Pop music from France gives as distinctive an insight into the French and their cultural exceptionalism as with any other art form.
La chanson is as unique a fruit of the Gallic soil as wine and food. It’s even guaranteed legal protection, with national broadcasters obliged to play a 40% quota of French-only music.
Cynics say the measure is not so much a pop-based cultural counter-attack against les Anglo-Saxons, but more a defensive measure proving that yet another French product needs protection from chilly global trade winds.
Certainly, French music has never stormed the UK charts, even though the two nations are just 30km apart. The pop revolution which captured Britain in the Sixties was one revolution the French never joined. As the tear gas billowed in Paris and the paving stones flew during the anti-establishment demos of the ‘68 événements, France’s classic chansonsang on unperturbed – and unimpressed – by flashier innovations elsewhere.
While the worldwide pop boom signified youth, glamour and with-it lyrics – the French chansonniersseemed formulaic, hangovers from the Forties and Fifties, middle-aged, ponderous and old-fashioned both in dress and delivery.
Foreign critics may have viewed domestic French attempts to catch up on rock and roll with amusement, if not outright ridicule. But home-grown rocker Johnny Hallyday had seen how easy it was going to be to stand out from such dated competition.
Shrugging his leather-clad shoulders, he turned anglophone scorn and rejection to advantage. Relentlessly appropriating Elvis chart toppers, he made a rich living from an exclusively francophone market for over half a century.
This formula was a sure-fire winner for many other French chart toppers: take already successful English language hits and just add catchy French lyrics. Richard Anthony did this with his million-selling “J’entends siffler le train”, (aka “500 Miles”) and “Les moulins de mon coeur” (used in the film “The Thomas Crown Affair” as “Windmills of my mind”).
For pop demonstrates the barrier of language at its most fundamental, underlining the need for accessible lyrics to sell a memorable melody.
So it’s a two-way traffic: hit tunes originally recorded in French inevitably received an English lyric: my Glasgow neighbour in the 70s received an annual cheque for her version of Charles Trenet’s “La Mer’.
But “La Mer” – beloved by so many Desert Island castaways – was one of the few ballads preferred in French by many Brit listeners. Another was the wistful “Tous les garçons et les filles” by Françoise Hardy and Serge Gainsbourg’s notoriously fruity “Je t’aime moi non plus”.
Vive la différence
The different cultures do produce distinctive lyrics, and the words to some French songs often have a content, less inhibited in some instances and more complex in others, than a typical British lyric.
Take the hair-raising bestiality which features in Georges Brassens’ “The gorilla”, in which the eponymous beast has his way with a hanging judge. And in his “Fernande”, Brassens shamelessly celebrates the spontaneity of his manly response to a succession of women (and in one verse, its curious absence!)
Such song-writing has no equivalent in the more repressed Anglo-Saxon canon. But while the British have never had a genre equivalent to chansonniers like Brassens, Jacques Brel or Leo Ferré, the revolutionary tastes of la jeunesse of 1968 did lead to something new on the Francophone airwaves. Hallyday, Anthony, Hardy and Gainsbourg were the vanguard of the yéyé school of modern French pop, which didn’t just appropriate the songlist, but borrowed the production and marketing models of the Anglo-Saxon music industry too.
The generation gap which provoked the événements did succeed in changing popular culture. The French youth revolt may not have changed governments, but it did change style. For the less militant young, feeling oppressed by parents and authorities baffled by their children’s disaffection with the status quo, music seemed a safer expression of revolt than street fighting.
Yé-yé’s reworkings of Anglophone songs had flair and often produced convincing lyrics. Those songs often became hits when performed on a breakthrough TV show, “Salut les copains”, very comparable to “Ready, Steady, Go”.
Sometimes the French originals were so irresistibly melodic that the crossovers headed in the other direction. The ubiquitous ‘My Way’ was Paul Anka’s reworking of Claude “Cloclo” Francois’s “Comme d’habitude”. Gilbert Becaud’s 1955 hit “Je t’appartiens” became the Everly Brothers’ smash hit “Let it be me”.
And with “Jacques Brel is alive and well and living in Paris”, Mort Shuman turned from writing lyrics for Elvis to putting on an entire Brel show in Sixties London, showcasing the poetic talents of the Belgian singer/songwriter, for an Anglophone audience.
For the grandchildren of the soixante-huitards, the latest musical assimilation to French culture is rap. Here too, the French version has a distinct identity, admired for the fluidity that the medium of French brings to an often harsh genre. Many French rap songs use the urban back slang verlan that takes words out of the mainstream. This secret language reverses words, or reworks their consonants to communicate only with the initiated. This further reinforces a sense of opposition to the system, yet while French rap artists address burning social issues, they incorporate French regard for poetry and philosophy to achieve music more lyrical and subtle than that of their American counterparts.
Another Belgian star, the rapper Stromae – verlan for maestro – more than exemplifies the new cutting edge of Francophone pop. His music combines the latest electronica with an intuitive feel for the core of chanson, but still injects humour into the songs he writes about political and social issues. His hit “Formidable” gives a flavour of his gift for wordplay:
Formidable, formidable. Tu étais formidable, j’étais fort minable.
(“Wonderful, wonderful. You were wonderful, I was so pathetic.”)
The special difference between the two pop cultures continues. The latest anodyne Eurovision song contest may have shown signs of drowning in a bland ocean of attention-seeking pap. But France’s Mercy by Monsieur Madame (placed 13th) was clearly from the classic French tradition. The duo wore cabaret black, disdained gimmicks and sang about the distress of an immigrant child precariously crossing the Mediterranean. In a nod to both English and French, the song plays on the two meanings of the title – Mercy and Thanks.
And yet the British entry – Storm, by SuRie – was, in its way, just as representative. It was toe-curlingly unimaginative – that eternal cliché of unhappy love yet again. Oh, and typically, it nearly came bottom, once again.
Main Image by Commons Wikimedia CC BY-SA 4.0
Brassens image via Francetvinfo CC BY-SA 2.0