‘If you want to understand a people, just listen to their music’. Plato said that.
But try applying this clever premise to a big city like Paris. What is their music? One of my favourite car-park games is to dial through Paris’ FM band from start to finish. Probing through the airwave frequencies, you can pretend you’re a biologist panning your binoculars across a densely inhabited jungle. ‘Hmm, is this natural or is this a zoo?’ Just being able to identify each station is in itself a musicological quiz. Classical, jazz, electro pips and boinks, apocalyptic gangster rap from the Paris hoods, gay house, Congolese rhumba, chanson française, Hebrew religious songs, arty hip-hop from New York, Zouk from the Antilles, salsa from Havana, crooner slows from the 1980s, accordion cheese, Arabic trad, Algerian raï, French R&B for suburban girlies, weird cinematic soundtracks about geese flying to Moscow. Parisians approach music rather like food: they want to taste every dish that human civilisation has ever invented.
However, if you drive into the country and conduct the same FM radio test, the results are very different. Driving away from Paris the FM band rapidly thins out. Local radios all play the same putrid French pop interrupted only by drivetime American and English pop-rock anthems à la Phil Collins, Cock Robin and Bonnie Tyler. As much as Province folk won’t like to admit it, the only good radio you’ll receive in most of the French countryside is public radio broadcast out of Paris. If Plato’s theory holds firm, my FM car-radio test is proof that Paris and France are two different countries containing two very different peoples.
The fact is, with the exception of classical music composers such as Ravel, Debussy or Fauré, France is not really a major player on the world’s musical map. Some chanson française singers such as Edith Piaf, Jacques Brel, Georges Brassens, Serge Gainsbourg or Léo Ferré are respected amongst cigarette smoking, polo-necked bohemians around the world. But niche exceptions aside, France is far more reputed for other artistic spheres: painting, literature and cinema. If the truth be known, French people, including those who work in the music business, feel something of an inferiority complex when it comes to music. Music is probably the sole medium where France’s proud claim as the world’s exception culturelle cannot really apply. France’s annual music awards, La Victoire de la Musique, are rather pathetic compared to the Cannes Film Festival or the César film awards.
The French music industry, based almost entirely in Paris, does not possess the arrogance and influential export market that the pop music scene in London is renowned for. Paris’ relatively small community of radio producers, record labels, music journalists and concert promoters simply import interesting stuff from abroad and expect to eke out a living from spreading their precious little finds around their respective niche networks. And because of France’s propensity to treat art as culture, there is a lot of analysis, particularly in the realm of world music, the one genre where France probably is the world’s leading market. Despite their chin-stroking, however, Parisians do have a very interesting scene. What France doesn’t have in music export, Paris more than makes up for in interesting imports.
Hugh Grant once mused: ‘If I make a film that does well in America, I know I’ll be rich. If I make a film that does well in France, and in particular Paris, I know I’ve made a good film.’ In Parisian cultural values, there just isn’t the same fascination with financial statistics that there is in the English-speaking music industry. Paris is after all the city that invented the Panthéon, the giant temple where Léon Foucault’s Pendulum swings. Inside this domed necropolis, which commands the skyline of the Latin Quarter, the remains of great artists and thinkers such as Voltaire or Victor Hugo have been ‘transferred’ decades after their death. One of its inhabitants, France’s first Minister of Culture, André Malraux, once said ‘only music can speak about death’, while the poet Charles Baudelaire wrote that music ‘digs into the sky’. This type of enlightened Frenchman views great art as life’s true testament. In a godless, humanist republic, only the lasting intellectual influence of works on civilisation can attain an afterlife.
But that’s not to say that France thinks all music should be a sky-excavating requiem. In fact, the French also love stupid ditties. Caught in a split personality between the brooding of Northern Europe and the simplicity of Mediterranean culture, it’s almost as if the French still don’t know whether music is supposed to be stupid or serious, ironic or first degree. As an Irish runaway, I’ve often felt the Irish musical psyche is influenced by Irish religion. Even if we don’t feel much like Catholics, and even less like Druids, as musicians our nervous tick is to play it epic, preach from pulpits, stand on imaginary cliff edges and sing out to the misty Atlantic eternity. In France, however, I suspect that theatre is the subliminal reference of what they think music should resemble. Sharing the same stage as thespians, impersonators, comedians and pantomime clowns, French musicians shift gears from mega-seriousness to social satire, even into slapstick muzak. In the French language, both drama and humour are represented by the one word: comédie.
This brings us to the great enigma of a number of foreign geniuses that have been adopted by France. A number of respected artists such as Keziah Jones, Ben Harper, Feist and Seu Jorge owe their international success from initial notice in France. But there are better examples. Ireland’s Neil Hannon, aka The Divine Comedy, is a singing poet whose immense talent is recognised in France more than in his own country. In Paris, he is considered as an important artist of his generation. Although originally signed up by an English label, his earliest albums were received most warmly in France. When both Serge Gainsbourg’s daughter Charlotte and his long-time lover Jane Birkin decided to make solo albums, Hannon was one of the masters they both called upon to write songs.
