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Imagining the popular in contemporary French culture$

Diana Holmes and David Looseley

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780719078163

Published to Manchester Scholarship Online: May 2013

DOI: 10.7228/manchester/9780719078163.001.0001

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Authenticity and appropriation: a discursive history of French popular music

Authenticity and appropriation: a discursive history of French popular music

Chapter:
(p.47) 2 Authenticity and appropriation: a discursive history of French popular music
Source:
Imagining the popular in contemporary French culture
Author(s):

David Looseley

Publisher:
Manchester University Press
DOI:10.7228/manchester/9780719078163.003.0003

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter combines a brief history of French popular music with an account of those discourses that have defined and constructed the meanings of ‘pop’ for France. One element of French particularism to emerge is the importance of the ‘chanson’ category, aligned with hegemonic notions of Frenchness through its emphasis on text and the self-expression of the lone ‘auteur’. Focusing on evolving constructions and uses of chanson, the discussion describes how it plays its part in the nineteenth-century emphasis on a mythical rural past embodied in folk songs and is commercialised through entertainment forms such as the cafe-concert.

Keywords:   French popular music, Frenchness, chanson, folk songs, café concert

Introduction

This chapter is about the meanings of popular music in France.1 Music fans generally believe they know what they mean by ‘popular’ and ‘pop’; but not all of us can readily say what that is. Here, I shall use ‘popular’ to refer to what are, today, industrially produced forms of music directed at and appreciated by a very large, or ‘mass’, audience. Such forms do not usually require any conventional musical competence or erudition; and they are easily available on the market. I will take ‘pop (music)’ to mean something more specific, namely all forms of broadly speaking youth-oriented music that derive in one way or another from mid-1950s American rock’n’roll; whereas ‘popular music’ will be used more comprehensively, to include jazz, big-band, variety, and so on, in addition to pop. Further issues to do with the meanings of the French epithet populaire in the context of music will be unpicked as the chapter progresses.

But my overarching concern in addressing meanings is how, in France from the late nineteenth century to the present day, both nationally produced popular musics and imported Anglo-American styles have been conceptualised, classified and argued about by critics, intellectuals and the music world generally. Scholarly histories of French popular music during this period are still rare, while the fairly numerous commercial histories tend to be unproblematised journalistic surveys of styles and genres. I will certainly refer from time to time to the aesthetic characteristics and strategies that cause certain styles and genres to be popular. But I will mainly do so in order to identify mutating conceptions of the popular or the ‘people’ embedded in those styles.2 Hence my term ‘discursive history’.

This approach takes ‘popular’ music to be a rhetorical artefact rather than a stable aesthetic category, and its history, therefore, to be a narrative. (p.48) Explicitly or implicitly, popular music is constructed, ‘produced’, and these constructions change over time. If, as Foucault contends, discourse is a practice, that both defines and produces objects of knowledge by making them mean something, evolving discursive practices may be viewed as competing for power, struggling to be adopted as the ‘natural’ narrative and therefore beyond question. This temporal struggle for discursive power is, I believe, especially evident in the familiar but elusive notion of chanson.

For years, a view common to both francophone and anglophone accounts of French popular music has been that la chanson française is a vernacular and quintessentially French art-form (see Looseley 2003: Chapter 4). French pop, by contrast, was long considered of inferior quality and embarrassingly derivative, a graft that had simply not taken. Music journalist Benoit Sabatier (2007), for example, argues that Johnny Hallyday could never compete qualitatively with his Anglo-American models but became a star only because the industry needed local product. This leads Sabatier to conclude unequivocally that ‘French rock is a joke’ (2007: 39–40).3 A better argued version of much the same narrative is developed by the academic Larry Portis (2004) in a chapter confidently entitled ‘The Poverty of French Rock’n’Roll’, where he maintains that ‘the advent of rock and [sic] roll in France was not a social phenomenon of great depth or importance as it was in the United States or Britain’. This is evidenced, he goes on, in the fact that the careers of already established French chanson performers like Yves Montand, Charles Aznavour or Georges Brassens did not suffer from rock's arrival (Portis 2004: 123). Portis's argument, then, is that the importing of rock’n’roll was primarily a marketing strategy, that ‘there was no profound aesthetic or social movement dictating the form the new mode of musical expression would take’ (ibid.: 127). This does not mean for Portis that demand for it was artificially created, but that the music was not an organic expression of a preexisting cultural need in the way that chanson was: ‘what distinguished the inception of rock and roll in France was that the merchandising preceded the modification of popular culture. In France, financial interests did not simply exploit the performer-artists, they created them’ (ibid.: 133).

There is some force in these arguments, especially when one examines, as we shall, how the burgeoning French music industry operated in the 1950s and 1960s. Yet they raise other questions, which I shall deal with as the chapter progresses. One of these questions, however, needs to be addressed straightaway. Portis (ibid.: 2) takes for granted the standard view that there is a ‘cultural uniqueness’ which gives French popular music ‘a distinctiveness that seems alien and inaccessible [to (p.49) anglophones]’; a distinctiveness epitomised in chanson and deriving from ‘deep-seated cultural impulses and different combinations of social and political conditions’, which he examines. What seems to lurk unheeded beneath such bounded terms as ‘cultural uniqueness’ and ‘deep-seated impulses’ is a notion of what might be called national-popular authenticity (Looseley 2003). We need to enquire what exactly this authenticity amounts to. In what sense is French popular music actually ‘French’ and ‘popular’?

Today, sociological analysis and Cultural Studies tend to play down the national dimensions of popular culture in favour of the global and the local. In the French case, a global perspective may seem all the more valid given French music's assimilation of international styles, from rock’n’roll or rap to zouk or raï, and of English-language generic categories, from le music-hall and le jazz in the 1920s, through la pop(-musique), le disco, le funky and le rock in the 1970s, to la techno, or les boys’ [sic] bands. Yet the business of borrowing is never as straightforward as it looks. The styles and nomenclatures borrowed seldom duplicate their connotations in English, suggesting a cultural reappropriation of the original terminology. Indeed, as Warnier points out (1999: 93–7), studies of globalisation, by isolating cultural products from their local contexts and privileging convergence over difference, obscure the multiple ways in which those products are domesticated and recoded within local communities, by family, church, school, and other institutions. This process of ‘glocalisation’ is usually taken to involve sub-territorial divisions such as social groups, ‘tribes’ or regional communities. But in the French context, where the ‘national’ imperative of republicanism still holds sway, the glocal community may be national, as the institutions cited by Warnier in fact suggest.

This takes us into the question of naming. Like Foucault, Bourdieu argues in his consideration of language and symbolic power (1991) that naming is crucial to the discursive formations that mediate social reality, shaping perceptions of the object named. On this view, the taxonomy of the music, the discourses surrounding it and the way it is valued all become key issues. These issues are, I suggest, especially apparent to the anglophone observer. Francophone studies of French popular music tend to take the discourse of chanson for granted, as if it were a shared assumption that need not be interrogated. But anglophones, who bring to their observations other culture-specific taxonomies gleaned from cultural or popular-music studies, can easily trip over this deceptively simple notion, which quite plainly does not only signify words set to music but connotes, in some usages at least, a latent value system.4

(p.50) To help bring out what that system is, I shall take a lead from Simon Frith (1998: 26), who suggests that ‘to understand what's at stake in arguments about musical value, we have to begin with the discourses which give the value terms their meaning’. Combining and extrapolating from Howard Becker's model of ‘art worlds’ (2008 [1982]) and Bourdieu's concept of cultural capital, Frith identifies three discursive practices through which music is heard and evaluated and which produce the terms in which value judgements are made: art, folk and pop. In art discourse, the ideal is music that is serious, transcendent, ‘spiritually pure’ and ‘never secondary to the performer or to the audience’ (29). In folk discourse, by contrast, music is valued in terms of its social, communal, integrative function: as the supposedly natural, informal and spontaneous production of communities, even though in advanced industrial societies these virtues have paradoxically to be laboriously constructed. This construction work stands in explicit opposition to ‘pop’ or ‘commercial’ discourse, where music is valued as a commodity which offers the experience of pleasure and fun. Unlike either Becker or Bourdieu, however, Frith does not see these three discourses as separate art worlds or as class-specific: rather, they are shared across the high/low boundary and are constitutive of each other (Frith (2006 [1991]: 591). Furthermore, Frith argues (1998: 26), these interdependent practices are ‘the effects of specific historical situations’: together they constitute a social mapping of musical taste in Western societies from the nineteenth century. For this reason, he argues, cultural historians have often produced better analyses of popular culture than Cultural Studies has, with its ‘cavalierly postmodern attitude to the past’. Hence this chapter's historiographical ambition.

Authenticity and the invention of the middlebrow

Chanson as ideology

The term musique populaire has not been used in France in the same sense as ‘popular music’ until fairly recently. In English, as we saw at the beginning, ‘popular music’ loosely covers all widely enjoyed styles that do not come under the umbrella ‘classical’, from (some) jazz and folk to the infinite sub-categories of ‘pop’; though, of course, the closer one looks at English usage, the more problematic this convenient highbrow/lowbrow binary becomes. In French, however, the more comprehensive, ‘Anglo-Saxon’ sense of the popular competes with the traditional ‘folk’ meaning: the pre-industrial musical tastes and practices of peasant and, later, urban workers. Hence a tendency today to use the plural musiques populaires to (p.51) indicate that its meanings are multiple. Hence too, no doubt, the long-established preference for the term chanson, which appears to avoid the confusion inherent in musique populaire. In practice, though, the chanson category generates more problems than it avoids, for it is neither culturally nor ideologically neutral.

Chanson has typically been thought of as a popular genre – even, as one source puts it, ‘the most popular art there is’ (‘l’art le plus populaire qui soit’; Vernillat and Charpentreau 1977 [1971]: 3). But the epithet populaire here connotes more than it denotes. For Vernillat and Charpentreau, it should not be understood in the ‘restricted’ and ‘slyly pejorative’ sense found in dictionaries, for in reality chanson ‘is not the preserve of any class, social group or period. It is a universal art’ (ibid.: 3), yet also one that is ‘deeply rooted in the history of our country’ (ibid.: 117).5 Chanson, then, for these authors is popular not in the supposedly ‘pejorative’ folk sense but because it is an ecumenical taste characteristic of the nation. And it is in this sense that the almost tautological expression la chanson française must be understood. Even today, this expression remains dominant in public discourse. On the occasion of the 2009 Fête de la musique (National Music Day), which took ‘fifty years of chansons françaises’ (Culture Communication 2009: 2) as that year's theme,6 the music journalist Stéphane Davet explained the ‘naturally popular and unifying’ power of the theme (‘un thème naturellement populaire et fédérateur’). Chanson, he maintained, distinguishes itself from English-language song by foregrounding lyrics, but unlike in other countries with a similarly ‘literary’ song tradition, chanson also ‘reflects French centralism and the fascination that Paris holds’ (Davet 2009: 3).7

As such statements reveal, chanson is at once an aesthetic and an ideological category: it is structured by an art discourse (Frith) and a discourse of national-cultural memory, neither separable from the other. How, then, did it acquire this dual signification? To answer this, we need to examine more closely chanson's literariness: the myth of the lyric.8 Adapting Frith's taxonomy, the history of chanson involves, I believe, a shift from a folk discourse to a compound of folk, commercial and literary discourses best described perhaps as a discourse of the middlebrow. Extrapolating in the 1970s from statistics dating back to the 1960s, Bourdieu (1984 [1979]: 16) describes a ‘middlebrow’ art (the standard translation of his term un art moyen) as ‘the most legitimate of the arts that are still in the process of legitimation’, citing as illustrations jazz, cinema, ‘and even song’. And he describes middlebrow taste as bringing together ‘the minor works of the major arts [he cites Rhapsody in Blue] (p.52) and the major works of the minor arts, such as Jacques Brel and Gilbert Bécaud’ (ibid.: 16). He makes an only too clear distinction here with ‘popular’ taste, characterised apparently by a preference for ‘light music’, the popular classics, ‘and especially songs totally devoid of artistic ambition or pretension’ (ibid.: 16) Although as we shall see Bourdieu's classifications smack of essentialism, look distinctly passé today in their rigidity, and were already problematic by the 1970s, they do serve as a starting point, usefully pointing up the especially complex historical status of chanson, which needs to be teased out.

