The History of French Pop Songs – La chanson française of 1970
Cover photo credits Robert Doisneau/Rapho
After the swingin’ sixties, the seventies have arrived – a very interesting decade in its own right, even if it was not as complex. In the seventies, ideas and notions that were announced in the sixties came into fruition and were developed – to varying results, as we shall see. The ideas of rebellion, of sexual (r)evolution and liberty, of rethinking the possible society, were further advanced, some into possible and viable solutions, some into disappointing dead-ends. Globally, the advent of exacerbated “atomic” individualism began (the famous “me” decade); Keynesian economy started transitioning into today’s reigning neo-liberalism ; decolonisation of Africa (where France had a lot of colonies) continued; terrorism became prominent as a worldwide phenomenon, seen by some as a legitimate asymmetric warfare freedom fighting technique and by most others as a morally reprehensible exposure of civilians to violence.
So again, what started in the sixties came into fruition in the seventies ; to historians, this decade is seen as a turning point of the post WW2 period, but how was it all reflected into Parisian pop songs (about Paris) ? The continued development and instalment of materialistic consumerism, the growing self-centeredness, the coming-out of disco and electro (that again started in the sixties but penetrated into the mainstream in the seventies), they all found their way into la chanson française and parisienne. In Paris specifically the greatest renovation process of the city since the Haussmannian intervention took place ; Paris was surely on its way of cashing in the decades (upon decades) of propaganda on being the most beautiful city in the world, and transforming into a bona fide tourist attraction that it is today – in other words, the process of gentrification was in full swing. How did the terrorism then found its way into the parisian pop ? Let us inspect.
Jacques Brel – Les prénoms de Paris (The Names of Paris)
We start off with one of the greatest names of the genre, Jacques Brel. His lyrical and musical style is quite unique, yet somewhat hard to explain. Much like other authors of this genre, he is balancing his act between genuine emotions and irony ; but when he does it, there is an unmistakable tone of sharp bitterness that is capable of swinging the entire pendulum irrevocably in that direction. He is capable of building the narrative of a song confidently in certain sens and then destroying it all with a single verse, making an unpleasant parody of everything that the listener was honestly invested in just a second before – a great example of this cynical technique is his greatest hit, Ne me quitte pas (Don’t Leave Me). Most people still decide to ignore the bitter sarcasm of the song’s end and stick with it as one of the greatest love songs ever made (much like, for some reason, people stick with Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA as a patriotic song).
With this song about Paris it’s much the same. The song begins as a standard ode to Paris as a city of love – again with the stereotype of romantic geography and the famous sites that serve as a personal little map of relationship’s progress. They first met at Ile Saint Louis, the first kiss was stolen in the Tuileries, the two heads first turned (whatever that means) in Versailles ; so, again, the map of Paris and its vicinity is deconstructed throughout moments of personal history and geography of this couple. So far so good, we’re sticking to the stereotypical narrative arc of the many a chanson parisienne. But, Brel would not be Brel without a twist ending ; in this case, the twist continuation of the song. Soon, the rain begins (as it often does in this city) and the clouds gather. The lovers grow distant and bored, and the famous Parisian spleen and malaise start eating at their joy ; much like with everyone else, the city infects them with this innate and autochthonous ennui, and soon they start realising (as one does here) that it’s all been already done, it’s quite boring and pointless, much like the life itself really.
So the familiar narrative receives a familiar, stereotypical ending – Brel concludes that Paris, much like the love stories it breeds, are one huge common place and one massive “seen it all before”. The fact that the lyrical subject ends/recommences his love story with a certain enthusiasm is not the new-found optimism ; quite the contrary, it’s a very cynical remarque on the Sisyphus’ labor, one where this particular Sisyphus is not even aware of the loop he’s closed into. So the cycle begins anew. Have we learned anything ? No. Are we better people after this ? No. Is Paris a better city ? No, it’s still boring as it ever was and as it ever will be; according to Brel at least. So much for the city of love. It is worthy a mention that Brel was at his peak in the 50’s and the 60’s – this particular song comes from an album where he’s saying goodbye to his carrier and to his life, to a certain extent. Off course, he’s saying goodbye much like he lived – as a self-aware, self-critical and self-assuming critic of the (petit) bourgeois life and moeurs (that were also his own – this particular rabbit’s hole is a set of endless double bottoms that is impossible to escape from).
