Jesus was walking-down-this-way on Earth, he met this man who was possessed… BY A DEMON!’), but I also love Atomic Flash Deluxe, which, with its low-register refrain of ‘Babylon must fallllll’ is the actual musical equivalent of the ‘powerful sense of dread’ bit from Peep Show. Another song deserving of attention is 1993’s Gypsy Love, and its spoken interlude ‘On wild wild horses of cosmic evolution and across deserts of DEATH’.

Her Street album appears comparatively toned-down at first listen, but really deserves acknowledgement as the foremost camp masterpiece of its time – a little bit of the ’60s, shifted forward thirty years without really even being aware of it. Blumen für die Damen, for example, samples Rex Harrison (!) in My Fair Lady (1964) (!!!) In Love-Hi, she serves Elizabeth Taylor a catty put-down (possibly because nothing else would rhyme with ‘failure’) and thus also invites instant comparison. Gretchen is a Schubert lied but disco-style – it would not be out of place in Mae West’s last film. (I will not rest until everyone has seen Mae West’s last film.)

One notable thread across Hagen’s discography is her obsession with Zarah Leander (the Third Reich singing Nazi version of Greta Garbo). Her own theatricality, homosexual appeal and half-Jewish background create an interesting conflict here, culminating in my fan favourite Nina Hagen song, the homage-parody Zarah:

Hagen is often touted by her remaining fans as notable for experimenting with outlandish stage costumes ‘before Lady Gaga’. While I’m not a proponent of the ‘only ONE woman can dress weird EVER!’ rule, I totally concur with their admiration for her trailblazing fashion and makeup, and feel very let-down that it hasn’t yet been recognised, with later artists hailed as pioneers in her stead.

You will see Nina Hagen do and wear things you won’t see anywhere else. My favourite instances are when she nearly dresses like a normal performer, but not quite (see this legendary 1994 Spain performance, where she’s mocking the fact she has to sing playback and is also wearing enormous silicone breasts as part of her costume, and the time she went on a talk show dressed like 1960s Marlene Dietrich and ended up bellowing at Angela Merkel about drug reform.)

Obviously she has many defined visual ‘eras’ just like any modern alt-pop artist. I literally can’t pick a favourite because of all them are amazing and worthy of attention, so here are some highlights:

(nb. Angstlos is my favourite Nina album along with its English counterpart, but the outstanding visual example there is the video for Zarah, which I already linked above)

Nunsexmonkrock era (early 80s)

Christian iconography, androgyny, and dark discordant sounds.

In Ekstase era (mid-80s)

Very fun – many Cold War references, patterned tights and her most overt punk hair/makeup. Some have suggested that her In Ekstase styling might have influenced the current portrayal of superhero (?) Harley Quinn.

Nina Hagen era (late-80s)

I find it hard to sum up this era aesthetically, but I’m including this video because it’s one of my favourites ever made.

Revolution Ballroom era (mid-90s)

A note: This stage in Hagen’s career is very special to me, because it is so misguided but simultaneously unique and wonderful. At this point she got really into Hinduism (audiences today would call it ‘cultural appropriation’ – I think she’s actually very nice and respectful in the process – she clearly held a sincere spiritual interest), started dressing like the goths presumably did in 1994, and, unfortunately, engaged in HIV/AIDS denial, taking a book called Roger’s Recovery from Aids onto various French talk shows and even discussing it in gay clubs next to bemused drag queens. I understand in my heart that this is wrong, but it is now politically-aware 2021 and I treasure the opportunity to watch an eccentric travel around Europe, committing various well-intentioned but totally cancellable offences while dressed in head-to-toe latex. This kind of thing will probably never happen again and I want to write a sitcom about it.

Above all, Nina Hagen makes excellent, joyful, energising, manic music and it absolutely never fails to make me happy. I will leave you with three songs from my absolute favourite (gay-club-friendly, accomplished, fanciful, have at some point been obsessed with each and every song on this album) Angstlos phase:

My only commentary on this track is “What!!!!!!!! How!!!!!!” I’m about to start praying for those who persecute me. It’s a convincing song.

I’m picking the English version of this song because this helps me understand the lyrics, which are very funny and a perfect lampoon of French New Wave elitism. There’s also a great German version which you should NOT confuse with the Rammstein song Frühling in Paris (theirs is worse generally and more depressing, you couldn’t play it in a gay club. I hoped it would be a cover.)

I actually do fear death quite a lot, and this song has genuinely helped me to come to terms with it (or with the fact that actually it doesn’t exist). The fun, jaunty rhythm – the intermittent yodelling. Thank you Nina.

When I become attached to a prolific dead-or-very-old person, it’s usually at least partially because of what they represent in the wider world. Hagen, I believe, is the figurehead of many things that are very important to me – the notion of being both sophisticated and ridiculous, of using spirituality to enhance creative work, of paying attention to old films and music. I am proud to be one of her few remaining Anglosphere fans and think the time is ripe for more to discover her fantastic music.

2 thoughts on “On Nina Hagen, the Underrated, Unhinged Musical Genius of the Cold War”

  1. Fantastic article! I wrote a series of three articles about Nina that I need to dust off and repost. And I couldn’t agree more with your thoughts about her music (although, I think her greatest work was NunSexMonkRock and my personal favorite was Ekstasy).

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  2. Fairypage you have written the absolutely definitive piece on the absolutely definitive diva Nina Hagen. I have followed her career since the 70s and have seen her perform live a number of times. Her first concert here in San Francisco was sublime and unforgettable. She appeared onstage dressed as a madcap Carmen, complete with mantilla, and launched into the Habanera. The crowd, who had been listening to her records for years, died on the spot, after which she killed us with Naturetrane and then proceeded to wipe the floor with us all night. And in a sold out performance at the huge Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley she appeared and re-appeared in jaw dropping costumes and burned the walls down vocally. Year after year she came to the west coast and vamped it up and all us Nina worshipping queens trundled in to get the Big Hit from the Biggest Diva of Them All. She really has no equal to this day. Thank you for this glorious tribute.
    Oh and Greta Garbo. I just watched Mata Hari, and that one moment as she is being stoically marched to her death and looks up fleetingly and smiles. Yeah that’s why she’s legendary.
    One more thing if you’ll excuse me. Please find and watch The Goddess with Kim Stanley because it’s the greatest performance ever put on film. Take my word for it.

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