Paris in Person | The History of French Pop Songs – La chanson française of 2000
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The History of French Pop Songs – La chanson française of 2000

Cover photo taken from Dialogue Inc.


The new century is upon us ! Or at least it was seventeen years ago. Technically, we can’t still qualify it as vintage as it still lacks three years (the twenty years rule, and we’re currently in the beginning of 2017) but seeing how we’re visionaries looking to posterity rather than to our contemporaries, we’re going with the vintage. We’re doing this for the future. Anyhow, with that out of the way, back from the top –


The new century is upon us ! It’s been a hundred years of this genre that we’ve covered, and it had changed considerably. Try going back to the first article and comparing with these latest entries, and you’ll see that the quality of the sound is not the only things that’s different. For historical accuracy’s sake, we should however mention that the genre is older than that even, and can be traced back to the middle of the 19th century, with roots going as far as the 16th – you can however imagine that finding recording would prove somewhat tough so we’ve decided on this timeframe. But, back on topic.


What has the new age brought us ? We’ve seen in the previous post that the genre felt washed up, used up and spent, as the singers themselves were explaining/whining about the necessity of innovation and some enthusiasm being desperately needed. While we would always agree on that point, it’s also worthy of mentioning that not only la chanson française, but the French culture and society in general has been going on about that for the last couple of centuries, so much so, in fact, that the notion integrated itself into the very core of the French (and more broadly speaking, European, but mostly French) being. Meaning, it’s not a short-lived crisis, a disease you can burn through, a temporary set-back – no, it’s an adopted state of mind that is here to stay. If anything, we’re surprised that this particular genre took that long to reach this very natural French perspective.


So, with all those cries for novelty, what has the new century in store for us ? Let’s take a look, and hope it’s something spectacular, all the while knowing full well that it is likely going to be more of the same. Who are we kidding really ? We’ve been here long enough to know better.



Florent Pagny – Chatelet Les Halles



A great way to start as this song came out at the very beginning of the century. While some of us are still confused as to whether the century actually started in the year 2000 or 2001 (you remember that ongoing debate?), this came out in 2001 so all is good. Florent Pagny hits the nail straight on the head with this one, bullseyeing the topic, the tone, the mood, everything. The song is about a lonely and desperate Parisian person who doesn’t know what to do with himself during the weekend; too poor and busy to actually travel someplace, he roams the city aimlessly and does so in a worst possible manner – by taking a subway. Not just any subway, mind you – he opts for the line 1 and boards it at Chatelet Les Halles (the name of the station).


Now for those of you who haven’t been to Paris, some context is necessary. Chatelet Les Halles is the largest and most central subway station of the city, where most lines intersect. It is also the deepest one. Being a Parisian subway station, it is notorious for being horrendously poorly organized. What the station is most well known for is its seemingly never ending maze of corridors that will make any poor sool trapped there, trying to find an exit, desperate to the brink of suicide. Even if you know-exactly-where-to-go, a feat in itself, it will take you close to 20 good minutes just to get out on the surface. A hell hole if we ever saw one. Half way through you start losing all hope and start seriously believing that you are in your own episode of the twilight zone/your own personal hell, where the rest of your life/eternity you are doomed to stumble around busy corridors. The worst part is, you don’t steadily go upwards, having some sort of illusion that you are progressing ; no, you get to climb up and down the stairs, following the exit signs, all the while feeling progressively more lost. Moral is, NEVER USE THIS STATION ! Always opt for one after or one before.


Florent takes this nightmarish experience as a metaphor for Paris living. You’re stuck in your crappy small apartment, you wish to get out, but you can’t. The posters of a lovely beach spread throughout the video (in his apartment as well as in the subway) taunt our poor lyrical subject, stuck in a root of pointless existence that is life and Paris, perfectly represented by this monstrosity of a subway station. He also represents the building frustration of such life, where an individual tends to break down and starts tearing at the walls of his own mental prison (that is this station/Paris city living). A nice touch is that he seems to be tearing his own dreams of a better life elsewhere down, thus saying that he is losing all hope, but with it, submerges the entire craphole of a station as well. Our dreams of better tomorrow are our prison of crappy today, says he, and we can’t disagree on that. There is just one incredulous moment here – this station is never empty, and actually submerging it would likely kill hundreds, if not thousands. But, let’s not split hairs here. A man is tearing down the walls of his pointless illusion that keeps him in the perpetual horror and is trying to break free from his prison – again, a sentiment much felt by anyone living here. So kudos for that.