Joe Dassin – Les Champs Elysées (The fields of Elysium – yes, that is how you translate it)
What better way to contrast the innate cynicism of Jacques Brel than this superficial and cheerful ode to consumerism and banality ? No better way. Joe Dassin, another popular singer of the era and a household name of the genre, sings about the fields of Elysium, made to be the main street of the city. He’s firmly rooted in the canon of the genre – it is at this lovely place that he meet a lovely girl and they fell on love in all the loveliness that abounds in Champs Elysées. It’s such a great place, under the rain, under the sun, no matter. That’s basically all there is to this – a great place, a somewhat catchy and a mildly pleasant tune. No bitter and bored endings, just a happy love story. That’s all folks, move along.
Is it though ? Off course not – where would we be without our cynical inquiry into the backstage of everything, close-reading every verse of pop tunes, basically wasting away the education we’ve spent/thrown away decades of hard labor on ? Someplace better, without a doubt, but that’s besides the point. There is one verse that is elemental to understanding this song. In a refrain, Joe Dassin says that on Champs Elysées, be it night or day, sun or rain, there is everything you might ever wish for. Bingo ! Rampant consumerism, here we come. It was in the late sixties and certainly throughout the seventies that this (not-quite-official) main street of Paris became the shopping central of the city. While up until the sixties it was mostly well known for very expensive boutiques that only the wealthiest could buy from, it was in the seventies that the Champs Elysées saw its share of “democratizing” consumerism ; the more accessible chains of boutiques started opening and the fancy, chic stores moved elsewhere (mostly around nearby Avenue Montaigne, rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré and rue Saint Honoré).
So finally we understand the true context of this particular romance. The boy meets girl in a shopping district ; they were there buying things, and that is known as a the perfect activity for budding romance. That is what they were doing throughout their relationship, on the same place ; night or day, rain or shine, because, as the song informs us, at Champs Elysées you can get find everything you ever wished for. Is this implying that here you can also buy romance, and that in this consumerist optic of the world, romance is also for sale ? Or is it just our own twisted interpretation of the otherwise simple and even banal song ? Up to you to decide.
Claude François – Paris Je t’aime (Paris I Love You)
One of the greatest stars of the decade as well as one of the most popular singers of the genre, the only thing that can rival Claude François’s fame is the bizarreness of his private life (and death). A boyfriend of France Gall when she was at the height of her fame (meaning, underaged) Claude François practiced what Serge Gainsbourg preached, seducing Lolita’esque girls and profiting off of their (assumed) naiveté. In order to maintain the youthful image, he hid his second child from the public, almost making him live in the attic and never appear anywhere with the family. His international, or more specifically anglophone relevance was assured when Frank Sinatra took his song Comme d’habitude (By Habit) and made it into his signature hit My Way ; Elvis Presley did the same with his Parce que je t’aime mon enfant, making it into his famous song My Boy. This connection was rather interesting as Claude François was adapting the anglophone music (pop and rock and roll) for the French market ; he was so good in doing so that his adaptations bounced back at the anglophone market and got remade into great hits, like the two we just mentioned. All in all it’s a very postmodern situation of adapting remakes and remaking adaptations, the influenced influencing the influencer and so on.
As the seventies continued, Claude François kept reinventing his image, readily adopting the disco craze and changing his image into the one of the disco king of French music. A good deal of mutations that went on through the genre of chanson française was channeled through his image and opus. As he changed, so did the genre, and vice-versa – through him, the genre made a more decisive progress towards the anglophone pop with hints of rock, and later on disco. You could say that he was pretty important as someone who help with making the genre more internationally recognized, but at the same time, by doing that, taking away an important part of its “Frenchness” and authenticity. These renditions of chanson française had little or nothing to do with those of Edith Piaf, Frèhel, or to a certain extent Maurice Chevalier.
