The History of French Pop Songs – La chanson française of 1920

Les années folles, or the crazy twenties ; also known as the roaring twenties. After the never before seen horror and carnage of the WWI (that people back in the day thought to be the war to end all wars), the musical scene of Paris diversified. Some wanted to forget what they survived in the trenches by having fun ; some felt compelled to write about their terrible experiences ; some felt as if all the humanity was taken away from them, never to be reclaimed. It is how the now famous phrase “lost generation” was coined. So we entered in a very divided era. On one side, they were people frantically having fun ; on another, people forever scarred by the war. Deep silence and contemplation took place amidst the glitz and the noise of the 20′. Also, important social changes were brewing. A revolution that took place in Russia, after a couple of years of uncertainty, proved to be a success. Women who were pulled to many jobs previously occupied by men, while the men were away fighting, felt more confident and independent, and to them there was no turning back. The social inequality was still overwhelming; colonial empire at full swing, but slowly descending and obviously past its prime. Fascism overtakes Italy, and many Europeans nod their heads favorably.


How was Paris doing as a city ? As we’ll see through these pop tunes, the focus slowly started shifting away from the misery permeating the streets and was going towards the more light-hearted subjects. In the years 1900 and 1910 there seemed to have been a certain balance between the opulent, decadent fun on one side and appalling poverty on the other. In these songs, it seems that even the poor are having fun, more successfully then they had a decade ago.



Mistinguett – Ca c’est Paris


One of the greatest and most important singers of Paris, Montmartre and the genre of la chanson française, as well as a successful actress, Mistinguett became not only the face of Montmartre and Moulin Rouge, but also the face of the Paris through songs. It was not easy opting for a single song of hers on Paris, as she has a lot of them ; it was also not easy fitting her in a certain decade as she was active for quite a while. Still, we chose 20′ as she was at the top of her game and this particular song because it’s, well, so obvious and so Parisian.


It’s more obvious on why we chose Mistinguett as a representative of her era. Not only that she was one of the most important performers of the day ; she pretty much established the style of singing, and imposed the tone and color of the voice, that would be closely followed by the likes of Fréhel, Edith Piaf, and the other singers of the so called “realist chanson” (socially engaged pop songs that would take the poor as their main topic) – if someone already did it before her, we’re not aware of it. It is something quite unique to chanson française and frankly not very pleasant (unless you’re French, perhaps) – the voice is crooked, haggard, jagged and sounds as if it’s coming from an elderly woman who used to be a singer but then years of alcohol and cigaret abuse busted her vocal chords for good. Guess that’s where the “realist” part comes in. But, more on the song, as it will become clear why we picked this one and not many other ones.


Here, the lyrical subject exclaims that “this, this is Paris”. That “this” is cynical, jaded, blonde beauty that openly despises you and couldn’t care less of your opinion. Once you meet her, you are smitten by her beauty but after a while no matter how pretty she is, you give up on her as she is just too big of a snob and simply unbearable. Still, you return to her, because Paris is a “queen among cities” much like this developed comparison would be a “queen among women”. This captures the mood of the people living in Paris quite on-point we feel ; it’s a beautiful city that will get on your nerves immensely, yet you will struggle to leave her; if you do, eventually you will come back, like a good little masochiste that you are. On point Mistinguett, on point. Your crooked and broken voice is truth bearing indeed.



Fernandel – Ce sacré Paris


Not a chanson, rather a monologue – we still decided to place it here as it speaks of a quintessential experience of a nouveau-arrivé in Paris. It captures well the feeling of awe in front of the lights of the city, all the things you can do here, all the entertainment you can have, as well as how easy it was (we guess it still is, if you’re talented for that sort of affairs) to get in some seriously seedy trouble. The lyrical subject enters the theatre of suspicious appearance only to finds himself embroiled in a cheating+murder story, and cries help, only to find out that he’s in a cinema and that it was all made up. This would be the essentially Parisian experience – discovering the inherent fakeness and phantasy that makes this city what it is. This was surely funny back in the day (much like the people who’d run in panic seeing the famous footage of a train entering the station) but it also served to underline the difference between Paris as a very advanced place and the rest of France, and the world at that.



Berthe Sylva -C’est Mon Gigolo



Another crooked, broken voice in the vein of the French chanson, this time with a real jewel of a subject. Also, she sings with genuine affection, which makes the affair all the more interesting. The title means exactly what you think it does – it’s a love song to a short-term kept man, better known as gigolo. The lyrical subject is a model in Montparnasse (an artistic neighborhood back in the day, to a certain extent today as well). However, being a model doesn’t (always) mean that you’re a prostitute as well – this particular model has never been with a man before she met her gigolo. Being a model also doesn’t mean that you’re far away from the world of prostitution neither, as she hooks up with a working boy – a bit of a twist there.