Those things aside, song as such is quite sappy and sentimental, but again, while we don’t necessarily appreciate those qualities, we are aware that they are an integral part of (this) city’s character, so, accuracy before good taste (for once). Speaking of accuracy…



Justice – Stress



Wow, what a bomb of a video. Justice came out in the 2007 with a dance hit called, well, Dance, and published another club favorite DVNO (that still holds up as one of the best music videos ever made, seriously, check it out). When this video came out, no one expected such a strong political statement from a group that was seen as unassuming, politically neutral and fun-oriented. So yes, it made waves. A cool moment in the video is when a gang turns on a radio and Justice’s Dance is on – they immediately kick it to smithereens.


Now before getting into further details, we have to point out how a lot of these songs are for some reason about Parisian metro ; a lot of the videos take place in the subway or are about the subway. Why is that, what is the secret connection between the two ? Why is Paris so proud of its subway ? Honestly, it’s not that good, far from it, actually. That will have to be inspected further. Back to the topic now.


Like most songs made by this band, this one has no lyrics, so it’s all in the mood and the video. The title is self explanatory enough ; and while you can, in theory at least, still enjoy this as a club song, the video makes a different point altogether. It is about a young gang (they all wear jackets with the Justice’s logo, the cross) who wreaks havoc all over the city – they indulge in pointless acts of aggression and destruction, harassing and bullying random people for no apparent reason. This (sadly nowadays even more relevant topic) goes directly to the class and racial anxiety the genre of la chanson française has been noticing for the last couple of decades in a more explicit manner, whereas you can say that, from the very beginning, it was the genre of the working class and the lumpenproletariat.


The immigrants from the former French colonies have arrived to mainland France, and are trying to make a place for themselves in a society that rejects them and perpetually fails to integrate them. In most cases, the problem is not with the first generation of settlers, but with the second and the third – they are born in France, and feel they should be a part of the society, but the society wants nothing of them and keeps on the margins, in most cases quite literally, geographically marginalized in the ghetto projects in the suburban areas. To them, much in the line of the Suprême NTM’s song that we covered in the previous chapter, the city stands for everything that they, on its margins, are deprived off. So, their answer is violence. Sadly, as we see in this video, it is never against the people who are actually responsible for that state of affairs, but against those who are (ever so) slightly higher on the social ladder than they are.


Back in 2007 when this video came out, memories were still fresh of the great riots of 2005, that had a reprisal in 2006. The subject was a hot topic and is a hot topic now, especially given how most of the terrorists who performed the infamous series of attacks in France in the last couple of years came from that exact background. Those people were brought to France to be the members of the working class, but the work has mostly left the country to where the labour is cheaper, so this is their response. Watching this video is a very uneasy experience, sickening almost. It doesn’t matter if you are familiar with the context or not. To put our visitors at ease, this seldom happens in the city proper, but is, sadly, what everyday life is like in these projects. There is a scene in a middle of the video where the gang sits on top of the Montmartre, a very touristy vista point, and looks at the city (before and after them wreaking havoc to it). A contemplative little pause for them, and for us, before they start breaking stuff anew. An ugly side of Paris, but nonetheless a very real one. Remember, this is where la chanson française came from. In its beginning, the genre was very far from the polished and elegant songs from the fifties and the sixties. Speaking of po(li)sh and of elegance…



Carla Bruni – Le plus beau de quartier (The handsomest in the hood)



Yes, that Carla Bruni, the former first lady of France. A model, actress (if you saw Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, a movie we like to tear down berate and mock, she plays a tour guide there. Yes!!!) starlette and a jet-setter who married Nicolas Sarkozy days after he became the president and thus became the first lady, Carla Bruni is also a singer. Much to our surprise, a pretty good one actually. One would expect her music career to be in the line of that of Paris Hilton’s, just another vanity project, but one would be mistaken, as she has some really good songs and a very interesting, low key and suave delivery. Yes, as hard as it may be to admit, and despite everything, we actually like her music. So laugh if you will.


