La zique: The changing face of French music

La musique or ‘zique’ as it’s called in slang is celebrated all over France each year on June 21stLa Fête de la Musique. This popular French music festival kicks off the summer on the longest day of the year and inspires me to share a few of my favorite French artists.

No matter how well you know France, I’ll bet you’ve never heard of its most famous rock star: Johnny Hallyday. Johnny, as he’s universally known to tous les français, came to fame in the early days of rock ‘n roll with French versions of songs like the above cover of ‘If Black is Black’. Although he officially hung up his guitar a few years ago, he’s still an icon here.

Unlike its wine, food and fashion, French music doesn’t tend to export well. Which isn’t to say it’s not hugely influential. Jacques Brel, Edith Piaf, Serge Gainsbourg…French* music greats have inspired talents near and far.

The tradition of la chanson française or chanson à parole is lyric-based music or sung poetry. Les paroles – the words – are the dominant feature. Which means you have to speak French to really appreciate it. And being of a nature to enjoy music that is more melodic, I was never much of a fan of the spoken-word style of song.

But understanding the words makes a difference. I’ve come to appreciate the quality of writing that goes into the lyrics of many French singer-songwriters. Like Stromae, a hugely original and talented Franco-Belgian singer who came to fame recently with the song ‘Alors on danse’. This new clip, ‘Papaoutai’ tells the story of a boy in search of his father.

Zaz is the name of a fresh French female singer who shook things up with this song, ‘Je veux’ (I want). Love the kazoo.

Franco-Moroccan singer Hindi Zahra relased an album called ‘Handmade’ a few years ago. Here she is singing the hit song, Beautiful Tango:

It’s a little bleak but I quite like this song, also in English, ICU, by singer-songwriter Lou Doillon. She’s the daughter of singer and activist Jane Birkin, who, by the way, is popular royalty in France for her marriage to the late Serge Gainsbourg and her other daughter, Charlotte Gainsbourg.

The fact is, more and more French artists are recording in English these days. I suppose it only makes sense from a commercial point of view but seems a shame for the chanson française.

I’m also a fan of starlet-harlot Vanessa Paradis. Since her split with Johnny Depp she’s looking and sounding better than ever. She’s rumoured to be in a relationship with French musician (also one of her band) Benjamin Biolay. Here she is with him performing a soothing chanson at this year’s Victoires de la Musique (French Grammys):

I love electronic music and there’s a lot of it in France. One of my favorite groups is Daft Punk. The French duo set the world on fire this year with Get Lucky but have been doing their thing together for several years now (never a word of French!)

I discovered Henri Salvador shortly before his death when he released what became a hit album. The king of the bossa nova still had it going on at 90. Here he is in a live performance of Jardin d’hiver with French-Canadian singer Linda Lemay.

And here’s one in memory of my dear mom. She adored Charles Aznavour, who’s not only the French crooner to have sold the most records worldwide but at 90 is still its doyen:

*Note that when I say French, I mean Francophone. A lot of French music stars are Belgian, including Stromae.

How about you? Who’s your favorite French artist?




  1. Food,Photography & France · June 26, 2014

    Nice post…I love chanson..Trenet, Brel, Gainsbourg et al….but Johnny Hallyday is a bridge too far:)

    • MELewis · June 26, 2014

      I’m with you. Although I don’t mind the perfectly retro Eddy Mitchell!

  2. minerva · June 26, 2014

    I was introduced to Axelle Red and Enzo Enzo and really enjoy their particular styles of music – a bit jazzy and a bit pop!
    Alison x

    • MELewis · June 26, 2014

      I love Enzo Enzo! Your comment reminds me that this post really just skims the surface – there are so many great French singers. Axelle Red is good (another Belgian!) and I also love the throaty tones of Maurane.