The self-conscious chanson

Historians trace chanson's origins to the French lyric poets of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries: the troubadours in the South and their northern counterparts, the trouvères. Both were initially of high degree and wrote refined verse for the aristocracy about courtly love or chivalry. But vernacular equivalents, the jongleurs, did emerge, many of whose works were anonymous and have been lost. Somewhere between these two categories might be placed the wayward poet and thief François Villon (1431–c.1463), regularly cited by singer-songwriters as a historical point of reference. In France much more than England, a tradition also developed for poetry to be set to music (Hawkins 2000: 27–8). The invention of the printing press then gave greater permanence to vernacular lyrics, which were usually set to existing melodies known as timbres. These core features largely remained in place until the mid-nineteenth century, placing chanson in a folk tradition until that time.

What transformed its social meaning, I suggest, was self-conscious-ness, an awareness of chanson as a genre, with its own formal properties. This awareness developed incrementally, not only among singers and composers but among those working in or with what was to become the music industry: critics, decision-makers, intellectuals, folklorists and – much later – cultural mediators and institutions. The first glimmers of self-consciousness came with chanson's metamorphosis, in the 1840s and 1850s, from an amateur culture of the people to a professionally produced product for the people.

Various cultural and institutional changes help account for this metamorphosis. After the Revolution, regional cultures were disdained as repositories of particularism and ignorance. But, as elsewhere in Europe, Romanticism's concern for a mythical rural past, including the oral tradition of folk song, produced a desire in intellectual and literary circles to preserve that past in written form. This was followed in 1845 by the (p.53) ministerial creation of the Commission for the Religious and Historical Songs of France (Commission des chants religieux et historiques de la France). Shortly after Napoléon III came to power, a decree of September 1852, ‘Instructions Relating to the Popular Poetry of France’ (Instructions relatives aux poésies populaires de la France), took up this concern by commissioning the Minister of Public Instruction, Hippolyte Fortoul, to collect the largely oral heritage of popular song. Although it ignored melodies, the survey helped produce an awareness of the nation's folk heritage from which would emerge a series of publications spanning over a century: Champfleury's Chants populaires des provinces de la France (1858), Weckerlin's La Chanson populaire (1886), and others. Later, informed by successive ideologies – from the Popular Front's promotion of a hearty outdoor life, through Vichy's attempts to reconnect with France's rural identity, to the period of post-war renewal – the anthologies continued unabated: Chailley's La Chanson populaire française (PUF, 1942), Claude Roy's Trésor de la poésie populaire (1954), and so on.

From the 1850s well into the post-Liberation period, then, the term populaire was applied in much the same sense as the English term ‘folk’, including both rural and urban musics. However, the anthologising of songs began a process of transforming the oral tradition into a written culture. This took place later in France than in Britain, primarily because of intellectual and political resistance to the popular (see Chapter 1) and the concern since the eighteenth century with eliminating patois and dialects (see Chapter 6) in the name of the ‘purity’ of the French language (Duneton 1998, II: 906–9). Unlike in the USA where fragmented or segregated community cultures grew largely unhindered (Guibert 2006: 109; Rioux and Sirinelli 2002: 54), for the French state in the era of colonial expansion, the will to preserve was part of a concern to centralise and discipline a divided nation, in which the arts, language and education were all enlisted.

French folk songs thus began appearing as primary-school texts in the first two decades of the Third Republic, with their lyrics ‘corrected’ so that patois and regional varieties could be removed (Duneton 1998, II: 912) and with their melodies notated and reharmonised to respect formal conventions. It had also become fashionable by the beginning of the twentieth century for ‘serious’ composers (Debussy, Stravinsky, Bartok) to draw on folk melodies, slicing through their popular roots and recasting them for the delight of élite audiences (Guibert 2006: 56). We may, then, detect in the latter half of the nineteenth century the start of an exponential reflexivity: a learned discourse about chanson which (p.54) intensified consciousness of its significance for national memory. This is arguably the first stage of its induction into the middlebrow.

The state's policy of excising difference in order to fabricate a national popular taste is identifiable also in establishment attitudes to amateur music-making in the form of the various kinds of brass bands (harmonies, fanfares, cliques) that during the July Monarchy grew out of turn-of-the-century choral societies (orphéons). Bands were encouraged by both secular and religious authorities in order that they might educate, socialise and moralise the working class, the band serving as a metaphor of social harmony (Dubois, Méon and Pierru 2009: 30). A network of outdoor bandstands (kiosques) was also set up from the 1850s with similar ideological intent.

All these initiatives, by intellectuals, writers, musicians and the state, sought to pickle a mythical popular-musical past, in reaction to the topical emergence of an urban song culture which was inexorably ousting folk song. From the eighteenth century, song clubs had been appearing in Paris where songwriters could perform their compositions to like-minded club members. The caveaux were their earliest form, made up of educated middle-class writers and artists whose songs were characterised by wit, satire and Epicureanism. The first chanson ‘star’, Pierre-Jean Béranger, emerged from this culture. In the nineteenth century, less sophisticated, working-class and more openly oppositional equivalents emerged called goguettes, from which new composers arose, in particular Eugène Pottier, author of L’Internationale, and Jean-Baptiste Clément, who wrote Le Temps des cerises (Cherry Time), both associated with the Commune of 1871.

In the aftermath of 1848 and the return of empire, the political sedition associated with caveaux and goguettes led to their being effectively closed down in 1852. But alternative commercial entertainments were already becoming available to cater for the urban public's taste for songs and singing. New issues of ownership raised by these commercial settings led to the formation of the SACEM (Society of Music Authors, Composers and Publishers) in 1851, which gave songwriters formal author rights. This began a process of professionalisation and commercialisation which would transform the culture of amateurism and free exchange that had grown up in the singing clubs.

The caveaux and goguettes prefigured the more ‘literary’ song of the Montmartre cabaret, most famously Le Chat Noir where Aristide Bruant's fame began, while a more populist form of musical entertainment appeared with the café-concert. Le Chat Noir, a bar opened in 1881, (p.55) featured poetry readings and song recitals by Bruant and others, together with some puppetry and other acts. In 1885, Bruant, who had debuted in goguettes and cafés-concerts, took over the original premises and started his own cabaret, Le Mirliton, decorated by Toulouse-Lautrec. Attracting a literary as well as bourgeois clientele, these venues mixed Bruant's own compositions – usually featuring a stereotypical working class and sung in the appropriate accent – with traditional folk songs, symbolist poetry and other arts. All of these cultural associations enhanced chanson's literary identity, as did the intimate cabaret setting which allowed a proximity between the singer-author and his select audience, who came to Montmartre for the thrill of sampling bohemian life.

Cafés-concerts were on an altogether different scale. They began in 1848 when itinerant singers started working outside then inside cafés on the Champs-Elysées, and for the first time musicians were hired and paid (Duneton 1998, II: 924). The formula then snowballed in Paris and other cities until the end of the century. The cafés-concerts were bigger, rougher, noisier venues than either goguettes or cabarets. Together with the SACEM, they took chanson decisively towards massification and commodification. And in both contemporary and more recent accounts of this change, a note of regret creeps in, as if something authentic and organically French had been lost. The Goncourt brothers wrote of such venues in 1864: ‘For some years now, France has been suffering from a moronic form of St Vitus's Dance. Quite clearly, the intellectual level of the nation has been going down and the French, excessive by nature, are bent on becoming the most imbecilic and feeble-minded of peoples’ (quoted in Duneton II, 929).9 Much later, Dillaz indignantly saw cafés-concerts as having ‘devoured’ the goguette just as they in turn would be devoured by music hall, setting in train ‘a monstrous process’ of market competition (Dillaz 1973: 25).

Certainly, at the café-concert there was little of the intimacy of the singing club or cabaret. But a form of song centred on lyrics as well as performance and personality still flourished there. It was only when the English-style music hall ousted the café-concert in the first decade of the twentieth century that the lyric-based song was seriously threatened, since in the halls singing acts were mixed with a spread of more spectacular entertainments. In particular, the revue, shaped round a series of tableaux, extravagant costumes, dancing girls and some nudity, became popular at venues like the Folies-Bergères and Le Moulin Rouge.

The music hall, then, marks the second major turning point in the development of chanson's self-consciousness and absorption into the (p.56) middlebrow: the beginning of a discursive practice still current today, in which chanson is defined by what it is not. And it was not music hall. As in the UK, singers were of course integral to music hall and many were happy to work there. But a way of thinking about chanson developed which was concerned to define its aesthetic distinctiveness and integrity against music hall. The halls foregrounded the visual and physical in the new dance rhythms of the 1920s, whereas the caveaux, goguettes, cabarets and even cafés-concerts had all foregrounded the voice (Guibert 2006: 80) and the lyric. This binary thinking would be exacerbated once the halls began featuring a particular kind of dance music sweeping France: African-American jazz, born in the working-class districts of New Orleans at the turn of the century. At this juncture, the opposition between song and dance becomes overlaid with issues of Americanisation, authenticity and ethnicity; and the concern to delineate a specific chanson aesthetic becomes more visibly bound up with the definition of a national popular culture.

The English music hall and American jazz were not the first foreign incursions to raise these issues. The accordion, hackneyed metonym of French popular tradition, had in fact been developed in Austria, Germany and England before being brought to France at the end of the nineteenth century by Italian immigrants who, with Auvergnat musicians in the working-class outskirts of Paris, developed the hybrid style known as musette, suited to popular dances (bals populaires) where men and women could dance in couples. Indeed, as it spread across France the accordion was greeted with dismay by the Church and politicians; and by folklore purists who saw it as a coarse, mass-produced invader destructive of indigenous traditions.

A more extreme clash of identities came when black jazz musicians who had come to France with the American Expeditionary Force in 1917 began performing in French music halls after the Great War. Jazz was then disseminated and publicised much more widely in 1925 when the Revue nègre featuring the young Josephine Baker appeared at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. Through her dance styles, at once comically stylised and erotic, Baker exploited and subverted the perceived otherness of black America, and of black women particularly, both scandalising and arousing the predominantly male critics. In our discursive history, she serves to underscore the racialised as well as gendered dimension of chanson discourse, in a culture where the Colonial Exhibition of 1931 could still exhibit Senegalese ‘natives’ in a human zoo at the Parc de Vincennes. As Terri Gordon argues (2004: 39), the cultural meanings of (p.57) this ‘Black Venus’ were a jumble of primitivism and cubism. For the 1920s critic André Levinson: ‘there seemed to emanate from her violently shuddering body, her bold dislocations, her springing movements, a gushing stream of rhythm’ (cited in Gordon 2004: 42). Through rhythm, Gordon continues (45), Baker ‘represented, in the eyes of the [French] public, the return of the repressed, the black continent of Freud, the triumph of primitive and spontaneous instincts over the intellect’.

