Paris in Person | The History of French Pop Songs – La chanson française of 1940
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The History of French Pop Songs – La chanson française of 1940

We have reached the turning point of the 20th century, a decade that redefined the world by being the stage for the most devastating war the world has ever seen, the World War II. Many argue that the period between the two world wars was but a poorly made truce, and that the WWII was just a (logical) continuation of the WWI ; also, many would argue that it was indeed the WWI that was the more important of the two. We shall not get into these discussions as we’re focusing on the Parisian matters narrated through the pop song format known as la chanson française. Still, we did mention the two world wars as a necessary setup for this story as, like you will see, this topic could not be quite entirely avoided.


So, what is going on in Paris during this turbulent decade? How is our lovely city doing? Last time we checked, in the 30’s, it was trying to forget the horrors of the Great War, to struggle through the economic instability of the 30’s provoked by the Great Depression and to shake away the auguries of the soon to come disaster announced by the rise of the populist far right regimes that came to power in most of the European countries – famously Germany, Italy, and Spain. What history books nowadays tend to omit is the fact that many European countries saw the rise of the far right as a quite favorable thing – Hitler and Mussolini were lauded as brilliant politicians who managed to restore order in their respective crumbling economies and unstable states; the praises, compliments and even open admiration came from all sides of the continent. Paris and France were not an exception to this ; still, some people disapproved and some felt the raising unease, expressed in the quintessential Zeitgeist song “I’ve a bug” by Damia.


However, apart from that, the majority of the entertainment world, much like the majority of the French politicians, the army and the state apparatus, decided to rather ignore the whole affair and to sit this one out. So we open the inquiry into this era by a song that is blissfully oblivious to the ongoing occupation and Hannibal that is not at at the door, but at the table (not to be crass and say in the bed, where he also was).



Charles Trenet – La Romance de Paris



Charles doesn’t quite care about all this occupation business (who can waste time on such trivialities anyhow) and prefers to sing about Paris for what it’s best known – romance. So the song gives us a very idealized image of a young couple who fell in love, despite only having known each other for two days. Paris has that effect on people, you see, that you are much more likely to find your one true love instantaneously if you’re here rather than anywhere else in the world. From that moment on, their lives were no longer unhappy, but pure joy – they grew old together, had a lovely family, great kids, everything you could wish for. The theme of the song would be quite bland and by the numbers had it not been for the historical context and what went on in the rest of the Europe. Perhaps this is why even nowadays the French people wage war on each other in the youtube comments section around the question whether Charles Trenet was a collaborationist or not. One say that he was just doing his job and sang, albeit a tad too often to the Nazi officers as well ; the others say that you shouldn’t serve the occupier no matter of which profession you happen to be. We’ll do as the French do and sit that one out. Fact is that Charles Trenet is one of the pillars of the entire genre of la chanson française and also on of the ‘eternals’, not only regarding his artistic importance but also his longevity.



Jacqueline Moreau – Le Premier Rendez Vous



Continuing down the same line (of ignoring the occupation), we have this overtly sweet and melancholic song about the joy of the first date. While not exclusively about Paris in as far as actually mentioning the city, it blends perfectly with the general idea of pretending that nothing is out of order and that it’s business as usual. Some generous youtube soul has garnished this song with a set of very interesting photographs of Paris under the occupation, where we see a lot of people having fun, dancing, basically going about their lives as if, indeed, it was business as usual. Again, we’ll sit this one out and let you draw your own conclusions. We’ll just note how it’s extremely ironic, sardonic even, to witness this audio-visual arrangement as such – while the lyrical subject is singing about the joy and mystery of the first date, that will end the loneliness and result in a harmonious affair, we see images of the Nazi soldiers having fun with the radiant, smiling French women – as if those two groups are the lovers we’re being told about. The song came from a movie of the same title and has a more popular rendition by Danielle Darrieux. Still, in this version we get the photos in question which is a curious piece of history we couldn’t ignore.


+bonus link – this awesome collection of photographs depicting the life in the Nazi occupied Paris published by Daily Mail. It really complements the photos seen in the video above and gives us a better historical insight into the entire affair. We might dedicate an entire separate post to this topic alone.



