The History of French Pop Songs – La chanson française of 2010
Cover photo taken from Independent http://www.independent.co.uk/sport/football/international/euro-2016-french-riot-police-fire-tear-gas-at-supporters-outside-paris-fan-zone-during-france-match-a7129906.html
So, after some hesitation, we’ve reached the end of this series – at least for another ten years or so, when it should become possible to have an idea about the songs of the 20’s of the 21st century. We also might revise this particular article three years from now, if some seminal pop songs about Paris appear. In the meantime, it is what it is. It’s been quite a journey and even more so quite a research we had to make to assemble this list. Interesting conclusions, some that we found surprising, even better analogies. However, we shall address that in greater detail in a separate article, the one that will serve as a conclusion to the series. In the meantime, let’s see what this decade is like seen through the prism of the Parisian pop music featuring the city of Paris.
In the last decade, we did see some fresh ideas, renewed spirit of optimism (as much as it is possible in this particular context, because let’s not kid ourselves, this is Paris we’re talking about, a city where all optimism comes to die) – corrosive decadence that has overtaken the genre was slightly scaled down and new winds started blowing. Also, same old problems remained – poor integration of the underprivileged, coupled in most cases with hidden but all the more powerful racism and religious bigotry; they were all still pretty much around, some would argue more important than ever. The communities in question did start taking some of the space for them, which in turn furthered the micro ‘culture wars’ that would define the previous decades. Let’s see where are we with all of those delicate issues today. If the cover photo, taken from Indipendent.co.uk (regarding the 2016 riots against the labor laws taking place during the EURO soccer championship) is any hint whatsoever, we’re not in a particularly good spot.
Zaz – Je Veux (I want)
Sigh. This song as well as her performer gets no love whatsoever from us, but we had to put it here against our taste/better judgment because it simply is that relevant. Zaz not only launched this particularly annoying branch of hipsterdom in Paris and France (it’s oh so fun to be poor when you’re not exactly poor at all – money doesn’t matter when you’re loaded, it’s cool to pretend that you’re a street musician basking in Montmartre whereas you’re actually a Conservatory classically trained professional etc., you get the point) but also connected herself to the very origins of the genre. In more than one way; by her broken yet strong voice, manner of singing, easy going style, appearance that is very far from the artsy vamp diva that Mylène Farmers of this world were cultivating, Zaz was a reset of the genre back to its roots. She would prove that with many cover songs of the chanson française legends of the genre.
So, what Zaz managed to do was to reinvigorate the genre, all the while taking it back to its roots. Singing about poverty, margin of the city, poor manner, but a certain form of freedom that comes with it, laced, off course, with a lot of sadness and hopelessness that also come with it. As much as we don’t like her, and as much as this god forsaken songs would not stop playing anywhere you turn back in 2011, she did manage to do something unique – take a used up, almost moribund genre that was completely lost and directionless, and inflate it with new energy. Also, equally important, she managed to ‘save’ the genre from the clutches of the elderly, nostalgic parents, great parents and great great parents and present it to the youth of its day as something relevant. She made it so.
All that aside, the video is – much like many a classic of the genre – filled with stereotypes and cliches, to the point that she actually mentions the Eiffel tower; and is – off course ! – set in Montmartre, the mother of all vintage hipsterdom.
She goes as far as filming half of this video in the most commercial flea market of Paris, possibly the world, Puces de Clignancourt, also (off course!) in Montmartre. Yet, it works, and yes, it was a huge hit, not only in France but all over Europe. Much like the legends of the genre, Fréhel, Edith Piaf or Damia, Zaz is not acting on her sex appeal and is not playing the attractiveness card. She is keeping it very much down to earth and is in line with the chanson française realiste. All that said, if we don’t hear this song ever again, we’re perfectly fine with that. But, you know, give credit where credit is due.