These reactions help us understand the evolution of chanson at this time. Guibert (2006: 81–2) points out that despite the success of cosmopolitan jazz and revue during the 1920s, songs in the ‘national’ café-concert tradition, where the vocal and verbal were more important than orchestration and rhythm, remained popular. Indeed, by the 1930s, chanson had outstripped both jazz and revue: despite the initial popularity of Baker's dancing, she was soon identified much more with two songs, ‘J’ai deux amours’ and ‘La Petite Tonkinoise’, the first a waltz, the second a fox-trot (Guibert 2006: 82), which were to form the cornerstone of her long career in France. This helps us identify a further step-change in chanson's self-consciousness by the early 1930s. The polarisation of song and dance, words and music, had mutated into a binary opposition between the national and the cosmopolitan, identity and otherness. French popular music had come to acquire two conflicting dimensions: on the one hand, an appealing modernity, even modernism, founded on the new cosmopolitan, hybrid forms of mass entertainment; on the other, a defensive, exclusionary reaction to modernity not unlike the nine-teenth-century folklore movement, a ‘purist’ determination to cling to an imagined chanson – now an urban form but coloured by the folklorist's obsession with ‘national’ authenticity (Looseley 2003). This ambivalence, which plays on the dual nature of song as both written and oral, text and performance, was to have lasting repercussions for chanson's evolution, as it broke free of music hall. By the early 1930s, the halls were in decline due to competition from cinema, causing a rebalancing of this delicate ecology. Aside from establishments like the Folies Bergères, which continue with a fossilised revue format to this day, those halls that survived or were to reopen, as the famous Olympia did in 1954, focused on recitals (tours de chant), abandoning or reducing other forms of variety entertainment.

One alternative to music hall for the tour de chant was still the much smaller cabaret. Prefiguring the smoky cellars of the post-war Left Bank, the 1930s cabaret continued the literary tradition of the caveaux, with singers like Marianne Oswald and Agnès Capri or Marie Dubas performing poems (by Carco, Brecht, Prévert or Cocteau) set to music, (p.58) in some cases by contemporary classical composers like Satie or Poulenc (Vernillat and Charpentreau 1977 [1971]: 86–7). However, more radical technological alternatives still were emerging at this time, which were transforming the very nature of venue and performance. The use of the microphone for live performance began in the mid-1930s. Radio, mostly given over to live music, became established, and to a lesser extent records.10 Technology, then, was altering the relationship between singer and audience and the nature of listening. The sociologist Antoine Hennion (2001) uses the term ‘discomorphosis’ to describe how, whereas nineteenth-century listeners might only have heard a particular piece two or three times in their lives, the record permitted an entirely new familiarity unimaginable to previous generations.11 The microphone and radio produced an equally crucial transformation: the microphone by allowing the singer to introduce a wider range of vocal shades and techniques than the single mode of declamatory delivery of a Bruant; the radio by allowing a more personalised, domesticated relationship with singer and song. This new intimacy was to have a major impact on chanson and the way it was thought about. In particular, it made possible a closer, more private engagement with lyrics. To this can be added the impact of sound cinema, which regularly brought chanson to the screen in the 1930s, creating a visual as well as sonic relationship with singers and transforming a few into icons.

Emerging from this more complex 1930s landscape, two chanson stars were to embody and reconfigure it: Édith Piaf and Charles Trenet. By the 1970s, Bourdieu (1984[1979]: 60) had identified both as middlebrow tastes, by virtue of their longevity and consecration. Indeed, both, in quite different ways, were to advance the self-consciousness of chanson and the discourse of the middlebrow that was inseparable from it.

Piaf and Trenet

In Piaf, the defensively exclusionary aspect of national cultural memory is made flesh. As represented by Josephine Baker, popular music becomes an exotic, alien experience, formed of dance, sexuality, jazz and cosmopolitan modernity. Piaf 's songs, on the other hand, cling to the more melodic, reflective, lyric-based French tradition of the urban folk song. Chanson here is about listening or singing along more than dancing. Baker's is a spectacular music of the body; Piaf 's a music of the heart and mind. Certainly, the Piaf body too is iconic on stage; but it has none of the fleshy luxuriance and unashamed eroticism of Baker's: it is a body of skin and bone, of classed and gendered suffering.

(p.59) Almost half a century after her death in 1963, her life story is well-known and her status as popular-cultural icon is constantly being re-imagined, most recently by Olivier Dahan's biopic of 2007, La Môme, which reconstructs her life as a national parable. Yet, as the film's very success indicates, she is just as much a metonym of an internationally imagined France. This unique status derives from the fact that embedded in her life and songs – the songs mythifying the life, the life intensifying the songs – is a conception of the popular, originating in the nineteenth century but forced to evolve by internationalisation, social change and technological innovation. Arguably, then, the pleasure that Piaf engendered in the 1930s was nostalgic and commemorative, for her work reacted to cosmopolitan modernity by largely pretending it was not there. In her, chanson self-consciously becomes a lieu de mémoire (a realm of memory: Nora 1993), erected on what was by this time a trope of ‘the people’ in the national imaginary, visible contemporaneously in the crime fiction of Georges Simenon, or the films of René Clair and Julien Duvivier that often feature the craggy working-class persona of Jean Gabin (see Chapters 3 and 4). That trope harks back to Hugo's Les Misérables and the naturalism of Zola, the earthy songs of the goguettes, the café-concert and what became known as the chanson réaliste.

The ‘realist song’ is indebted to the work of Bruant and the somewhat younger Gaston Montéhus but is primarily associated with early twentieth-century female performers. Berthe Sylva (1885–1941), Fréhel (1891–1951) and Damia (1892–1978) launched their careers with songs by Bruant or Montéhus but ended up recasting the male rhetoric of social populism as the weepy fatalism and female dependency of the popular romance.12 Piaf too (1915–63) is of this tradition but at a remove: in her hands it reached its apogee but became subtly self-referential. The ‘people’ in the Piafian trope are the mythologised poor, sometimes criminal, sometimes canny working-class men and women of Paris at the turn of the century: the era of the apaches (youth gangs), the fallen street girl and the ripe speech of the faubourgs or ‘zone’ (the capital's old working-class perimeter). And while there is certainly a sense of place here and an element of topical social observation, the modernisation of the 1930s was already turning the ‘realist’ model into a stylised generic convention. Consequently, one may glimpse beneath Piaf 's success with this trope a besieged cultural nationalism. Her celebration of anonymous adventurers, sailors, legionnaires and other combatants in the colonial forces, in songs mostly written during this period by her Svengali, the ex-legionnaire Raymond Asso, but appropriated by her through the triumphant narrative (p.60) of her contralto, reasserts in the shifting post-war world of the 1930s the masculine vigour and stable gender roles of the French empire. Her heroes are manly, terse, often blond with a winning smile, and good in bed; her women are fatally drawn to fall recklessly into their arms. If the world beyond France is present in any of these songs, it is either in the form of an enigmatic, white ‘gars du Nord’, as in ‘L’Étranger’ (1934) or ‘Le Contrebandier’ (1936), with a lilting accent that adds to his sex-appeal; or of caricatural ‘natives’: the ‘salopards’ of ‘Le Fanion de la Légion’ who treacherously attack the outnumbered legionnaires in their fort; or the parody of the maritime adventurer in the form of a simple-minded, scrawny ‘nègre’ in ‘Le Grand Voyage du pauvre nègre’ – significantly one of the rare Piaf songs of the period to be set to a brassy blues accompaniment reminiscent of Bessie Smith.

Once she became an international star, Piaf 's most iconic numbers, ‘La Vie en rose’ (1946), ‘Hymne à l’amour’ (1949), and of course ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’ (1960), largely abandoned this national and sociological locatedness, floating instead in the mid-Atlantic idiom of the torch song. Inscribed within her work, then, is a historic shift from a nostalgic working-class-French particularism to a modern universalism in which a ‘popular’ song is one appreciated by a sociologically diverse and increasingly international audience. Her early songs embody a conception of the popular redolent of the Popular Front; and, both musically and politically, this conception was finished after the Occupation. This ‘belatedness’ as Keith Reader calls it (2003: 208), this Proustian reminiscence of a national past, helps explain the pleasure of Piaf even today.

Another singing star whose early career embodied the spirit of the Popular Front is Charles Trenet, though in some ways his work is the opposite of Piaf 's lachrymose populism. Trenet avoids retrenchment by absorbing difference, injecting into chanson a more outward-looking modernity and freshness. He began his singing career in 1933 in a duo with Johnny Hess, which broke up in 1936. Both were gifted exponents of white American swing. Portis (2004) underscores the neglected importance of Hess for placing swing at the centre of French youth culture; but it is Trenet's solo career, begun when he signed to Columbia in 1937 and released ‘Je chante’, which interests us here.

First, he renewed the tradition of the singer-songwriter established by Bruant but sidelined during the visual extravagance of 1920s music hall; and in the process, he reinforced the centrality of the well-turned lyric. Second, he updated that tradition by assimilating jazz. Like Piaf, Trenet developed a star body.13 The youthful exuberance of his live persona as (p.61) ‘the singing fool’ (le fou chantant), with his comically popping eyes and turned-up straw hat, together with the weightless quality of his voice, were embodied signifiers of the worldview communicated by his witty, tragicomic lyrics and upbeat sound, where clever wordplay could acquire a syncopated musicality close to scat singing. Thanks largely to this sound, he too found success in the post-war anglophone world, with compositions such as ‘Boum’, ‘La Mer’, and ‘Que reste-t-il de nos amours’, adapted into English as ‘Boom’, Beyond the Sea’ and ‘I Wish You Love’ respectively. But at home, his impact was to help the lyric-based chanson appropriate rather than reject Americanisation and thereby refresh itself. Whereas the early Piaf looked backward and inward to a disappearing popular France, the conception of the popular embedded in Trenet's songs looked forward, outward and upward.

The stardom of Trenet and Piaf is inseparable from the new media (radio, microphone and record) and both of them helped reconfigure chanson for the age of mechanical reproduction, paving the way for a new generation to whom that age was already a way of life. Each star also, in different ways, contributed to that generation's most characteristic achievement: the invention and legitimation of what has become known as the ‘text’ or ‘poetic’ song, the next stage in the evolution of the self-conscious chanson.

The trope of the singer-songwriter

Young post-war singers learnt from Piaf that chanson could be a serious, intense, intimate art when it eschewed the frivolity and spectacle of music hall; and that it could elicit affective identification between artist and audience. From Trenet, they discovered the imaginative possibilities of the lyric and how to adapt it to international rhythms and arrangements. Arguably, both influences combined to produce a new, middlebrow conception of chanson with its own, more developed interpretation of authenticity.