Damia – On Danse à La Villette



In all fairness, not everyone in Paris was wilfully oblivious of the occupation and the ongoing carnage of the WWII. Damia, our old bug-hosting friend, sings about dancing in La Villette, an area of Paris somewhat away from the center of the city. Her point is simple – even though the dances are forbidden by the occupying forces and all the standard dance halls of Paris are closed, the people still gather in the suburbs or the outskirts of the city and dance there, as a show of defiance. The dance and having fun in general thus become political acts and transcend their simple roles. Damia also quite early announces the techno and the rave scene of the 80’s and the 90’s, when people, (undoubtedly) guided by her example leave the snobbish center of the city and hit the abandoned factories, storehouses and stock-yards of the suburbs to have uninhibited fun. It is interesting to compare this song to the previous, especially (in an interdisciplinary manner) with the photos of the occupation. One might think that there was more than plenty of dancing in Paris already going on, but, in all honesty, there is one important distinction to be made – à la Villette, the French and the Parisians were dancing between themselves, not with the Nazi. Which is already something. So, somewhat mild act of defiance, but nonetheless, an act of defiance. Let’s not always split hairs, at least not more than we already do. Damia of all (or most, to be more precise) singers of this genre actually has a grudge against the occupation and more than one song to boot on the subject. Much down the same line, she also does Depuis que les bals sont fermés (Since the dance halls are closed), a critical account of the situation. As far as the others go, or at least what we were able to find, that would be it.



Tino Rossi – Sérénade sur Paris



Back to singing song about how romantic this city is. This time, it is done as a part of a movie Marlène, made in the 1949. The main star as well as our singer is Tino Rossi, already during his life regarded as a legend and a demi-god of the sorts. Much like many other phenomenons of rarity and exception to be found in France, this one is also of Italian origin – Corsican, to be more precise. Tino Rossi had a unique voice, but more importantly was able to color it with deep emotions and a very specific mediterranean vibrancy. In it, you can clearly hear and feel not only the merciless sun of the south of Italy, the corrosiveness of the salt on the darkened skin, but also hard work, poverty, desperately strong love of one’s family and a naturally seeded awe for all of the beauty and harshness of that environment and that life. Even when he’s singing the happy, lively tunes, there is a certain softness in his voice that spontaneously and effortlessly evokes this gentle yet instantly recognizable sadness of the Mediterranean. In this particular case, it is a damn shame that he’s utterly wasting his divine talent on a clichéed, by the numbers song about how romantic the city of Paris is.


So we start with our lyrical subject overlooking the lovely 1st arrondissement, more specifically the Rivoli street and the Tuilerie gardens. In the good tradition of a Parisian romantic geography (sometimes used for stalking and acquiring some random STD’s), he gives us a detailed description of where he’s walking in Paris and what he’s looking at in Paris, so that we can recreate a faithfull reconstruction of it all. To complement this joy of a walk, he hears the sound of the accordion. Really, Tino Rossi? Could you possibly get more stereotypical than that ? Anyhow, it is a perfect setting for his serenade, the serenade of Paris. This song somehow leaves the impression of not actually having said anything of substance or otherwise, about Paris, or at all.


+ bonus track – Tino Rossi – Nini Nanna.

Although it has nothing to do with Paris, nor France, nor it comes from the 40’s, please listen to this track by Tino Rossi, just so you can appreciate his talent for what it is. And so you could better understand our attitude on the subject.




Yves Montand – A Paris



Oh, what a gem of a song. Yves Montand, also one of the greatest performers of the genre, but in quite a different direction, turns his boat towards the more familiar Parisian waters – resignation, irony and cynicism. If there is one song where we can feel the ressentiment left after the occupation, without it ever being mentioned, it would be this one. He starts the song in a familiar manner – ah Paris, how lovely it is and all that jazz. But as it develops, he starts sliding into the aforementioned mood(s). He mentions the famous cut-throat taxi drivers of Paris, which apparently were a thing even in the 40’s – here is the proof. A short digression – as many other (if not all) Paris dwellers, we too were on numerous occasions ripped off and scorned by the scalpy taxi drivers; so we don’t know should this evidence of the tradition of taxi rip-off’s be a consolation or a reason for further anger.


