Nina Hagen (Part II)
By Tommy Mostalas
The music video that first opened my eyes to the extent to which the *right* sort of visual imagery can directly affect how you experience, and most of all, how you can subsequently hear a piece of music, was Beyonce’s ‘Crazy in Love’. It wasn’t that up until that point I had seen music videos as essentially disposable, mere promotional vehicles for songs that should and would stand on their own musical merits or that I hadn’t grasped that on rare occasions they could qualify as pieces of art in their own right. It was more that having grown up without satellite or cable, I had never experienced MTV as the all-pervasive cultural force that so many of my early to mid 90s peers had, and I therefore failed to realise just how integral to the listening experience music videos had become. Beyonce’s supple but muscular cavorting to the accompaniment of a song I already loved, but which I began to love exponentially more after seeing the video, was enough to convince me of the necessity of something like the Wagnerian idea of Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art, but scaled down and tailored to contemporary popular music: a concept that would explain the appeal of modern pop by encompassing everything, words, music, dance, visuals (and all of this is highly appropriate given Queen Bey’s Wagnerian-scale ego, but anyway). A growing appreciation for Bollywood song and dance numbers around the same time helped to further cement this conviction (I used to hate it when they broke off into song at the end of a scene, but then later realised that the musical interludes were usually the best thing about the film).
All of which brings me to the music video that triggered my current fascination with Nina Hagen and that ultimately led me to undertake this series of mini Hagen reviews, since it strikes me now that which first drew me to Nina was precisely her success in marrying the visual together with the musical. I say ‘the’ music video but in fact there were two, though the first of these can’t really be called a music video per se. Instead what we’re talking about is some black and white footage of a very young Hagen singing ‘Du hast den Farbfilm vergessen’ (the title means ‘You have forgotten the colour film’), which was taken from an East German broadcast from back in the days when Nina was still a citizen of the good ol’ DDR. Truth be told, I was only vaguely aware of Nina prior to stumbling onto this video; I think I’d previously dismissed her as some variety of crazy screaming German goth lady or other. But Hagen’s manic star quality, even as a seemingly demure young woman in a sober dress, sitting all prim with her knees placed together, shone through so brightly that I was in no doubt that this was an artist I urgently needed to find out more about (she dropped the whole innocence thing pretty quickly upon defecting to the West).
The second video, and the one that made me go even crazier for Nina, is a promo for the song ‘Hold me’ taken from her eponymous sixth album, the follow up to In Ekstasy (and don’t worry I’m about to get to the album itself, I haven’t forgotten I’m supposed to be reviewing her discography). This time round the video is a full on showcase of her extraordinary, kinetic show(wo)manship: that superlative combination of the comic, the voluptuous, and the absurd that is uniquely Hagen’s. The video itself is shot in Paris and brazenly so; it’s the City of Light in the late 80s we’re talking about here: the Paris of Mitterrand, and er…whatever else was going down in Paris during that not particularly celebrated period. It starts off with a swift pan down from a street sign (‘Rue de Rome’) to Nina in a gold lamé jacket and a black mesh umbrella with a strapping blond angel in tow; then cut to Nina in an octopal-turban on the steps of the Sacré-Cœur, executing a busy vogue-type weaving gesture with long lithe black-clad arms; then we’re treated to a derriere shot as Nina gyrates towards a wall with her rather impressive arse waggling and poking up in the air; next, cut to our Diva giving a warm and welcoming smile; then a close-up of Nina shaking her head in an exaggerated succubal pout and emphasising her gorgeous silent film star eyes; then finally cut to a shot of Nina flapping her tongue out rather suggestively and also rather ludicrously. And this is all just for starters, the rapid succession of clips a perfect visual accompaniment to the intro to Hagen’s brash version of this gospel number. Nina’s in particularly fine form voicewise and the song, despite its cheesy 80s europop stylings, is brassy without being vulgar. But it’s the combination of saucy video with saucy music that really gets you going, that is wondrous to behold: Nina’s extraordinary repertory of facial ticks and exaggerated childlike expressions — pulling her beautiful, elastic face first one way, then the other — and the way she manages to flesh out and give body to the music with her whole physical presence.
What is absolutely not wondrous, on the other hand, is the LP that the video was trying to promote — and here the contrast between the efficacy of the video with the rest of the album is glaring. But the news gets much worse: for Nina Hagen was only the first in a succession of thoroughly second-rate albums that Hagen released after In Ekstasy, and that, barring a few stand out songs like ‘Hold Me’ (which in no way redeem these albums as a whole), are best avoided by all but the most ardent of Hagen completists. It takes a while to get accustomed to the mediocrity of a record like Nina Hagen — like eyes adjusting to the darkness and the murk of a dimly lit room — but regardless of how far you manage to lower your expectations, you can never really escape the feeling of the pointlessness of it all. How, for instance, anyone could have ever felt that there was any sort of motivation for inflicting Hagen’s miserable, dead in the water, cover of ‘Viva Las Vegas’ on the world is completely beyond me. Her vocals sound lacklustre and her performances seem dialled in for the most part. Fair’s fair though, I’ll admit to a bit of a soft spot for her version of ‘Ave Maria’ (3/10).
