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Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Why Couldn’t the French Go Pop?

Posted by Lawrence LaRiviere White on 09/04/07 at 11:59 AM

This could be a topic for a senior seminar in Everything Studies. I’ve wondered why France had such weak participation in the great pop music explosion of the ‘60s and beyond. I know there are good answers to it, foremost being hostility to U.S. cultural imperialism, but the thing that confuses me is that they had a strong pop music tradition, albeit of a particular favor. But as one of our indigenous pop geniuses, Jonathan Richman put it, “the home of Piaf and Charles Aznevour must have done something right and will do something more.” & Trenet (also cited by Richman) saw his French hit “La Mer” translated into an American Hit, “Beyond the Sea.”

I would like to offer one more bit of evidence that the French could have done pop in a big way: Chantal Goya’s “Tu m’as trop menti” comes from Godard’s Masculin/Feminin, which I just saw for the first time:

Now, I’m not saying this is an all-time great pop song, but as frothy catchiness goes, it’s quite solid (if that’s not mixing metaphors).

BTW, Godard uses it quite humorously in the film, exploiting the best part of the song, the hooky bass-line to drum fill of its intro, in the scene when Yves Afonso turns the knife he’s been threatening Jean-Pierre Leaud with on himself.


What are Francoise Hardy, France Gall, and Jacques Dutronc? Chopped liver?

By Karl Steel on 09/04/07 at 02:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Not really on-topic, but Eric Satie wrote quite a few pop songs, one of which became famous. I have them on CD, but I can’t stand the archaic Margaret Dumont vocal style. They don’t sound Satie-esque.

By John Emerson on 09/04/07 at 03:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks Karl & John. I had a feeling I was going to learn something when I made this post.

By Lawrence LaRiviere White on 09/04/07 at 03:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Looking up Karl’s names on the Youtube reminds me how Petula Clark, another pop genius, hit first (in her return as a grown-up) in France. That’s another point in their favor.

By Lawrence LaRiviere White on 09/04/07 at 04:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think Plastic Bertrand counts.

By Adam Roberts on 09/04/07 at 06:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"What are Francoise Hardy, France Gall, and Jacques Dutronc? Chopped liver?

Foie coupé?

By Adam Roberts on 09/04/07 at 06:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Oui oui a Plastic Bertrand, & I think “haché” is the word for “chopped.”

By Lawrence LaRiviere White on 09/04/07 at 06:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’d add Brigit Fontaine and, of course, Serge Gainsbourg to the discussion.

By on 09/04/07 at 09:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Serge Gainsbourg, of course, should be at the very top of the list.  The French have a huge pop tradition which, besides the artists already mentioned, included in the sixties and seventies people like Joe Dassin, Claude Francois, the ubiquitous Nana Mouskouri, not to mention Claude Brassens, Gilbert Becaud… I could go on forever.  Just because people in the US weren’t listening doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

Of course, French rock has always sucked (Niagara, anyone?), but more recently there have been international hits by world-music bands like Les Negresses Vertes, and dance acts like IAM.  However, most influential on the world scene has been French hip hop and electronica (of course, electronica in France goes back all the way to Jean-Jacques Perrey and Pierre Henry, not to mention the better known Jean-Michel Jarre):  MC Solaar, Air, Daft Punk, Dimitri from Paris, Kid Loco, Cassius, and many others… MC Solaar, produced by La Funk Mob, sampled Gainsbourg like US producers used to sample James Brown; Dimitri from Paris did a particularly luscious, and super-trashy, French take on lounge, before becoming essentially a disco and house archivist; Daft Punk, along with groups like Cassius, Motorbass, Stardust and others created a particularly French, and hugely influential, style of house music (later picked up on in the UK and the US as “filter disco"); Kid Loco has made beautiful loungey trip-hop; and, come on, everybody knows Air, don’t they?  You should also check out the recent album they produced for Serge Gainsbourg’s daughter, Charlotte. 

For much of this material, I would recommend the Source and La Yellow label comps, as well as the anthologies released in the US as “Respect is Burning” and “Future Sound of Paris.”

