The History of French Pop Songs – La chanson française of 1980
Cover photo taken from New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/03/fashion/in-paris-revisiting-the-80s-in-photography.html – “The Cost of Living — Punk with her Mother,” 1986, by Martin Parr, in the Pompidou Center’s exhibition. Credit Martin Parr/Magnum Photos, via Centre Pompidou, Dist. RMN-GP
With the disco and the pioneering electro era of the 70’s gone, the 80’s came in – a defining decade in more than one ways. Subjectively speaking (placing ourselves in front of the entirety of history, as we do) it is the era when most of our staff from Paris in person came to be, and the first one from this series that we can personally relate to and remember. Which will play a certain role in estimating its character. With that out of the way, we can look at some of the defining moments – the first PC launched by IBM ; the combined rule of Reagan and Thatcher and the implementation of their highly controversial economic model of low taxes and dissolution of the welfare state ; the Chernobyl disaster ; the fall of the Berlin wall (and the proclaimed “early” end of the 20th century, coming together with the so called “end of history”) ; AIDS becoming known to the world ; terrible fashion that was somehow impossible to separate from awesome music, creating a lot of confusion in an already complex environment. The worldwide launch of the MTV and many of its local versions and emulations followed in these steps.
Objectively speaking, the historic event that most influenced the world in the 80’s
Again, how did it all reflect on Paris and on the Parisian pop scene ? Were these momentous historic events somehow around in an ever changing wave of songs about the city of love and romance, the best place to fall in love (or simply find an easy hook-up, let’s be realistic), to party (or to look at other people partying while you roam around aimlessly, also, let’s be realistic); or simply the city that everyone, most notably the singers of la chanson française, just love to hate ? Let’s find out.
Tristan – Je suis de bonne humeur ce matin (I’m in a good mood this morning)
We start of with an entry that instantly make us remember the key aspect of the 80’s – (un)intentional hilarity and awfulness on almost all accounts. The style, the “dancing”, the choppy and unmelodic music, everything. Nowadays when we’re assessing the 80’s for their great and advanced pop music, we tend to forget just how much of less than stellar stuff was out there. But, Tristan is here to remind us with this awkward cult classic of a one hit wonder. Having mentioned wandering aimlessly around the city looking for a hookup, Tristan comes to prove that exact point as this song is (much in line with the early chanson of the 1900 and 1910) just about that – perusing the streets of Paris in frustration of meeting too much Parisians (males) and not nearly enough Parisiennes (females). Praying on an empty stomach (again, hints to early chansons and the modest beginnings of the genre) – what better way to do it, really ? – Tristan calls on the “god of buttocks” and hopes he won’t leave him womanless.
Our strapping young lad continues (and repeats throughout the song) by saying that he’s in a good mood this morning, as there are mornings like that. Sounds choppy and out of rhythm translated to English ? Actually it’s even worse in French. Also, following tightly in the footsteps of the genre, as well as in the general Parisian view of the world, he continues to prove that he actually feels exactly the opposite. The sun is out which is very rare in Paris, he has to go to work which is a drag, and most importantly he just can’t seem to score with a girl, though he desperately needs to. Why he’d have any difficulty is beyond us, given his sense of fashion, overall articulation and the oozing manliness of his dancing, bicycle riding, hair combing and general mannerism, but Paris is a strange city, so the likes of Tristan have to create a French version of The Rolling Stones I can’t get no satisfaction – you be the judge of which song is actually better – and hope for the best. Also, this song is a local hymn of the sorts to everything geeky and proto-hipster. Bonus trivia : check out the young Vincent Cassel busting out the moves in a batman T-shirt.
Vanessa Paradis – Joe Le Taxi (Joe the Taxi (Driver))
Speaking of just how vile and irritating everything proto-hipster from the 80’s can get, we have another cult classic from the period, albeit, unfortunately enough, not a one hit wonder. Vanessa Paradis (or, which is more likely, her host of managers and PR agents) firmly continues down the path Serge Gainsbourg created twentyish years ago, trying to represent her 14 years old self as a Lolita-esque sex symbol. Mentioning the grandmaster Serge here is no accident, as he produced an entire album she will make in the 1990 – even old Serge could recognize a Lolita material when he’d see one. Think we’re riding on the Lolita angle too hard ? Take a look at the movie Noce Blanche (White Wedding) starring Vanessa Paradis, then come back to complain. But back to the song at hand, she sings about a Parisian taxi driver Joe Le Taxi, who plays exotic music on his radio station and has a rather relaxed outlook of life, though he works non-stop and has to struggle through the world-infamous Paris traffic (we’ll do a special post on this subject sometimes in the near future).
