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Making Waves: The sound of Neue Deutsche Welle

Updated: Feb 1, 2021

“Hast du etwas Zeit für mich? Dann singe ich ein Lied für dich…(Do you have some time for me? Then I’ll sing a song for you…)”. These lines are the opening lyrics to Nena’s iconic song, 99 Luftballons. The song is a classic example of New German Wave (Neue Deutsche Welle or NDW), a music movement that developed in Germany in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

New Wave music represented a popular fusion of punk, pop, and rock, and often featured heavy use of synthesisers and drum machines, as can be heard in hits by Nena and Xmal Deutschland respectively. From 1977, following the popularity of New Wave music in the United States and Britain, West German artists in cities such as Düsseldorf, Hamburg, and West Berlin began to emulate the sound. Despite sharing similar musical styling and influences, German bands bands attempted to challenge Anglo-American dominance of the music scene by adding their own distinct ‘German flavour’ (i.e. German-language lyrics), leading music journalist Andre Hilsberg to coin the term ‘Neue Deutsche Welle’ in October 1979.

Bands including Ideal, DAF, and Fehlfarben hoped to overturn stereotypical peace-loving hippie cultural conventions in favour of an angrier, less sentimental and more rebellious counterculture. Echoing the zeitgeist of Cold War Germany, lyrics tended to be critical of contemporary politics and society, reflecting the frustration and disillusionment of Germany’s youth.

What began as an underground movement then became a mainstream phenomenon by the time Nena’s hit was released in 1983. Indeed, the Austrian artist Falco, another prevalent New Wave singer, scored a number 1 hit in the UK and US with the single Rock me Amadeus.

However, this development saturated the market for NDW sounds, arguably contributing to a steady decline in the genre’s popularity. As producers angled for a more mainstream sound, hits became increasingly reliant on artificial and manufactured sounds, leading many to claim that New German Wave had abandoned its rebellious roots.

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