Funnily enough, his rendition of this song is basically a remake of Maurice Chevalier’s song of the same title, revamped to fit the new context of the 70’s. It’s made more gala, pretentious in a different way, less jazzy and certainly more glitzy variété (French slang expression signifying pop music) It is somewhat hard to understand how he was able to give such an uninspired and by the number performance doing it – one has the impression that he’s late for supper and hurrying his performance so that he wouldn’t miss the last train home. Be that as it may, Claude is a very prominent eclectic, postmodern pop figure – doing remakes and being remade, influencé and influencer, the copycat and the origina all rolled in one. Also a veritable oddball – perhaps its our subjective impression, but there is something rather unsettling about him, his face and performance, the way he sings and moves. Speaking of uncomfortable…
Johnny Hallyday et Michel Sardou – Les villes de solitude (The Cities of Loneliness)
Ah the good old times, when everything was better, more honest, when people knew and respected the traditional values… Do you think we finally ran this joke into the ground ? Well, as we’re slowly approaching our own decade (article written in the late 2016) and exiting the “vintage” domain, we’ve less and less space of using it – this is the last time (promise). However, it’s going out with a bang.
Much in line with keeping up with the anglophone world of music, and taking notes from the domain of rock and roll, this song is a valuable entry in the canon of chanson française. Originally made by Michel Sardou, we opted for this duet version because it includes Johnny Hallyday, himself an interesting figure of the sorts. The song is edgier than most entries in the genre, more operatic and a step further away from the roots of la chanson and its “street”, rough aesthetic. That is, when it comes to music. When it comes to lyrics, it’s a whole other thing.
By George, is it a whole other thing. Les villes de solitude (the cities of loneliness) is a clear reference of Paris – the largest and the most important city in France, and therefore, by analogy, the city that makes its inhabitants feel most lonely and most miserable. So far so good ; it’s not quite the stereotype of Paris as a city of love, but not quite the most original thing that was ever said about this city. We know since the poetry of Baudelaire, the writings of Balzac and Flaubert, much like with the paintings of Degas (especially his painting The Glass of Absinthe) and the works of many a singer of la chanson française that Paris is the city of the lonely – for all the frenzy, drunken fun and stylish debauchery that was to be had in Montmartre and Montparnasse, most inhabitants of this lovely place would actually feel as if they were missing out on it all. Fun and happiness are always someplace else, where you’re not at that given moment. That is what a wise man once said, or did he ? Or which one ? We don’t know, and it doesn’t matter ; what matters here is that Michel Sardou and Johnny Hallyday are young and angry in Paris, and they have a strong desire to blow the whole damn place up ? Did we say strong ? The term “savage” might be more appropriate. How savage ? Well, let’s find out.
In the cities of great loneliness, they say, our lyrical subjects feel safe and well protected by the “two thousand years of servitude” and some pavement on the streets. Right of the bat, we’re made to see, very clearly portrayed, how they feel about the thin layer of the society and civilization as such. It’s nothing more than some pavement and the “two thousand years of servitude”. The nihilistic spirit of Ezra Pound seems to be whispering in Michel Sardou’s ear – it’s all a joke, he says, the entire civilization business ; nothing more than a wreck of dusty and broken art so many of fine young men died for ; “For two gross of broken statues, For a few thousand battered books.” Sardou’s “two thousand years of servitude and some pavement on the streets” hits very close to this. He takes it all quite literally and wishes to act upon his urges – meaning, says he, that he’s going to get drunk, hold up a bank, “crucify the cashier”, takes all the gold he needs and disappear in the smoke. OK, not quite the mood of “Champs Elyséesé by Joe Dassin, but still nothing we haven’t heard before.