As is already a rule of the genre, nothing is as it seems on the surface and Joe, as a character, actually has a rather miserable life and a very dubious taste in music. How could a 14-year old Vanessa Paradis criticize anyone’s taste in music, even in the 80’s (especially in the 80’s!) is beyond us, but it is what it is. Less than subtle colonial tones permeate this number as we discover in the video that Joe the Taxi is black, and likes “bidon” (meaning crap in French) exotic music, steeped in dated rock with the hints of mambo, rhumba and tcha-tcha-tcha. Joe the Taxi mingles his laughable taste in exotic music (likely reminiscent of his country of origin) with rhum, another staple colonial item and an ugly stereotype about the black people. Mockingly, Vanessa says to Joe “go ahead Joe, advance through the night towards the Amazon”. How can you comment on this, or even mention it, and stay polite ?
Fact of the matter is that this song (not so) delicately vents the frustration of the privileged white haute-bourgeoisie, a social stratum Vanessa Paradis belongs to, with two important historical occurrences of the 80’s in France. First, the definitive end of the colonial empire (though it was proclaimed in the 60’s with the independence of Algeria, in the 80’s it was concluded with the independence of Vanuatu); second, the flux of immigrants from the former colonies settling in France, mostly around its large urban centers, most notably Paris (hence Joe the Taxi in the video being black). Vanessa Paradis is lacing her expression with notions of cultural superiority and looking down on immigrants and the culture they bring (“music bidon”). The fact that the style of the song is jazzy is either intentionally auto-ironic or ignorantly absurd. In any of these cases, it’s unapologetically racist. Bréf, this song is awful, and so is Vanessa Paradis. In so many ways it’s hard to begin explaining.
So, why are we talking about this effigy of poor taste, beside the need to tear it down and mock it mercilessly ? Well, upon its release, it was a smash hit in France, staying on a number one position of the music chart for whole eleven weeks. It also had some noteworthy international success too. Also, besides the fact that the video shows our favorite city of Paris in the night, and an american taxi car (for some reason), this is much like the previous video a perfect rendition of the style of the era, or at least of one its aspects, the more tasteless ones. The 14-year old Vanessa Paradis trying to dance in a home pyjama (our guess is, she showed up on set wearing whatever she wore around the house and everyone was just eager to finish the video asap and so filmed her as she was) next to an American taxi car, the black tone of the video, the jumbled tune made of bits and pieces of different genres (also very colonial, much like the subject of the song), it is all very 80’s and very Parisian 80’s more specifically. As we’re trying to show throughout this series of posts on French music, but throughout other articles and through our tours alike, kitsch, poor taste, horrible fashion and overall lack of taste are an integral part of this city. Without those qualities, Paris wouldn’t be half as interesting as it is, so as irritating as they can get, we understand, and welcome them as necessary. As for the singer – good riddance Vanessa Paradis, if we never see you again, it will be too soon.
Taxi Girls – Paris
Speaking of girls and taxis in Paris, here we have it all on one place – Taxi Girls, Paris. Mercifully, this is a much better song from the much less irritating performers. Taxi Girls is one of the signs of its time, quite popular back in the day but nowadays seen as a point on representation of the Parisian mood, specially from the eponymously difficult and exigent Parisian youth. Also, this song beautifully proves a point that new wave post punk (as well as punk) actually has much in common with the genre of la chanson française (and its “chanson réaliste” roots) ; a working class context, a critical view of the city, introspective view firmly locked in its gutters, an endless pessimism related to Paris but also to life in general.
