A Short Guide to French Music {day six}

{day six} A Short Guide to French Music


I’ve talked before about my mostly but not quite hate-affair with French music. Let’s be honest, it doesn’t exactly have a great reputation around the world. Music doesn’t come up in the top 5 ‘best things about France’, and that is mostly, in my opinion, because  the French language doesn’t lend itself to simple lyrics, and simplicity pretty much defines most contemporary music. Instead it is all about poetry and emotions, so singing in French about being ‘in da club’ and what not, is just weird. French lyrics can be very intricate but tend to win over musicality, which doesn’t translate well into music that non-French people can understand. You get a lot of musical poetry, which is great if you understand French, but can be pretty uninspiring otherwise.


That’s not to say that all French music is bad, not by a very long shot, but you may not have heard of most of our most famous artists so today, let me introduce you to them by running through the last 60 years of French classics. All of the artists mentioned are famous and many have had enduring appeal in my home country, including some having reached national treasure status.


If you want to listen to any of these guys, you can check out the Spotify public playlist I’ve made for the occasion.


Note: Some of these artists have careers spanning many decades and I have ‘tried’ to categorise them by genre (if very specific) or by their most popular decade. It was a difficult one to judge so if there are mistakes, they are all mine. I have also had to miss a lot of very popular artists because there are just too many and it could quickly become overwhelming.


 Classic French Music of the WWII Years:

  • Edith Piaf
  • Charles Trenet

French Music of the 50s:

  • Charles Aznavour (still going strong today at 91 yrs old!)
  • George Brassens

French Music of the 60s:

  • Jacques Brel
  • Claude François
  • Jean Ferrat
  • Jacques Dutronc
  • France Gall
  • Mireille Mathieu
  • Sylvie Vartan
  • Françoise Hardy

French Music of the 70s:

  • Serge Gainsbourg
  • Véronique Sanson
  • Michel Berger
  • Johnny Hallyday (the Biggest French star ever)
  • Sheila
  • Michel Sardou

French Music of the 80s:

  • Mylène Farmer (if you’re going to youtube her, she’s NSFW, guys, seriously NSFW)
  • Jean-Jacques Goldman
  • Vanessa Paradis (who made a come back in the 00′)
  • Daniel Balavoine
  • Téléphone
  • Francis Cabrel

French Music of the 90s: (I grew up with these guys!)

  • Patrick Bruel
  • Pascal Obispo
  • Zazie
  • MCSolaar
  • Celine Dion (seriously, her French albums are nothing like her English-speaking ones)
  • Noir Désir

French Music of the 00s:

  • Alizée,
  • Calogero
  • Phoenix
  • M83
  • M

French Music of the 10s:

  • Stromae
  • Indila
  • Cats on Trees
International crossover:
  • David Guetta
  • Daft Punk
  • Air
French metal/less mainstream stuff, as recommended by my husband Badgerman (He Who Knows His Stuff):
  • Gojira
  • Alcest

the ‘local flavour’ album: Brittany has been producing some rather unique stuff over the years, Manau was on the radio when I left France 15 years ago popularising ‘celtic rap’.

The ‘I don’t know what I’m talking about but it exists’ French Hip-Hop and Rap:
    •  L’Entourage
    • Georgio
    • Guizmo

The bonus American but sounds totally French: Madeleine Peyroux

31 days button - Frenchify your life # font x400

French music isn’t all bad

Eiffel Tower - Louis Pellissier

Photo by Louis Pellissier via unsplash.com

Disclaimer: The following post addresses some of the problems with French music in very broad terms. It is not meant as an attack on all French music or specific individuals so everybody take a deep breath and calm down before telling me that I don’t know what I’m talking about.

Not all French music is bad, but it sure is awkward. That’s hardly a vote of confidence, but then I don’t exactly rate French music generally, as I’ve openly acknowledged before, on my About Me page no less!

You don’t need me to tell you that French music doesn’t have a good reputation internationally. Apart from a handful of individuals and groups who have crossed the great divide, and Vanessa Paradis, no-one’s heard of most artists who are regarded as musical national treasures within the country. Who outside of France has heard of Francis Cabrel, Michel Berger, Johnny Halliday or M? Stepping into France’s music scene, especially via its TV music channels, is like entering another world altogether. Often, a very scary world indeed…

Within France, people are quick to say that it’s because of the language barrier, but British and American music has no such problem, including in France where people are far from fluent in English. Yet we ingest an awful lot of musical influences from across the Channel and the Atlantic. So why all the awkwardness?

I personally think it is quite simple: you need to know French to be able to appreciate a French song; you don’t need to understand a word of English to enjoy an ‘Anglo-Saxon’ one.

This is why people like Rihanna, Kanye West, Katy Perry and any of the other top 50 artists of the moment are popular despite the fact that their song lyrics are unlikely to ever be compared to Shakespeare. The tunes are catchy and fun to sing along to. They can get away with poor lyrics because their songs make you happy or make you want to dance. I’m not saying all English-speaking music is great by the way, far from it. I don’t particularly rate the three I’ve mentioned above. And there are plenty of decent English-speaking artists who combine a good tune with strong lyrics. Ed Sheeran, Adele and Mumford & Sons come to mind, and there are many others. The fact remains that these and others like them have a broad appeal that French music lacks.