By Andrei Molotiu on 09/05/07 at 04:57 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m not up on French pop at all, but it certainly doesn’t seem to travel well in this direction. The French pop I’ve heard always seems cabaret-esque, verbal and witty, melancholy, erotic, and a few other things, but they don’t seem to have the gift for angry, high-energy, butthead, let-it-all-hang-out stupidity. That seems to be a Protestant-type thing—the Scandinavians and Germans can do it, but not the Italians or Spanish either.

It’s been my theory that even some Americans (Randy Newman, Frank Zappa) found their success limited by their inability to access the stupidity chakra. Leonard Cohen is a very odd exception, the most anomalous successful American pop musician ever.  (Newman grew up in a family of classically-trained movie musicans of German Jewish origin, but he was born in the US).

CAVEAT: It has not been in any way my intention to “other” our short, dark, dirty, non-rocking Latin brothers and sisters. No actual short dark dirty Latin persons were harmed during the writing of this comment.

By John Emerson on 09/05/07 at 06:59 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Let’s not forget Manu Chao, a superstar in Europe and Latin America, but mostly unknown in the Anglosphere. His parents are Spanish and Algerian, but he’s French. His previous band, Mano Negra, did stupid and loud very, very well.

By Kári Tulinius on 09/05/07 at 12:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

In what way is Brigitte Fontaine “pop”? If she’s pop, then so is Peter Gabriel-era Genesis.

If you want to bulk out your list of 60s French pop, ye-ye girls and so forth, hilariously enough Bourdieu’s Distinction provides a pretty good list in a few of its charts. Emusic has 2 collections of “Pop a Paris” that have some gems, and I’ve very much enjoyed Radio Oh-la-la.

We might want to discuss why the French are so underrepresented in the Nuggets II collection. There’s significance in that, but what significance I don’t know.

but they don’t seem to have the gift for angry, high-energy, butthead, let-it-all-hang-out stupidity

Yeah. I think you’re right.

By Karl Steel on 09/05/07 at 01:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

My feeling is that the French probably have enough buttheads, but that they are brutally suppressed by the mandarin class from the great schools. It’s a pity to see a great nation fall behind because of rigid class distinctions and educational orthodoxy.

By John Emerson on 09/05/07 at 02:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The fact that French markets for pop and hip-hop exist does not make French pop or French hip-hop the equal of its American and British cousins.

Manu Chao is a mongrel, and uses Spanish idioms (and the Spanish language) most frequently; he sings in English as much as he sings in French.

Despite the incredible popularity of acts like the Beatles, French musicians did not embrace America in the same way as British musicians did—or in the same way that French filmmakers like Godard did when they ignited the New Wave movement. The Beatles (and the Stones, and the rest) worshipped American musical traditions, and the most influential French artists, like Serge Gainsbourg, were heavily involved with English-speaking music and audiences.

France has yet to find hip-hop producers to equal Dr. Dre, the RZA, or the Neptunes, although the influence of a real punk movement (Algerian rai) has done something to broaden and deepen French street music.

Mix and re-mix DJs for hire, like Dmitri, fill up what would otherwise be silence in bars and clubs, and at cocktail parties. More interesting are real talents like Air and Daft Punk, along with the imitators (M83 and Justice respectively, to name just two). However, even these bands suffer from an over-emphasis on atmosphere, whether gritty (Daft Punk) or pastoral (Air).

In short, until French audiences learn to value efforts at authenticity as much as they value entertainers and the atmosphere an entertainer can provide (dance music at a club, delicate music in a flat), the music will remain bogged down in camp and gimmickry.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 09/05/07 at 05:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Joe’s entire comment above, especially the last sentence, is staggering.  It staggers one.

No discussion of French popular music can possibly be complete without an acknowledgement of the undying greatness of fuckin’ Magma and Aksak Maboul. Not pop, of course.

By ben wolfson on 09/09/07 at 01:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Q. How can you tell the foreigners at a Paris pop show?
A. They’re moving.

(And before anyone mentions Anna Karina’s dance in Bande à part, be advised that she’s a funky funky Dane.)

However, in support of John Emerson’s theory that any culture is capable of bringing on the Glory Holla Stoopid (even if it’s then rigorously repressed), two favorite pop anthems c. 1990 (both via my long-vanished much-missed expat buddy Cheryl):
“Du Beaujolais" and “Je suis une calamité".

By Ray Davis on 09/09/07 at 02:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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