Following those lines, the disenchanted youth of the city assembled in a group Taxi Girls informs us right of the bat that you can take a deep breath in Paris, but beware; many a youthful city dweller (they even use the term “môme”, tightly associated with the canon of la chanson française – coincidence? We don’t think so!) was breathing with his lungs wide open but ended up dying of that toxic air. This is made especially relevant nowadays when every few days the air pollution gets so bad that the city of Paris proposes free public transportation so that the people would not use their cars and further aggravate the already alarming toxicity of Parisian atmosphere. Off to a good start ! We continue in the same mood – anywhere you go in Paris, anywhere you look, you’ll stumble upon a shady character trying to sell you fake diamonds, who shine as bright as the real ones but shatter like glass if you throw them to the ground. Faced with such a symbolic yet accurate depiction of the city, we can but agree – this indeed is the case in Paris of today (end of 2016) as it apparently was thirty years ago. Not much changes around here, but we knew that already.
Continuing down the path of Parisian bleakness, Taxi Girls inform us that their parents had Spain – referring perhaps to Spain as a popular summer holiday destination, or given the generational space, the Civil War in Spain ; and we, that is they, back in the 80’s, have Lebanon, also a popular summer holiday destination of this era. But alas, it’s too hot there (sensing some ambiguity here), even though it’s very cold in Paris, so cold in fact that no radiateur in the world can heat it.
Final verses of the song are also tenting a coup de grâce in the heart of Paris. There is nothing to do here, nowhere to go, says Taxi Girls ; the city is boring as a city can get. Amsterdam, New York, London, Tokyo this is not – but a crummy garbage can (they literally say that – poubelle, a garbage can) that is so crammed that it cannot take anymore of our own trash, it is. Again with the colonial/immigrant issues here – there is a clear distinction being made between “our (or, us as) trash” and “their (or, them as) trash”. Hints of racism and the malaise provoked by the influx of immigrants from former colonies to Paris – in this aspect, they seem to be on the same page with Vanessa Paradis. To conclude, they instruct that the proper way to spell Paris is not P A R I S but is instead M E R D E which translates to English spelling as S H I T. Their words, not ours. They seem quite confident of it though – video certainly follows this notion through as we’re shown the parts of the city you don’t usually see in postcards. They conclude by repeating that this is Paris, the garbage-can city and here, there is nothing to do but to walk around aimlessly – Tristan agrees with that and approves this message. Throughout the song they repeat mockingly that Paris is the city of dreams, only to tear it down as a boring garbage can where there is nothing to do. This is a rather interesting dualism in the context of Parisian pop, oftentimes met within the opus of one singular artist, to prop this city up and then tear it down, at the same time even. Paris apparently inspires this sentiment of initial hope that is seemingly without an exception crushed, if you give it enough time.
This is one bitter group of Taxi Girls, but you can’t argue with their tenacity. Also, there is some historical accuracy in their claim that Paris is a garbage can city – a bit of historic trivia is that Monsieur Eugène Poubelle, the city administrator and the prefer of the Seine department, made usage of garbage bins compulsory and that ever since a garbage bin was named after him, la poubelle. So, you know, if you have the garbage bin mayor of the city, stating that it’s a garbage bin city is but a one step further in the same direction. Really, why would anyone ever want to live here ? Strangely still, many people do.
Jakie Quartz – Vivre Ailleurs (To Live Someplace Else)
This song deals exactly with the question we asked our readers but also ourselves (sometimes on daily bases) ; why would anyone want to live here. Jakie’s answer is – no one does, or at least no one who actually lives here. The title of the song is the quintessential Parisian attitude on Paris living, boiled down to its essence – they (we) want to live someplace else. This is also the refrain of the song, stating simply “I’d like to live someplace else”. We can’t but agree, Jakie, but still let’s look into the song at hand before we reach the conclusion that we’ve obviously already reached.
Jakie begins in a more round-about manner, saying that the world as such is depressing, with all its violence, gore, victims and crimes, not to mention Vanessa Paradis becoming a thing. There is too much hatred in the world and the shock-journalism, apparently already around back in the 80’s, is making it all seem even worse than it is, though it’s bad enough already. So’oh’oh’oh (oh’oh’oh) she can’t take it anymore. These were the actual lyrics of the song, just to make it clear.
Leaving the global agenda behind Jakie focuses on the local, Parisian issues ; much in line with the previous song, an the one before, and the one before, she states that this is a boring city, so boring in fact that it bores itself. It’s sad here, silent and always raining (again, can’t really argue with this, at least the rain part) ; Jakie gets poetical with dissing Paris, saying that a train disappears into the night much like a cry that escapes and dissipates. All this bleakness turns Jakie towards introspection and she starts hearing voices, chanting like a melody, that she’d like to live someplace else – we might add, as is the impression we’re getting from this song, anywhere else but Paris. Much in line with the tradition of the genre, the energetic and up beat music doesn’t really correspond with the depressing and frustrated lyrics of the song, but again nothing new there.