Anyhow, back on track with this song. Yves Montand says that in Paris you can find people aimlessly wasting away their lives in cafés, “where just about anyone drinks just about anything”; they gesticulate with their hands a lot when they speak but generally have nothing to say. On the other hand, there is the Seine river ; on one side of it, there are people who wake up at noon every day of the week, because they can and they don’t care; on the other, people who’ve had enough of it all and have decided to throw themselves in the river. Still, not even the river Seine likes those people ; she much rather enjoys the pretty boats and their lovely owners who dance around carelessly, oblivious to these desperates throwing themselves to the water. Yves, you’re getting darker with every vers. To tone it down a bit, Yves says that Paris is filled with ennui (which can be translated either as a problem or a simple boredom), sure, problems are not to be found only in Paris, problems are everywhere but the city of Paris is not, So, voilà l’ennui. Wait, what ? What does that even mean ? Anyhow, continues Yves, ever since we’ve overtook Bastille, on every street, on every corner, all the time, boys and girls and dancing and spinning in circles. The irony and sarcasm here are so tangible you can touch them. His resigned yet constantly smiling delivery just underlines the notion – a perfect example of a double bind at play.


P.S It’s worthy of notice that this is one of the first, if not the first, music videos we’ve had on this list. They are going to appear more often – as you can well understand, there weren’t many of those back in the 30’s, 20’s, the 10’s and so on.



Henri Salvador – A Saint Germain des Prés



A decidedly less bitter person, with a much more straight-forward relationship with this city, Henri Salvador gives as an early draft of the script for the Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. The idea is very simple (also very banal) – Paris is so charged with culture and history, that on every corner you meet great poets, writers etc. Such is the character of this city and its chic neighborhood of Saint Germain des Près, that not only you can imagine Verlaine and the others walking down the same streets as you do, you can actually meet them and talk to them. Actually talk to Verlaine on a night to night basis. Henri, much like Woody Allen, doesn’t really care about anachronisms nor the historical loops&fractures ; he is that enamored by the city and this particular neighborhood that he’s willing to let some minor, or major, collapses of the time-space continuum slide. So all physics aside, while in Paris, you meet not only Verlaine, but also Apollinaire, Racine, Valéry ; more importantly, that distinguished society makes you understand how rich with spirit you are. That rich, in fact, that you stop needing food, so you don’t really need to eat. The fact that you can’t afford it in the first place (Henri’s words, not ours) loses its relevance confronted with this amazingly artistic environment. Ah, Henri, you’re a sly one. In what began as a very stereotypical song about a Parisian quarter and how quaint and cute it is, Henri throws in a curve ball about what’s it like to be hungry in Saint Germain. Which is strange given how it’s really a very posh neighborhood and most of the people who live there tend to easily be able to afford their food. Perhaps Henri is being a hipster, pretending that he’s a starving artists while living in the most expensive part of the city. That is indeed quintessentially Parisian.



So, what is the conclusion ? One word – ignoring the obvious reality. Wait, those are four words. No matter, you get the point. The 40’s in la chanson française regarding Paris mostly pretended that nothing was going on and historically abstracted itself from the rest of the world. We get this image of a person whistling about love and romance in the midst of the greatest carnage as well as the greatest crimes the world has ever witnessed. That is essentially what happened here. While the Nazi occupation went on, the Parisians prefered singing about love and romance rather than engaging in what most of the Europe was busy with, or noticing that two hundred thousand compatriots, out of which seventy six thousand of Jewish descent, suddenly vanished, most of them never to be seen again. When you think about it, this is actually similar to the official political stance of the entire state. We could say that the cultural output and the historical circumstances were perfectly aligned on this one. Once the war was over, some of that built up resentment was released, but only in the smallest of quantities. For the most part, it remained deeply sealed and seemingly forgotten. This is the indication of another dead-on Parisian characteristic – keeping silent on the subject that is deemed unpleasant in a finer society. if something is vexing, don’t bring it up – everyone will be in a silent pact of pretending that the problem is not there, until it really isn’t. As we can see, it not only works in the case of the marital infidelity, but also on the scale of an entire world war. Practicing this takes, in its own way, a commendable amount of skill and focus.


With such a troublesome decade finally left behind, what will the 50’s bring ? Will the cycle of the long descent into resignation and cynicism somehow be reversed ? Stick around to find out!