Another artist who I would confidently tip as a rising genius, and who is hardly known anywhere else, is Nevada City folk singer Alela Diane. Despite making homemade demos released on tiny indie labels, Diane has for the last 18 months been given huge daytime airplay on the national radio station, France Inter. This is the greatest of all acknowledgements for any young musician because France Inter is not a music station. It is France’s biggest news, society and culture broadcaster which only plays a very small selection of musical gems. Her radio exposure has now led to national tours and appearances at big festivals around the country.
Another French-found genius is an anglophone Canadian pianist, songwriter and ‘entertainist’ called Gonzales. On the heels of an astounding solo piano album which was rightly compared to Erik Satie, in February 2008 he released a corporate satire called Soft Power which left Parisian audiences scratching their heads. People didn’t really like its mix of Broadway kitsch and Billy Joel schmaltz. Pundits wondered why this multi-talented genius was making us cringe with cheesy songs about offices, nor why he was driving around stage on a mobile gadget and wearing Wall Street braces. Then the economic crash happened. Gonzales’ Soft Power, with its toe-curling anthem ‘Working Together’ – ‘oh oh workin’ together, oh oh dyin’ together’ – will stand as a dissonant postcard from early 2008, the fateful year when the fake niceness of corporate culture turned to crashing breakdown. As Bob Dylan pointed out, when Billie Holiday sang ‘Strange Fruit’ for the first time, nobody in the hall even clapped.
What I find mysterious about the above French-discovered foreign geniuses is that Parisians can pick out exceptional English-language lyricists without even realising it. Parisians usually have better English compared to the rest of France, but not enough to grasp all that’s in a brilliantly written English-language song. When Alela Diane’s hypnotising voice sings, ‘I’d like to look at your teeth lined up in perfect rows, a maze of children’s feet in orchard trees / Where the flatlands stretch inside your mouth, and when you laugh all the star thistles stumble out’ on ‘Dry Grass and Shadows’ from her new album To Be Still, I doubt Parisian audiences can understand such densely embroidered imagery. But they can smell her sincerity; they know that magical tone when trance unleashes a naked river straight from the soul.
Not surprisingly, the tastes and expectations of French audiences have been moulded by the artistic values and achievements of their own legends. The Belgian Jacques Brel, a brilliant songwriter and a compelling, entranced performer, admitted that he gave up music for reasons of ‘honesty’. One night at the peak of his commercial success, while feeling troubled by the damaging effects of public adoration, he walked on stage, turned his back to the audience and went through the motions of a song. He received a rapturous applause because, just as he feared they would, his star-struck audience thought his turned back meant something profound. Brel at this moment knew he could now manipulate crowds and fake his art. He decided to retire and never sang again, moving instead into acting. Honesty seems to have been the central battleground for France’s most influential artists. For me, the genius work and tragic life story of Serge Gainsbourg – from his lyrical brilliance to his excesses and provocations – represent the most interesting artistic testament of honesty vis-à-vis the French psyche.
The Parisian music scene reflects the amazing story of Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922. Ignored, rejected and even censored elsewhere, a small group of open-minded Parisians played midwife to Joyce’s masterpiece, which it must be remembered slowly snowballed from a poor immigrant’s wacky experiment into one of the twentieth century’s most influential books. A little English-language bookshop on the quay facing Notre Dame, called Shakespeare & Company, not even a proper publisher, helped Joyce finish Ulysses and printed the first copies. It was even a nightmare for the printers in Dijon to decipher Joyce’s handwriting and typeset in a foreign language. Half-blind and struggling to proofread the printer’s test sheets while finishing the final chapters, Joyce’s patron was more than patient with the completion and printing of Ulysses. The first edition contained over 2,000 typos, but was printed anyway because Joyce insisted on having a first copy for his fortieth birthday. What is funny also is that amongst the Parisian reading circles who first debated Ulysses, nobody really got what Joyce was on about. How these French intellectuals persevered with such a tricky English-language book speaks volumes about their attitudes. Joyce commented in a letter that nobody got ‘how damn funny’ Ulysses was. Yet without this very Parisian attitude of patience, curiosity and encouragement towards an artist who was trying something different, Ulysses may have been destroyed in a fit of frustration, just as Joyce had burnt his previous novel’s first draft, Stephen Hero, several years earlier while living in Trieste.
The Paris music scene does not have any special secret to teach the world’s musicians, except maybe that the expectations and values of your audience will denote the ambitions and content of your work. If your work ain’t good enough, dump your audience and get a better one! They say that to make a work of art, an artist must trust their audience’s intelligence and subtlety. They must also be helped and encouraged by the people around him. Paris is an ideal place for all these things.
My impression from working in the Paris music scene is that Parisian importers of faraway sounds don’t actually venture far to explore the world’s musical jungles. Nor can they really manufacture success stories. In reality, exiled geniuses who are fed up with their own countries tend to come knocking at Paris’ gates. If they get noticed by the right people, they may get to make an album, get concert bookings or get picked up by the national broadcasters. And while Paris is full of struggling musicians scavenging for the many crumbs that the city’s vast culture industry provides in trickle-down odd-jobs, the big doors to the palaces and temples open only to the few whose destiny is genuinely different.
Published on 1 April 2009
Gareth Murphy is author of Cowboys and Indies – The Epic History of the Record Industry. For his music business articles in the UK press, he won Writer of the Year at the 2017 PPA Independent Publisher Awards. He ghostwrote Siren Song, Sire Records founder Seymour Stein’s official autobiography, and lives in Paris.