FRENCH pop music, unlike French wine, fashion and film, travels poorly.
There is no need to take an Englishman’s word for it – Benjamin Biolay, the French singer-songwriter, producer and magnet for beautiful women, once offered me a more colourful turn of phrase to make the same point. At least he was trying to do something positive, with his own refinement of la chanson française.
But in classic French style, successive governments have handed homegrown pop a cloak of protectionism, forcing radio stations to play it, whatever listeners think. Now, politicians want a say on which songs are selected after noticing stations were undermining the spirit of the law – at least 40% of their playlists must be in French – by playing the same small clutch of tracks over and over again.
Ostensibly to help new talent breach this airplay monopoly, former culture minister Fleur Pellerin proposed reinforcing the measure – and radio bosses replied by suspending compliance with the existing law in a 24-hour protest. Yet, all the music stations I hear in France – Virgin, NRJ, Nostalgie and RTL2 – have wretchedly unambitious and repetitive playlists, whether French or Anglo-Saxon. How many times can one hear Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall or Queen’s I Want it All without losing the will to live?
But it is inescapably true that British, American and, increasingly Australasian pop pleases more people, even in France, than francophone music.
It is embarrassing that since Edith Piaf, this trend has been bucked largely by such forgettable novelty hits as Belgium’s The Singing Nun and Plastic Bertrand, not to mention Je t’aime ... moi non plus, Serge Gainsbourg’s musical erotica.
I had a teenage crush on Françoise Hardy but she coolly informed me decades later her single Tous les garçons et les filles was 'trite and inconsequential'.
When not the stuff of Biolay’s nightmares, French popular music can offer impressive lyricism. One recent list of 10 most-aired songs included Calogero’s Le Portrait, a poetic story of a young boy’s yearning for his deceased mother.
It is just that French pop does not, well, rock. These are matters of taste. But it does seem that today’s most compelling French pop is sung in English. Artists rightly see more prospect of commercial success that way and some of the results are encouraging. I have not heard a finer pop song in years than the Toulouse duo Cats on Trees’ Sirens Call. Others acclaim Daft Punk or David Guetta.
Perhaps a sensible approach would be neither to stop promoting French music nor to ram it into people’s ears. If it is good enough, it will make its mark in any case. And how many young people in the internet age rely on the radio for their fix of pop and rock? Listeners make their own choices – such as the off button.