How does French pop reflect globalization — and France's musical tradition?
July 26, 2003
The French popular music of the period between the Second World War and the political cataclysm of 1968 was known for cabarets and yé yé girls.
The yé yé sound — France’s answer to the pop music coming out of the UK and the United States at the time — featured female teen idols like Brigitte Bardot singing to beat tunes.
Past these clichés, however, an interestingly varied genre — with rich melodies and witty, sophisticated lyrics — arose. French musicians of this period were attuned to sounds of the globe — including jazz, samba and rock ‘n’ roll. Yet, their music kept its distinctive “Frenchness.”
One reason was that the best artists working in this golden period of French popular music believed in one maxim: The intricately embroidered words and supple, yet muscular melodies of their songs were best served by sparse instrumentation.
For starters, listen to records such as French songwriting sensation Serge Gainsbourg’s Gainsbourg Confidential or Percussions, or on former yé yé sensation Francoise Hardy’s Comment te dire adieu.
These recordings were very simple and used basic, unadorned production techniques.
By the early 1970s, however, French pop had succumbed to an overproduced and artificial quality. That trend was already in vogue in other Western European countries and in the United States.
So it is not surprising that a new wave of French musicians — writing and performing 30 years later — have decided to have another look at the music of the immediate post-war period.
Listening to the new compilation Cuisine Non Stop, it is evident that French musicians have varied musical approaches.
However, the 11 groups compiled on this album all have sounds that mine the rich tradition of French post-war pop to great effect.
In Java’s “Au Banquet des Chasseurs,” for instance, one can hear a mix of the smoky beatnik and funky Latin beats that Serge Gainsbourg first explored in the 1950s.
La Tordue’s two songs on the compilation — “René Bouteille” and “Les Lolos” — have the carefree martial air of legendary singer/songwriter Boris Vian’s work, filtered through a more subtle and highly textured instrumentation.
But the music compiled on Cuisine Non Stop is more than a mere backward glance. The demographic make-up and culture of France has changed greatly since the 1940s and 1950s.
A politically controversial influx of immigrants, the invasion of the English language and the influence of Middle Eastern, Latin and African music are among the most important factors. And the music on this record reflects those substantial changes.
The two songs by the Angers-based group Lo’Jo — “Baji Larabat” and “Brule la Meche” — are an excellent example. On the first song, the syncopated rhythms bear the stamp of Gypsy and African music. Yet, its strong melodies mark it as quintessentially French.
On the slower and more meditative “Brule la Mêche,” bits of African music and reggae peek out from the edges of an edgy modern pop song.
The strength of Cuisine Non Stop is its musicians’ ability to hold that tradition close to themselves — and embrace the global influences that have swept into France.
The moody pop of Louise Attaque — a popular French band — has influences that range from Gainsbourg’s Latin experiments on Percussions to the American college folk-rock of the Violent Femmes.
The groups’ music features plaintive violin solos as well as melancholy accordion rifts.
Arthur H’s “Naive Derviche” takes has echoes of Gainsbourg and French pop star Etienne Daho — and also Dylan and American songwriter Tom Waits.
David Byrne, the former songwriter and leader of the Talking Heads, compiled Cusine Non Stop for his Luaka Bop label.
As he observes in his liner notes: “In discovering a musical bridge between the France of yesterday — the rich song traditions that range from Jacques Brel and Edith Piaf to Serge Gainsbourg (before his reggae rock/disco freakout period) — and the funky grooves and moody vibes of American funk and Algerian rai, they have made a new kind of music that truly represents what it means to be French in the century of the euro.”
One can disagree with Byrne about Gainsbourg and reggae — the singer’s reggae records were highly influential in introducing that Jamaican music to French audiences.
But David Byrne is dead right about the unifying force of the new French music on Cuisine Non Stop.
In an era of globalization, these French artists are simultaneously engaged with the world — and preserving and extending their own tradition. It’s a quintessentially French posture — and a musical successful one as well.
Editor and writer Richard Byrne lives in Washington, DC. He is an editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education. His writing has been published in the The Guardian, the Washington Post, Foreign Policy, The American Prospect and on Time magazine’s web site. He was also a contributing writer for New York Press and the Boston […]