The History of French Pop Songs – La chanson française of 1950
Cover photo credit Robert Doisneau
We are past the turning point of the 20th century and have come to the 50’s, a very specific period in Paris, France, and most of the Europe indeed. Here, it was called “Les Trente Glorieuses” (albeit a title given a posteriori, in the late 70’s), meaning “The Glorious Thirty” and signifying the period between 1945 and 1975. The period was marked by a rapid increase in the standard of living, development of the industry, introduction of consumerism to a much wider scope of society and probably the most importantly, a functional welfare state that democratized education and healthcare. Although the beginning of the “Glorious Thirty” is linked with the Marshall plan and is as such set in the 40’s, that era is marked by the WWII in a much more profound manner; it took a while for the effects of the new situation to take place. So how does this historical step forward reflects itself in la chanson française? Let’s find out.
Edith Piaf – Notre Dame de Paris
One of the greatest and certainly the best known names of la chanson française, Edith Piaf, sings about Notre Dame, the most famous church in Paris and possibly the best known Gothic cathedral in the world. A match made in heaven, right? Before we start describing the song, it needs to be said that we could have equally set Edith Piaf in the 30’s (for example, with the Piaf’s specific ode to French colonialism Mon Légionnaire) or in the 40’s, as well as partially in the 60’s. Her music marked all of those decades ; her influence is still very much felt.
Coming from the school of the realist singers, making misery, the world of petty crime and hard life her main subjects (which, by the way, is something you really-need-to-know if you want to properly understand her greatest hits La Vie en Rose and Non, Je ne Regrette Rien), Edith Piaf was the O.G of her time, properly rocking the “keeping it real” much before it was a thing. Kept it real she did – abandoned by her mother, she grew up in a brothel – a noble French profession that she also had a run with (according to her own confession, at least once, so that she could pay for her child’s funeral) – and started working very early in her life, singing on the streets, in nightclubs, cabarets and (off course) brothels. Her milieu was that of the poor and of the despised – her origins and life all up until her success were backing up the notion that she indeed felt and lived through all of the misery she was singing about. Loss, abandonment, death of the loved ones, drug and alcohol abuse – Edith Piaf was living the thug life. Naturally, the French, people famous for their optimism and propensity to light-hearted topics soon took notice and made her the most popular singer of the century. This is by far not an exhaustive account of Piaf’s life – we will eventually make an entire post exclusively about her – but was the minimal requirement for the proper understanding of her work, this song included.
So, knowing what we now know of Edith Piaf, it comes as no surprise that she would sing of Notre Dame from the perspective of a homeless person squatting in its vicinity. The homeless person, affectionately called clochard (or cuter still, clodo) imagines himself to be Quasimodo, the main character of a Victor Hugo’s novel Notre Dame de Paris ; he feels as if the entire weight of Notre Dame is on his back. Never the one to miss a smile and a hearty laughter, Edith Piaf continues in this tone – around Notre Dame there are beggars sharing their meals with the pigeons, people spending their time under the bridges. A decade-old method (and possibly a fruit of an elaborate conspiracy to advertise the city of Paris to its many tourists) of naming geographical references of Paris is also used here – Piaf mentions all of the quaint addresses around the cathedral, giving it an interesting spin – instead of the usual framing of these topoi as romantic places where lovers walk enamored by the city of Paris, these are the sites where we can meet the workers, the aforementioned beggars, the homeless etc. To give this song its well deserved coup de grâce, Piaf reminds us that the bridges that take to Notre Dame – and are currently used for homeless housing, something that didn’t really change ever since – were made by hand, and that every piece of stone was carried on someone’s back. The homeless are thankful and so should we all be.
Really, Edith, could you make it any more depressing? Probably not. But, as we said, being bleak and broken was her thing – those exact qualites made Edith Piaf famous. Certainly a tone that well complements the ongoing image making of the city of Paris, this song, as well as many others sang by Piaf, serve to remind us what a miserable place this city was and still is/can be. As was already said, it took some time for the post-war optimism to take off the ground.
