The History of French Pop Songs – La chanson française of 1930
Last time we’ve talking about of the most famous decade of the 20th century – the roaring twenties, les années folles, the golden twenties and so on. For one part of the society, the life was swinging, fun, and liberating in every way. For the other, much larger majority, the twentieth century had still not arrived. Paris is a great example of this disparity. While in the center and especially in Montmartre in Montparnasse people were partying in lavish bars, restaurants, dance halls and cabarets, organizing both marathons and drunken marathons (we’ll do a special post on this charming little Parisian oddity), on the outskirts of the city the electricity, sewers and even the running water were still nowhere to be seen. No cars, just horse buggies; no swinging music, just grim factories and shanty barracks.
Thinking back about the twenties, we tend to forget about this discrepancy and only focus on the flashy part of it, see it through the famous “nostalgia goggles”(it is why this series focusing on the pop song is useful, giving us the glimpse at a broader situation). Still, nostalgia or not, the twenties were over. The stock market in the US infamously crashed, throwing not only America but most of Europe, already exhausted from the Great War, into a recession and an economic crises. Many wealthy Americans that made Paris such a fun place to begin with (largely contributing to the overall image of the city as a fun capital of the world) had to pack their bags and go back home. The city suddenly emptied out, many of the famous clubs closed. Bolshevik revolution in formerly tsarist Russia, now known as the USSR, turned out to be a great success and was inspiring the poor of the Europe to attempt the same ; in Italy Mussolini was met with great admiration, inspiring similar movement all over Europe ; in Spain Franco, in Germany Hitler. The people were still aching from the previous great war, all to alive in the memory, and another one was slowly brewing. It was the time of great instability, where, no matter how ugly the past was, it still looked better than the imminent, just around the corner chain of events.
Fréhel – Où est-il donc ? (So where is it/where are they?)
So, how was this reflected in the pop songs of Paris, focusing on Paris ? As mentioned above, nostalgia started creeping in. With all the merry Americans gone from Montmartre, its luster started disappearing and becoming a thing of the past. It was becoming not a place of wild (night)life, but one of mourning of a dear and fun-loving early departed. This emotion is best expressed in this song. Playing with this long standing stereotype of the American dream and the America as a promised land (which, by the way, we all know that in this time it most certainly it wasn’t – anything but, you might say), this song’s lyrical subject exclaim that it prefers its dead Montmartre to a live and bustling cities of the US. She is like a bride who would stay faithful to a memory of her dearly departed lover, rather than to go for another (actually live one). So there you go America, Paris is prettier dead than New York would ever be alive – according to Fréhel at least. She wanders were are all of her friends, famous Montmartre toponymes and stereotypes (the accordion, the windmills etc.). Fréhel is one of the greatest singers of the so-called “realist chanson”, much in the line of Edith Piaf, though it should actually be said that Edith Piaf is much in the line of Fréhel, not the other way around.
Josephine Baker – J’ai deux amours (I’ve two loves)
Fidelity to Paris, even when it’s pretty much all but stripped of its glory, seemed to be a thing of the 30’s. Here we see a great star of its time, an American naturalized French dancer and singer Josephine Baker, singing about her two loves. Josephine was a legend already during her life and a historically immensely important figure. We couldn’t do her justice in a single post (though we tend to try), let alone as a part of another topic. So let’s just say that there is much more to be said about her. Here, we’ll focus on this particular song. As an ex-pat, Josephine says that she has two loves; her country (of origin, meaning the US) and Paris. And while she likes her first love a lot, it is Paris that she calls her real home now, the one that has enhcanted her heart. Josephine decided to stay in Paris even after the American exodus to States in the late 20’s – she adopted her new home and remained faithful to it, as she proved on numerous occasions later, getting engaged with the French resistance and staying dedicated to the cause. One of the main reasons why we’re situating Josephine Baker in the 30’s rather than in the 20’s is exactly that – although she became famous in the 20’s, she really proved her love for Paris in the 30’s, when everyone else seemed to have abandoned it. Also, during the 20’s she was mostly active as a dancer rather than as a singer. We vividly encourage you to browse for some of her dances as well. France and Paris were indeed fortunate and honored to have had this exceptional woman.
Take a look at this shorter version as well, where she is performing it live for the troops. You can feel some of her radiant stage presence here.