Many French artists aspire to Shakespearean levels of lyricism; they are wordsmiths and their songs are above all about the words and the clever puns (there’s even a name for it: chansons à texte – literally ‘text songs’), so much so that the music often seems like an afterthought. Many of their songs therefore end up being musically quite simple, conservative and not always very appealing (downright boring in some cases); if they are catchy, they tend to do so in a quiet way. And then there’s the rappers. Not my cup of tea, and there are so many of them! Hopefully most of them have moved beyond the tiring refrain of Nique ta mère, nique la police (f**k your mum, f**k the police) of ten years ago…

People may argue that I’ve not lived in the country for 15 years so I don’t know anything about French music anymore. They aren’t wrong! I am definitely out of touch with what’s popular these days, although last time I was there, there was an awful lot of bubblegum pop of the lowest common denominator. For the sake of fairness, I went on Spotify and looked at the French Top List and it was telling. The list was overwhelmingly American, with a small French representation by Black M, Stromae and Jul, all of whom are R&B hybrids and sound a bit like Sean Paul, which is quite frankly horrifying. There’s also one woman, Indila, whose song I’m having a hard time classifying.

You might also say that there are plenty of super talented French artists who get no recognition outside of the country but should. I agree and I reckon it is true inside France as well, maybe even more so, that you have to get out of your way to find the good stuff because the mainstream media will not promote it. But the fact remains that French music is an acquired taste outside its borders and it has nothing to do with other nationalities being biased or not recognising talent and France being misunderstood and under-appreciated. No, it’s because on the whole, French music is not very good.

I’m a big fan of English-speaking pop that I can sing along to whilst making dinner, Swedish metal bands like Katatonia to get gloriously depressed with, the indie scene and bands like Coldplay, especially when they provide instant party games like ‘find as many words starting with ‘para’ as you can to replace Paradise with’ (hours of fun!) but sometimes, I like to revisit my introspective French music. I’ve done some research for this post (!) and tried to find stuff I’ve enjoyed from the last ten years to share with you so you can get an idea of what we’re dealing with. So below are a couple of very different artists that I have enjoyed. There’s a certain melancholy and nostalgia to their songs that never fails to make me feel very French indeed. It’s a weird feeling I can’t quite explain but hopefully you’ll get it. You’ll also I think see why they won’t really translate past the French border, despite that they are quite good songs (I think so anyway). I’ll translate the lyrics below alongside the French version.

The first artist is my personal favourite across the board. Her name is Zazie and she is a lyricist and a wonderful feminist writer. Her songs often feel like poetry put to music, but sometimes I wish she would work a bit more on the musical side of things, because some of her stuff can feel quite bare and basic, or awfully 80s. The first one is called Si J’etais Moi (If I were myself).

Si J'etais Moi lyrics

This next one was a bit harder to translate because its meaning is gender-dependent (thank you French language for being so complicated – and beautiful!). I think it is self-explanatory but to clarify just in case, in the French ‘ceux’ is male and ‘celles’ is female. The song is called Aux Armes Citoyennes. It is a call to arms to women that also echoes back to the revolutionary song and French national anthem La Marseillaise with its chorus of Aux armes citoyens.


Aux armes citoyennes

Then finally, there’s this disenchanted guy Saez who is super depressed about the world and wants you to know all about it.

saez jeune et con lyrics

I hope this gives you a taste of things – and possibly confirms in your mind that you’re never going to get French music! Good thing you don’t have to; for all the complaining the French love being unique at the same time that they wish they were more recognised. To be honest, I often find that the sort of music that French people like is just plain weird so don’t beat yourself up. And if you have a favourite French song, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!



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Top 5 songs I grew up with – or how I horrify the world in one post

Kate at Kate Takes 5 has set us quite a task with her new Listography entry; a particularly difficult one for me because my early days memory is shockingly bad (as in, I remember almost nothing, something about which psychiatrists would probably have a field day) and also because the music I grew up with was mostly French and will therefore mean nothing to any of you, except to horrify and amuse. My parents mostly listened to old French stuff and Christian praise music and did not keep in touch with the ‘modern stuff’ at all. I don’t think we listened to the radio much (but as I said above, I can’t remember anyway) and my dad’s collection of old French classics wasn’t to my taste even in those days. I’ve had to think quite hard to come up with a list, and you will see it really is all late eighties/early nineties stuff that I became aware of through school and becoming a teenager. I AM NOT CLAIMING TO HAVE ANY TASTE. In fact, you will probably be utterly convinced of it long before you reach number five… 1. Patrick Bruel – Casser La Voix (Break My Voice)

