Somewhere in the late 1960’s, hippie ‘Jesus freaks’ had the epiphany that Christ had been a hippie just like them, and the counterculture re-embraced Christianity. What that meant in the long-term spiritual life of Western civilization, I don’t know, but it did create a phenomenon of “Christian pop culture” with secular-friendly hits like Jesus Christ Superstar, obviously, and Spirit in the Sky, written and performed by the very Jewish Norman Greenbaum. Greenbaum wasn’t interested in harnessing the fad for hippie Jesus stuff, he just thought it would be fun to write his own interpretation of a gospel song. His Spirit in the Sky comes out sounding like something an early Jethro Tull might have done if they didn’t hate the church, and it appealed to both fans of psychedelic music who wouldn’t otherwise touch Jesus, and fans of Jesus who wouldn’t otherwise listen to rock music. In other words, a huge crossover hit. Meanwhile, the warm and fuzzy spirituality of the hippie generation was one of the things that spurred the reactionary contempt of the punk generation. All that peace and love and rope sandals shit didn’t speak to the kids with the safety pins in their noses; they felt that peace and love were an idealistic lie, spirituality was an opiate for people who couldn’t get their hands on real heroin, and sandals left one vulnerable to stomping. Which is why, in the cynical 80’s, the time was right for Spirit in the Sky to be revived by one of punk rock’s most iconoclastic movers, Nina Hagen. Hagen is known for having an overcooked minestrone of spiritual beliefs, picked from all corners of world history and brewed together with hair bleach and LSD. She can pick bits of wisdom from Christianity as happily as from Hinduism or the sex cult down the street, but she also became a punk because she didn’t fit into any of the boxes offered by organized religion. Her Spirit in the Sky is both a fuck-off to people who think they can wins God’s favor by sitting in a pew on Sundays, and – somehow – a wholly sincere statement of the singer’s faith in her own redemption. That was the central irony of a hit Christian rock song in the first place, though.
Nina Hagen was the soundtrack of my entire 9th grade year. Her weirdness did a lot to transport me out of the petty misery of high school. It’s probably for the best that I didn’t have access to the visuals – it might have ruined me for real life even more than it did. Nina looks damn good as a man though, and her face shows the same flexible range as her voice. This kind of aesthetic excess belies Nina’s D.A.R.E.- approved message. “Smack ist Dreck” indeed, but clearly people don’t become like this by prudishly saying no to things. Apparently the song was written by Nina Hagen’s babydaddy, who was himself a heroin addict and eventually died of AIDS, so there’s an element of tragic irony at play. The real message impressionable little minds are likely to absorb is that being a wildly weird and interesting person requires the rejection of conventional mores of behavior aka doing dumb shit that might put you in the ground but at least you died interesting.
I need to become fluent in German so I can understand Nina Hagen songs. Though I suspect that native speakers would tell me “Nah, don’t bother”. Based on her English-language lyrics, it would probably just make me cringe. I love Hagen for her vocals and aesthetic. Her opinions and beliefs are best pushed aside as ‘problematic’. Which is easier to do when the lyrics are in German, I’ll give her that. It’s a little hard to respect someone who believes that UFOs are real and AIDS isn’t. Respect the music, though. Respect this woman’s sheer capacity for weirdness and self-expression. The fact that she’s 63 and still dresses like a gutterpunk ballerina. She’s out there still making a career out of it too. So props to that. But maybe just try to sing about love? Oh, wait, she married a 17 year old when she was like 40, so…
With Nina Hagen, it’s sometimes necessary to suspend critical thinking, and it’s nearly always necessary to suspend expectations. Doing the first can be difficult, because the singer is so frequently full of shit. Ideologically, she’s basically the worst kind of New Age; full of appropriated spiritual bromides, half-understood cosmology, and misdirected tirades against “the Man”; the kind of science-denying, Krishna-will-make-it-better crackpot who makes drinking chamomile look bad. On the other hand, though, she’s a visionary musician, author of a bizarre aesthetic so far ahead of its time that she still hasn’t fully gotten her due. The things she does with her voice! Nina Hagen has a vocal range so broad it defies the usual definition of range. She has the voice of a cartoon character, and an image to match, except there’s nothing cute or approachable about her at all. She’s terrifying, though she claims that she’s full of nothing but cosmic love. She really occupies her own universe, and has to be appreciated on her own terms, because coming at her any other way just doesn’t work.
One of the greatest musical artists in the German speaking world pays homage to one of the worst. The question is, why? Cultural solidarity of some sort, I presume. Nina Hagen and Falco couldn’t have been more different. She tore apart the fabric of musical convention as part of the underground punk scene; he was known for a handful of novelty rap songs. I’m sure you’re familiar with the famous hit Rock Me Amadeus. If not, just know that it is a song of such excruciating badness you can’t help but love it. Really though, Falco’s music was so, so, so, sosososo sooooo sooooooooooooo objectively bad. I mean, this guy was the German Vanilla Ice. He was also the most successful musician to come out of Austria since Amadeus himself. Inexplicably enough, the world really wanted to hear what europop would sound like with more rapping. Why does Nina Hagen, one of the godmothers of punk, see this man as a kindred spirit? We’ll never truly know, because Falco is dead and Nina Hagen is insane. No really, Prima Nina is batshit insane, which is, of course, a large part of her brilliance. Hagen is one of those people for whom aggressive weirdness is not an affectation but a way of life. She has to be weird because otherwise she would explode. It doesn’t help her harness her immense talents towards anything approaching marketable appeal, but it’s made her a cult icon to fans whose alienation is too deep to be salved with what’s readily available. Nina Hagen will probably never follow former fellow outsiders like The Smiths and David Bowie from well-kept secret to Hot Topic sales rack, and that’s ok. She doesn’t want that, and her fans don’t want that. Let the weirdness remain undiluted. So what if a lot of what she writes about makes no sense. She writes from the heart, no doubts about it. If she wants to write a send-off for the soul of a shitty half-forgotten pop-rapper who drove into the side of a bus while high on cocaine, that’s her grace. If Nina Hagen thinks Falco’s soul is worth blessing, that doesn’t elevate his legacy, but maybe we should consider that being an artist is in itself elevating, even if the art is dreck.
Finally, a tribute to everyone’s favorite city as crazy weird as the place itself. Nina Hagen sees it as a place of nightlife and glamour. Maybe Prima Nina’s brand of provocative punk doesn’t reflect the full scope of what the city can be (it’s all things to all people as much as any city could claim to be) but she certainly reflects a certain powerfully appealing underworld. The wannabe edgy and fashionable are still paying homage to the denizens of Mudd Club and Danceteria, and still coming to New York in hopes of establishing their own iconic style utopias. The tribute stays relevant.
Nina Hagen, the eternal inspiration. What a joy to witness an artist who has nothing to pursue except her own crazy muse. Maybe Hagen didn’t invent the idea of weirdness as its own reward, but nobody embodies it better. Why she hasn’t got all of pop culture at her feet – because she’s damn weird, that’s why. But, of course, she doesn’t give a shit about stupid things like popularity; that’s what allows her to be the provocateur that she is. And there’s nothing more glamorous, to my eyes. What’s she singing about? In her own words “UFO’s, God, love, sex, 7,8, 9, 10, 11…” In other words, anything that pops into her head, regardless if it makes sense or not. In this case, sex, I’m pretty sure. She’s always been outspokenly pro-sex and pro-nudity, sometimes making for some shocking moments. So yeah, Nina Hagen, wants you to celebrate your sexual sensations.