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French Music: C’est Pas Mal!

The news in France this week is old news. Ten years ago the controversial megastar Serge Gainsbourg died, and the French still haven’t forgotten about it. That’s normal, he was one of the most well-known French pop stars of all time. His heyday was in the late 60s, but even throughout the 80s he was the country’s favorite shocking bad boy. I like Serge Gainsbourg. He’s cool. He sings in English sometimes, without sounding stupid. His songs are catchy. And hell, anyone that can shock the French with songs about sex must be doing something right.

But seriously, a good French musician is automatically a great musician, if only because the rest are so very bad. I always like to say there’s a reason why most Americans can only name five French musicians (if that). I’m going to get a lot of hate mail, now, I’m sure, but I don’t speak for all mankind, just myself. And everyone I know. French music, in general, is horrid. But that can be a good thing. You could easily afford to buy all of the French music you like. The stars are somehow more worthy of their stardom than their English counterparts. Especially if they’re popular in the US. (Unless it’s Francis Cabrel)

The Classics
Edith Piaf is a sure bet. After one of her songs was played during a dramatic scene in Saving Private Ryan; she gained a whole new gang of fans. She’s the only reason accordion music hasn’t been banned in Western civilization. The French adore her, and still undoubtedly hold every new young French singer up to Piaf standards (they all fail, of course). Another of my favorites is Charles Aznavour. He’s the Frank Sinatra of the French world. Still alive and singing, in two languages! I remember the first time a French friend played Aznavour’s ‘Chansons d’Or’ CD, singing along to every single song. He was appalled that I’d never heard of him before. “But, he’s toured the US!” I’m sure he did, and I’m sure many Americans know his music, but I had to come to France to discover him. Jacques Dutronc isn’t bad. I’ve always liked the ‘Cactus’ song (sings it ‘kak-toos’), and his reclusive ways that differed greatly from the other classic rock ‘n’ roller who won’t go away, Johnny Hallyday. This guy is the Casey Kasum of France, and has had more plastic surgery than Michael Jackson. I don’t like his music much, either.

The Last Whining Paragraph
Francis Cabrel is, for some reason, more popular in the US (particularly with high school French teachers) than he is in France. Maybe, like Celine Dion, he’s actually Quebecois. I’m so scared from years of thinking that he was the epitome of French music that I refuse to go check. He’s up there with everything I can’t stand about French music, like the way it takes itself too seriously. Mr. Hall and I regularly sing the first lines of our most despised French crooning disaster whenever we hear a cheesy song: “Pourquoi je vis? Pourquoi je meurs?” (Why do I live? Why do I die?) There’s a very fine line between melodrama and poetry, and sadly, not many get it right. Especially Eddy Mitchell, who should be put out of my misery. Many pop songs on French radio back in the 60s and 70s were actually French remakes of American songs. This was done because certain laws to protect the French language meant that 70% of the music played on the radio had to be in French. So they swiped ’em. How horrid to hear the first few bars of a well-known song, only to have it dubbed by some French karaoke king (‘My Way’ painfully becomes ‘Comme d’Habitude’). I’m aware this happens in reverse, so I’ll concede I prefer the recently deceased Charles Trenet’s ‘Le Mer’ to Bobby Darrin’s ‘Beyond the Sea’. Today, it’s French rappers doing the sampling (they do it in the US, too, but not to French music). French rap makes me sad. MC Solaar, you rock. The rest of them are so unoriginal, it has given me a new respect for the real talent in American rap/hip hop/et al.

My Current Favorites
When I feel like listening to French music, I like Alain Souchon, Michel Sardou and Jacques Brel. Great songs in the traditional French pop/easy listening style. Some French music hides in amongst my regular CD collection: Les Negresses Verts, Daft Punk, Laurent Garnier, and Air. Granted, electronic music is automatically better than most French music because there’s few or no lyrics. Many people consider electronic music to be the saving grace of the French music scene. Madonna’s latest album has been mixed by a French DJ (and a few French lyrics, too, but they’re not intrusive). Les Negresses Verts are sort of like French Pogues. There’s a lot of non-French musicians who’ve done songs in French, and it’s usually well done. Mano Negra, Sting, Billy Joel and Concrete Blonde are just a few who come to mind. There’s quite a few new songs out I like these days, but I can’t seem to catch the name on the radio. And don’t forget, there are so many other cultures in France, bringing in their own musical style to the French scene. African and Middle Eastern music has had a powerful impact, especially Cheb Khaled’s Raï. French jazz and classical music is, I’m told, very good, but I don’t listen too much of it myself.

Where to Hear It
The easiest way to get a sample is to check out Amazon.fr (Amazon.com only has a few French artists). There are plenty of ‘Best of’ compilations, and you can hear a few seconds of each song on the album. Radio Paris lets you listen to French radio stations live (my top pics are Radio FG, Nova Planet, and NRJ). Allmusic.com has a brief French pop biography with links to the top performers, including Brigitte Bardot, Françoise Hardy, Michel Sardou, Johnny Hallyday, et al. Visit Sirius’s website for a decent database of major French artists with discography and plenty of popular song lyrics (some of the bios are in English as well as French). If you’re in Paris, spend some time at the nearest FNAC or the Virgin Megastore on the Champs Elysées, where you can listen to popular CD’s before buying them (just like in the US). Live music events can be found in any of the Entertainment links listed on this site. Keep your eyes peeled for the top French DJs playing in places like Queen and the Rex Club. For the latest in French pop, visit the trendy MCM Café, a sort of nightclub for the French version of MTV, with huge video screens showing all of the French music videos.

Because You Made It to the End
My own favorite place to hear French music is on rue Mouffetard. At the bottom of this old Parisian market street, in the square of Eglise Saint Médard an accordion player and assistant play every Saturday and Sunday when the weather isn’t too bad. They hand out sheet music and everyone sings along to the old French classics. As a student I used to live at the top floor of an apartment just above the butcher shop, listening to normally harried Parisian shoppers pause and sing along to their favorite songs. It’s such a perfect moment, it seems to be created by the tourism office. But this is a pure Parisian tradition, and visitors are always welcomed to join in for a song or two.

This article is one of the 78 original “Secrets of Paris” articles published between September 1999 and July 2004. After disappearing into the internet graveyard for almost 15 years, I’ve republished them in autumn 2019 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Secrets of Paris: “1999-2019: Twenty Years of the Secrets of Paris” Broken and dead links have been updated or deactivated, but otherwise the article remains unchanged. 

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