What makes this song a part of our list is the fact that, you guessed it, it’s actually about Paris as a city. Furthermore, it nails that exact vibe that Catherine Deneuve so laughably failed to invoke (see the previous entry, songs from the 90’s) – a light, self-confident, nuanced elegance, self-assured sense of cultural and aesthetic superiority, a certain je ne sais quoi of charm and seduction. The song is about a guy, the handsomest guy in the hood (though in the video’s subtitles they said in town, but our translation is more accurate) who seduces all the women effortlessly, despite (or exactly because) he has no interest in them. He is perfectly bespoke, yet no one can undress him. You get the point. Everyone wants him, he wants no-one – exactly like the city of Paris.


When Carla sings that the beauty of this guy/city ‘damages his victims’, when they can only observe him from afar and admire his beauty without ever partaking in it, we can’t but to compare this song with the previous one. The beauty and luxury that always flickers in front of your eyes, taunting you like the fruit and water did with Tantalus, but can never be yours. It will always pull back – or push you back – when you try and reach for it. It all makes sense framed like this, especially when you look at the elegant, jet-setty, beautiful Carla Bruni singing it. A symmetry of the sorts, if you will. Speaking of beautiful female models…



Make The Girls Dance – Baby Baby Baby



Oh, what a lovely clip. Again, where Catherine Deneuve failed with her botched song, this one hits right home. It’s sassy, naughty, provocative, and off course sexy, all the things a city of Paris, or this aspect of it anyhow, is trying to achieve. The video quite bluntly features naked models walking down the rue Montorgeuil, sporting a vintage stereo, with people staring them down but also ignoring them. The rhythm of their walk matched the song’s beat and we get subtitled lyrics of the song aptly situated over girls’ primary and secondary sexual characteristic, that is breasts and vulvas.


Anyhow, the song not only features Paris in its video, but also represents a particular type of Parisian girl these models are incarnating, known locally as chieuse (a rough translation would be ‘ball-buster’). The song is a list of things such a girl expects from her boyfriend, and they all have to do with luxurious, chic caprices and overindulgence. She wants everything and offers nothing in return, except from flaunting her naked body out in the open, but, in all honesty, that is a part of the video, not an integral part of the song per se. Her demands grow rapidly and quickly become a parodical absurd ; she wants to sleep with all his friends while he’s watching without participation ; she wants to take his mom’s jewels and his dad’s car ; brilliant kids and a dog with a university degrée ; coke instead of cake (this seems like the most reasonable demand so far) etc., you get the point. The girl has impossible demands and won’t settle for less. Many a Parisian man will agree 100% that Parisian women are exactly like that – many a Parisian woman will agree that Parisian men are even worse. Still, those twisted dynamics aside, this is a very catchy song with a very cool video. Oh, one last thing. Among the various demands a girl states is to have ‘the same T-shirt as Yelle’. Let’s see what that means.



Yelle – Comme un enfant



Speaking of impossible women, Yelle comes of as a perfect example ; also, a hipster star and a local fashion icon of the sorts (at least she was ten years ago). Yelle broke out with a video she posted on myspace (remember that?), annoyed at all the objectification and unnecessary sexualization of women seen in rap/pop music video. So she decided to do the same with men. It became viral, as much as that was possible on myspace, and she was encouraged to make a new, professional version of the same. The rest is history, albeit not a very important one. Still, ten years ago, Yelle was the ‘it girl’ of Paris, when it came to style, dancing, generally behaving and representing. A little note – though this song we represent as well as the album cover technically come from March 2011, we feel that they represent Yelle as well as the spirit of 2000 better than they would 2010. So you’ll forgive us this tiny anachronism.


Now, although her breakthrough song Je veux te voir (I want to see you) remains her most well known hit, we opted for a different one, as it better represents what her music and her presence was/is (she’s stilla active) all about. As you might have guessed from the previous song, it’s about a very Parisienne vibe of being an impossible demanding chieuse/castratrice, a sort of a cynical, disregarding and cold entity. Catherine Deneuve’s legacy lives on -still, in this incarnation, we have a more lively, poppy, and simply more vital version of the given principle. Also, Yelle represents that very rare and quintessentially skill some Parisian women have, that may forever remain a mystery as to how it works – not really being beautiful nor attractive yet still managing to pull of the whole ‘diva’ behaviour.