The video is taken in the 19th arrondissement, in front of Cité des Sciences (itself a thing of the 80’s, opened in 1986), most notably in front of a spheric cinema La Géode. We have to compliment the 80’s quality of everything about this. Jakie’s hair, her jacket, the video, the synth vibe, her slow dancing, how her style and sense of fashion correspond to the decor (architectural style of the building), and how well it all fits in its proper Zeitgeist. For some reason we remember the 80’s as a very colorful era, but looking at these videos they all actually seem quite dark. As if, the actual color palette is dark, there is a lot of black and navy-blue. It fits really well with the singer’s burning desire to leave this wretched, boring place and live someplace else, so that she could “forget the sadness”. Sorry to break it to you Jakie, but you know what they say – you can take a girl from Paris, but you can’t take Paris out of a girl. A pretty cool song nevertheless. Also, it is interesting to compare it to another great French hit of the era, possibly better known than this one, that speaks of the same thing – to travel to someplace better (far from boredom) and never to come back – Desireless’ Voyage Voyage.
Bandolero – Paris Latino
So you remember that “music bidon” that Joe the Taxi (driver) listens too ? Well, here is an example of it. As already mentioned, the immigrants coming to Paris arrive with threads of their own culture, much to demise and horror of the white haute bourgeoisie of the city – and by doing so, they make Paris more cosmopolitan and culturally diverse. The horror, the absolute horror.
We’re never getting tired of this
And this song is a prime example of that seemingly irreversible process. So instead of lamenting over a city that (forcefully) opens itself to foreigners, Bandolero decides to get with the times and creates a song that is a mixture of, well, everything. The languages spoken here are Spanish, English and French ; the music in question is itself a mixture of styles from different former French colonies, many of them right next to former Spanish and British domains, so themselves melting pots long before the reverse process of colonisation started happening and Paris was faced with the possibility of people not only accepting the French culture as it is, in its seemingly monolithic state, but actually building it and contributing to it, making it their own ; making threads of their contributive influences a part of a larger context. If you followed the French burkini ban issue that became a global question this summer, you can well connect these two notions and see the distinct correlation. You can also see that the roots of the “problem” go back a while, before the 80’s even.
Thing is, the songs of colonial issues are no strangers to the context of the chanson française. They have been around as long as the genre itself has ; just take a look at Edith Piaf’s Mon Legionnaire, sung way back in the 30’s. The important distinction though that is that that song is about France exporting its own culture, rules and military presence to other places, whereas here we have “other places” importing their culture and ways back to France. Back in the day France was making their countries its own domain ; now they are making France their country and Paris their city, to their standards. The difference is quite distinct and not something to be smiled upon, not by the majority of the French people in question anyhow (as for us, not being French we don’t really care – we’re rather those foreigners changing the scenery to better suit them, so that would be our perspective).
Much in that veine, the refrain of the song goes : Que bueno que rico que lindo, Paris Latino ; meaning, How good, ho pretty, how rich is the Latin Paris. Meaning, further, that it’s not Paris as such that is all those qualities, but the Latin Paris (not to be confused with the Latin quarter here, as that is a whole different sport altogether), Paris enriched by the foreign influences. Meaning, it was high time for the colonisers of Paris and France that if you spend a couple of centuries taking resources from (former) colonies, the people from those places will eventually follow ; and after a while you will have a situation similar to what started happening in the 80’s and what is happening nowadays (in more ways than one).
But, in all honesty, the song is not being critical of French colonisation, nor it’s being critical of its delayed effect on the mainland France. It seems to revel in the beauty of the melting pot, numbering all the influences of the Latin world on the French culture, and all those things that came from abroad and that are the part of the Parisian scene of nowadays. So we have Z for Zorro, the Don Diego de la Vega himself, the dancing white Josephine (Baker ? An uneasy thought there, best left alone), and the biggest star of them all, Miss Tcha Tcha Tcha. They are all downing one Cuba Libre after another and dancing in the presence of the mysterious Doctor B ; a person you best be aware of. This bit is interpreted as a private joke of the sorts that our staff as well as our clients will get.