The post-war generation began their careers in quite different circumstances from their predecessors, despite an illusion of continuity created by pre-war stars like Chevalier, Tino Rossi, Trenet and Piaf (Dillaz 2005: 31–2). Culturally and economically, the Liberation brought reconstruction; and the music business was looking for new talent. 1920s music hall was moribund and cabaret was now identified with the Left Bank: small, poorly lit cellar bars where a singer would have no room for a band, so that self-accompaniment, on guitar or piano, was a virtue made of necessity (Calvet 1981: 71–2). One advantage of this self-sufficiency (p.62) was the intimacy that he (less often, she) could foster with his audience; and from it came a new wave of singers who wrote their own material. This is a crucial change aesthetically and commercially. The restricted performance space, coupled with the intimacy and with self-composition, encouraged auteurism: the self-aware expression of a personal worldview, political position or emotion and a self-referential universe or language. And this Romantic auteurist aesthetic soon generated a public expectation which turned it into a genre. Another benefit of performing one's own material was that one no longer had to trail round music publishers in search of new material and accept only what was left after bigger names had taken their pick. Furthermore, income was maximised via performing rights. In America, as Peterson demonstrates (1990: 111), the rise of the singer-songwriter in the 1950s and 1960s amounted to a major structural change in the record industry, as the creative focus shifted from the jobbing songsmith as functionary of a record company. Something comparable took place in France too, where an alternative creative economy concentrating the hitherto distinct functions of singing, playing, composing and lyric-writing proved similarly pioneering (Lebrun 2009: 6). In the process, the singer-songwriter was transformed into a suggestive new trope which continues in modified form today: that of the middlebrow poet-troubadour who symbolically combines the outsider status of Villon, the topical awareness of Bruant and Montéhus, the literary skills of Trenet, and (in some cases) the emotional, self-fashioning qualities of Piaf. The label auteur-compositeur-interprète (literally: author-composer-performer), which seems to come into regular use in the 1950s to designate this figure, was abbreviated to ‘ACI’ – as much, I would suggest, for symbolic purposes as for convenience.14 It is the trope of the literary artisan and an updated version of Frith's popular-musical art discourse.

Generalising a good deal, ACIs’ songs initially lacked orchestral settings and were less obviously swing-influenced than Trenet's, since one effect of a fairly rudimentary self-accompaniment was that arrangement and even melody were subordinated to lyrics. The canonical figures here are Georges Brassens, Jacques Brel and Léo Ferré, with, some way behind, Francis Lemarque, Jean Ferrat, Guy Béart, Charles Aznavour, a little later Serge Gainsbourg, and others. Although the ACI was at first figured as male, a small number of female performers, most notably Barbara and Anne Sylvestre, came into the category, though they are invariably represented differently (Looseley 2003: 68–9).

Unlike most French popular-music figures, the ACI has of late been the subject of academic study,15 so there is no need here for more than general (p.63) remarks. Speaking rather unconvincingly of a ‘Left Bank sound’, Portis (2004: 98) sees this as continuing the chanson réaliste tradition but mixed with jazz and swing. This connection is hard to sustain for long, when the soap-operatics of realist song are contrasted with the diverse musical settings, performing styles and ethical, social and affective content of the text song, and with the irony or humour in much of Brel's, Brassens's and Ferré's work, absent from the realist tradition. Nevertheless, what does arguably link these three artists is not a ‘sound’ but a performance of middlebrow authenticity. The performance varies a good deal from singer to singer but is epitomised in Brassens. Accompanying himself on an acoustic guitar with one foot placed uncharismatically on a chair, his square features, peasant moustache and palpable discomfort on stage, his endearingly careless attire and homely pipe off-stage, coupled with his colloquial, often vulgar vocabulary both ancient and modern and the witty, ribald content of his songs, all come together as a composite signifier of French sceptical intelligence and artisanal integrity, to which other singer-songwriters aspire and which, in the rhetoric, has been ‘betrayed’ by la chanson spectacle, the purely commercial, ‘illegitimate’ song which we saw earlier described by Bourdieu as ‘totally devoid of artistic ambition or pretension’. Brassens is thus constructed as the anti-star par excellence, his anarchistic worldview and wicked observational humour seemingly distancing him from vacuous celebrity, and at the same time from his own myth. Duneton (1998, II: 930) portrays him as reawakening an implicitly authentic French tradition put to sleep for 100 years by the café-concert.

This pared-down model of middlebrow authenticity certainly had a sonic component, but this component was much more varied than the idea of a ‘Left-Bank sound’ suggests. Brel, Béart, Ferrat and others began by accompanying themselves on guitar, while Ferré and Barbara were pianists. Brassens himself never departed from this formula, while others did. As his career developed, Brel opted for more emotional orchestration closer to Piaf 's post-war style, while Ferré produced his own symphonic arrangements in his later work (Hawkins 2000). Others again, like Claude Nougaro or Gilbert Bécaud (not strictly an ACI since he did not write his own lyrics) took Trenet's route into swing and jazz.

This evolution towards new arrangements and instrumentation was the result of the new resources furnished by commercial success, technology and the media. The post-war ACIs began their recording careers in the era of the 78rpm. But in 1947, CBS brought out the first vinyl ‘long player’ (LP), which played at 33rpm, followed in 1949 by RCA's 45 rpm, which became the industry standard for the single or EP (Extended Play). Vinyl (p.64) records and the Teppaz portable record player went on sale in France in the mid-1950s. Among the many advantages of vinyl were better sound quality and in the 33 rpm a much longer playing time. No longer restricted by the 3-minute format of the 78 rpm, singer-songwriters could be more expansive and experimental in expressing themselves: the LP brought the record closer to being an cuvre (Dillaz 2005: 59). When Jacques Canetti offered Guy Béart a record deal, Canetti insisted on an eight-track, 25cm record rather than a 45 rpm, ‘because you’re a songwriter’ (ibid.: 60).16 By the late 1950s, portable transistor radios were selling fast and the number of radio stations playing records was growing, notably with the launch in 1955 of Europe No. 1, broadcasting from outside France. By 1960, then, France's music industry had been revolutionised, albeit later than America's and Britain's, as records took over from the simple form of sheet music known as the petit format as the primary means of disseminating popular songs and measuring success.

As with radio and records in the 1930s, these industrial changes help explain, in tandem with the culture of the word which had dominated education since the Revolution, the popularity of the text song. Advancing the domestication and personalisation of listening, they established a successful national tradition of the commercial art song where artistic integrity was (in theory) guaranteed by a perceived identity between singer and song. This did not automatically disqualify anyone who did not conform to the model. Piaf, identified more with the songs of others than with her own (numerous) compositions, acquired in the public imaginary the same gloss of authenticity by virtue of her repertoire being written, from Asso onward, to reflect her persona and biography. But the ACI trope in this flexible form did enrich French chanson's sense of its own exceptionalism, in defensive opposition to the perceived otherness of ‘cosmopolitan’ or industrialised musics and dance forms. However, this representation of chanson as a ‘legitimate’, authentically national popular art did not spring up spontaneously when the big three's careers took off. Rather, it was sculpted in the 1960s in response to the formative revolution of American rock’n’roll.

Rock comes to France

When rock’n’roll reached France in the late 1950s, the French music industry was still quite distinctive in comparison to that of the USA. Three related factors may account for this. The first is state voluntarism which, although it had not yet evinced much concern with music specifically (and certainly not popular music), did reinforce and prolong the (p.65) prevailing social construction of culture in terms of a high-low binary. The second is that, before the arrival of vinyl, records had been slow to compete with the music-publishing branch of the industry. In the US, a profusion of separate popular-musical cultures had developed organically and independently, as a result of minimal state intervention, ‘racial’ segregation, and the blossoming of a record industry as early as the 1920s. This had generated a healthy independent record sector sustained from the 1950s by a proliferation of equally independent radio stations which began playing records (Peterson 1990: 105–6). This mosaic of subcultures drove production forward in the 1950s, largely by means of constant hybridisations – most notably the fusion of white country music with black rhythm’n’blues that would produce rock’n’roll. In France, on the other hand, a comparable blossoming of the industry did not begin until the arrival of vinyl. Centralisation in the form of linguistic ‘normalisation’ (see Chapter 6) and various other interventions to preserve, regulate and improve popular culture, had hampered the growth of a similarly rich humus, reducing the French industry's potential for growth. Even so, the state did not see fit to intervene in live popular music to the extent of altering its commercial status. Indeed, a decree of 1945 made it clear that live performance was unequivocally a for-profit enterprise (Guibert 2006: 102–3), and the creation of a Ministry of Cultural Affairs in 1959 concerned only with high culture did nothing to change this.

This points to the third factor, which was a process of commercial normalisation by the still blinkered French record business. Characteristically, the policies of that industry were defined by the directeur artistique (artistic director), a distinctive figure of the French industry whose job was to promote new artists and sign them to a record label. Until the mid-1960s, when directeurs artistiques began turning themselves into independent producers as the recording sector evolved (a process which had happened a decade before in the USA: see Peterson 1990), they were usually employed by record companies. While a few – like Jacques Canetti (Polydor, then Philips) or Boris Vian (Philips/Fontana and, briefly, Barclay) – were enlightened, most were driven by the conservative conventions of la variété française (French commercial music, purely for entertainment17) into which creaking categories even the most ambitious artists like the ACI were squeezed. The spread of television in the 1960s only aggravated matters, as shows like Discorama and L’École des vedettes (School for Stars, the first TV show to feature Johnny Hallyday, in 1960) began a tradition still dominant today of the TV spectacular modelled on variety (Guibert 2006: 126–7).

(p.66) As a result of these three factors, the music business in France was less supple than the American and less equipped to respond to youth-oriented rock’n’roll. While the state and the other traditional organs of legitimation (the press, education, the arts) reacted to rock with patronising disapproval or moral panic, the industry, excited by the new market opportunities but convinced it was another short-lived dance craze, lacked the vision to do more than squeeze it as quickly as possible into a recognisable variety niche. All the more so since amplified rock bands were ill-suited to the French music-hall convention of having all live solo singers accompanied by the same, unamplified, house band (Guibert 2006: 125). In this way, early teen stars were deftly separated from their backing groups and steered towards more standard showbiz careers. In the exemplary case of Hallyday, whose recording career began in March 1960, the makeover was already under way by the end of 1961. Certainly, the process echoed what Elvis Presley himself had undergone; but the distinctiveness of the French case came from the speed and hamfistedness with which the machinery of sanitisation – récupération in French – was set in motion. It is this that persuades Portis that early French rock’n’roll was a top-down marketing strategy rather than the bottom-up youth-cultural phenomenon it had been in the USA.

He is right to an extent. For much of the 1960s, electric guitars were hard to come by; radio was chanson-dominated, with few shows playing Anglo-American records (José Artur's ‘Pop Club’ was a celebrated exception), and few shops stocking them (Sabatier 2007: 77). There is also a case for saying, as we saw in Chapter 1, that it was New Wave cinema and comic strips (bandes dessinées) that were the primary preferences of culturally active French youth at that time (ibid.: 76–8), though the slick mood music featured in Demy's Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, Truffaut's Baisers volés or Lelouch's Un homme et une femme was a far cry from teen pop. Similarly, text song too might be seen as a dominant of youth culture in the 1960s, where better educated young people were concerned.18 Certainly, Brel, Brassens, Ferré, Ferrat and others continued to be commercially successful in the 1960s. And, as I have argued elsewhere (Looseley 2003), negative reactions to rock and pop were mediated though the combined art and folk discourses at work in representations of la chanson française.

From the 1960s, therefore, chanson became more explicitly middlebrow. It was palpably segregated from the ‘illegitimate’ variétés by its literate, audible lyrics in the national tongue and by the decorous melodies and rhythms tailored to underscore them. More explicitly than with Piaf, (p.67) it came to signify emotion tempered by intelligence, the primacy of the head and heart over the body. This ultimately is the symbolic meaning of the now standard construction of Brel, Brassens and Ferré – three very different artists in fact, who rarely met – as an iconic triumvirate, the one and indivisible republic of song (Looseley 2003: Chapter 4).19 And if text song was seen as authentically French by cultural gatekeepers, Anglo-American pop could only be viewed as ‘other’, just as Baker and la Revue nègre had been in the 1920s, albeit without the same directly racialised element. Pop was inauthentic and lowbrow: a foreign, manufactured, barely literate product of American industrial capitalism; it was everything that chanson was not. Nevertheless, the story of pop in France from the 1960s to the present is in fact one of gradual appropriation and transformation into a more rooted, more organically French popular culture.