M – Mojo
OK, something much more in our line. This is almost a personal favorite of the decade and an incredibly feel good song, catchy, direct, unpretentious, funny, ironic, self-deprecating, simply excellent. Finally an artist that will not take itself to seriously – ready to mock the entire ‘rock n roll’ persona in a very on-point Parisian manner, rolling in cynicism but somehow very positive while doing so. M rocks a ridiculous haircut, god-awful glasses, fake-as attitude and voice ; and while all of this sounds like a recipe for a sure disaster, he makes all of these negatives turn into a huge positive. It just works flawlessly. Same goes for the video. A bunch of guys that are typical for this city – they behave and vest as studs, or ‘studs’ if you will, all the while being in on the joke and 100% self deprecating and ironical. Something that is here known as ‘deuxième degré’ meaning not taken at face value, but ironically.
Usually it is a very snobby and obtuse attitude that draws little favor (specially from us) but again, all these negatives, paired with a catchy tune and an honestly enthusiastic performance, as bizarre as it may sound after everything we’ve written on the subject, make one huge positive. Video is an integral part of this success. Taken mostly in the Marais area and around the place de la République, but also partly on the Seine and the construction formerly known as the lock bridge, it is a low budget, honest heaps of fun. So, yes, we’re enjoying this at face value, au premier degré. This is likely the best vibe this city can produce. Which means that everything else from here on might be on a downwards slope.
Vald – Urbanisme (Urban planning)
In the meantime, this video has disappeared from youtube, so we can’t make a point with it. Off to the next one, that is our actual choice.
Vald is, as we speak, the enfant terrible of the French hip hop scene – a person that has made more waves than he likely planned or thought possible. Making this list without him would have been all but impossible. This particular song, with a video filmed in the 19th arrondissement of Paris, takes us away from the touristy Montmartre of Zaz (the 18th district) and sets us in the part of city closest to the infamous banlieue, not only geographically but most of all symbolically and factually. 19th is the poorest and the dodgiest part of Paris. So in this clip we have everything we need – song about the neighborhood that is falling apart, the disenchanted, underprivileged youth, the fact that they get no pride or pleasure from the lives they live, the fact that the only thing they are capable of is getting high and fantasising about being rich and away from the slum. The lyrical subject is lashing out against that passive attitude, but is at the same time ready to admit that he is also not capable of anything other than that. Just a little message for Vald, if he ever happens to read this – Vald, some of us have lived in the 19th. Where you filmed this video is the better part of that area, if not the best – you got it good. Try living past métro Crimée and let us know what that’s like.
So, all the ingredients are there, the song is perfectly relevant and on point. Still, we’re not going with it, as was our initial intention. It deserves a mention, which it gets – that is why the link is there – but our actual choice is this bomb right here – a personal favorite of the decade :
Vald – Shoote un ministre (Kill a Minister – just to be precise, the title refers not to a priest, but to a government minister)
This song is easily the most relevant one of all we have and are going to list here. The reason why it’s not the last, in form of a crescendo, is partly due to our poor conceptualizing and laying out skills, and partly due to anxiety to start writing about it already. It is a perfect sublimation of the current situation in France, the one that is marked by the post-colonial, racial, social, political and cultural segregation that is scaring the country. Seems to ambitious for a rap song? We don’t think so at all. As it is, it a better commentary of the given situation than any analysis you might read in any news paper, study, statement of a government official or anywhere else; we are dead serious in saying this.
If you were following this series of articles you noticed the growing malaise with the immigration issues that started manifesting itself in the pop songs from the 80’s onwards. It probably happened even earlier (racist songs can be traced all the way to the very beginning of the genre) but let’s say that is appeared on our radar in that era. As the situation grew growingly more and more noticeable, in ‘real life’ as well as in pop music, we started having some checkpoints, or milestones, if you will. One of them was the song Stress done by Justice that we described in the previous chapter. A pure outpour of angst, anger and undiluted random aggression, it showed us the true nature of the ‘trickle down economy’ – the thing that ‘trickles down’ the most is the violence and not much else.