However, this was just the beginning of the carnage Sardou (and Hallyday) had in mind. They continue with the realisation that all the heroes are debunked as frauds and posers ; all the values and therefore rules of a given society are a joke, so the next thing what they do is cross the first red light and take a one way street in a wrong direction. Seems somewhat anticlimactic after having pulled off a bank heist and crucified a bank employée, but whatever. They feel food in their folly, so the next stop is wishing to rape the women, force them (the women) to admire them (Sardou and Hallyday), drink all their tears, and disappear in smoke.
Wait, what ? Did we get that right ? Here are the lyrics in French :
J’ai envie de violer des femmes
De les forcer à m’admirer
Envie de boire toutes leurs larmes
Et de disparaître en fumée
Yup, that’s exactly it. Jesus Johnny and Michael, Michael and Johnny ! What on earth is the matter with you ? How can you even begin to deconstruct everything that’s wrong with this statement ? How are you going to “force women to admire you” by raping them ? That’s not how that works ! At least as far we know. Was life that different in the 70’s ? We don’t think so – our parents would have told us about it (we hope). We encourage our older readers to come forth and clarify this dilemma. At any rate, this is the punch-line of the ever running joke of “the good old days, when values etc.”.
The continuation of the song is even more sordid, in a way. In the cities of great solitude, they say, once the alcohol has evaporated from the blood, they slip back into the crowd and everything goes on as it did – “comme d’habitude”, Claude François yells from the background. They are afraid of having upset the order, but that is if far from truth – not a single window was broken and everything goes on as planned. Meaning, that volatile excesses like these are in fact a built in part of the system, in the cities of great solitude. This conclusion alone is more sinister than any of the imagery evoked by Johnny’s and Michel’s rampage. Also, the song is relevant as a testament of punk swimming into the formerly casual (yeah right; nothing could be farther from the truth) and relaxed genre. Nihilist, bleak, desperate and utterly cynical, this chanson might just be more rock and roll (or punk, for that matter) than most or anything made in that genre. Still, forcing admiration from women by raping them ? That’s just plain wrong, Michael and Johnny. What does it say about the French society that Johnny Hallyday is one of the greatest music stars of France (with an ongoing carrier, as we speak, though in recent years he’s more well known for his botched plastic operations than anything else) ? We’ll seek to answer that question some other time. For the moment, let’s keep up with the punk vibe of the decade.
Renaud – Les Amoureux de Paname (The Lovers of Paris)
Speaking of punk influencing the genre, here we have a decidedly more mellow example, but equally biting and certainly more satirical. Renaud, part activist, part anarchist, all singer of chansons (true Robocop fans will get this reference) bites at all the fakeness of Parisian “gauche caviar”, a specifically Parisian phenomenon also known in the anglophone world as “Champagne socialist”, a “Limousine liberal” (though frankly whoever coined the last one didn’t quite get what ideological liberalism truly is), in the German world as “Salonkommunist”, and our favorite, the Italian “Radical Chic”. You get the point. Renaud is calling out to all those who handle the lefty issues nowhere else but on the trendy soirées, the weekend ecologists, the SJW’s of their time, the hypocrites and the fakes, in other words 99% of Parisian folk. He’s calling them out on liking the nature, the greenery, the english grass and the lovely sheep grazing on it, again, in other words the utterly bland and gentrified version of nature that is dear to them.
He, on the other hand, is a great fan of what Paris really is – pollution, crass, dirt, sleazy underbelly of the city. If you remember any of the previous entries in this series, you know by now that that’s what Paris and the songs about Paris, are all about. He likes the plastic, bitumen more specifically – that is his scenery. The concrete and the macadame, but most of all bitumen. An acquired taste, but we don’t judge. Renaud is reinforcing his claim visually – the video shows him taking a bike through the city of Paris (around the 2nd and the 9th arrondissement) among the fiercely polluting cars (much like we do today – in that respect, not much has changed here).