Jean Bretonnière – Sous le Ciel de Paris (Under the Paris sky)
Continuing in a more cheerful tone, as if to create a contrast will the overpowering bleakness of Edith Piaf, we have this merry song of what goes on in the city of Paris, most notably under its sky. A boy sings a song, the lovers are walking around (a recurring theme in these songs apparently), some philosophers are lost in their thoughts. Sure, there are problems to be found here and there, but in Paris, everything can be arranged. And when the city of Paris is jealous of its many lovers and starts pouring rain all over them, which actually happens quite often, it doesn’t last long (somewhat true). Otherwise as a city it is kind to its many homeless, the poor etc. The song is accompanied by a video that is taken from a Julien Duvivier film of the same name, and as you can see, people in it behave according to the overall mood of the tune – they are happy and smiling.
Here is the catch though – the film, you guessed it, is an incredibly bleak one. It is about a serial killer that affects the lives of a group of working class people in the post-war Paris, most of whom are trying to make ends meet. Just as some new found hope is starting to stream through their lives, they find themselves on a path of a madman. Seriously, people, can’t anything be just nice and simple? Apparently not. In Paris, as well as in Parisian vintage pop, everything has a double or a triple bottom. So the cheerful tone of this song, its words, its video, are only there to offset and ironize the grim and sombre tone of the movie, of which this piece is a part of. We should mention that the director in question is one of the France’s greatest, if not the greatest. Also, the song was a quite popular one, having received renditions by Yves Montand, Edith Piaf and the others. We opted for an original version, from the movie.
Lucienne Delyle – Sous les Ponts de Paris (Under the bridges of Paris)
Leaving the vagueness of the Parisian skies, we find ourselves in a more precise spot – under the bridges of Paris. Also, we have a more precise goal in mind, but we’ll get to that in a second. The setting is still decisively working class – the bridges of Paris, that is, the space underneath them, is free and available to everyone. The workers from the factory as well as the aristocracy – channeling that witty remark that will come along later, that a billionaire and a homeless person have equal democratic rights to sleep under a bridge. So suggests the lyrical subject – the odor and the water are free, mon marquis. We’re not quite sure that the odor and the water of the Seine is something someone, or anyone, would want to have for free, to pay or to be payed for; still, free they are. The singer further instructs us, following the splendor of the bridges of Paris and naming some of them, that they are not only for the homeless to sleep under – they are great spots to observe the moon and to catch a private moment with a loved one. That is, to kiss and make love to them. The lyrical subject is quite straight-forward about this as well.
Perhaps the state of the bridges of Paris, and especially of the spaces underneath them, has drastically declined in the decades following the 50’s (although we’re not really convinced that it was ever better than it is now), but the suggestion of making love under any Parisian bridge somehow looks more grim and bleak than the previous two songs combined. Something is going in a wrong direction here – this entire era was supposed to be uplifting and optimistic, but the resilient French spirit was apparently vigorously resisting these hideous emotions. Just to give the finishing touches to this already lovely scene, the lyrical subject mentions a single mother of three with her kids, chased out of her home (a standard Parisian affair, really – there, not much has changed) finding shelter under a bridge, supposedly right next to the couple of lovers from the previous strophe, and spends the night contemplating suicide. One has to admire their politeness and the space they leave to each other. Mind over matter, manners over all – that’s the Parisian way.
Juliette Gréco – Méfiez Vous de Paris (Beware of Paris)
Remember those irritating memes in form of slides or a series of images that go something like ’20 reasons why insert name of a country/city here is the worst’ and then you see twenty images of beautiful scenery, great food etc., followed by titles such are there’s nothing to eat, the scenery is boring and so on. There’s one for every country it seems, specially for the less well known ones. Well, it seems like we’ve tracked the source of that unnerving attempt at humor – this very song, ‘warning’ us to beware of Paris as it will captivate us with its charms and we’ll forever be spell bound, powerless to resist.
However, to make things more interesting, Juliette ads some hints of S/M – crush me in your hands, she says, it hurts but I like it. This is the feeling you get by being in Paris, she says, it hurts (and is annoying) but you like it. We can partially agree with this statement, mostly with the first part of it. Anyhow, being crushed just the way she likes it, Juliette continues saying that while she was trying to chase the sadness away by partying as if there was no tomorrow, she got drunk and mad of joy with Paris, and then finally found her love and happiness (in Paris) by doing so. All’s well that ends well after all.