Trust me when I tell you that the best thing about Street, Hagen’s unimpressive 1991 follow up to the truly dire Nina Hagen is the cover: simply put, you get three beautiful avatars of Nina — looking utterly spectacular, mind, all dressed up in Jean Paul Gaultier and Vivienne Westwood — rather than just the usual, though still really quite awesome, one. Once again Hagen manages to wield her visual allure forcefully and so demands your complete and undivided attention: promising so much but failing to deliver anything that comes close in terms of musical stimulation. However if you periodically suffer from pangs of nostalgia for early 90’s techno-lite euro pop — and by now I’m convinced there must be a substantial contingent of us out there — then there’s a certain pleasure to be had from an album that sound wise so clearly dates back to that heady cultural moment. In particular, if like me, you have fond memories of listening to the BBC top 40 chart rundown of a Sunday and dancing about in your pyjamas to the pseudo-house keyboards of the C+C Music Factory, ‘Stars’ era Simply Red and the Ace of Base, then Street might well be right up your… street. Don’t get me wrong, the album is not completely without its other merits (and I was going to give the album a much lower rating until I realised just how cleverly ‘Divine Love, Sex und Romance’ had managed to sneak its way into my psyche), still, ‘Street’ comprises yet another staging post on Hagen’s ongoing musical journey from subversive and avant gardist to full-on soulless commercial banality; and it’s worth giving a wide berth to, if only to spare yourself Hagen’s feeble cover of ‘Good Vibrations’ (4/10).
Sadly the situation doesn’t really improve much with 1994’s Revolution Ballroom — well, apart from the fact that this time round the cover art is even more terrific than on Street. Here Nina is clad in glossy black latex and tied with rope to her chair, two magnificent raven ponytails sprouting from the top of her head and a look on her face that’s somewhere betweenindignant sex doll and social realist art mural (the kitschy soviet font at the top also contributes to the effect). If it had stopped there, if Nina and the gang had gone as far as just making a mock-up of the cover and left it at that, we could have passed right onto FreuD euch, which SPOILER ALERT is actually quite a good record. But no, Hagenonly had to go and make a record that, if anything, manages to outdo her previous two efforts for blandness. And you might think it strange, if I follow that up by affirming that the songs on the actual album are much more memorable than on Street and especially than on Nina Hagen — but that’s what makes it all worse, as promising as these songs are, they’ve been smothered at birth: the arrangements and the production are simplistic and Nina’s lackadaisical vocals are underwhelming throughout. I mean, I ask you friends, how can a song called ‘Berlin’ and sung by Nina Hagen possibly be so fucking dull? (4/10)
Nina’s all round devotion to Babaji and the higher powers, which she was so eager to demonstrate on her previous albums, seems to have eventually paid off because the following year (on New Year’s Day 1995 to be precise) she released FreuD euch, which was by far the best thing she’d done in ages. Indeed the record feels like a reinvigoration, long overdue, of Hagen’s very singular talents after years and years of putting out substandard product. This doesn’t mean that FreuD euch is Hagen’s long hoped for return to the riotous bedlam of nunsexmonkrock, far from it. Ultimately it’s just a very enjoyable, but fairly conventional punk rock record, and although she’s in fine fettle voice wise — almost enough to make you forget the apathy that crippled her previous three albums — Nina’s vocals (sadly) never come close to scaling the transgressive heights of years gone by. But you know how the saying goes, never look a gift horse in the mouth. With FreuD euch Hagen produced the kind of straight-ahead punk record that — setting aside the fact that she’s supposed to be the mother of punk — she’d never actually attempted before. And boy, does it work well. Presumably we have Dee Dee Ramone, listed as rhythm guitarist and with a co-writer credit on four of the songs on here, to thank in large part for this, one of the most convincing entries in Nina’s discography since nunsexmonkrock. And fuck me, even her cover version (in German) of ‘Sunday Morning’ is actually quite decent, which given Hagen’s miserable track record with covers is an exceptionally pleasant surprise. The whole album is in German and maybe that’s ultimately what makes it so convincing: Hagen is always at her most credible in her native tongue. But still, this Hagen’s for everyone: it gets a well earned (8/10).
Next time round Nina Hagen in the New Millennium!