Let it be known that the 20’s in Paris are the age of equality of sexes ; not only that the city is swarming with female prostitutes, but with the males ones as well. Hooray for commerce equitable! The lyrical subject gives a good description of her love interest ; he is not strong, actually has a frail appearance, but knows how to ‘take her’ and is so cute that no woman can resist him. Also, she knows that he doesn’t love her and is just using her for her money (as little as she has); he’s ready to leave as soon as the well dries up. Still, she is madly in love with him and accepts the situation as it is. Interesting time, interesting women. You have to admire that conviction and resolution. This woman does not sway from her target no matters what, and we respect that.



Jane Aubert du Moulin Rouge – Sur la Butte



The essential Montmartre experience packed in a very cutesy melody. Do you know the (in our opinion) one of the best song about “slumming” ever, “Common People” by Pulp ? Well here we have its predecessor, set in Paris, more precisely Montmartre. “Slumming”, or “class tourism” is a phenomenon of rich people mingling with the poor in the quality of tourists. Out of boredom or curiosity they’d go and “slum”; the general stereotype being that the poor are not bound by all the social norms and politeness the wealthy have to maintain, so they get to have more fun. Well this is the song about that, and about Montmartre being The place in Paris for that type of activity. You don’t go there to get contacts, to do business, you go there to have fun, and you’re likely to bump into a homeless person, a billionaire, a millionaire, someone faking to be one of the previous three, or the “gilded youth” of Paris, acting out as the hipsters of their time. It doesn’t matter, they are all there to have fun and they don’t discriminate.


It’s interesting that such a song comes in the time of the great civic and social unrest that we already mentioned, attempting to show how despite the differences in class, wealth, education, profession etc., all of Paris can and will come together to party. It will do so in a place that is attested as bohemian, artistic and decidedly unpretentious. And while in the previous era we were listening to Georgel’s sad song of the two very different parts of Paris meeting at Les Halles (the poor are going to work, the wealthy are going back home from a long night of partying and excess in Montmartre), now we have both of them meeting in Montmartre and having fun together. One’d say that some things do change, in songs at least.



Damia – Je l’cafard



Another great star of the “realist” chanson française, Damia is also known as the “tragedienne de la chanson”, meaning that most of her songs are about unicorns, rainbows and singing flowers. Such is the case here, as she perfectly represents the deeply seeded malaise of its decade. All the partying of the 20’s could not but temporarily and incompletely hide the unease that was rolling beneath the surface of the society, as well as beneath the surface of every individual. The literal translation of “J’ai l’cafard” would be ” I have a cockroach”, but here it’s meant as “I’m uneasy, restless”. She can do no matter what, try to drown her slowly growing sentiment of discomfort but it’s always there, chiping away at her very soul. As the song progresses, she gives ever stronger exemples ; she tried drinking her feeling away, it didn’t work; partying didn’t work; drugs like morphine, eter and alike didn’t work. She’s slowly turning into a wreck, sinking ever deeper and with less chance of finding her way. A truly uneasy, if a tad melodramatic song, it brings to light what most of the songs about Paris of that time try to hide – scars of war, a vague predilection that the affaire is not quite over and that there is something disturbing in the city of Paris/state of France/Europe of its time. Even if it’s not overtly mentioning Paris, this song brings us this very Parisian sentiment of unease that looms around the city ; the people who come to Paris start feeling it after a while, whereas the people born here grow ever more desperate on that account. A very curious mixture of authentic desperation, melodrama and blazé poise – exactly like this song.



Hubert Bression et son Accordéon – À Paname un soir



OK, let’s stereotype it up a bit and finish on a cheerful note. Here we have a song with a typical, (over)used & abused accordion, known locally as “java”. The song is quite simple – two lovebirds met on the sidewalk and hooked up one night in Paris, again lovingly named “Paname”. Off course this could only happen in Paris ; and because of that, their hook up was all the more unique. Their short love story was marked by the street, the city and the sound of the accordion. What may seem like a random encounter deprived of any deeper meaning is by default beautiful and romantique when it happens in Paris. This attitude is still shared by many who do feel the sensual vibe of the city of Paris. Love in the Parisian doesn’t (only) come from prostitutes and gigolos, it also comes from the unassuming strangers and passers by, and the city is all the better for it.


Honestly, for all the callouts “the roaring twenties” get as being an era of wild entertainment, frantic dances and increasingly liberated sexuality, these songs are not very humorous – certainly less so than the ones of 1910’s and 1900’s. The frenetic sentiment might be there, but it’s more as if people are trying to escape and forget than to have authentic good times. There is something dark looming in the background – and charleston and foxtrot as hard as you may, the joy seems to be taken out of it. Where are the merry songs of yesteryear, about cheated and cheating husbands, casual spread of venereal diseases and jumping over dead bodies to get to (and back from) the theatre ? Something is missing.


And so we go towards the thirties, an era that many people nowadays invoque, reminding us how the world of today is increasingly similar to that of the 30’s. Is it also the case in the French pop songs about Paris ? Stay tuned to find out.


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