Appropriation and the reinvention of the lowbrow

The meanings of yéyé

What I have just examined are primarily adult representations of pop at the time. Equally significant is the reception of the music by those for whom it was intended, the baby-boomers reaching maturity in the late 1950s and 1960s. The social perception of teenagers before pop was as adults in the making, going through the biologically unavoidable but temporary phase of puberty. Hence, the powerful attraction for adolescents of an Anglo-American culture where a teenage identity had already taken root. Assisted by this culture, around the end of the Algerian war (1962), French youth began, without entirely realising it, to develop a social construction of its own.

The historical reasons for the development of youth as a socioeconomic and sociocultural category in France are well-known: the baby-boom, three decades of economic growth (les Trente Glorieuses), the rise of a consumer society and the new audiovisual technologies, urbanisation and the establishment of the first suburban housing estates, which had the effect of bringing together hitherto scattered schoolchildren and young workers in an urban crucible. These factors were steadily developing their cultural autonomy; and then, cause and effect of that autonomy, came rock’n’roll.

As the sociologist of youth Pierre Mayol writes of the 1960s (1997: 166), ‘in its simple, unanimist rhythm, rock confirmed the shift from a society founded on kinship, in which the dominant role was the father's, to one based on parity where the central figure was the group of mates’.20 (p.68) At first, Mayol continues (ibid.: 166), rock was represented as a deviant, male, working-class, and therefore particularist phenomenon associated with housing estates and suburban garages. But it was swiftly universalised, and anaesthetised, by record companies, whose commercial imperatives turned it into a more consensual pop music known as le yéyé. This was rock washed, brushed and feminised, both by new female performers like Sheila, Sylvie Vartan and Françoise Hardy, and by more androgynous male performers like Claude François, whose impish looks contrasted with the proletarian build and rougher-hewn physiognomy of Hallyday or Eddie Mitchell.

Yéyé has been consistently disparaged in France over the decades as lowbrow, inauthentic and Americanised. After all, the lived culture of a French teenager in 1960, male or female, had little in common with the founding myths of American rock’n’roll: individually owned cars or motorbikes, pocket money or a temporary job, greater romantic or even sexual freedom. But yéyé, I believe, is more organically important than this might suggest. Certainly, by the mid-1960s, many aficionados of youth music had developed a notion of authenticity founded upon what might be called national purity: a preference either for Anglo-Saxon originals or for chanson française. Nevertheless, yéyé may be interpreted as a first, modest step towards a different conception of authenticity. Songs originally in English were not translated into French so much as linguistically and culturally transposed, often with some skill. And, as the magazine Salut les copains shows,21 young fans often preferred Anglo-American hits in this mediated form. Furthermore, original songs in French in the pop style began to be recorded. As a result, yéyé steadily acquired a more rooted cultural meaning. In an embryonic way, it became a vehicle for appropriation and even métissage. Evidence of this can be found in the successful post-yéyé careers of Michel Polnareff, Jacques Dutronc and Françoise Hardy, for example; but chiefly, perhaps, in the esteem held today for Serge Gainsbourg, who in the mid-1960s began playfully hybridising the aesthetics of chanson and yéyé, as in his Eurovision winner of 1965, performed by France Gall, ‘Poupée de cire, poupée de son’ (Wax Doll, Rag Doll), whose lyric already displays a striking degree of pop self-referentiality.

An element of appropriation is also identified in the famous analysis of yéyé by Edgar Morin (1963) written after la Fête de la Nation of 22 June 1963 organised by Salut les copains, an outdoor pop concert which became the apogée and swan song of yéyé. As in his earlier essay on Hollywood (Les Stars 1972 [1957]), Morin is far from blind to the (p.69) massification and fabrication of the new youth culture, but he is more aware than others of its complexity: that it is at once a fabrication and the organic expression of a profound cultural shift. Yéyé is not simply the industrially imposed music that Portis sees. On the contrary, the alterity of its sounds, gestures and worldview is a vector of the alterity of youth itself in the eyes of adult society. Thus, while recognising in yéyé's ephemeral wildness a cathartic preparation for the docile life of the adult consumer, Morin also detects a version of what Cultural Studies would later call a ‘subculture’, though one less marked by class. For him, yéyé was a subculture insofar as it was composed of ‘the expressive forms and rituals of those subordinate groups’ (Hebdige 1979: 2) whose styles and tastes express values that challenge dominant bourgeois culture. But it was the expression of values specific not to a social class but to an age class (une classe d’âge); and he calls those values copinisation, after the radio programme and magazine (since a copain is a ‘mate’, copinisation might be translated with comparable awkwardness as ‘matification’).

Copains believe in an eternal present and they have learnt to live this belief in a ludic, communitarian mode which, for Morin, carries one loose meaning: ‘“we, the young, aren’t crumblies”, as if their youth had an unalterable, inalienable quality, as if the problem it posed were not the very fact of growing old’ (Morin 1963: 12).22 And the live music and dancing specific to this subculture are homologous with this relentless cleaving to a bodily present: ‘what frightens [the adult world] is the exaltation without content. For there is indeed a gratuitous frenzy triggered by the rhythmic singing, the “yeah yeahs” of the twist … In the rhythm – this chanted, syncopated music, these cries of yeah yeah – there is a form of participation in something elemental, biological’ (Morin 1963).23 And this desire for the physical and elemental, this ‘message of ecstasy without religion, without ideology’ has ‘come to us via a prodigious injection of black energy, of uprooted negritude, into American civilisation’ (Morin 1963: 12).24

While today this equation of the African diaspora with primitivism and rhythm sounds dubious to say the least, in Les Stars Morin briefly highlights the equally central role in French youth subculture of a white icon: James Dean. And I would argue that Dean is a vital link in the appropriation of American mass culture by French youth. The very first baby boomers were not yet ten when Dean was killed in 1955 (Sirinelli 2003: 190). Yet seven years later, Salut les copains published substantial extracts, spread over three issues, from a biography of Dean by Yves Salgues (1957). How can this prolonged interest in a dead movie star be understood? Here too, I believe, it is a question of authenticity.

(p.70) of course, Dean's patina of authenticity can be explained first by the tormented young rebels he played and by his dying young and glamorously in a speeding sports car. Coinciding thus with his screen persona, he took his first step towards becoming an icon of youthful integrity. But for him to become fully mythic for French youth, a series of other mediations were arguably needed. One of these was the French title of Rebel Without A Cause, translated as La Fureur de vivre (roughly, Passion for Living), which conveys a quite different meaning from the original: the desire to live with an intensity that requires the risk of death. A second mediation was Presley, who took up Dean's iconic authenticity but shifted the myth from cinema to music, at the same time associating it with a black-white intercultural hybrid. And a third mediation was Johnny Hallyday who, bearing a physical resemblance to Dean and copying Presley's movements on stage, gallicised this hybrid. And the final mediation was the renewal of the Dean myth by Salut les copains's serialisation of Salgues's book, written in French. With each link in this chain of mediations, the mythification of Dean as authentic because unable to age or compromise, is intensified and, via Hallyday and Salgues, gallicised.

Morin's readings of 1960s youth culture especially alert us to the complexity of its meanings, poised between an adult, pacifying mass culture based on bourgeois individualist pleasure (‘le jouir individualiste bourgeois’, Morin 1963: 12), and an incipient revolt against the contemporary adult world. Although he does not say as much, this revolt may be read as a less slavish, more appropriative subcultural response to mass culture. While he sees the first of these meanings of yéyé as dominant in 1963, he does not exclude the possibility that the second, revolt, might one day seize the time. At one level, the events of May 1968 were the realisation of this possibility.

From 1968 to disco

The fragile balance between subcultural revolt and its ‘recuperation’ in the form of docile consumption was to become a dominant theme of early French writing on popular music in the 1960s and 1970s. Youth music was not explicitly implicated in the May events, because the most radical student protestors, mostly drawn from the oldest baby-boomers, rejected yéyé and its offshoots. As rock journalist Alain Dister comments, the problem such Leftists had with pop was pleasure (Sabatier 2007: 82). Marc Zermati, one of the fashionable urban set known as minets/ minettes, an approximate equivalent of UK mods, describes how he was unable to persuade Cohn-Bendit and others that ‘to get all young people (p.71) working together, the best, most explosive medium [was] rock; but they were into their boring bloody theories’ (quoted in Sabatier 2007: 80).25 In paternalist, Gaullist France, he goes on, the young simply did not know how to build their own culture.

Zermati is only partly right. The long-term meanings of May certainly proved not to lie in the extreme leftism of Cohn-Bendit. But they did lie in the revelation of the collective identity and potential power of youth; and in this regard yéyé had undoubtedly sown seeds. In the five years following 1968, further ground was cleared for the emergence of a French youth culture which was more in tune with the outside world and of which popular music was the agent. Commercial imitations of Anglo-Saxon pop and rock still prevailed but, from the innocuously dissident Antoine, Michel Polnareff and Jacques Dutronc in the mid-1960s – all outgrowths of yéyé – to the soixante-huitard Renaud and the professional controversialist Serge Gainsbourg in the mid-1970s, the creative appropriation of Anglo-American pop did steadily help produce a more organic youth culture in France.

Appropriation, however, was not just the work of musicians. More important was the mediation of Anglo-American pop culture by civil society. One key mediation was the more sophisticated youth press that emerged in the mid-1960s, beginning with the monthly Rock&Folk (1966), followed by Best (1968) and Actuel (1970). Of these, Rock&Folk had the biggest impact, democratising rock in a way that the new Ministry of Cultural Affairs under Malraux, committed to ‘democratisation’, declined to do (Sabatier 2007: 129). As rock steadily grew from pop, Rock&Folk helped make it a force for cultural change in a France where young people were still devouring SLC and the charts were still dominated by Brassens, Hallyday and Mireille Mathieu, not to mention Maurice Chevalier with his version of ‘Yellow Submarine’ (Sabatier 2007: 123). By 1970, both chanson and yéyé were dismissed by Rock&Folk, and popular music was splitting into a new binary: on the one side, the Anglo-American, avant-garde ‘rock’ being promoted by the magazine (Sabatier 2007: 122–5); on the other, a quasi-official culture where juvenile and adult tastes (symbolised in Johnny and Brassens respectively, fast becoming ‘national treasures’ in their own ways) began to be represented together as consensually ‘French’.

As Americanised pop and rock became more established in France, what this culturally more ambitious, less teen-oriented press helped produce was an audience with a more literate, reflexive understanding of the music and a more international palette of tastes, as new global forms and French appropriations of them took off from the 1970s to the present. (p.72) The history of French popular music over the last 40 years thus becomes a narrative of its appropriation, hybridisation and segmentation into an ever more complex mosaic of genres, sub-genres and tastes.26 In what became known in the 1970s as la nouvelle chanson française, for example, text song encountered pop or folk-rock in the work of a new generation of 1970s ACIs who had been brought up with both: Jean-Jacques Goldman, Renaud, Francis Cabrel and others. Another 1970s illustration was punk which, as understood in the UK or the USA, did not produce many direct disciples in France but did generate an independent, DIY record sector which in turn produced further waves of generic subdivision and métissage (cross-fertilisation) in the 1980s and 1990s, ever more remote from punk itself. There was also disco (see pp. 73–4), and home-grown hard rock: le rock français (Téléphone, Bijou, Starshooter, etc). In the 1980s and 1990s came indie rock (le rock alternatif), rap and world music; and in the 2000s, boy bands (les boys bands in French), R’n’B, reality talent shows, and so on.