This is the one of the first cassette tapes I bought with my pocket money. It was a huge hit in France and all the fans (mostly girls) were known to go a bit mental and scream ‘Patriiiiiick’ at his concerts and presumably break their own voices in the process. Patrick Bruel is still well known in France, is still singing and is a decent actor, as well as apparently being a world class poker player. 2. Indra – Misery
I’m appalled I ever liked this, but I had her CD so it must have meant something to me at the time. In my defense, this was around the time the world gave us Two Unlimited (No no, no no no no, no no no no, no no no no limits!) so it was all the rage. 3. Enigma – Sadeness Part I
I went through a New Agey stage around the time I was 14 when I would light candles in my bedroom and lie on the floor with my eyes closed listening to this stuff. I loved Enigma and Deep Forest and other trance-y stuff. My early to mid-teens were stressful and somehow this music helped to help me escape the tenseness of my family situation. Listening to it again now, I still quite like this tune but it also gives me the creeps, so even if I ever wanted to, there will be no reliving the old days for me! 4. Pascal Obispo – Lucie
I was an instant fan when Pascal Obispo’s album ‘Plus Que Tout Au Monde‘ (more than anything in the world) hit the charts. He is still huge in France, though now he writes musicals (his latest is called Adam & Eve – the Second Chance’, which is hilarious to me – and possibly the worst idea in the world?) and has no hair. 5. Michael Jackson – Black or White
The nineties were full of great Michael Jackson songs and I think Black or White is one of his greatest. At the time I didn’t know any English so I didn’t understand a word of what he was saying but it didn’t matter and that’s the beauty of good music.

Holiday Ongoing…

I’ve been meaning to post something whilst on holiday and have completely failed in the attempt. I’ve been too busy doing nothing. So let’s do it short and sweet with a list, whilst I am still motivated:

A Big Frog Holiday

The Heat! Apparently, the last two weeks of intense weeks are the first France has had since early Spring. I am delighted that we have good weather, although it occasionally a little bit balmy even for me, with highs of 35 degrees (that’s 95 Farenheit, y’all). I left wet washing to hang outside overnight and it was nice and toasty this morning, that’s how hot it is. Here in France, such high temperatures are called ‘la canicule’ (heat wave) and it is cause for some concern in a number of departments following the canicule of 2003, when an estimated (and greatly contested) 20,000 French people died of heat-related conditions, in particular among the elderly, and caused outrage because of the lack of preparation in hospitals and hospices. Now there is a government-led Plan Canicule in place to ensure that priority is given to providing  fresh air and fresh water to the sick, the very young and the elderly in these places.

The Food! People reacted with amusement and concern at my Twitter comment that I’d gone to a French supermarket and wept. Those were happy tears and I kept them inside, but it’s been two years since my last visit and it did necessitate an internal adjustment. We went to a massive supermarket where you could buy all your material for making preserves, a couscoussière (a special dish to make proper couscous, yes sir) and probably your entire wedding list. All those lush lettuces free from packaging, the red tomatoes you can smell from the next aisle, the brioche, the cured meat hanging,the fruit compotes (French people go crazy for fruit compotes and you can go from the basic apple compote to the odd apple and chestnut, with every type of fruit in between), enough choice of dairy to have a different dessert every day for a year, and in the Ethnic Food section, the ultimate in foreign fare: PG Tips.

The Olympics! I will give praise where praise is due, and rant everywhere else, and sadly I feel the Olympics coverage deserves little praise. The French commentators across the two channels who shared the coverage required inside knowledge of every sport to be able to do it justice the way it was organised. In one afternoon, the same people would have to talk over three or four sports, often switching from one to the other  between performances. We were watching a rather tense pole vault competition and would suddenly switch to a sprint race for five minutes before going back, it was terribly distracting (although apparently not as poor as the NBC coverage, or so I hear). On the other hand, the closing ceremony was happily covered from start to finish with minimum comments from the French news team, who were rather complimentary and amusing when they did speak.

French Music! French TV itself is as bad as it ever was, apart from or because of, depending on your mood, the horrifying Generation Top 50 on the W9 channel, which shows you short clips of popular music by year. Yesterday there was 1992 and 2000, today I caught a bit of 1996. That’s when you realize how far removed from the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ world France actually is and the music that marked your growing years is just not the same that marked us Frenchies. I was caught between reminiscing about Jordy, in the charts at four years old singing about how hard it is to be a baby, Ophélie Winter finding her faith and Michael Jackson’s Earth Song (the video of which was apparently not released in the US) which marked my teenage years (and these are the better songs on display), thanking the stars that I missed the craptastic Musicals’ years which gave us Roméo et Juliette (my personal choice for worse song of the year goes to Les Rois du Monde, in the Top 50 Every Single Week of 2001).


A Little Girl Holiday

Little Girl Does Stairs! Little Girl decided to take this holiday opportunity to grow up at a scary pace. She discovered within a day of arriving at my parents that she could do stairs. Ours at home being Victorian and therefore very very steep, she’s not had much luck with them, but here is another story. Basically we can’t leave her anywhere downstairs as all she wants to do is go up, and there is no stair gate.

Little Girl Walks! She’s been gearing up for this but in the last couple of days, she has decided that walking might after all be better than crawling and she is gradually leaving one for the other.

Little Girl Communicates! I wasn’t there to see it, but she dirtied her nappy and went straight to her fresh nappies to pick one up and brought it to my mum to get changed. It’s just like me to miss the fun bits.