Maurice Chevalier – Paris je t’aime… d’amour (Paris, I love you… with love. It doesn’t make more sense in French than it does in English)
Speaking of leaving Paris, here we have a hymn to it. Maurice Chevalier, one of the most important chanson performers of all time and certainly one of the greatest stars of its eras (because he was active for decades, it is hard to say of which era exactly) is responsible for delivering this schmaltzy ode to the city. Indeed Paris would not be such a great place had it not inspired a lot of banalities, cheesy regurgitations of stereotypes and downright obvious common places. The great Maurice seems to be somewhat aware of this as he doesn’t seem to be singing at full heart and is sort of half-assing it. This gives us a beautiful and uniquely Parisian blend of high-brow, pathetic and enthusiastic words paired with slacker, hacky and bored delivery, perfectly summing up the experience of this city: always torn between heavenly inspiration and caustic cynicism, between being drunk of love and joy on one hand and “j’en ai mare” attitude on the other. Very Parisian indeed.
Albert Préjean – On ne voit ça qu’à Paris (You can’t see it anywhere else but in Paris)
So let’s try to cheer it up a bit with this catchy tune. The lyrical subject is singing in a very joyful tone about all of the great places in Paris that are quite unique – great fun to be had in Montmartre, heavenly life in Montparnasse ; such luxury and beauty are nowhere to be seen. The song gets somewhat colonial with mentioning all the exotic places from which the people come to admire Paris – taking something from all of them (or, more likely, taking everything, specially resources) Paris is indeed not a singular city but a hundred cities rolled in one. The song however (by now, there is no surprise in this) turns the tables on us if we decide to take a look behind the curtain at the events that inspired both the song and the movie from where it was taken (La Crise Est Finie, The Crisis Is Over). It is ironically, sardonically even, addressing the great instability of the state provoqued by a great demonstration on Place de la Concorde where more than a dozen people were killed and many were wounded. The overly joyful tone of the singer becomes overtly uncomfortable and his laughter biting and satiric. Seriously, can’t we have a single song that doesn’t have a double bottom here ? Just a simple, feel-good song ? Everything has to be layered, au deuxième degré (with an ironic meaning) ? Well, in all honesty, no real surprises there.
The movie, as well as the song, is addressing the great crisis of the 6th February of 1934, provoked largely by the economic recession (in its turn provoked by the American Stock market crash of the 1929) and the rise of the ultra-right movements in France as a response to that. As we already mentioned in the introduction, the Europe, hard pressed by the depression, is stretching its stability very thin between the Soviet revolution and its immense inspirational potential (a notion that was, back in the day, readily exported from the Soviet Union and easily imported by many other countries) on one hand and the fascism and nazism on the other. The European countries had radical responses to the economic depression – some radical left (the Bolsheviks), some radical right, some as a mixture of left and right politics (like the fascist and the nazis). What is also important is a series of financial scandals that have shook the state and the city of Paris to the core – the Ponzi scheme of Marthe Hanau, the fake bills scandal centering around Alexandre Stavinsky (the Stavinsky affair), the bank crash centering around Albert Oustric, etc. It was a time not only of political and economical instability, but of great excesses of fraud that resulted in the ruin of many of companies and banks. So the movie titled “The Crisis is Over”, from which this popular song came, can be read as nothing more than a sad irony – the crisis was indeed only beginning.
On an up note, in the Paris of the 30’s you had to dress up even if you wanted to throw rocks at the police. Especially if you wanted to throw rocks at the police!
Line Marlys – La petite de Montparnasse (A chick from Montparnasse)
All this talk of politics destabilized by high rollers and corruptive influence of big money seems to be avoiding a crucial question – what is going on with the vital branch of the French economy (and indeed culture) and the seeming majority of the working force – the prostitution? Where are the working girls, a symbol of Paris and a crucial part of its claim to fame ? Well, here they are. Albeit the number of brothels and an overall activity of this illustrious domain has diminished in the 30’s, especially compared to the rampant 20’s and even randier 1910’s and 1900’s, they are still there and they are many.
The lyrical subject of this lovely and a tad nostalgic song goes in medias res – she loves caviar and champagne, but alas has no money ; so the only solution (well, dough) is off course, hitting the streets and offering love. The girl boasts her skill (and that of her colleagues) in the domain – she can captivate a man and make him fall in love with her (let’s call it that, let’s roll with it) with but one look at him. It is an interesting inversion of the feminist theory of the male gaze that is to come several decades after this song – here, indeed it is a woman that moulds men, their behaviour and actions with her gaze, not the other way around. Off course, after they have lived their love stories with her, they are expected to leave a small gift. It’s all taking place at Montparnasse, an eternal competitor of Montmartre in terms of fun loving prostitutes, artistic production, bohemian life and overall good times.