This process of apparently infinite segmentation makes the development of French popular-musical tastes up to the present impossible to chart any further in a single chapter, other than in the kind of broad sweeps facilitated by the Ministry of Culture's surveys of French cultural practices, the most recent published in 2009 (Donnat 2009). Since the 1970s, the surveys have identified a ‘musical boom’ and 2009 is no exception. All age groups now listen to more music than they did in 1997, measured in terms of daily listening (Donnat 2009: 120). While the under-55s generally prefer ‘le rock’ (no doubt in its broad sense, which comes close to ‘pop’) to ‘classical’, even today's oldest age-groups like rock more than their predecessors of 1997 did. This is because of a ‘generation dynamic’ (Donnat 2009: 121) which the surveys have persistently identified over the decades whereby the musical tastes formed in youth are carried into middle and late-middle age; though one caveat to this is that the taste for songs in English diminishes with age in proportion as the taste for songs in French increases, rising steeply in those over 35.

However, beyond such broad trends, what becomes most evident when the survey asks respondents to name their favourite musical genre without the aid of a pre-established list is the fragmentation of tastes (Donnat 2009: 132). More than sixty genres are cited in 2008, scarcely any of which attract more than 10% of preferences. The exceptions, significantly, are variétés françaises and chansons françaises which when grouped together come top with 33% of respondents citing them as their favourite genres and 62% listening to them most frequently, and across all (p.73) age ranges except the 15–19s (ibid. 132–3). These two French-language categories also have the lowest rejection rate (never listened to/do not like), at 13%. The next category down, variétés internationales, comes out much lower on all counts: only 9% cite it as their favourite genre, 34% as most listened to, with 10% rejecting it altogether: fractionally more than those who preferred it. What this mosaic of tastes demonstrates is, first, the extent of generic confusion today. Variétés internationales, including R’n’B, are spontaneously cited as a category by some, yet ‘rock’ and ‘pop’, ‘métal’ and ‘hard rock’, and ‘rap’ and ‘hip hop’ are each cited as alternative categories by others, without any indication of whether they were ‘international’ or not. Two things are clear, however. One is that chanson as a distinct generic category still has currency against all other genres, including variétés françaises. But the other is that Frenchness, which in fact brings chanson and variétés back together again, has an even higher profile, a point to which I shall return in my concluding remarks.

The music boom since the 1970s has also entailed an increasingly active, participative, even creative relationship with professionally produced products, especially given the new digital technologies which, Donnat indicates (2009: 189–203), have transformed amateur practice by creating new forms of expression, albeit at the expense of more traditional ones. Disco was an early case in point. The club culture of disco in the mid-1970s embodies Bakhtin's ‘carnivalistic life’ discussed in Chapter 1. It is a form often neglected in French music histories, or represented as a short-lived, lowbrow descendant of yéyé, by which la chanson française was threatened but which it survived. The important elements of disco for the history of appropriation are communion and collective participation in the club experience. In Paris, one especially popular venue for carnival culture was Le Palace, significantly a converted theatre and music-hall, where gay and straight cultures mixed and flamboyant dancing and fashion dominated. Here, disco was communal performance par excellence. One of its habitués was Roland Barthes, for whom ‘Le Palace is not just a business but a work: those who conceived it can justifiably consider themselves artists’ (quoted in Sabatier 2007: 225).27 Barthes highlights how dancing to disco music translates the ancient notion of carnival into a hedonistic form of popular creativity, where self-performance turns each individual clubber into a postmodern conceptual artist. Gilles Lipovetsky (1983), writing about Le Palace some years after Barthes, arrives at a similar conclusion, but he also makes clear that the ‘hypertheatricalisation’ which characterises the eccentric dress codes, dance styles and behaviour in the club creates a permanently humorous distance which ‘hijacks’ (détourne) (p.74) or reappropriates the traditional cultural meanings of both the former theatre building and the sophisticated night club (1983: 244). Everything and everyone becomes a polysemic spectacle, where extravagant outward appearance is a means not of being noticed but of self-discovery. The discothèque, we may say, strips the festive of its post-68 leftist ideology and brings it round instead to Morin's bourgeois individualist pleasure: a narcissistic, self-justifying celebration of consumption and pleasure.

Also important was the fact that disco, reversing the standard pattern of Americanisation since the late 1950s, had European origins which Anglo-American youth culture had absorbed. This has in fact led to a further complexification of the overlapping chanson/pop and song/dance binaries. On the one hand, the disco craze led some established yéyé artists – Sheila, Sylvie Vartan, Claude François – to reconfigure themselves as disco stars and produce dance albums in English. On the other, the young chanson artists who emerged at the same time (Renaud, Goldman et al.) were intent on embracing pop while producing well-crafted lyrics in French. Indeed, a campaigning movement began to preserve la chanson française that would eventually lead to the radio quotas of the 1990s.

To complexify the binaries further, the success of 1970s disco would eventually lead to dance music being represented as a distinctive strength of French popular music, just as chanson has been. This discursive formation came to fruition in the late 1990s with techno, disco's progeny, where an even more narcissistic discourse of the hedonistic body than at Le Palace is discernible. This contrasts with rap where, surprisingly perhaps, one finds a more conventional chanson discourse. Such contrasts arguably represent the latest vectors in the chanson/dance binary today.

Rap and techno

Rap and techno (or la house28), two major innovations of the 1980s and 1990s, are both forms in which claims for an essential popular Frenchness have been foregrounded. Hip-hop29 reached France around 1983 and has acquired huge popularity among the young, particularly as the expression of minority-ethnic youths in disadvantaged suburbs. Causing controversy in the cultural and political establishments because of its political or violent content, not to mention its reshaping of the French language, rap music's impact echoed the arrival of rock’n’roll. Yet hip-hop settled in much more quickly and, apparently, naturally. According to Gilroy (2006 [1987]: 58), it ‘exported to Europe the idea that black communities in the inner city, particularly the young, could define themselves politically and philosophically as an oppressed “nation” bound together in the (p.75) framework of the diaspora by language and history’. There was therefore in hip-hop the potential for a new identity politics for young urban immigrants which helps explain both the speed with which it took off in these communities and the official hostility to it.

Yet rap music was soon assimilated into a more conventional chanson discourse and thence into a new cultural establishment. This was partly due to the usual process of ‘recuperation’, as rap artists signed to major labels. But it was assisted by the trajectory of MC Solaar on the one hand and by the state on the other. The importance of Solaar's work for our purposes lies in its polished, ‘literary’ qualities, the intertextual referencing of canonical writers, and its engagement with contemporary society. In this way, Solaar has served as a discursive space where contemporary youth culture can be represented as continuing the tradition of the troubadours and Villon, who, as we saw, were the legitimating historical references for chanson. The political advantages of this parallel did not escape the Minister of Culture, Jack Lang (see Chapter 1). He had worked from the outset to integrate popular music into the sphere of state aid and was quick to adopt hip-hop as his latest cause célèbre. He and his Gaullist successor Jacques Toubon were instrumental in introducing the radio quotas in 1994 which proved particularly helpful to hip-hop, prompting for example the commercial radio station Skyrock to switch to a largely rap playlist. While thus being assimilated commercially, rap was absorbed rhetorically into the national-popular chanson by virtue of its emphasis on lyrics.

Although it would probably be premature to describe rap as a new middlebrow, this rhetorical absorption has certainly helped it ride out the kind of scandal caused by the inflammatory lyrics of acts like NTM in the 1990s and Sniper in the 2000s. But, as Sabatier argues (2007: 510), it has simultaneously weakened rap's status as a subversive subculture for young suburban immigrants. Sabatier is right to signal this transformation, though one is struck by the simplistic purism of the conception of ‘authenticity’ that he implies: with no explanation, he appears to suggest (2007: 512) that a music emerging from a black particularism can only remain authentic if it remains black and particularist. Hence, perhaps, his favourable treatment of techno, which began to challenge rap as the subversive music of youth in the late 1990s.

For the celebrated techno DJ Laurent Garnier, techno was ‘the last musical revolution of the twentieth century’ (quoted in Sabatier 2007: 434).30 Sabatier too, a journalist on the magazine Technikart, sees it as a radical new counterculture which gratifyingly restored the generation (p.76) gap of the 1960s and which he links back through punk to situationism. This is certainly true within techno's own self-fashioned myth, but in reality it is only half the story. Techno saw itself as radical musically, philosophically and socially. Like disco and punk, it was a music that sought to break with the commonplaces of chanson, pop and rock, with the DJ represented as a new kind of postmodern creator: not necessarily a musician but one who, like Marcel Duchamp or Pop Art, appropriated the ready-made, in this case using computer technology. Even more than with disco culture, in the DJ the line between amateur and professional, creator and consumer, the musician and the ‘people’, becomes blurred.

Philosophically, techno was, again like disco, founded on personalised physical pleasure. For Christophe Monier, techno artist and writer, what was at stake was the ambition ‘to reconcile the West with the body’ (‘réconcilier l’Occident avec le corps’; quoted in Sabatier 2007: 428). Socially, techno saw itself as moving beyond the classic socio-economic, gender and ethnic particularisms: ‘Dance music has always been subversive. It's the only music that isn’t ethnic. It advocates the mixing of races, classes, styles, ages, genres and sexes … Liberating the body, liberating spirituality, these are universal causes’ (Monier quoted in Sabatier 2007: 432).31 This universalist narrative is not of course peculiar to techno: the claim has been made for various pop musics as far back as rock’n’roll. But where techno is concerned, it is founded, again without much originality, on dance culture and especially the rave. Here, techno discourse becomes more complex and potentially contradictory since, as I have argued elsewhere (Looseley 2003: 193), there is a shifting dialectic between narcissistic individualism and collective communion. In terms not dissimilar to Morin's, dancing at a rave, especially under the influence of drugs, is depicted as a rediscovery of the body and descent into the self, incarnated in the rave convention of dancing on one's own, without an identifiable partner. Yet, that dancing is also done alongside others and is to that extent social, close to what Maffesoli (1988) means when he argues that contemporary individualism is being replaced by an ‘être-ensemble’, a ‘being-together’. The rave and the music that underpins it in fact imply a new, ephemeral form of popular-cultural community; or, as Shusterman writes: ‘the feeling of a new and ephemeral group identity which can be formed and disappear in the space of one night of music or even a few minutes of dancing’ (quoted in Looseley 2003: 195).

This perhaps accounts for the peculiar discursive uses to which techno has been put since its French version became internationally successful through such performers as Garnier, Daft Punk and Air. Supposedly (p.77) subversive and anarchic, it has actually proved surprisingly adaptable in its more commercial avatars to various forms of national-popular discourse, and particularly to being cast as somehow distinctively ‘French’, all the more so when non-French commentators have suggested that ‘the French’ have proved particularly good at techno. Such external perceptions were of course gleefully internalised via the industry tag ‘la French Touch’. The French state too adopted the term, which soon began appearing in the discourse of the Ministries of Culture and of Foreign Affairs and in the activities of the various French Music Bureaux abroad. The Centre-Right government of Jacques Chirac's presidency had done its best to quash rave culture because of its associations with drugs and civil disorder. But when the Socialists were in power between 1997 and 2002 (still under Chirac's presidency), a new Minister of Culture, Catherine Trautmann, seduced by techno's export record, sounded a more positive note by stressing the artistic creativity of the DJ. The rave was similarly seductive insofar as it could be conscripted as the latest expression of a carnivalesque conception of popular culture, reaffirming a new polyvalent oneness in the twenty-first-century postmodern nation.

