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?