Much like the economy and the general political situation of the time, the prostitutes also tend to swing between the extremes and are not keen to go with the centrist, moderate solutions. Our girl is poor, but she loves caviar and champagne, very expensive (and quite useless, in all honesty, at least from the point of practical value) things. So, she is a true representative of the lumpen-proletariat – she has nothing, but wants everything, and is fully ready and willing to get to her goals operating well around (or above) the constraints of the bourgeois moral. Here we see a curious mixture of the revolutionary potential of Parisian working girls mixed with nostalgia for the glitz of the 20’s. As you’re well used to it by now, nothing is ever simple in Paris.
Lucienne Delyle – Sur les quais du vieux Paris (On the Quais of the Old Paris)
So apparently not every song from this period was addressing the crumbling state of France and the major political and economic instabilities. Some of them were genuinely sweet, warm and tenderly addressed Paris as a place that was made for bohemian love, but also romance in general. The lyrical subject tells us of the beauty of the Parisian riverbanks, lined with the famous book-sellers (les bouquinistes), the old bridges, the splendor of everything historic and time worn in Paris. Here, in this song, that atmosphere does not inspire regret for the days of past glory, but is simply presenting its enchantment with the city. Can it be ? A simple, straightforward song about Paris ? Almost an exception that confirms the rule.
Réda Caire – Ma Banlieue (My suburbia)
Back to our old complicated Parisian ways. This song, sung by one of the greatest stars of the chanson française of its time, The heart-throb and The “beau-gosse” of the 30’s, Réda Caire. A song is basically one big rationalization of why it’s better to live outside Paris – basically, in the early 19th century, regarding the state of the Parisian suburbia of back in the day – than it is to be in the city. Sure, it’s nice to be in Paris, but we can’t afford it – so we’ll discover the charm of the suburbs and be satisfied with that. After all, it has its strong points, although we don’t get to discover which ones exactly, apart from the vague statements of it being sweet, charming etc. In one aspect, though, this song is straightforward and honest, as it speaks of the general tendency of Parisians to get frustrated with the perpetual neurosis of the city and their sometimes pressing urge to leave Paris, if only for a weekend. Sure, it’d be nicer to go to Nice, but again, no money – so the suburbs will have to do.
+ a bonus round ! and a perfect way to sum up the 30’s in the pop songs about Paris
Nitta Jo – Cocaïne
Ah, the good old days when everything was better… Have we run this joke into the ground yet ? Anyhow, after having had her fill of sexually predating on the unsuspecting men of the subway (see what we’re talking about here), Nitta Jo turns to her new hobby – cocaine. In this truly tragic yet somehow wonderfully cheesy and over-the-top song, she tells us how this self-destructive love of the angel dust is, well, destroying her. It is the cocaine that is actually taking her, but she can’t help it. More importantly, she won’t help it, as she prefers to slowly dissolve with it rather than to go on without. She sees herself dying and is fully aware of this dark passion consuming her flesh (is what she says in the song, not our flight of fancy). One would think that she is talking of heroine rather than coke, but it sounds as if she knows what she’s talking/singing about. A touch of harrowing, sardonic yet inescapably kempy laughter perfectly rounds up the overall experience. This is by far our most favorite song of this period and of this post.
It is also a great symbol, a sign of the irrevocably changing times. Whereas cocaine was seen as a fancy spice of the wild, glitzy parties of the 20’s, an always welcome ingredient of good-times for the well to do members of the society, it is in the 30’s that it is showing us its dark side. It is actually addictive, corrosive and ultimately antisocial ; our lyrical subject begins the song by urging everyone to leave her alone so she could enjoy her all consuming and slowly encroaching self destruction. It bears (again – get used to this, as it will be a notion you’ll be well acquainted with in the decades to come) the nostalgia for the golden days of yesteryear, but in it, there is a seed of death and even self-loathing. In her defense, Nitta Jo does not complain nor she asks for pity – she wants to wallow, revel and ultimately slowly kill herself in this dark ecstacy. Which, for the sad majority of the European peoples, is exactly what was brewing in the 30’s, only to come to fruition in the 40’s.