Given Britain’s lack of exposure to European popular music, is it surprising that we’ve come to assume that little of it is worth hearing? Moreover, is it not natural that our ignorance should give rise to certain cultural stereotypes? Some associate France, for example, exclusively with the nostalgic chansons of Edith Piaf and Charles Trenet, or with the cheerful, vulgar sound of the piano-accordion.
But today, French popular music is in danger of drowning under a global deluge of British and American music. Another stereotype holds that France now listens only to the blander forms of British and American music, together with its cringe-worthy French derivatives. When the popular French radio station Skyrock is not blasting out Lady Gaga’ soulless whine, it’s playing one of a vast number of glittery but banal home-grown pop tunes, most of which are sung in English. The French Top 40 chart of a few weeks ago, over half of whose entries were either English or American, reflects this trend only too well. The video for that week’s Number One – “Mignon Mignon” (“Cute, Cute”) – has a cartoon beaver babbling incoherent words to the tune of “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands”. Perhaps the French just took inspiration from the “comic” value of the moronic Crazy Frog tune, which stormed the UK charts a few years ago.
Beneath this commercial façade, however, lies an indigenous scene which confirms the musical inventiveness of the French. While some French artists – notably Daft Punk, David Guetta and Justice – have entered the international mainstream (and in the process forged a new course in the global electro scene), most of the country’s talent remains unknown abroad. Yet the sound of “électronique minimale” is currently flourishing in France. Kavinsky (Vincent Belorgay) is an electronic composer whose experimentation ranges from heavy-bass techno and dance to more minimal beats, while Sophie Gonthier, singing under the pseudonym Anything Maria, combines sensual singing with clean, edgy beats, producing music that lies somewhere between the darkly hushed tones of Bat For Lashes and the upbeat flavour of La Roux.
Yet French bands are as keen to seek inspiration in the past as they are to promote progressive electronics. Anoraak, in their album Wherever The Sun Sets, plays with an eighties synth-pop sound; while Jamaica’s latest release No Problem mines the pure electro-rock genre, inviting comparisons with the dance-rock music of another French group, Adam Kesher. Despite releasing many records over the past decade, Syd Matters have yet to achieve a huge breakthrough in their own country, but have gradually built up a reputation for producing brilliantly harmonised, sensitive, folk-tinged melodies; they are perhaps France’s answer to Mumford & Sons. Even more accomplished are the pure vocals and ukuleles of folk duo Cocoon.
The pop music scene in France is, in truth, as varied as ours. I’ve given only a few examples out of a potential many, but they in themselves dispel any notions that the French don’t have a flourishing popular scene of their own. And it’s only a Eurostar away.