The introduction of radio quotas from 1994, designed to protect the French language in contemporary music, brought out another ambivalence in techno discourse. The quotas did techno no favours, since it is mostly instrumental. This produced a debate between free-market economics and national protectionism which revealed a bewildering postmodern politics, as this supposedly revolutionary counterculture turned into the mouthpiece of neo-liberalism lambasting market distortion. What this discursive confusion around techno points to is the process of increasing complexification of the chanson/pop, lyrics/dance binaries. Just as chanson became more self-conscious once threatened by Americanised pop, so techno has defined itself in a binary opposition with other established French popular musics, all lumped together (except disco) as French variétés, while techno has presented itself as admirably self-made, global, neo-liberal and in touch with Anglo-Saxon ways (Sabatier 2007: 431). Techno particularly sets itself up in opposition to chanson by contrasting the latter's modernist auteurism with the postmodern DJ; and at the same time in opposition to rap, as we have just seen. Despite its best efforts, however, including its progression towards abstraction through repetition via looping, and the rave's drug-related anarchy, it could not for long avoid being discursively legitimated by institutionalised culture and turned, like chanson and rap before it, into a French specificity of which the nation could be proud.

(p.78) French popular music in the twenty-first century

Today, la chanson française as expressed in the ACI trope is proving virtually ageless, though much less gender-specific than it was in the 1950s. Despite a spate of deaths in the first decade of the century (Trenet, Bécaud, Ferrat, and others), survivors like Renaud, Cabrel and Goldman form a continuity with younger artists like Bénabar, San-Séverino, Axelle Red or Carla Bruni. There is middle-of-the-road pop (less frequently called variétés these days) in the form of boy bands and a succession of girl singers like Lorie, Alizee, Jenifer and Nolwenn Leroy – thrown up in these last two cases by TF1's reality talent show Star Academy (see also Chapter 5). Rock, or musiques amplifiées as it is now officially known, is alive and well and so too is world music, for which France has a strong international reputation, as it does for rap and techno. There is also, of course, French jazz, equally esteemed internationally though less obviously ‘popular’ these days because of its often avant-garde nature. And there is folk, or les musiques traditionnelles, the latest manifestations of the nineteenth-century movement to preserve France's popular past.

Within all this diversity, Star Academy is of special interest for its relationship with standard chanson discourse. Faced with the threat of techno, chanson in the 2000s has fought back, just as it did in the 1960s with pop and in the 1970s with disco: by stressing its national-popular authenticity. Hence the resurgence of the 1970s label ‘la nouvelle chanson française’ (sometimes known as the ‘new new French chanson). But in this latest fightback, chanson is also set up in opposition to Star Academy. Launched on TF1 in 2001, a talent contest grafted on to a variety show and the keyhole voyeurism of Big Brother, Star Academy is self-consciously ebullient, colourful and unthreatening, featuring attractive, enthusiastic, multi-ethnic and occasionally talented youngsters trying to break into the business. Despite its huge commercial popularity, especially among children and early adolescents, the show has met with opposition from the music and arts worlds. This, I suggest, is because in its very conception it is at the furthest remove from the auteurist, anti-star narrative that depicts the ACI as the best that has been thought and said in chanson, a self-contained, authentic craftsperson and artist who, like poet or painter, produces the art first and thinks about a public afterward. Young Star Academy winners like Jenifer and Nolwenn become living embodiments of cultural commodification, a process so unselfconscious that it is the logic of the whole programme. Rather than writing their own material or singing songs adapted to their persona like Piaf, the fledgling stars are required to perform any song that their trainers (p.79) give them; indeed, their persona is itself, perfectly visibly, the artefact of those trainers.

The format has been greeted with dismay by traditional chanson performers. As Juliette Gréco, herself a singer rather than a songwriter but legitimated by her longevity and associations with the Left Bank of the 1940s, has said of the Star Academy contestants: ‘You don’t become a singer in three months. Barbara, Brel, Ferré or Brassens took years to become what they became’ (Le Monde 2002: 4).32 From a quite different musical tradition, Jean-Louis Aubert, former lead singer with the rock band Téléphone, has similarly commented: ‘It's all about these young people's freedom. Now what kind of freedom have they got to sell or to offer? “Star Academy” only teaches them stereotypes – and the most worn out ones at that’ (Le Monde 2002: 5).33

In such instances, a middlebrow art discourse is again opposed to a lowbrow commercial one. Genuine musical creativity is deemed a matter of auteurist self-expression and painstaking apprenticeship. The alternative is seen as reprehensibly inauthentic.

Conclusion

What is most noticeable here, and throughout the period examined in this chapter, is the absence of the kind of interpretations of popular music associated with anglophone Cultural Studies and popular-music studies. French narratives (even perhaps Bourdieu's, despite himself) are still ultimately Adornian in that they distinguish between an essentialist notion of high artistic creativity and the processes of manufacture and standardisation that the inappropriate industrialisation of music has introduced. Cultural Studies, on the other hand, influenced by de Certeau among others, has for several decades insisted that alternative forms of interactivity and creativity are at work in the reception of mass-cultural products. Also remarkable is how complex the binary between chanson and pop/dance has become. Not only has it ceased to be watertight (Hallyday's and Aubert's cross-benching from rock to chanson are cases in point), but it has also broken down into multiple sub-binaries. Chanson française today defines itself in opposition to both techno and pop; and techno in opposition to chanson, rap, pop and rock. Rap was originally constructed in opposition to the standard white, melodic chanson form but has been absorbed into it. The French music scene, then, is eloquent testimony both to the interdependence of Frith's three discourses and to the reflexivity and relativism of culture in the postmodern world.

(p.80) Yet, despite this blurring of boundaries, binary thinking remains alive and well: for example in an article in Le Monde from 2003 (quoted in Sabatier 2007: 566):

On the one hand, Star Academy. On the other, Carla Bruni or Vincent Delerm: in 2002, the French popular music scene is split in two. [Faced with the highly commercialised Star Academy] a spontaneous reaction has come about in the form of music that's non-formulaic, that's acoustic, almost stripped down, and performed by young singer-songwriters.34

Here, the familiar system of aesthetic evaluation is still at work. Although in practice chanson comfortably absorbed pop, rock and rap long ago, in updated garb the same discourse of opposition between chanson and Americanised pop that arose in the 1960s prevails today. A more nuanced but still recognisable version of it appears in Stéphane Davet's attempt to define chanson against English-language song. As we saw early on, he makes the standard allusion to the primacy of the poetic lyric and the tradition of Villon. But he does admit of a second chanson tradition, that of ‘la grande variété française’, citing Johnny Hallyday and Patricia Kaas (Davet 2009: 2). He concludes, then, that chanson française ‘resists all new fashions and styles in music: folk musics, electronic musics and others, which it in fact borrows from and is regenerated by’ (Davet 2009: 2).35 On this view, it would seem, the national chanson is admirably protean: bighearted enough to admit Johnny or Kaas, successfully adapting to new styles from jazz to rock to rap, it has a remarkable ability to shapeshift while remaining fundamentally unaltered.

Yet such binary thinking is not restricted to chanson, as we have glimpsed. A different but possibly more austere dialectic is at work in Sabatier's notion of authenticity. The music that in his view stands out in epic resistance to both Star Academy and (for him) the barely distinguishable nouvelle chanson française includes techno, contemporary R’n’B, and indeed any music that embodies what he sees as the Platonic ideal of youth music, namely the countercultural, non-commercial values that he purports to trace back to early rock, punk and situationism. He never explains why youth music should be ethically summoned never to evolve away from this starting position into something different, more mainstream. But that it should not is clear from his decidedly retro grumpiness about the new technologies of MySpace, iPod, and ringtones (2007: 639–41), sales of which, he laments, now outstrip sales of singles: ‘technology erases barriers. It encourages critical regression’ (ibid.: 641). Most striking, then, about Sabatier 's historical sense of pop is the difficulty he (p.81) experiences with the notion of aesthetic and cultural change, since the organic evolution of a musical form and its commercial success appear to be synonymous with compromise and inauthenticity.

Perhaps part of the explanation is that, although Sabatier likes to imagine himself fully in touch with anglophone tastes, his Adornism about industrialised music is, we have seen, characteristic of a dominant French discourse, in sharp contrast with Cultural Studies. It also contrasts with the less Cultural-Studies-oriented work of Simon Frith who argues against the idea that industrialisation is some form of alien incursion that has denatured popular authenticity. As Frith writes (2006 [1988]: 231), ‘the industrialization of music cannot be understood as something which happens to music, since it describes a process in which music itself is made – a process, that is, which fuses (and confuses) capital, technical and musical arguments’. In a not dissimilar way, I have also argued throughout this chapter that French chanson is not a distinct genre in some absolute aesthetic sense, remote from the manufactured inauthenticity of anglicised French pop. Rather, its distinctiveness and ‘authenticity’, what it has come to see itself and be seen as, have been dynamically self-fashioned in a process of growing consciousness of its national mission. Chanson is not a musical genre so much as an ideological narrative.

Probably no firmer conclusions than this can be drawn at present about a phenomenon so organic, metamorphic and contemporary as popular music. But in the light of this discursive history, what we might conceivably be seeing is a process of as yet subterranean, tectonic shifts in the highbrow-lowbrow, legitimate-illegitimate binary that Bourdieu identified almost fifty years ago. That binary is still visible, in the ever-changing series of legitimations of new aspirational forms like rap, or in the endlessly renewed disapproval of more shamelessly commercial ventures like Star Academy. But perhaps its complexification, initiated by the slow sedimentation of a self-conscious middlebrow in the form of chanson, is having the effect of undermining it, in the end leaving all popular-musical forms, even the consecrated chanson, floating in a postmodern, evaluative soup of the kind indicated by the 2008 survey of cultural practices. Yet if this is the case, at least one traditional value appears to remain intact, as the survey shows, one which ultimately harks back to the narrative of la chanson française that I have traced: an awareness of and preference for the nationally specific, the linguistically authentic; in short for something we might still reasonably call French popular music.

(p.82) Notes

(1) Earlier versions of parts of this chapter appear in Looseley 2010.

(2) It should also be said that there are already numerous surveys – mostly journalistic but, increasingly, academic – which provide coverage of French popular-musical styles and genres, for different periods and using different selections and emphases: for example Coulomb and Varrod (1987), Fléouter (1988), Hawkins (2000); Looseley (2003: Part 1), Dauncey and Cannon (2003), Tinker (2005), Lebrun (2009).

(3) ‘Le rock français est une blague’.

(4) Lebrun (2009: 5–7) usefully attempts to separate out the meanings of chanson, maintaining that recently the word has become a shorthand for chanson à textes (‘text-based song’: a category I shall return to later), and that this specialised sense has ‘virtually supplanted’ the more commonplace meaning of words set to music. But these senses cannot be so easily separated: rather, they contaminate each other, with the result that chanson is a permanently ambiguous, polyvalent term whose constantly deferred meanings both contain and conceal its value system.

(5) ‘n’est l’apanage d’aucune classe, d’aucun groupe social, d’aucune époque. C’est un art universel’. ‘Ce prestige de la chanson est la chose du monde la mieux partagée par les Français … cet art si fortement enraciné dans l’histoire de notre pays.’

(6) ‘un thème naturellement populaire et fédérateur’.

(7) ‘notre chanson est le reflet du centralisme français et de la fascination qu’exerce Paris’.

(8) By ‘myth’ here, I do not mean that the perceived primacy of lyrics in French chanson is necessarily false – though there are plenty of variétés songs of both past and present to which it does not apply. But I do suggest that it is a sociocultural construction, as the chapter will argue.

(9) ‘Depuis quelques années, il passe ainsi des danses de Saint-Guy de bêtise sur la France. Évidemment le niveau de l’esprit national baisse et le peuple français, naturellement excessif, est prêt à devenir le plus imbécile et le plus gâteux des peuples.’