Still, for all the cynicism, by now accepted as one of the defining traits of the genre, there is an important underlying reason why this song is so closely connected to the notion of gentrification. Paris in the seventies underwent possibly the greatest reconstruction since the famous Haussmannian intervention. The entire district of Les Halles was torn down and built anew ; Center Pompidou was made ; Marais was utterly re-vamped and gentrified. Most of the façades were cleaned up and the Paris was transformed from an actual city to what was pejoratively nick-named as “a museum city” – a movie set almost, to pretty and dolled-up to be authentic. It became less of a city and more of a touristic destination ; in doing so, it achieved what any gentrification achieves – it bumped up the prices of the real estate so much that it forced all the lower classes to move from the center to the suburbs. Center of Paris was therefore not only cleaned, but received a fair deal of “social engineering” as well. This is what Arnaud if invoking when he’s singing about the “gauche caviar” and the “weekend ecologists”. Embellishment tends to mean exclusion and social stratification that further marginalizes the already marginalized – this fact could not escape the keen eye of the somewhat radical and certainly left-leaning Renaud that, much like Johnny Hallyday and many other long standing, “eternal” singers of la chanson française would grow into a properly unintentional parody of himself, mostly due to the fact that he can’t really sing, like, at all. This – the fact that he can’t really sing, but insists in doing so, coupled with his left-leaning tendencies, makes him properly punk. You’ve probably known already, punk is, in its essence, ideologically positioned on the far anarchical left.
Metal Urbain – Paris Maquis (Paris Maquis, in this context not the vegetative scrub but the French resistance movement active in the WW2)
Speaking of punk influencing the parisian pop, we can’t fail to mention a veritable punk band based in Paris, singing about Paris ; Metal Urbain. Although not properly part of the chanson française genre, it still found its place on this list partly because of their integral importance and partly because it’s our list and we can do as we please with it. By now you’re well used to the rampant subjectivity and gross appropriations, anachronisms and generalizations here, so let’s move on. Speaking of those, we have a very interesting band here, that much in line with the punk ethos didn’t really last long, didn’t produce much and certainly didn’t achieve any noticeable popularity in France back in the day. Curiously enough, they had more success overseas in the UK, the motherland of punk, than they did in their own country. So again, the reason why we’re including them here isn’t their relevance (as it stands for Claude François, Joe Dassin or Jacques Brel) but a very precise zeitgeist their managed to invoke with this song.
We mentioned terrorism finding its way into the French pop ; this is it, much in line with the previous two songs, one singing about a drunken and destructively Dionysiac bender that leaves the city both in flames and ignoring the havoc it just witnessed; the other about the innate hypocrisy of everyone, with a polite whisper to bring the whole corrupt society down. Here we have a direct call to action, to revolt, to anti-system terrorism (as punks understood it, at least) if you will. What are the boys from the Metal Urbain suggesting ? The state is armed against us, they hate us, they are out to get us ; they fake (invent) our liberties, they pay the hired assassins to kill their own people, they rig the game we all play in their favor. Every day is the resistance to the system that is out to get you, “Paris Maquis” ; they bring us terror and death each instant, they lock their knowledge in their museums. The city is murderous ; the city is terrorist ; the city is zombified and strictly regulated by a fascist state.
This particularly gloomy and over the top vision of Paris might seem as a bit of an overreaction, but again, it is very much in with the punk canon. It is by no accidence that the seventies have seen the growing consumerist culture, and citizens wilfully forgetting their political role in the society, exchanging it for yet another shiny new possession. Punk is tapping into the malaise that comes off of this realization ; much like the zombie movies that started gaining popularity in the seventies – hence Paris, in this song, and specially the Paris of Joe Dassin’s Champs Elysées, is presented as zombified and regulated by fascists. The seed of rebellion that was planted in the manifestations of the 68 started bearing strange and perhaps unexpected fruit. The song’s statement is simple and very much punk like that – the state is out to get you, so get the state. The system is essentially terrorist, so be a terrorist to such a system. Did we mention that punk was very radical ? Yes, it wasn’t all Vivienne Westwood’s fashion and Malcolm McLaren’s marketing genius. Some of these guys had an actual agenda, and some of them were downright radical. Also, another reason to actually include them in this list is the fact that (possibly beyond their intent) they actually keep with the working class and lumpenproletariat roots of the genre of la chanson française much more so than the people like the aforementioned consumerist-inclined Joe Dassin or the mery Claude Françoise ; though in style and delivery it might not seem to be the case.
