Saturday, 3 October 2015

French music

I have a challenge for anyone reading this. Name ten French pop or rock stars. It's difficult.

For me the name Johnny Hallyday came to mind instantly, followed not long after by Vanessa Paradis and Jean-Jacques Burnel (who might have been born in London and raised in England but he has French parents so he counts).

Then, because of my love of prog rock Jean-Luc Ponty and Patrick Moraz popped into my head. And yes, then I remembered Moraz is Swiss. I also thought of Gong. I've heard them claimed as a Frnech band but they aren't really. I looked a bit further on my CD shelves and found Magma. Magma are definitely French but you are unlikely to know them unless you collect obscure prog.

Then Plastic Bertrand occurred to me - oh, hang on. He's Belgian.

So I started to think a little further back and I added Serge Gainsbourg, Sacha Distel, Charles Aznavour and Edith Piaf. I'm sure if I put some time in to research there would be more but that shouldn't be needed.

It's something that has always puzzled me. The French are a wonderful people with a fantastic culture - even in areas you might not instantly associate with France. After all the first Science Fiction author was Jules Verne. So why is such a cultural nation so unknown in terms of pop and rock music?

After all France and England are similar in so many ways and the English can boast dozens/hundreds of top bands and artists to rival America and any other country. Why not France?

Look across one more country on the map - Germany. Germany isn't a name I would associate with popular culture as easily as France. High culture (classical music, ballet, the art world, literature) yes but not popular culture. But just stopping and giving it a moments thought and how many German acts can you name...

Here are the acts that came to mind for me
 - Kraftwerk
 - Rammstein
 - The Scorpions
 - Michael Schenker
 - Nena
 - Tokio Hotel
 - Helloween
 - Tangerine Dream
 - Accept
 - CAN
 - Amon Duul / Amon Duul II
 - Boney M
 - Milli Vanilli
 - Popol Vuh
 - Kreator
 - Einstürzende Neubauten
 - Sodom
 - Nico
 - Alphaville
 - Propaganda

Give me longer and I'm sure I would add more. I certainly spent less time on that than I did trying to think of French artists.

So why is this? Why aren't the British charts filled with French acts?

The easy argument is the language and in one way it is correct. But I don't think quite in the way that might be instantly apparent. Saying the English don't like things in other languages isn't a fully valid argument. Yes we are terrible as a race at other languages. Too many of my countrymen and women expect foreigners to speak English - even when we are in their countries. (To my defence I will say I can get by in French and Italian and have a smattering of Dutch.) And also there is a growing popularity in the UK for European dramas - shows like the Killing, the Bridge, Inspector Montalbano, Gomorrah, Romanzo Criminale and others have become popular.

So there might be something of the Brits not wanting music in "foreign" but I think a strange rule in French broadcasting is also partly responsible. French radio must play a minimum of 40% of songs in the French language. That means there is reduced competition to get airplay which to me can only result in a lack of innovation. Why try to develop if you don't have to? It's far easier just to do the thing you know when you know it's likely to get played anyway.

I find eastern European cars a good analogy here. Anyone my age remembers the golden age of Skoda jokes

 - How do you double the value of a Skoda?
 - Fill up the tank

 - Have you got a new tire for my Skoda?
 - Yeah sure - that sounds a fair swap

Now these jokes are no longer all that appropriate - Skoda cars today are just another car, as good or as bad as most others (and I'm not going into the VW emissions thing). And it is not really Skoda that I am referring to. Just go look up some of the car companies from the Communist Bloc days

The point was that they, and many others, were produced in an environment where they were protected. You had a market that needed cars and those were the ones you could get so you bought them even though they were terrible.

Now French music isn't terrible; or at least, not all of it. Whenever I am in France I listen to the radio and I do hear some good French music but I also hear a lot of rubbish. It's rubbish but it still gets played. And because it gets played even though it's rubbish, the next batch of songs that come out are likely to be just as rubbish.

Now the interesting thing is French Radio stations are rebelling against this ridiculous law. It will be interesting to see how it pans out.

I'm sure there will be many who rally to its defence. Some will say it protects the French identity and language and that removing the law will harm the very idea of what it is to be French. It's one theory just not one I subscribe to. French language and French culture should stand or fall because it deserves to stand or fall; not because some law exalts it beyond a level it actually deserves.

If this law goes and French radio can play whatever they want it will not mean the end of Frenchness. It will mean the end of some of the crappy French stars who have only prospered because they have had this unfair advantage but I believe the true brilliance of this country will ensure they produce acts that will shine on a world stage.

After all the nation that invented Science Fiction, gave the world Molière, Victor Hugo, Albert Camus, Alexandre Dumas, Flaubert, Voltaire, Baudelaire, Marcel Proust, Emile Zola, Claude Debussy, Hector Berlioz, Camille Saint-Saëns, Georges Bizet, Erik Satie, Maurice Ravel, Sophie Marceau, Jean Reno, Jacques Tati, Sarah Bernhardt, Audrey Tautou, Juliette Binoche, Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Paul Gaugin, Matisse, Renoir, Manet, Pissaro, Paul Cézanne, Marcel Duchamp, René Descartes, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and so many others can shine without this, in my opinion stifling, cultural law.

Golly I hope they let me back in after this. I want to go on more French holidays

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