What I’m Listening to This Week: Nina Hagen Originals (Part I)

Okay, here is my long awaited post on Nina Hagen original music.

In the Beginning

I never liked lyrics, and this is probably one of the reasons that I bought Nina Hagen’s debut album in 1980. It didn’t hurt that she had a song called Heiss; but my favorite song on the album for a long time was Naturträne, a song more memorable for its incredible vocal range than any of its lyrics, which were in German and which I could not then understand.

This might probably have stayed as one of those weird elements in my record collection—this was long before the appearance of the CD—except for the remarkable turn that Nina’s career has taken. For she was restless, and being restless she was a gifted experimenter in music. I covered that area of her recording career in a previous post.

Nina’s Unique Biography

Her biography helps to explain why. She’d started out as a talented but rebellious kid n East Germany.  “Her paternal Jewish grandparents died in Sachsenhausen concentration camp” (Wikipedia). Her parents divorced and her mother remarried Wolf Biermann, a leader of the opposition to the East German government. She, too, became rebellious. “Biermann’s political views influenced young Hagen: she was “dishonorably discharged” from the Free German Youth group at age 12, and became active in political protests against the East German government.” (Wikipedia)

Already in 1980, when I discovered her, she had come a long way from her roots. Her first look did not feature the garish makeup for which he became famous later. Rather, she formed the band Automobil and did a passable imitation of a ye-ye girl with her single Du hast den Farbfilm vergessen (“You Forgot the Color Film”).

But Nina had escaped to the West after her father-in-law had been granted a visa to perform in the West but was later denied entry back into his own country.

During a period when bureaucracy was the norm, and families divided by the Berlin Wall had not seen one another in decades, Hagen submitted an application to leave the country. In it, she claimed to be Biermann’s biological daughter, and threatened to become the next Wolf Biermann if not allowed to rejoin her father. Just four days later her request was granted. (Wikipedia)

Flight to the West

Escaping from East German bureaucracy to the freedom of the West was extremely liberating for Nina. But her record label CBS advised her that she should travel to broaden her horizons, and travel she did.

She arrived in London during the height of the punk rock movement. Hagen was quickly taken up by a circle that included The Slits and the Sex Pistols; Johnny Rotten was a particular admirer. (Wikipedia)

She absorbed the energy of punk rock movement, and she was a pioneer in it, releasing her first album in 1978.

Her posture in the earlier period of her life was to interpose individual freedom in place of the larger political culture of bureaucracy which had ruled her life and which had cramped her creative development. Here is one of her early releases, called Born in Xixax (I don’t know who is in the video; it’s not Nina):

She sings “One day, we will be free. We will be free one day.” But not yet. In high 1980s style—Ronald Reagan used the phrase “evil empire”—there are still evil (Soviet) powers that stand in the way of total individual freedom.

My uncle was a spy in the Soviet Union.
He knows that Mr. Brezhnev is planning a reunion.

Nina’s quest for freedom would come in the form of songs like Future is Now in which she sings

1968 is over
1979 is over
the future is now

The message here seems to be that the 60s had failed in their quest for the ideal world. The world of the 70s had failed, as well, by (I am assuming here) dissolving into self-centered striving after personal goals, rather than re-focusing our attention on the “higher” goals of self-sacrifice and the quest after an elusive “oneness” with the universe. The past doesn’t matter, and the future is not yet with us. The world of the present is all that matters if we are going to recapture the ideal world.

In the meantime, however, there are still problems in the present. Nina’s complete individualistic self as the place in the universe where she can stand alone is in trouble. In the song Leave Me Alone she lets everyone know what those forces are:

everyone’s against me
they made me this way
everyone’s against them
they’ll be sorry someday
lass mich in ruhe, leave me alone

This sets up the individual Nina as the best hope for the emergence of freedom as long as she can manage to diverge from social forces, cultural forces, and political forces. And, as you may have noticed, she turns herself into a caricature, dressing more and more outrageously in the quest to declare herself independent and (in the words of the existentialists) “authentic.”