(10) France had five million radio sets by 1939, though still only 5 per cent of homes owned a gramophone: Rioux and Sirinelli 2002: 233–4.

(11) For fuller analysis of Hennion's sociology of listening, see Looseley (2007a).

(12) In Chapter 3, Holmes argues that some romantic fiction proved more complex or even subversive than this might suggest.

(13) See Chapter 4, where Platten points out the important distinction between pop and film stardom resulting from the bodily presence of the live singing star.

(14) I shall continue to use the abbreviation ‘ACI’, to indicate this specifically French discursive configuration of the singer who performs his or her own compositions.

(p.83) (15) For example, Cordier (2008), Hawkins (2000) and Looseley (2003).

(16) ‘car vous êtes auteur-compositeur’.

(17) Like chanson, variété(s) (singular or plural) has no direct equivalent in English other than the misleadingly similar ‘variety’. It originates in French music hall where, as we saw, a variety of different acts appeared on the bill, not simply singers. But in the post-war period, the term acquired a specifically musical sense in opposition to chanson (see Looseley 2003: Chapter 4), signifying, as Lebrun (2009: 8) neatly puts it, chanson's ‘debased, unsophisticated, newer and mediatized avatar’. See this page of Lebrun for more.

(18) Bourdieu's remarks (1984: 14–18 and 60–1) on the socio-educational stratification of chanson tastes are worth reading here. See my brief analysis of them in Looseley 2003: 91–3.

(19) The complex meanings of this triumvirate have been illuminatingly explored at much greater length in a recent thesis: see Cordier (2008).

(20) ‘Par son rythme simple et unanimiste, le rock a certifié le passage d’une société de parenté où commande la fonction du père, à une société de parité dont la figure centrale est le groupe de copains.’

(21) Salut les copains was initially a music show for teenagers on the radio station Europe no.1, but it subsequently launched its own magazine, with the same name. See Looseley 2003: 28–9. A rough, twenty-first-century translation of the title might be ‘Hey you guys’.

(22) ‘“Nous, les jeunes, nous ne sommes pas croulants”, comme s’ils détenaient en la jeunesse une qualité inaltérable et inaliénable, comme si son problème n’était pas précisément le vieillissement’.

(23) ‘Ce qui l’effraie [l’adulte], c’est l’exaltation sans contenu. Effectivement, il y a une frénésie à vide, que déclenche le chant rythmé, le “yé-yé” du twist …à travers le rythme, cette musique scandée, syncopée, ces cris de yé-yé, il y a une participation à quelque chose d’élémentaire, de biologique.’

(24) ‘Qui nous est venu par une prodigieuse injonction de sève noire, de négritude déracinée, dans la civilisation américaine’.

(25) ‘Pour fédérer tous les jeunes, le meilleur media, le plus explosif, c’est le rock, mais ils étaient dans leur théories chiantes.’

(26) This was evidenced as early as 1973 in the first Ministry of Culture survey of cultural trends, Les Pratiques culturelles des Français and it has become ever more evident in the subsequent editions of 1982, 1990, 1997 and 2009.

(27) ‘Le Palace n’est pas une simple entreprise, mais une œuvre: ceux qui l’ont conçu peuvent se sentir à bon droit des artistes.’

(28) As is often the case with French taxonomies of popular music, the use of ‘la techno’ may puzzle the Anglophone reader since, rather than referring to a fairly short-lived style of electronic dance music from the early 1990s, it is commonly employed to denote electronic dance music in general.

(29) Although the labels ‘rap’ and ‘hip-hop’ are sometimes used interchangeably in French, generally ‘le hip-hop’ denotes the interdisciplinary ensemble of rap music, related dance styles and graffiti art.

(p.84) (30) ‘La dernière révolution musicale du XXe siecle.’

(31) ‘La dance music a toujours été subversive. C’est la seule musique qui ne soit pas ethnique. Elle prône le mélange des races, des classes, des styles, des âges, des genres, des sexes … Libérer le corps, libérer la spiritualité, ce sont des causes universelles.’

(32) ‘On ne devient pas chanteur en trois mois. Barbara, Brel, Ferré ou Brassens ont mis des années à devenir ce qu’ils sont.’

(33) ‘C’est la liberté de ces jeunes qui est en cause. Or quelle liberté ont-ils à vendre ou à offrir? “Star Academy” ne leur enseigne que des stéréotypes qui, de plus, sont totalement éculés.’

(34) ‘D’un côté, Star Academy. De l’autre, Carla Bruni ou Vincent Delerm: la variété française dessine en 2002 un paysage dichotomique. Une réaction spontanée s’est organisée du côté de la musique non formatée, acoustique, presque dépouillée, interprétée par des jeunes auteurs-compositeurs intimistes.’

(35) ‘[La chanson française] résiste à toutes les modes et courants musicaux nouveaux: les folks, musiques électroniques et autres, auxquels elle emprunte, d’ailleurs, et qui la régénèrent.’

Notes:

(1) Earlier versions of parts of this chapter appear in Looseley 2010.

(2) It should also be said that there are already numerous surveys – mostly journalistic but, increasingly, academic – which provide coverage of French popular-musical styles and genres, for different periods and using different selections and emphases: for example Coulomb and Varrod (1987), Fléouter (1988), Hawkins (2000); Looseley (2003: Part 1), Dauncey and Cannon (2003), Tinker (2005), Lebrun (2009).

(3) ‘Le rock français est une blague’.

(4) Lebrun (2009: 5–7) usefully attempts to separate out the meanings of chanson, maintaining that recently the word has become a shorthand for chanson à textes (‘text-based song’: a category I shall return to later), and that this specialised sense has ‘virtually supplanted’ the more commonplace meaning of words set to music. But these senses cannot be so easily separated: rather, they contaminate each other, with the result that chanson is a permanently ambiguous, polyvalent term whose constantly deferred meanings both contain and conceal its value system.

(5) ‘n’est l’apanage d’aucune classe, d’aucun groupe social, d’aucune époque. C’est un art universel’. ‘Ce prestige de la chanson est la chose du monde la mieux partagée par les Français … cet art si fortement enraciné dans l’histoire de notre pays.’

(6) ‘un thème naturellement populaire et fédérateur’.

(7) ‘notre chanson est le reflet du centralisme français et de la fascination qu’exerce Paris’.

(8) By ‘myth’ here, I do not mean that the perceived primacy of lyrics in French chanson is necessarily false – though there are plenty of variétés songs of both past and present to which it does not apply. But I do suggest that it is a sociocultural construction, as the chapter will argue.

(9) ‘Depuis quelques années, il passe ainsi des danses de Saint-Guy de bêtise sur la France. Évidemment le niveau de l’esprit national baisse et le peuple français, naturellement excessif, est prêt à devenir le plus imbécile et le plus gâteux des peuples.’

(10) France had five million radio sets by 1939, though still only 5 per cent of homes owned a gramophone: Rioux and Sirinelli 2002: 233–4.

(11) For fuller analysis of Hennion's sociology of listening, see Looseley (2007a).

(12) In Chapter 3, Holmes argues that some romantic fiction proved more complex or even subversive than this might suggest.

(13) See Chapter 4, where Platten points out the important distinction between pop and film stardom resulting from the bodily presence of the live singing star.

(14) I shall continue to use the abbreviation ‘ACI’, to indicate this specifically French discursive configuration of the singer who performs his or her own compositions.

(p.83) (15) For example, Cordier (2008), Hawkins (2000) and Looseley (2003).

(16) ‘car vous êtes auteur-compositeur’.

(17) Like chanson, variété(s) (singular or plural) has no direct equivalent in English other than the misleadingly similar ‘variety’. It originates in French music hall where, as we saw, a variety of different acts appeared on the bill, not simply singers. But in the post-war period, the term acquired a specifically musical sense in opposition to chanson (see Looseley 2003: Chapter 4), signifying, as Lebrun (2009: 8) neatly puts it, chanson's ‘debased, unsophisticated, newer and mediatized avatar’. See this page of Lebrun for more.

(18) Bourdieu's remarks (1984: 14–18 and 60–1) on the socio-educational stratification of chanson tastes are worth reading here. See my brief analysis of them in Looseley 2003: 91–3.

(19) The complex meanings of this triumvirate have been illuminatingly explored at much greater length in a recent thesis: see Cordier (2008).

(20) ‘Par son rythme simple et unanimiste, le rock a certifié le passage d’une société de parenté où commande la fonction du père, à une société de parité dont la figure centrale est le groupe de copains.’

(21) Salut les copains was initially a music show for teenagers on the radio station Europe no.1, but it subsequently launched its own magazine, with the same name. See Looseley 2003: 28–9. A rough, twenty-first-century translation of the title might be ‘Hey you guys’.

(22) ‘“Nous, les jeunes, nous ne sommes pas croulants”, comme s’ils détenaient en la jeunesse une qualité inaltérable et inaliénable, comme si son problème n’était pas précisément le vieillissement’.

(23) ‘Ce qui l’effraie [l’adulte], c’est l’exaltation sans contenu. Effectivement, il y a une frénésie à vide, que déclenche le chant rythmé, le “yé-yé” du twist …à travers le rythme, cette musique scandée, syncopée, ces cris de yé-yé, il y a une participation à quelque chose d’élémentaire, de biologique.’

(24) ‘Qui nous est venu par une prodigieuse injonction de sève noire, de négritude déracinée, dans la civilisation américaine’.

(25) ‘Pour fédérer tous les jeunes, le meilleur media, le plus explosif, c’est le rock, mais ils étaient dans leur théories chiantes.’

(26) This was evidenced as early as 1973 in the first Ministry of Culture survey of cultural trends, Les Pratiques culturelles des Français and it has become ever more evident in the subsequent editions of 1982, 1990, 1997 and 2009.

(27) ‘Le Palace n’est pas une simple entreprise, mais une œuvre: ceux qui l’ont conçu peuvent se sentir à bon droit des artistes.’

(28) As is often the case with French taxonomies of popular music, the use of ‘la techno’ may puzzle the Anglophone reader since, rather than referring to a fairly short-lived style of electronic dance music from the early 1990s, it is commonly employed to denote electronic dance music in general.

(29) Although the labels ‘rap’ and ‘hip-hop’ are sometimes used interchangeably in French, generally ‘le hip-hop’ denotes the interdisciplinary ensemble of rap music, related dance styles and graffiti art.

(p.84) (30) ‘La dernière révolution musicale du XXe siecle.’

(31) ‘La dance music a toujours été subversive. C’est la seule musique qui ne soit pas ethnique. Elle prône le mélange des races, des classes, des styles, des âges, des genres, des sexes … Libérer le corps, libérer la spiritualité, ce sont des causes universelles.’

(32) ‘On ne devient pas chanteur en trois mois. Barbara, Brel, Ferré ou Brassens ont mis des années à devenir ce qu’ils sont.’

(33) ‘C’est la liberté de ces jeunes qui est en cause. Or quelle liberté ont-ils à vendre ou à offrir? “Star Academy” ne leur enseigne que des stéréotypes qui, de plus, sont totalement éculés.’

(34) ‘D’un côté, Star Academy. De l’autre, Carla Bruni ou Vincent Delerm: la variété française dessine en 2002 un paysage dichotomique. Une réaction spontanée s’est organisée du côté de la musique non formatée, acoustique, presque dépouillée, interprétée par des jeunes auteurs-compositeurs intimistes.’

(35) ‘[La chanson française] résiste à toutes les modes et courants musicaux nouveaux: les folks, musiques électroniques et autres, auxquels elle emprunte, d’ailleurs, et qui la régénèrent.’