I realized on a visit to the United States that my sister’s Alexa does not understand French. When I requested a few francophone songs, Alexia was completely lost. The best she could do was a sappy répertoire of old cliché tunes based off of American movies. Honestly, my friends never listen to Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose.”
That’s when it dawned on me that most folks stateside might like some music tips.
For simplicity, let’s just stick with pop music typically played on French radio. We can then narrow the selection to a short list of French pop stars based off of one of France’s most popular TV shows: (TF1) “The Voice,” viewed by 6.31 million on average.
Many pop musicians have won, hosted or are guests on the program. The 11th season debuted Saturday 12 February, just before Valentines day, so this is going on now. This short list gives a short biography and song sampling of the current judges of the show. Feel free to swipe the playlist for Valentine’s Day while also getting to know some French pop music:
• Florent Pagny: “Savoir Aimer”
Florent Pagny’s voice covers six octaves (think Freddie Mercury). Pagny started his career busking in the Paris Metro playing guitar. Pagny sings in French, Italian, Spanish and English and is one of the best selling artist in all of France, with more than 10 million albums sold. The featured song above translates into “Know how to love” and is a chanson culte that hit France’s No.1 in 1997. This link takes you to the song where the lyrics are side-by-side in both French and English. On 23 January, Pagny announced that he has a cancerous tumor on his lung. He will be featured on “The Voice” since it was prerecorded, but apologized to his fans that he must cancel his tour.
• Marc Lavoine: “Les Yeux Revolver“
“She has eyes like a revolver, she has a look that kills.” Think “Betty Davis Eyes.” The link demonstrates a blind audition of the song where TF1 contestant, Gustine, sings Marc’s song while playing the harp. (Lavoine is a judge, and watch his eyes glisten.) It gives viewers an insight to the respect and talent that the French program offers while also offering a beautifully performed song to add to your romantic playlist.
• Amel Bent Bachir is a multiple winner of the Francophone Female Artist of the Year. This Arabic R&B singer topped the charts with “Ma Philosophie” sung here by Kendji Girac, a charming and successful Catalan Gitano singer who won the Voice in 2014.
The original by Bent Bachir gives insight to her origins. Although it’s not a love song per se, it is about loving oneself and defending one’s rights. Amel is of Moroccan/Algerian descent. Her song is a gateway to better understand the psyche of French/Arabic culture. Amel herself, was a contestant on a British talent show. Although she did not win the competition, she was later recognized and became a hit in France. Amel could be compared to someone like Adam Lambert who did not win his singing competition, but ended up touring with Queen.
• Vianney Bureau is an award winning songwriter whose albums have gone platinum and diamond. The song “Je m’en vais” (“I am leaving”). Note: the words “mes cliques et mes claques” do not translate. It’s slang for “my stuff.” His song is about giving up on love. He is especially popular with the teen set.
Additionally, Vianny and Renaud Rebillaud wrote lyrics for one of this author’s personal favorites. It is a Kendji Girac songs entitled “Evidemment” (“Obviously”). The video is set in Paris and features Girac with a chic looking French woman who happens to be Ilona Smet, the granddaughter of Johnny Hallyday (birth name Jean-Phillippe Léo Smet). Hallyday was one of the best selling artists in the world with 110 million records sold.
Dubbed the “French Elvis,” and the “biggest rock star you never heard of,” Hallyday is relatively unknown to American audiences. Considered a “national treasure” in France, 900,000 mourners attended his funeral in Paris in 2017 (including French president Emmanuel Macron, who gave the eulogy).
A fast way to learn foreign lyrics:
• Google the title.
• Translate lyrics to your native tongue to get the gist of what the song is about.
• Find the artist on YouTube.
• Turn on the French captions.
• Sing out loud to improve your French. No, really, high school students do it all the time. It’s fun. It helps one overcome being timid and is a relaxing way to learn.
Once you know the words, there’s a deeper connection because you will begin to understand the people and the culture from the lens of their musical icons. It is surprising how much being able to sing one of their favorite songs is appreciated. I once sang “Sous la Vent” (off key) at the top of my lungs with my friends at an outdoor soirée and everyone was amazed that I knew the words.
They were delighted.
About the author:
Alice Verberne is a journalist with more than 25 years of experience writing for magazines and newspapers in both Europe and the United States.
Alice spends her free time painting and sculpting at the Villa Vatelotte, a meeting place for artists and artisans in rural France.
See all of Alice’s posts here.
See her posts about wine here.
See Dispatches’ France archive here.
Alice Verberne is a contributing writer for Dispatches Europe. She has worked in print journalism and magazine production in the United States and Europe throughout her career. She currently resides in one of the Petites Cités de Charactère de France (a small city of character) where she enjoys chatting with visitors and adventuring with locals.