While the process of gentrification is taking place, all that is dirty, ugly and poor is taken away from our worlds and stuffed someplace else. The city is going through a process of aestheticization, becoming safer and safer, more and more beautiful. All the while, the dirt and poverty are not disappearing – if anything, they are growing much at the same rate as the gentrification is progressing, until they come to explode and manifest as violence. And while Justice’s Stress only showed us what this aggressive social stratification is doing while it’s not channeled and organized, real life sadly showed us (through terrorist attacks that happened in the 2015 and 2016, performed predominantly by the French citizens) what happens when that rage becomes formulated. We all know what happens – yet, no one wants to address the true cause, as the officials prefer to hide the social segregation behind the floskules such are the ‘wars of civilizations’, ‘wars of religions and cultures’ and other similar elitist nonsense.
Enter Vald. He’s taking this one step further than Justice had. Whereas they were showing what happens, he proposes a solution. A very controversial one – but a solution nonetheless. It is quite simple. When you become fed up with your life to the point where you are contemplating suicide, don’t just shoot yourself in the head – go kill a minister. Any minister – they all well deserve it. You are likely going to die in the process, but something good will come out of it. These are by the way Vald’s exact words. We are not interpreting, we are paraphrasing. When you get so desperate and disturbed by the complete lack of perspective, chance and opportunity in life, up to the point where you wish to go out and kill innocent people at random (which is what happened in terrorist attacks in France and Europe), don’t do that – go kill a minister instead.
Accompanying video is full of brilliant details that tie this powerful message together. The society tempts you with vulgar depictions of sex (the girls in provoking underwear) but when you try to reach out and enjoy it, you find death instead smiling at you, representing the oppressive system behind the entire theatre. The young racially diverse inhabitants of the banlieue are taking photos with weapons and the dead minister much in the style of jihadists who are taking photos and videos with their victims. In making this connection, Vald is saying – also, he’s saying the same thing in actual lyrics – the poverty, the hopelessness, the system that favors the corrupt and self centered elites is causing this violence. If you wish to make a statement, direct it where you should – not towards your disadvantaged neighbors (as is shown in the Justice’s Stress video) but at the source of the problem.
You are by now starting to realize the potential of this song as well as the controversy of such a solution. In our opinion it is to be understood as a warning rather than a call to violence or the justification of terrorism. It is anything else but that – at the end of the song, the lyrical subject says, quite plainly, ‘stop killing innocent people, damn it’. In the rest of the song, however, he says that no minister is innocent. A great song, an explosive message, open to interpretation – an uncompromising artist that has the courage to point directly at the problem and perhaps even start a revolution of the sorts. This is not his breakout song nor his most popular work (that would be this piece of advanced oddity right here) but is by far his most important song up to date that will be hard to surpass. We do hope that happens. Speaking of revolutions…
Rod Janois – 1789 Ca ira mon amour (1789 It Will Be Alright My Love)
If you thought that the previous entry was to serious (and it was), here is a perfect brake to be made, with an overdose of ridiculousness. Much in the line of the line of Mylène Farmer’s terrible video from the 90’s, but thankfully far less distasteful, here we have a continuation of that strange and particularly French habit of making overblown, kitschy, laughable quasi-historic efforts that are supposed to be epic and grandiose but fall flatter than a pancake. If cringing is your thing, you will have a blast watching this video, as everything is a pure delight – ‘revolutionary’ shirts and jackets, prisons, star crossed lovers, writing with a quilted pen, and that very strange and anachronistic brake dancing in a prison cell. We weren’t aware of break dancing having been a thing during the French revolution, but hey, live and learn.
Not much else to be said about this, other than it’s a honest to god gem of kemp. It is actually a part of an entire musical, so if that is your thing, be sure to check it out, as all of it is much in the same line. Just one thing to note though – we don’t understand and possibly never will, why do you need an entire historical decor of this or any other period just so you could make a crappy, generic, run of the mill song about being in love with someone ? Are the ambitious scenery and costumes supposed to make you appreciate it more ? Is it making it more artsy, or rising it on a different level, other than that of hilarity ? We don’t know, but we are certainly thankful that these diamonds of kitsch and nonsense exist here in Paris (as very important aspects of the city’s culture and character) and make our lives so much more bearable (as the world is slowly and seemingly eternally sinking ever lower).
