CONTEMPORARY PARISIAN MUSIC
French music goes hand in hand with French beauty, and the 21st century has seen the appearance on the scene of beautiful songstresses like Keren Ann, Coralie Clement and Carla Bruni, gamins who dazzle the ears, eyes, and mind all at once.
Keren Ann is an Israeli-born, French-raised singer songwriter who works frequently with Benjamin Biolay and like former super model Bruni, makes albums that bask in a natural acoustic warmth; no showy studio gloss or pop radio ready treacle. Their voices can drop from a full-on croon down to a sexy whisper or throaty purr; seducing and engaging, every plucked string and sigh fresh, dusky and immediate.
Their ancestors from the 1960s, Francois Hardy and Jane Birkin, should be very proud. The music of the cafes and cabarets of old (known as “la chanson”) gets remade for the modern crowds meanwhile, by introspective troubadours like Vincent Delerm, whose Kensington Square is a memorable hit.
And of course, one must tip the hat to the electronica duo known as Air, who galvanized a whole subgenre of music with their lovely and ever so slightly kitschy “Moon Safari” and have since been a staple on film soundtracks and elsewhere.
THE 1960s - YEH-YEH ERA
The Yeh-Yeh Phase of French music was one that took Paris by storm as the world itself exploded into pop art colors.
Johnny Halliday and his wife, Sylvie Vartan, were the king and queen of the scene, with the clown prince (of cool) being the perennially debauched singer-writer-producer Serge Gainsbourg.
Unlike the United States, where singers were assumed (often wrongly) to have written their songs and crafted their seductive personae on their own, music writer and performance directors were recognized as stars of their own in France, and Gainsbourg is a classic example - writing and producing many more hits than he actually sang.
Juliette Greco was one of his clients, as were Catherine Sauvage, France Gall and Michele Arnaud. Brigitte Bardot and Jane Birkin are probably the names on his roster that non-Francophiles will most remember though, and "Je t’aime . . . moi non plus" is far and away the most internationally recognized of Gainsbourg's songs. It was recorded twice (once with Bardot, once with Birkin) and raised censorship hackles each time.
Meanwhile Francoise Hardy became the definitive Yeh-Yeh girl. With her model looks and placid demeanor, she continued to crank out consistently quality material through the decades to come, in some small part due to her artistic director, Jacques Dutronc, who had some hits of his own.
THE EARLY YEARS
Like American pop music, which has blues and jazz as its roots, France's popular music has its own underlying tradition: the chanson, the distinctly Gallic flavored cabaret song, popularized by the likes of Edith Piaf. Before that came the bawdy and lively music of establishments such as the Folies-Bergère or Gaieté Parisienne, home to the enticing Mistinguett, who took as her much younger lover and protégé, Maurice Chevalier of "Thank Heaven for Little Girls: fame.
That happy sound began to die out after the First World War, though even during the German occupation of the Second World War the Folies-Bergère still soldiered on, with troupers like Charles Trenet even going over to entertain French prisoners in Germany.
After the war, the smoky chanteuse took over, and no one captured that melancholy sadness quite like Edith Piaf. This was a time of heavy brooding and longing, where being French meant everything, and being French is synonymous with being in love.
These were artists who willingly doused themselves in the heartbreak and resilience of their nation. Instead of dancing around with canes and top hats as had their predecessors, the men had their shirtsleeves rolled up, a cigarette and drink in their hand, sitting down at a stool, letting the tortured romantic longing that was their Parisian birthright pour out of them.
The men were Charles Aznavour, Yves Montand, and Jacques Brel. Juliette Greco, Barbara, and Lucienne were some of the women, dressed head to foot in black, dazzling on a stage lit by a single spotlight, enigmatic, mysterious and over the top at the same time.
Reviews by Erich Kuersten
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