“Song is not so much a musical genre as an ideological narrative ”, explains David Looseley in his 2012 book, Imagine the popular in contemporary French culture. The song he’s referring to is the French song, a genre of music so closely linked to French culture that it literally translates to “French songs”.
But the name is hardly an exaggeration. The style of the song has its roots in the troubadours and French lyric poets of the 12th and 13th centuries, namely François Villon, in the days when lyrical poems were often put to different popular tunes at will and considered to be their own unique form. folk art. One of the first such transformations came in the 1840s, when post-revolutionary romanticism led to a glorification of rural life and folk traditions, and the government began to strive to collect and anthologize traditional songs. Looseley suggests that musicians at the end of the 19th century “sought to strip a mythical past of popular music”, with songs “characterized by wit, satire and epicureanism”. Children began to learn these folk songs at school, sanitized versions to remove regional dialects in an attempt to “make a popular national taste.”
It’s here that song becomes synonymous with French national identity, and, moreover, of “national memory”, a shared culture that evokes the land, using the language—the The French language, as determined by the government, stripped of any local variety and intended to be sung with a specific accent accepted as “standard”.
Song faces its first great threat with the music halls of the end of the 19th century, which favored dance music, under the impetus of the Anglo-Saxon influence. Black American musicians of the interwar period led a jazz craze in France that advocated movement rather than contemplative listening. Song then returned to the forefront in the 1930s, with Édith Piaf and Charles Trenet at the head of the movement. “The pleasure Piaf engendered in the 1930s was nostalgic and commemorative, as his work reacted to cosmopolitan modernity by largely claiming that it was not there,” Looseley writes. Thus, in the 1930s, song was already nostalgic for the 1840s, while he had been nostalgic for the 1400s. “This Proustian reminiscence of a national past helps to explain Piaf’s pleasure even today.” While American music may still be centered on an individualistic ideal, moving towards the next novelty, French music tends to fold in on itself, not for lack of ingenuity, but for an appreciation of a national identity. community-based on oneself, legacy on innovation.
In the 1950s, the cramped cabarets of Paris favored solo singer-songwriters who could accompany themselves, thus building the idea of the French singer-songwriter, known as ACI (singer-songwriter). Singers like Jacques Brel and Charles Aznavour have embodied this archetype of the singular performer whose songs were self-written instead of being written by the Tin Pan Alley hitmakers of previous decades. He continued on song tradition of songs focused on lyrics and vocals, creating intimacy with the audience both sonically and in terms of content.
In the 1950s and 1960s, as rock ‘n’ roll dominated the US and UK, music industry executives in France rushed to produce their own version of the Elvis Prestley cash cow. , an original Frenchman named Johnny Hallyday. But French rock has always been dismissed as a cheap imitation, and French song artists continued to dominate the airwaves. And in the 1970s, the new french song was born, the product of musicians high on both French classics and American pop and rock.
Even rap was not impervious to the assimilating forces of song, with the work of rappers like MC Solaar in the 1990s quickly entering the ideological canon of the French song because of their focus on lyrics. France’s controversial 1994 radio quotas actually benefited rap by eliminating competition from American pop and freeing up space for local talent.
The latest iteration of the French song, however, is particularly suited to the moment: sad girl pop. While global phenomena like Billie Eilish and Olivia Rodrigo popularized intimate, vocal pop songs with minimal instrumentation, a similar style emerged separately and organically in France. French pop singer Hoshi’s Spotify biography calls her “the new star of French song”, while Yseult’s calls her “the new phenomenon of French song”. Other artists like Aloïse Sauvage, Pomme and Clara Luciani all fall somewhere in the song category, while megastars like Angèle and Zaz mix song with rap, jazz or electronic music to create something original but definitely reference.
We can see when listening to these songs that they are not made in response to current American pop trends… there is a nostalgic side to them, a certain Frenchness that can be difficult to define. (Even their literal Frenchness, being sung in French, should not be taken for granted, given the number of French musicians singing in English in order to meet global demand.) Yet, they are of the moment, moody and minimalist, bringing storytelling and voice to the fore, inviting you so close it almost feels like stepping into a private moment. This is the magic of the French song: it moves slowly, enveloping itself in layers of cultural memory, so that when it reappears it already feels familiar, a safe place to feel at home.