At any rate, and on a lighter note, the video is an almost DIY delight. As the legend says, the filming crew disliked the band so much that they made all possible efforts to sabotage the recording. Concretely, their efforts went into messing up the sync between the audio and the video, focusing on the plugged out plugs, zooming away from the singer and generally trying to make them look as inept and idiotic as possible. Which, again, is perfectly in tune with the punk aesthetical cannon, so in a way they were doing them a favor.
bonus track – Charles Aznavour – Comme ils disent (As They Say)
Back to the classics of the genre, here we have the already known poet of Montmartre, Charles Aznavour, revisiting his old love – the eponymous part of the city as well as the people that make it so unique and precious. This time however, it’s not the starving artist and his model romantic interest, but a homosexual transvestite who performs in a cabaré as a striper and lives with his mum. He is also an artist (a performer, a stylist, an interior designer) and a delicate soul, despite being well aware of his peculiar position in the society, exposure to ridicule, derision and the general lack of understanding for his behavior. Again, hats down to both Charles Aznavour and la chanson françise in general for equitable and progressive depiction of sex workers of all genres and affiliation, as well as the minorities of all (or most) kinds. He continues by saying that his nights are filled with cynical fun he has with his similarly inclined friends, where they ridicule the society that ridicules them, or as he poetically says, they “throw acid laced stones at them”. When he comes back home, and takes all of the makeup off, he can’t sleep because he thinks of that particular beautiful boy who, alas, is straight and prefers women. Charles concludes that no one can blame him as it was the nature herself (or Nature, if you will) that made him that way ; a man, as they say (comme ils disent). So, a very progressive song, much in line with the sexual liberation movement that was seeking liberties not only for heterosexual love, but for all kinds of it as well. As we know, it was a movement that would only gain momentum in the decades to come, so Charles was on point here.
Some sort of a conclusion. What could we say apart from this – the punk, or even pre-punk has definitely defined this era even in the context of la chanson française. While on ne side you have the still-traditional songs that are well rooted in the genre (musically at least) and are trying to keep the tradition alive, on the other he have the definite influences of the anglophone world – rock and roll and especially punk. It seems odd and almost impossible, trying to asses the gaping abyss between the nihilistic appetite for destruction of our dynamic duo of Johnny and Michael on one side and the casual ode to banal consumerism of Joe Dassin on the other. These worlds seem very far apart, even if they do, in theory, belong to the same genre. The same can be said of the work of Renaud. While anchored in the musical style of the chanson, his radical ideological leanings are definitely closer to the punks than they are to the classics of the genre, who don’t shy of singing praises to colonial imperialism (Mon legionnaire, for example, by Edith Piaf), etc.
It is interesting to see how far the genre has pushed the image of Paris. From the city of love, it became the city of rape ; it seems that there can be no bigger difference between two notions than that. From the city who welcomed people, as it was before the WWII, it became a “terrorist” city, murderous to the inhabitants ; from the place where the millionaires mingled with the homeless in the nightclubs of Montmartre (we honestly doubt that this ever happened, but for the moment we’re only mentioning what was stated in the songs on the subject, not what factually, historically happened), it became the city that jealously hides its culture in barred museums ; from the place famous for creativity and freedom of thoughts, feelings and ideas, it became a nest of hypocrite fascists. Is it come full circle (already) or is it just the over-amplified anger of the frustrated and disenfranchised youth ? How objective were the different punks of Paris ? And if it indeed is come full circle, what is the rest of the century going to look like ?
We see the growing malaise of the Parisian spleen that has defined the seventies ; what will become of it in the eighties ? Will the blazé boredom running through this city’s veins continue to go down the path of drunken destruction and open calls for terrorist action ? Or will the light line of misery drowned in shopping delights prevail ? Which of these will claim the soul of the city in the decade to come ? Stay tuned to find out.