Derrida on Nina

However, this individualistic self as the locus of metaphysics is subject to qualifications laid out by Jacques Derrida. Derrida tells us that everything a human being contemplates in this universe is constructed, rather than natural. Therefore everything a human being contemplates in this universe is subject to an opposite. In other words, when a human being raises anything up in the universe he or she must suppress something else. Being a Marxist, he interprets this in political terms. Marx’s goal was to salvage the individual as the locus of metaphysics in the face of cultural and social pressures.

However, as we can see from the lyrics of Nina Hagen, the Derridean construct holds for the individual, as well. Nina is constructing her reality by pushing away things—the “evil empire,” the good looks of a pop star—as she grasps for things that remain out of her each—total individual freedom and total independence. If we were to follow Derrida, we would deconstruct Nina’s individuality and raise up the Soviet era totalitarian government. But that is not what Derrida means to do, and the prospect would horrify Nina, as well.

So there are limits to Derrida’s skepticism. Derrida himself thought that the metaphysical ground itself was unstable and that we needed to “deconstruct” the metaphysical tradition by going back to the beginning of the philosophical tradition and starting over on a new, and more solid, basis. However, Derrida did not start over himself. Instead, he deferred the tasks to others, preferring himself to overturn the individual selfishness of capitalism for a more “pure” communism in an act of revolution. Only by undergoing such a purifying revolution would a select few be able to restore the individual to total freedom that individuals themselves, in their “false consciousness,” were not even able to appreciate.

Nina’s quest can be seen in Marxist terms as a quest to become one of the elite few leaders of the revolution (she even has an album called Revolution Ballroom). She sets herself apart from Soviet collective control and puts herself in the Western world of individual freedom. But she’s not interested in maximizing her monetary wealth by taking advantage of the maximal freedom offered by the West. She’s interested in completing her journey towards self-fulfillment.

Where Can She Go?

But the question that confronts her in the West is where she can go with her new freedom. In the video So Bad, she’s clearly decided that a world that is an evil place.

We are unstoppable
Nobody can stop us
In our minds to be free

I can be so strong
Like a lion on a mission.
I can do no wrong
I can fight day and night
That’s my decision.

Those are noble words, but they set up the individual as an autonomous whole. “Nobody can stop us,” she says. “Except ourselves,” she might have added. Nina Hagen constructs herself as one of the strong people; she’s like a lion. So rather than worrying about the fact that she might not be whole, she looks to the outside world as an evil force that oppresses her.

And as a strong lion-person who has declared her independence, she judges other, lesser people who treat animals with less dignity than they deserve. Since the dawn of philosophy in the Pythagorean school, vegetarianism has been popular, and Nina makes the pacifist case in the video Tiere:

The cow is sacred, let them live in peace and quiet!
Animals are not as common as you are.

Go Ahead

But where can she go if the world is such a bad place? She finds direction in the song Go Ahead. [See the video at the head of this article.]

It’s time to move
It’s time to go ahead
It’s time to sort it all out
Do it, watch me do it

And after she has sorted it all out, she will let “let you all know” what she, as the brave, forward thinking, and progressive thinker has found out for “you,” the little people who are not as brave as Nina herself is.

Move on, time to move
The clock will never stop
Move on, time to move
The clock will never stop

She doesn’t move in time. She moves in the “space,” the space of Hair’s Walking in Space and that André was talking about in My Dinner with André.

She escapes the world of time, in which “the clock will never stop,” into a purer world in which the love of man is “pure” and “sure” and will be eternal. Of course she is not certain that her view is ontologically sound. Rather, she asks herself the Socratic question of the Apology: “Who knows what happens after this, / Will there be a heaven?”

But whatever her doubts—and I don’t believe that she has any doubts—about the lack of an ontologically secure source for the heaven, she has nevertheless placed all her faith in the otherworldly realm as an epistemologically secure “place” in which she can be a whole, total, and independent person. [This is completely Platonic, of course. The same thing happens in Socrates mind in The Republic.] From her secure position above, she turns her mind’s epistemological structures on the world below, where she feels that we are “killing our good old mother / Earth here down under.” She then sets herself apart from the world of “common” people by knowing enough to knock on Heaven’s door herself.