Indila – Dernière Danse (Last Dance)
Speaking of ambitious representations of very generic themes (and the world around you steadily collapsing), here we have another rendition of the same sentiment, but one that hits much closer home. Again it is set in Montmartre, but the experience is on point Parisian – the lyrical subject is kicked out of her apartment (which happens quite often and is at the same time just about the worst thing that can happen to you, as apartments are almost impossible to come by), is scuffed by the rude passers-by, is mistreated by the people on the street, and is confronted by a lousy weather. Sounds just about like a properly Parisian day, down to the last point. There is also something about dancing in the heart of the overall desperation but it seems less important.
The lyrical subject (again) perfectly captures that uniquely paradoxical dichotomy of sentiment this city instils in its denizens – on one hand, you feel utterly nameless and insignificant (as she does), a total nobody, and on the other, like the divine being supreme, that can change the weather on her own accord and ‘dance with the wind and the rain’ etc. So, she is basically divine while at the same time being homeless, broke and universally dismissed. Is Indila trying to say she’s Jesus ?
While this is on point Parisian, we do have slight remarks. First of all, the lousy weather is never quite this dramatic – we wish it’d be – in most cases it’s just tedious and boring. Secondly, the video shows us a happy end of the sorts, with the sun coming out. That never happens here and is a factual error. Still, quite a catchy song with a respectable amount of youtube views and a nice little argument for our hypothesis that the French born people of immigrant origin (Indian, Egyptian and Algerian in this case, so 100% colonial) are making a space for themselves in this genre, slowly and painfully, but steadily nonetheless.
La Femme – Où va le monde ? (Where is the World Going?)
From this song onwards, you will see a similar, if not same trend setting in. Though this and the sequent two songs may seem rather anticlimactic after such bombs we’ve had at the beginning and the middle of the decade, we believe (or suppose, if you will) that it is where the genre is steadily going. This is the future of the genre of la chanson française – DIY, low/no budget, youthful and energetic, naive and to a certain extent honest. Much like all the beginnings should be. This youth leaves cynicism behind them and is honestly asking themselves, and us – what is wrong with this world ? Off course, this being France and Paris, so prominently featured in this video, it must be done with a certain ironic distance, mostly visible in their costumes. Still, it does not much harm the overall impression and if anything makes the whole package seem all the more adequate and stylistically coherent. Much in contrast to the previous entry, this is a low fi, low scale effort, without special effects, without professional production, with a very basic set up. It is the impression Zaz sought to achieve, only unlike this group, she actually used very professional musicians and video makers.
salut c’est cool – Techno toujours pareil (Techno Always the Same)
This is essentially the same venue as the previous song, only done by obnoxious hipsters. Less honesty here, more irony and an ambition to appear cool. Also, objectively, a lot of good humor, talent and fresh ideas. Salut c’est cool adopts a low-fi aesthetics that is somewhat similar on that account (but not the same) to that of vaporwave, as in intentionally poorly made, vintage and ironically vintage blended with the genuine emotion and ideas. It is much in line with the philosophy (or, ‘philosophy’, if you will) of metamodernism. How is it different from irony and cynicism of post-modernism, you might ask ? Well, the most important difference is that metamodernism blends actual emotion and even vulnerability with said cynicism, irony and self awareness. It is supposed to be less straightforward, more unstable and harder to understand, thus making it more interesting artistically.
We could say that this denomination applies to the previous entry as well. It is also why we feel that this is the direction that the genre will develop in, following closely in the footsteps of similar venues happening globally. Vald’s music, its political potential aside, also qualifies for this category, specially his breakout hit Bonjour; same can be said, though to a lesser extent, for M’s Mojo. The future is uncertain, malleable and likely bleak, much like most of the songs represented here.
Fakear – La Lune Rousse feat. Deva Premal (The Ginger Moon)
To underline that notion, we chose this entry. Not on account of its relevance, but because it is a nice outro – it shows a girl getting up from her routined (though young) life, leaving the city of Paris behind, and walking tirelessly into the unknown. Symbolically, the circle comes full – the musical genre that came from the periphery to the center, starts retiring from the center to the periphery and further away even, to the very edge of the sea, which is as far as you can go. This city, this country, as well as this entire part of the world, we feel, are doing much the same.