  3. davidprosser · June 26, 2014

    Thanks for the music Mel. I always liked Johnny Hallyday, Edith Piaf , Maurice chevalier and some Vanessa Paradis but Stromae is excellent as is Zaz. Unfortunately I couldn’t watch Hindi Zahra as the video is not released to the UK. Loe Dillon was very unusual and I’m sure I’ll like it if I hear more.
    Maybe I’d need to be a fan of the Bossa Nova to apppreciate Henri Salvador more, or perhaps if he’d been younger and performing better.
    A very entertaining start to my day.
    xxx Huge Hugs xxx

    • MELewis · June 26, 2014

      If you get a chance to listen to the Henri Salvador album, it’s much better than the live performance. Glad to find so many ‘melomane’ (music lovers) on this blog! Big bises!

  4. BigLizzy · June 26, 2014

    Hi, My sweet Frenchy, Mel! This is not only a very fun post, it’s making me hanker for some more music. I want to whip out all of my CDs now. I love chanson and honestly, am totally smitten with Carla Bruni right now. Her breathy, reedy vocals are delicious. Thanks for the post and the reminder. It’s been too long since I’ve enjoyed my French music. 🙂

    • MELewis · June 26, 2014

      Hey Lizzy! Great to hear from you and so glad you enjoyed the post! I also really like Carla Bruni which is quite a departure from my usual tastes. I find her chansons so relaxing and zen, which is mostly what I need these days. But there are some great American vocalists who can rival the best French chanteuses – we saw Melody Gardot in concert last year and she was fabulous. Also Madeleine Peyroux who I believe is American despite the name. Gros bisous!

  5. cheergerm · June 27, 2014

    Interesting to find out a bit more about French music, always loved Edith Piaf and love, love Daft Punk. New album is fab. I really enjoy traditional French instrumental music featuring the piano accordion…yup, I really do. (My great grandfather was highly proficient on the piano accordion…but he didn’t play French tunes.) 🙂

    • MELewis · June 28, 2014

      Hey, glad you enjoyed! It’s really funny that piano accordion music is so strongly associated with France and yet very rarely heard here! I also love the instrument as it’s so simple yet rich sounding and evocative…wish it would make a comeback!

  6. longviewhill · June 27, 2014

    I hadn’t heard of any of these before, (and sadly, not all of your videos would play, as they weren’t made available for viewing here) however, I really enjoyed ‘Je veux’ and ‘Papaoutai’. Thanks for sharing!

    • MELewis · June 28, 2014

      How frustrating about the links. If there is one thing I could change in the modern world of televised and social media, it would be to introduce a universal copyright law that would make all content available to everyone! It often happens to me that US content is not available right away, so I know the feeling. Glad you liked the newbies!

  7. Hey! Thanks for this great post. I’ve been at a loss for what French music to listen to as a hardly fluent French speaker. I still can’t distinguish what is cheesy and what isn’t until my oldest comes home from London and says, “Maman WHAT are you listening to?!” Then I know I’ve hit the cheesy factor. Merci bien.

    • MELewis · June 30, 2014

      We owe it to our kids to listen to corny music and embarrass them from time to time, n’est-ce pas?. But I’m grateful to mine for having introduced me to lots of new sounds as they grew up. Glad you enjoyed the post!

  8. Ikram Taouanza · July 2, 2014

    So much to discover for me! I want to improve my French, so listening to this French singers (who sing SLOW) is very helpful.
    Cheb Khaled also sings in French (C’est la vie), but he mixes a lot with Arabic. I love that combination, though 🙂

    • MELewis · July 2, 2014

      Yes, I like Khaled too! Also Yael Naim, who mixes French with Hebrew. Funny how those languages seem to blend so nicely with French. Glad you enjoyed!

  9. zipfslaw1 · April 27, 2016

    There’s a whole world of wonderful francophone singers in Canada–Les soeurs Boulay, Sarah Toussaint-Levelee, Lisa LeBlanc…

    • MELewis · April 27, 2016

      Thanks for reminding me. It feels like we’ve heard less in France of ‘les canadiennes’ of late – need to make the effort to keep up my Canadian culture! 🙂

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