Clearly, she means to exchange the world of time for “higher” world:

Wanna know what’s high?
Om Namah Shivay!
Wanna know what’s higher?
Om Namah Shivaya!
His love is pure
His love is for sure

What Has Nina Done?

My question, as a hyper-rational thinker who requires a sense of place before I leap from the palpable world that I know to mental construct that may be an illusion, is “What is she talking about? Where does she actually go?” In her mind, she has traveled away from the West and its capitalist economy to “pure” (and non-capitalist) India, where the self may be worshiped for its ability to close the gap between the individual person and God. But it is all in her mind. None of this is real.

She’s fallen into an idealistic trap. She must forgo her individual self to gain herself back at the “higher” level. The problem with Nina’s journey as a metaphysical quest is that she exchanges her actual ontological personality for an epistemologically constructed personality without the guarantees that come from having a body.

The world may be “so bad” and it may call for escape, but that does not mean that by traveling we can arrive at the truth, not even if we forgo the West for the purer religions of the East. “The whole person does not have to travel to find himself,” Carl Jung had said.

Nina has, in my opinion, failed in her journey, a journey that was laid out in large part by Carl Jung, a figure who had given up the “common” notions of individual (and ontological) personality for the larger (epistemological) consciousness of the collective. Of course, this collective conscious was unconscious to most of us. And he himself found it, not in the West, but in the Far East. He, too, had to travel to find it.

Thus, Nina Hagen is reenacting a journey that was laid out for her by figures like Schopenhauer, Hermann Hesse, and Jung. In that journey, she exchanges known ontological but unstable personality for an unknown yet stable personality. And by doing so, she manages to raise herself above the common herd of sheep and followers.

But all of this depends on her being correct about her religious vision. And I, for one, am not so sure that I believe her. Because let’s face facts: if I believed her, then I should follow her. And if I believe her and I don’t follow her, then I must be “evil” in some way.

But there are other alternatives to believing her religious vision, which I can trace back to historical or forces (in particular, the legacy of Plato in the Western world) and not to the metaphysical sphere. Nina is simply mistaken in her belief in epistemological reality, which she gives ontological force. By not following her, therefore, away from the palpable world which I can touch and feel into an epistemological construct where everything is secure as long as I don’t ask too many questions about what she’s talking about, I’m actually doing the right thing.

What Is the Value of Nina’s Journey If She Has Failed?

This brings up the question of whether Nina is “evil.” And, yes, she has some strange views, like this one:

(while we’re on that, do you know Nina is rumoured to be an AIDS supporter? She has this really weird belief about AIDS not being a disease but rather a kind of benign spiritual condition, claiming she knows lots of infested people who feel all right and live long, and that all the real trouble comes of curing AIDS. Kinda makes me shiver in my pajamas).

If she believes these things, then what’s the value of listening to her? Could she be corrupting my mind and the minds of others?

Well, yes, if people judged human personality and behavior on the metaphysical ends that people set themselves. But, in fact, they don’t. Nina judges on the ends she sets for herself; the rest of us judge more discriminately. We like (at least I like) her extremely broad view of music, and I don’t care so much for her view on AIDS. Her corruption in one area does not entail me giving up on her entirely. I can distinguish various elements in her personality, and so can you.

In fact, her public personality can be distinguished from her private thoughts. She’s worked extremely hard to get away from her ye-ye roots, where she cannot have been all that comfortable given where she’s been, and attempted to approach a “higher” truth. She has failed in her quest.

I have said on this blog that I believe that one can live anywhere in the world and be happy if one has a sense of him or herself at their center. That is why I can live the Southside of Chicago and be happy. But I live in the United States of America, a land dedicated to the principles of freedom. Asking whether Nina should she have remained in East Germany under her communist oppressors is a different matter. Even if she was secure in her individual principles—which I don’t actually believe, by the way—there was value in escaping from the oppression of the East and heading for the West, despite the fact that the West has been dedicated to the principles of individual freedom which very often eventuates in too many encounters with the id and not enough encounters with the ends of the journey of self-satisfaction.

Despite Nina’s failure, her journey has value nevertheless. She has a powerful voice, which very few people can match, and she puts her voice in the service of a considerable amount of Western music, switching genres easily. Compare her, for instance, to Snoop Dogg, who is trying (and who deserves credit for trying) but could never approach the vocal range of Nina Hagen. She switches effortlessly from punk rock, to torch songs, two Christian anthems, to Indian music.

Whatever her beliefs are in private, her public journey is valuable because she manages to subsume so much under the banner of punk rock. Under Nina Hagen, punk becomes a radiating source of our collective consciousness. She expands our knowledge of music by her participation in all its various forms. People who would not ordinarily be interested in an album of Indian music find themselves captured by her musical intellect. Like Ray Charles in American country music, Nina can do what few others can do. She can grow our minds if we will let her in to ours. This is not to say that she could not do more. There are areas where she hasn’t covered the ground. But she has done more than most.

Nina’s Idealism

Where she fails is in her idealism. Whether she knows it or not, she is caught in a dilemma of the 1960s, a dilemma caused by the first burst of freedom of the intellectual mind after the Second World War. Intellectuals had traveled from Europe to America, and they had brought with them their European ideas on capitalism and the mind. Capitalism had always been the enemy in aristocratic Europe, because capitalism was thought to reflect the notion of unrestrained individuality without cultural (read aristocratic) restraint.

When the intellectual class arrived on American shores, they brought with them these old world notions. Allan Bloom, the author of The Closing of the American Mind, talks about the heady days of his youth, when figures were first learning about the ideas of Heidegger, Max Weber, and Nietzsche. He wishes to go back to those European ideas.

But those European ideas were already dying when he wrote his book in the late 1980s. The intellectual class had moved away from the modern optimism that we were closing in on answers to the human condition that had eluded thousands of years of inquiry before the 1960s.

In the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s–and to this day, I suspect–the Modernism that spanned the twentieth century had shifted to a Postmodernist skepticism. They were still asking the same questions. They simply didn’t feel that the answers would be forthcoming anytime soon. But they shared a vision of the mind and its “place” in the universe. Postmodern answers tended to share too many similarities with the idealism which they purportedly rejected. The Postmodernists believe, with the Moderns, that the individual mind is a stable referent in an otherwise unstable world. Derrida, one of the leaders in the postmodern movement, believed that we should go back beginning and start over with a new, more stable metaphysics grounded in the stable self in order to rescue the stable self from destabilizing forces from outside the self.

I offer a different solution. I believe that idealism can ever cross the bridge from epistemology to ontology, no matter how hard Derrida (or anyone else) tries. Moreover, I believe that this is the reason the Derrida does not try to start over from the beginning, but instead defers that work to others.

Back to Nina

Nina was the last of a dying—but even today still not dead—breed. She grasped the promise of freedom as opposed to authority, but freedom was not enough. In the end she had to surrender her “capitalist” persona for a more stable “Indian” persona, just like Schopenhauer, Hermann Hesse, and Carl Jung had taught her to do.

This failure represents the failure of the notion of the individual mind as a substitute for God in the wake of the failure of the Middle Ages. The individual mind has many advantages, but its epistemological structures will always be imperfect substitutes for the ontological realities they are intended to reflect. That doesn’t mean that human beings need to “deconstruct” our imperfect epistemological realities; it means we need to keep perfecting them by aligning them more closely with their ontological counterparts.

This means that Nina’s failure in metaphysics does not invalidate her quest in the temporal world of time, exactly the world that she considers “so bad.” Judged by the extent of her work, and not by the ends towards which she is working, Nina Hagen captures the culture of the 1980s and 1990s brilliantly. She deserves our respect for her unique ability.

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