A postmodern excess of the sorts, the song not only mixes in different languages, the Latino beats, but an entire section of rapping, making a modest appearance in the context of the French pop music. We will address the issue of rap later on, as it becomes an important part of the French music scene, but for now, it’s in its fetal stage. Back to the inherent postmodern quality of the song ; not only does it sing about the melting pot, globalization hitting Paris, cultures coming together to create eclectic and syncretic hybrid forms, it does so while being an eclectic hybrid form in its own right. A catchy pop tune that we just massively read into or a harbinger of the dawning era of globalization, knocking even on the ever exclusive doors of the French capital? You be the judge.
Grace Jones – Slave to the Rhythm
It seems that the profile of the decade is slowly but surely coming together – the most prominent pop songs about Paris all seem to somehow be tied around the issues of immigration and race. It only seems fitting, all things considered, that one of the greatest, if not the greatest (French? actually Jamaican) stars of the decade be the dreaded immigrant from a former colony, of a different race – Grace Jones. A milestone in terms of music, fashion, conceptual art and (pop) culture in general, Grace Jones is without a doubt one of the carrying pillars of everything 80’s. Also, we’re fairly sure that anyone reading this text is well familiar with her and that we’re not really making anyone discover her, which might be the case with some French artists lesser known internationally.
You may ask yourself, given the subject matter of this series of articles (the Parisian pop songs about Paris) – what is Grace Jones doing here, singing a song in English, that seemingly has nothing to do with the city of Paris, herself obviously not French ? Well, the answer is – it has everything to do with the city of Paris. In a way, the songs previously mentioned and the contextualization of them all prepared a possibility for this song to be better presented. In order to “get” this song, and specially its video, you needed to first understand certain points about racism in France, most specifically Paris, the (post) colonial agenda of the French (but also more broadly speaking western European) culture, and how Grace Jones was introduced to that particular context. Most importantly, you need to know all that so that you could understand how her entire image was created to play off all those racial stereotypes, misconceptions and fears the white bourgeois Europe was dealing with back in the 80’s and for the most part is still dealing with nowadays.
To bomb the house of stereotypes and to be as provocative as possible, Grace Jones was framed as the wild, androgynous, fiercely animalistic “black beast”. That’s racist ! We hear you say. Exactly, it is, and that is the whole point. For the entirety of the 20th century European art was inspired by the African Fetish sculpture – artists from Gauguin and Picasso onwards would literally not exist had they hadn’t “borrowed” their inspiration from the (essentially racist) notion that the European art is stale and spent whereas the African art is viral, sensual, and intense in its primitive state. This was further used to contextualise other races, most notably the African one, as culturally, intellectually etc. inferior on account of their sensuality and virility (the way to turn the tables on someone) ; those very qualities would be a sign of the “inferior” state of cultural progress. So the black people in general, especially their arts and cultures were framed as such. That was the stereotype set to be played with by the likes of Grace Jones ; also, it was a stereotype that was taken (and is largely still being taken) for granted as a given fact.
Fun trivia info – Kim Kardashian’s photo that “broke the internet” was a re-hash of Jean Paul Goude’s work. So, nowadays still, he’s rocking the scene. Grace Jones by Jean Paul Goude, photo taken from V Magazine http://vmagazine.com/article/grace-jones-by-jean-paul-goude/
Sexual and intense, but in a difficult to define manner: in her own words – “Feeling like a woman, looking like a man” (Walking in the Rain, Grace Jones), Grace Jones played off these stereotypes of being an animalistic, primal, uncompromising woman. Feel free to add feminist agenda to it all – the role she played was that of sexually ambiguous power, again, very strong and in-your-face but hard to define due to her androgynous looks. In itself, the image created is wonderfully complex and layered, not only on account of the heavy burden of (colonial, capitalist and patriarchal) stereotypes she is playing with, but purely visually as well ; and Grace Jones played the part perfectly, an artwork in her own right.
