Being a native speaker of English brings many benefits in a globalised world where it is the undisputed lingua franca. But there are also real disadvantages to being exclusively Anglophone – no more so than in the realm of popular music. British (and American) audiences tend to be wholly unaware of popular music in any other language than English. And from everything we are missing out on, French popular music is almost certainly what we are missing out on most of all.
So, to mark the 2017 French presidential election night at the Guild and the LSR Politics Hour special broadcast that accompanies it, I’ve compiled a Playlist of French musical classic, avec un peu d’aide de mes amis (Mathilde Chapal, Aurélia Bardon Maeva Zimmermann and Robert Blackwood).
The songs on the Playlist date from 1947 to 2016 and embrace a wider range of genres from ‘la chanson française’ of the post-war era through to contemporary ‘le rap français’. As is true of French popular music generally, politics and social commentary feature heavily as themes, as do love, sex and death. There should be something for everyone, even if your knowledge of French does not extend beyond being able to find the button for pain au chocolat on the self-service till at Tesco. Bands on the list well known in the UK include Air and Daft Punk.
Here’s a selection of my personal favourites:
Charles Trenet, La mer (The sea) 1947
Any French playlist has to start with this. It’s about the sea – although possibly only as a metaphor for sex.
Edith Piaf, Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien (No, I don’t regret anything) 1959
Everyone knows this one. Directly translated, the title looks like a double negative in English (No, I don’t regret nothing) but I assure you that it’s grammatically correct in French.
Jacques Brel, Au Suivant (Next) 1964
Brel was actually Belgian but hugely popular in France and lived there for long periods. This song is about young soldiers being taken to a brothel, courtesy of the army The narrator finds it a deeply unpleasant and dreads the call of ‘Au suivant’ (Next!) signalling that it is his turn. An English language of the song was made famous by Scott Walker.
Jacques Brel, Ne me quitte pas (Don’t leave me) 1959
One of the most tragic love songs ever written. The narrator begs his lover not to leave him, becoming increasingly desperate. He starts out declaring ‘I will offer you pearls of rain that come from countries where it doesn’t rain, I will dig the earth until beyond my death, to cover your body in gold and light’. But by the end, all he has to offer is ‘let me become the shadow of your shadow, the shadow of your hand, the shadow of your dog’. There is also an English language version of this song, again most famously by Scott Walker, translated as ‘If you go away’.
Barbara, L’aigle noir (The black eagle) 1967
The lyrics of this song describe how the narrator falls asleep by a lake ‘one day, or perhaps one night’, and is later woken by a black eagle appearing from nowhere, landing and touching her with its beak. She then recognises the bird and declares ‘he had come back to me’. It sounds like a love song, but is actually about childhood sexual abuse and the abuser was almost certainly her step-father.
Jacqueline Taieb – 7 heure du matin (7 o’clock in the morning) 1967
The music is deeply reminiscent of 1960s Merseybeat and the lyrics, written in the first person, describe a teenager waking up, brushing her teeth and engaging in her morning routine while fantasising about Paul McCartney.
Claude Francois – Comme d’habitude (As usual) 1967.
This song was later covered in English by Frank Sinatra, becoming known throughout the English-speaking world as ‘My way’. But this is the original.
Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin, Je t’aime … moi non plus (I love you … me neither) 1969
Originally written by Gainsbourg for his lover, Brigitte Bardot, who pleaded with him not to release it. This was an extraordinarily erotic song for the 1960s and was banned in a host of countries, including the UK. It became the first song in a foreign language to top the UK charts and stayed in the UK charts for 31 weeks.
Serge Gainsbourg, Aux armes et caetera (To arms, etc), 1979
The words of the French national anthem, abbreviated, and set to a reggae beat. This one also caused a lot of controversy at the time!
Renaud – Mistral gagnant (a type of sweet) 1985
Renaud’s songs are mostly very political but this one is about sitting on a park bench reminiscing with his young daughter about the sweets he used to eat when he was a child ‘that we stole from the shop; candy liquorice pills, caramel squares, and the mistral gagnants’.
As for some of the more recent songs – the ones released since you were born …
Diam’s – Marine (2006): a very angry song about Marine Le Pen and what she stands for.
Noir Désir – Un jour en France (A day in France) 1996 and Le vent nous portera (The wind carries us) 2001 – a very popular rock band from Bordeaux, until the lead singer killed his girlfriend in a fight in a hotel room.
Ulan Bator – named after the capital of Mongolia, Ulan Bator are deeply influenced by so called Krautrock – the 1970s German music scene that included Can, Faust and Neu! Very cool.
La Femme – probably the coolest contemporary French band. Again influenced by Krautrock but also a variety of others, including the Velvet Underground.
French rap/hip-hop tends to be very political, reflecting the deep social divisions associated with France’s colonial past, today’s ethnic inequalities and racism and is frequently very controversial. The list includes Iam, Supreme NTM, Zebda and Rohff.
Keep up to date with Stuart’s thoughts on the election by following him on Twitter @StuartWilksHeeg and you can find the full playlist HERE.
Tune in from 6pm here on lsradio.co.uk to listen to the LSRadio Politics Hour 2017 French Elections Night broadcast.