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Chanson française: 5 things to know about classic French music

The Local France
The Local France - [email protected]
Chanson française: 5 things to know about classic French music
French chanson greats Edith Piaf and Charles Aznavour (right) pictured in 1950 in Paris. Photo: AFP

From Edith Piaf to Serge Gainsbourg, you've probably heard 'chanson' music, but you might not be aware of the history and legacy of this oh-so-French artform.

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The word chanson in French simply means song (while the verb chanter is to sing), and can be used to refer to any type of song - but 'La chanson française' is its own very distinct style of music.

Here's what you need to know about it;

1 It's all about the words

If you think of the classic chanson singers like Edith Piaf, probably the first thing you will notice is that you can clearly hear every word that they are singing.

This is probably the biggest thing that defines a chanson - it’s all about the words, while the tune takes second place.

You can hear the team at The Local discussing chanson music on the Talking France podcast - download here or listen on the link below.

 

Chanson singer Charles Aznevour, who had a chart-topping career that stretched right from the 1930s until his death in 2018 - is most commonly credited with the saying that French music prioritises the words over the music, while English-language pop music focuses on the tune over the lyrics.

2 There's no yeah-yeah

Chanson had its heyday in the inter-war period and the 1950s, and by the 60s was facing stiff competition from rock 'n' roll, practised by US and UK singers, and their French imitators like Johnny Hallyday, aka the 'French Elvis'.

Rock 'n' roll was initially referred to in France as 'yé-yé' music - because of its tendency to have a great tune, but lyrics that didn't really mean very much, like 'yeah, yeah' - as in The Beatles' hit She Loves You (yeah, yeah, yeah) - or la la, na na na na etc

3 It began in cabaret

Chanson as we know it began in the famous French cabarets of the Belle Epoque, and songs often focused on social issues.

Stars like Piaf began their careers in cabarets, before becoming recording artists and the artform reached its peak in terms of sales in the inter-war and post-war period with singers like Piaf and Charles Aznavour.

In the 1960s, facing stiff competition from rock 'n' roll and English-language pop acts, chanson reinvented itself as 'La nouvelle chanson'.

The stars of this era - including Serge Gainsbourg, Jacques Brel, Françoise Hardy, Jacques Dutronc and France Gall - sometimes bring in rock and pop influences to their work, but remain true to the chanson tradition of foregrounding the lyrics.

4 Rap fusion

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While today there are still modern recording artists who sing in the traditional chanson style - like France's 2023 Eurovision contestant La Zarra and the 2021 Eurovision entry Barbara Pravi - it's far from being the dominant music style in France.

But the biggest selling musical genre in France is another one that focuses heavily on words and lyrics - rap.

Rap is huge in France, and the country is actually home to the second biggest rap and hip hop market in the world, after the US.

But while rap is of course its own very different genre, there are some Francophone artists who blend some of the chanson styles with rap or hip hop to create songs where the words are very much in the foreground. Just like the original chansons of the cabaret, these often focus on social issues as well.

5 It's a handy language learning tool

It's probably not what those 19th-century cabaret artists had in mind, but chanson is great for French language learners.

The singers clearly enunciate their words, so it's a good way to polish your French pronunciation, as well as pick up some words and phrases. Just don't try to roll your R like Edith Piaf in everyday conversation . . .

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Five to try 

To accompany the Talking France podcast, The Local France has put together a playlist of songs to give you a brief introduction to the world of chanson. It of course includes Edith Piaf, but here are some of the other chanson greats that you might like to know more about.

 

Charles Aznavour - in a career spanning 70 years, Aznavour recorded 1,200 songs (while writing or co-writing 1,000 more for other singers) and is the colossus spanning 20th century pop music in France and beyond. When he died in 2018 he was given a state funeral, where president Emmanuel Macron described him as "one of the most important faces of France".

He's sometimes compared to Frank Sinatra because of his tenor voice and soaring epic songs, which frequently focus on love, loss and heartbreak. 

Jacques Brel - Brel was in fact Belgian, but spent most of his career in France where he produced dozens of best-selling songs. You might have heard his songs without knowing because a lot of singers did English-language covers of his big hits in the 1960s, including Scott Walker, Frank Sinatra, Andy Williams, Dusty Springfield and Nina Simone.

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It's worth checking out the French originals for Brel's humour and wordplay.

One of his most famous is Chanson du Jacky (covered by Scott Walker as Jackie) in which the singer considers what his life would have been like it he had been 'handsome but dumb'. It's up-tempo and quite fun, with some more serious reflections on ageing.

At the other end of the spectrum for intensity, tragedy and yearning is Ne Me Quitte Pas (don't leave me) in which the singer begs his lover not to leave. It’s been covered in English as "If You Go Away", but Brel's original really has the yearning and pain of lost love.

Barbara - like all the greats, Barbara uses a single name (her real name was Monique Serf) and she provides a very traditional form of chanson, with lovely lyrics and sing-along choruses.

Her most famous song L’aigle noir (the black eagle) is often used on soundtracks so is likely to be familiar once you get to the chorus - Un beau jour, une nuit, près d'un lac, endormie (a beautiful day, a night, close to a lake, asleep).

Françoise Hardy - originally finding her inspiration in English-language pop, Hardy went on to become best known for her French songs, including Tous les garçons et les filles, which describes watching those around you fall in love, and Tant de belles choses. She was married to another chanson star - Jacques Dutronc, whose Il est cinq heures, Paris s'éveille (it's 5am, Paris awakes) is widely regarded as the definitive song of the May 1968 protests.

Stromae - another Belgian artist on the list, Stromae (real name Paul Van Haver) is not a classic chanson singer, and in fact began his career as a rapper. However on his most recent album Multitude, there are clear traces of the chanson tradition at work.

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He’s currently France’s biggest selling artist - if you listened to French radio at any point during 2021 or 2022 you will almost certainly have heard Santé, his tribute to the unsung heroes who work in the background.

In La Solassitude, the singer muses with some humour on the problems of loneliness, boredom and the modern dating scene.

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