That is all nice and all, but what does it have to do with Paris, you ask ? Again, it has everything to do with Paris, and here’s why – the genius behind the scenes was a Parisian graphic designer, illustrator and an advertising video director (extraordinaire) Jean Paul Goude. He is the one who “created” the image of Grace Jones ; he is the author of all of the most eponymous works of her – the image shown above, the director of the video here in question, any many others. Fascinated by the black body and the black culture in general, with a deeper grasp of it being framed in a European context the way it was, Jean Paul Goude created the image of Grace Jones exactly down these lines. To understand the video of Slave to the Rhythm, you have to understand the essentially Parisian (and broadly French) context from which it came. All of the racist imagery in that video – various “black faces”, as well as white faces ; black savages chasing away the bumbling white people placed out of their context ; humoresque clips of servitude being interwoven in the seemingly fragmented narrative of the video ; it all makes sense knowing this. The lyrics of the song (so often ignored) are about working in the great chain of events, pushing the civilization forward, contributing to the “great chain” (the reference the fans of Bioshock will get). As Grace Jones says in the refrain, you
“Work to the rhythm,
Live to the rhythm,
Love to the rhythm,
Slave to the rhythm”
Note that “slave” here is not a noun, but a verb. You actively slave to the rhythm of everything ; not as you would in a dance club, but as you would in a mine or a factory. Your life is but a part of the machine the lyrical subject sings about. Grace underlies this by stating “Sing out loud, the chain gang song”. You know who sings the chain gang songs ? Prisoners and slaves. Yes, exactly so. The fact that these lyrics are matched to a flawlessly produced masterpiece of pop music, and even more importantly, to a video such as it is (humoresque “black faces” kissing “white faces”, among other things), it is all very, very Parisian. The cynicism, the provocation, the in your face cheekiness – this song is raising the bar with all of these notions, so dear to the context of la chanson française. Not to split hairs, but we also see some French flags waving around in the video as well as a commercial for the Citroen CX (also done by Jean Paul Goude).
Also, too bring to an end this overly long elaboration (that the video and the song in question much deserve) the style of the spot is quintessentially Parisian and more precisely Parisian of the 80’s. Still, the influence it had is so widely felt in this city that even nowadays most of the advertisements done for chic items and department stores are closely following in the Jean Paul Goude’s steps. Indeed this is Paris, and most importantly, it is Paris that manages to be both chic, extravagant and haute couture as well as drenched in the (hidden, but present) narrative of colonialism, slavery, appropriation of black art and culture, and everything sinister that can come out of that. Grace Jones also embodies, and that needs to be mentioned, the budding clubbing scene of Paris in the late 70’s and the 80’s. When a cult dance club Le Palace was opened, she sang at the inauguration; her career is tightly nit together with the city of Paris. We could have opted for some other songs that explicitly mention the city of Paris (like Libertango, for example) and are sung partially or entirely in French – but this was simple point-on when it came to humor, the style and the overall atmosphere.
As we’ve come to expect, the humor in this is deeply bitter and ambiguous ; the playfulness of the dancing and running figures is downright morbid and scary (once properly contextualised). Jean Paul Goude and Grace Jones touched upon a raw nerve here ; it was a hit directly to the center and for that, we take our hats of to them both.
So, what can we conclude here ? It seems that it was only in the 80’s that the French and Parisian culture came to terms with its colonial past and postcolonial present. Scratch that – more properly said, it started coming to terms with that. No, scratch that also ; it started trying to come to terms with that. More often than not, it was done in a racist and blatantly offensive ways, like Vanessa Paradis (ugh) or Taxi Girls ; rarely, though, it was done with such style and complexity as it was did by Jean Paul Goude and Grace Jones. Apart from France culturally dealing with the immigrants and with immigration, Parisians felt miserable as ever ; but more than ever, they wanted to get out of this place, and settle anywhere but here. Also, the French and the Parisians proved (once again) how good they are at ignoring the world around them ; the momentous historic events that would shake the world (like coming down of the Berlin wall, for example) did little to impress the locals, perpetually too busy with their own misery to care what happens with the world east of bois de Vincennes and west of Bois de Boulogne.
It’s worth to mention that we actually planned on covering on two more songs that would define the decade, plus the two more in a bonus round; but it seems that enough has been written already. So more on that in the special edition coming soon in the form of an e-book – for now, we’ll inquire as to what will happen in the 90’s. Will France start catching up with the rest of the world on what is going on ? Will the Parisians be as miserable as ever, or more, or less so ? Stay tuned to find out.