On a more positive note, some of her songs are vibrant and melodic and she actually is a good dancer, something you can witness in her live performances. Also, the style of this video is spot on Paris of the previous decade, very 2000ish hipster. As with the previous song, this one starts with a list of what she wants – the rest of the song is her explanation of how immature and again, impossible she really is. But being Yelle she can afford to be – that is the whole point. You could say that this is a very hip type of chic someone 20ish years younger than Carla Bruni (but coming from roughly the same social strata) incarnates well, playing with the idea of being provocative and quasi-rebellious while actually just being spoiled and moody, until she drops the act and becomes a lawyer, a banker or something down those lines. Oh well, let’s not split hairs. Remaining a (quasi) rebellious hipster past certain age just seems distasteful and unbecomingly.



Brigitte Fontaine – Prohibition



Speaking of overaged hipsters, here we have a true icon of everything weird, artsy and sort of underground but not really, Brigitte Fontaine. An institution of the sorts, she was a punker before punk, Kate Bush before Kate Bush, and an all around most well known weirdo of the entire genre. There is much to be said about her long lasting and interesting carrier – we can’t do it justice here, so we won’t even try. Suffice to say that she is a big name that has been around from the 60’s onwards.


This song does exactly what you’d expect from an aged hipster (or in her case, the actual hippy). She feels resigned to see all of the liberties taken away, especially the one about smoking in cafés that has been passed around here exactly ten years ago. She wanders about what happened to the world and how did it all go south. Her bitter consolation is in the fact that she’s old and about to die, so that’s something to look forward to. This is a middle finger to the rest of the world, but mostly to her compatriots – vividly and aptly phrased in the song’s refrain ‘Je suis vielle et je vous encoule’ (I’m old and I’m screwing you). The middle finger shown does not stay a metaphor as we can actually see her doing it in the video.


This is very, very Parisian. A city famous for hating itself, with denizens that hate the city (and themselves, and other Parisian), Brigitte Fontaine does a great job of bringing this vibe to the surface. She is the late 20th century/early 21st century incarnation of a very particular and local type of spleen (not an organ, but a 19th century concept of melancholy and elegant boredom from the era of Romanticism), that has passed roots so deeply and firmly in this city. Anyhow, kudos to her for staying true to herself and not changing the essence while still evolving with time. This is a very turn-of-the-century Parisian vibe, one the city greets you with when you come. However, if you want a better feel of what her music is like, check out this video here. Or many others. her music is worthy of your time. She somehow can innovate and explore while staying close to the roots of the genre. Not an easy feat.



Miossec – A Montparnasse (In Montparnasse)



There’s no better way of finishing an article but coming back full circle, with a tune that goes back to the roots of the genre. This is a great example of a revamped style, modernized, but keeping with the source values. Not a lot of innovation in the line of Brigitte Fontaine, this is renewing rather than anything else. Also an interesting song, with a very subdued yet tangible electricity.


What would it mean to keep with the tradition of la chanson française ? Remember, the genre comes from the bottom of the barrel, dealing with the lowest of the low. This song is exactly that. Straight from the start, our lyrical subject is kicked out by his love interest, down by the riverside, without her even thinking if he has enough money to come back home. It’s as we’re seeing a pattern with how the women behave in these songs. He continues by saying, pulling no punches, ‘my dirty little slut’ (ma sale petite garce). Didn’t you know that French were well known as being romantic and gentle lovers ? Well, now you know.


Our lyrical subject continues by explaining this peculiar affair – they spent a lot of wild nights ‘and disgusting mornings’ together. He was consumed by shame and the overwhelming loss of hope, so he left. You may only wander what was wrong with him. To underline that question, he repeats that he still loves her, despite everything. The repeating and fading words of ‘Montparnasse, Montparnasse’ in the end suggest that this botched love story not only takes place in Montparnasse but is somehow very representative of it. Long gone were the days when gigolos and prostitutes made this part of the city glamorous – now it is filled with shame, regret, disgust and hopelessness – much like the city itself.


What can we conclude ? Was the genre really innovated and renewed, as all of the performers in the 90’s hoped it would be ? To a certain extent. Were the problems boiling under the surface of the French and Parisian society (disgruntled, socially sensitive immigration being ever further marginalized) solved ? Not really, they just began manifesting more prominently. Something changed, yet all is still the same. Noticeable is the influence of all things hipster – as we’re approaching our own decade, that of 2010, hipsterdom is not only seeping into the genre, but is slowly taking it over. Just one more entry to go now !