If you’re a reader of this site, it’s likely you known the name Klaus Nomi, the diminutive German singer who stunned New Wave audiences in New York with his angelic soprano voice and opera covers. If you know of Nomi, you likely know of Nina Hagen, who started releasing records in her native East Germany in the late 70s, mixing opera with punk, funk, and reggae and covering classics from Tina Turner to The Tubes “White Punks on Dope.” She became a major star, but her name does not come up often these days. She is long overdue for a revival.
Like Nomi, Hagen was a master of fright make-up and exaggerated, Expressionist faces. She did not, however, have an alien alter-ego or collection of spacesuits. What she had was a wholly original style all her own, full of eccentric vocalizations critic Robert Christgau compared to The Exorcist’s Linda Blair.
Her stage shows were what Hagen herself described as “indescribable.” She applied her “umpteen-octave range,” as Christgau wrote, without restraint to every imaginable kind of material, from cabaret to Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky.”
Impossible to classify, Hagen was beloved by the likes of the Sex Pistols and the Slits. Less than a decade after her 1978 debut with the Nina Hagen Band, she appeared in Tokyo with the Japanese Philharmonic Orchestra in a concert broadcast to 15 countries, performing the songs of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. (See her that same year, 1985, sing from Carmen in Copenhagen, Denmark, just above.) She converted to Christianity later in life, frequently sings gospel tunes, and released an album called Personal Jesus in 2010 featuring a cover of the iconic Depeche Mode song.
Hagen emerged in 1978 alongside a number of theatrical female singers with preternaturally unsettling voices, debuting at the same time as Siouxsie Sioux, Kate Bush, and Diamanda Galas (who has received her own comparisons to Linda Blair). But her own journey was particularly unusual. “Listening to Hagen chat matter-of-factly about her life,” wrote The Irish Times in a review, “Madonna seems like Doris Day in comparison, while your pretender Lady Gaga is, in Hagen’s own words, ‘a pop prostitute who has more to do with bikini advertising.’”
Put more in more positive terms, the singer honed her theatrical “quick-change” persona through a “barrage of influences,” the New York Times noted. Critics were divided over her eclecticism. Rolling Stone called her 1982 solo, English-language debut the “most unlistenable” album ever made, an unfairly harsh assessment that didn’t stop her from experimenting with even more dissonant, disorienting sounds.
As Hagen herself tells her story:
I grew up in East Berlin, in a family of artists. I heard opera all day long. From the time I was 9 years old I was imitating the singers; later I studied opera. But we also got Western television and radio, from the Americans in West Berlin. When I was 11 years old, I turned into a hippie and gave flowers to policemen. And when I was 21 and left Berlin for London, I became a punk.
She became a punk diva, that is. Hagen’s vocal range—which you can hear demonstrated in the thorough video analysis above—over her band’s prog-like jams (as in “Naturträne), conjured up both angels and demons. She evokes dread with guttural growls and wide-eyed stares, she can look “childlike, sweet or terrifying,” or all three at once, and she never lacks the essential quality an opera singer needs to make it in rock and roll: a sense of humor.