Boris Vian – J’suis Snob (I’m a Snob)
We are getting to the very center of the Parisian spirit – the snobbery, but a self-aware one. Remember how everything here has a double bottom and is never straight-forward ? Which, when you think about it, makes it an even worse case of snobbism ? Well, here we have the emanation of that exact notion. Boris Vian was a very interesting person, one of the rare polymaths of its (or any other) time – a singer, poet, translator, writer, engineer, inventor, critic and actor. Apparently, he also had a great insight into the very soul of this city. Here he gives us this quintessentially Parisian treat of a self-aware and also, more importantly, self indulgent snobbism. One is aware of its vices; one does not care ; one rather enjoys them, as corrosive as they may be.
What makes a snob ? Well, Vian explains it perfectly – it is the fact that you are constantly self-aware. Doing something (drinking whisky in a fancy bar, eating cheese with a small spoon), you’re looking at yourself doing it, enjoying not the experience (as you’re too blazé for that) but the fact that you’re doing it. The coolness of any given action takes place of the actual experience, and thus you become your own narrative, much like the entire city of Paris really. You still don’t get it? Come to Paris and spend some time here, it will become self-evident, we promise.
Léo Ferré – Paris Canaille (Paris Commoners)
So apparently in the 50’s la chanson française is still well rooted in its working class/lumpenproletariat roots. The songs like this one seem to be prevalent – the milieu is well that of the petty crime, gangsters and gangster wannabe’s, prostitutes, gigolos, beggars etc. The tone is considerably more vivacious and upbeat than with the previous songs, verging on the circus and burlesque. Léo Ferré delivers a song that is much in line with his character – fast, nervous, unsettling and somewhat perverse. He goes back to the old routine of naming the toponyms of Paris, garnishing them with the types of people we can meet there – the aforementioned group mostly consisting of the seedy underbelly of the city. However, the kink, the twist and the mentioned perversion come from the often repeated vers ‘mais c’est si bon’ that he delivers with gourmet like, almost lubricious pleasure. After naming a certain part of Paris, like place de la Bastille for example, and mentioning yet another type of desperados that can be found there, he finishes gayfully with an exclamation ‘mais c’est si bon’ meaning, ‘but it’s soo good’. Yes, Léo, we get it ; you find great pleasure in all types of mischief that make this city what it is. A slummer extraordinaire, Léo wallows in the vices of Paris as happy as a pig rolls in the mud. Paris (as ugly as it may be) c’est si bon! Also, worthy of mentioning is the equality of sexes prostitution wise – Léo honors the gigolos as well as the female prostitutes, as they both equally are an essential aspect of the city, showing the Parisian progressive thought working in a grassroot manner – as it well should.
Francis Lemarque – L’air de Paris (Parisian vibe)
Finally, to get out of the depressing muck that seem to have been most of the 50’s, we finish the decade with a genuinely optimistic song about the Parisian vibe that, no big surprises here, bring the lovers together. Such is the paradox of this city, according to Francis Lemarque – the city is gray, blazé, everyone here seem to be bored out of their minds, yet somehow it happens that you meet the love of your life in that highly improbable setting. As Francis continues, the city is over two thousand years old, and that heaviness of the centuries is weighing everyone down – still, when that magic moment happens, you ‘change your past into your future’. Well said Francis, well said. Also, you become one of those stereotypes that annoy everyone around you – you fell in love in Paris, how original. But, as the song suggests, and constantly repeats, you’ll never know – how this peculiar magic works, or how it will last. You just never know.
This song is a certain step forward towards the songs of the 60’s, not only in style, words and the overall mood it suggests, but production wise as well. We can see that it’ more ‘entertainment’ than the previous ones – decidedly more pop and less gloomy; also, more superficial and simplified. It is announcing the simpler, happier times that are coming – or are they?
We should insert some sort of a conclusion here. While the horror of the 40’s is gone, the French and Parisian pop is still pretty much oriented towards the underbelly of the society. While in the previous era’s we’ve had the mixture of glamour and misery, here the attention seems to be all on the misery. Even the slummer like Léo Ferré does not specify his own class – he might very well be one of the people he’s naming, with the exception of being someone who finds it all very amusing and charming. Still, the transition towards the actual pop as we have it nowadays (in the end of 2016, when this article is being written, should the posterity be concerned) has slowly begun. We are moving away from everything seedy and turning our heads towards a better life. The welfare state, good economy, high efficiency and employment are slowly but surely making it possible. But did it came to be ? Stay tuned to find out.