posted on January 11, 2010 18:00
Exactly five years ago today, your blogger arrived in France to take up the position of CLUAS Foreign Correspondent (Paris).
In a scene similar to the opening credits of 'The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air', we arrived outside Chateau French Letter, official residence of the CLUAS F.C. (P.), all our hopes and dreams packed into one small case. Our remit: report on the best of French pop, rock and electronica, all the while swanning around Paris thanks to the lavish CLUAS Foreign Correspondent Expense Account.
At first we could get away with submitting a leisurely monthly column, a mere distraction. But then blogging was invented. The CLUAS gaffer, a man with his finger on the technology pulse and a rectal thermometer just to be sure, decided that this new-fangled medium was just the thing for increasing productivity and guaranteeing return on investment. And so French Letter became a fast-acting, high-performance blog.
Your correspondent went along with this idea, figuring that we'd get a few months' worth of posts at best. Almost three years and over 250 posts later, we're still at it.
Alternative music doesn't have as wide an audience in France as in Ireland or the UK. No homegrown indie act would ever break into the mainstream or enjoy broadsheet ubiquity the way Florence And The Machine and The XX did in Britain last year. Hip indie bands from America play smaller venues in Paris than they would in London or Dublin, and mostly to indie-kid ex-pats like your correspondent - last November a double-bill of The Antlers and Cymbals Eat Guitars played to a three-quarters-full venue that each would have filled alone in Ireland. UK acts get greater exposure here because the Paris music press pays close attention to the London scene; the aforementioned Florence and XX will play large halls here very soon. A Libertines concert in Paris in 2003 spawned a whole movement of 'babyrockers' in thrall to London punk n'lager attitude.
Today's French music scene has split along linguistic lines. It's only a slight generalisation to say that alternative, artistically ambitious acts sing in English and mainstream or artistically conservative acts sing self-consciously poetic or socially-aware lyrics in French. To an outsider it seems that French people value lyrics over melody - consequentially a lot of French-language rock music is literally monotonous and tuneless. (Listen to Louise Attaque or Mickey 3D, two popular French bands, and then try to whistle one of their songs.)
Young French bands influenced by melodic UK or US indie-pop (such as the bands featured in this blog) usually write and sing in English. As well as escaping the weight of French lyric-writing's demands for overwrought, politicised verbosity there's also the obvious fact of English having a wider international appeal. In France, English is the language of ambition - and of cultural hipness. The excellent new evening show of popular indie station Le Mouv' is presented by Laura Leishman, a brash Canadian who speaks almost as much English as French on air. (Irish music fans will recognise how female Canadian indie DJs are de rigueur for indie radio stations.) Any day now, your correspondent is going to become extraordinarily hip and sought-after in Paris.
But then, Paris really isn't a musical city any more. Air, Phoenix, Daft Punk and Michel Gondry - the entire vanguard of French alternative pop culture - all come from Versailles. (It's no coincidence that Sofia Coppola, the partner of Phoenix singer Thomas Mars, made an indie-pop biopic of Versailles-based cake promoter Marie Antoinette.) Regional capitals like Bordeaux and Clermont-Ferrand have healthy music scenes that seem to thrive by being far from fashion-conscious Paris. And France's two hippest music festivals, Les Transmusicales and La Route du Rock, take place in the geographically isolated Rennes-Saint Malo area.
In short, there are plenty of great French bands - you just have to look very hard for them and expect them to be singing in English.
Anyway, enough of the sociological analysis - we're supposed to be celebrating! To Paris and France, thanks for five incredible years and the promise of more good times to come. Here's our fellow well-read, rugby-loving Francophile Neil Hannon with his most celebrated song about France: