This is the first time that I’ve interviewed anyone for my blog. But after hearing Victor perform some of his amazing 13-part history of La Chanson Française – written in alexandrines and punctuated by anecdotal musical illustrations – I wanted to know more… You should definitely check out his videos.
M: What was it that motivated you to study la chanson française?
V: To be honest, I’ve never really “studied” the chanson française. You could say that I was interested in some singer/songwriters because I really liked their work, so I started researching out of mere curiosity. Some of them made me want to know more about their paths, their songwriting or composing methods. Most of them were songwriters I’ve listened to since childhood. But “Des yoyo aux yéyés” is a also a project about a wide and passively-integrated popular legacy, transmitted from parents, the media… and supermarkets! This heritage is made up of the good and the bad, and every native French speaker has to deal with it as soon as they begin to hear sounds and understand words.
M: Can you explain your project?
M: Can you explain your project?
V: “Des yoyos aux yéyés” is a very simple project in its content, but rather unusual in its style. It’s a long poem in English (with a bunch of mistakes!), in tight alexandrines; a very subjective story of the chanson française, subdivided in 13 chronological and thematic chapters. It begins with writers like Boris Vian, just after the liberation of Paris, and ends with glimpses of the contemporary scene. What makes my project a sort of hybrid creature is that the poem is punctuated by live renditions of the French tunes I am talking about in the poem. Those songs are treated like simple examples, “sound illustrations” that are meant to endorse my narrative.
M: What does “Des yoyos aux yéyés” mean?
V: The title “Des yoyos aux yéyés” refers to a wonderful tune that Serge Gainsbourg wrote for French TV back in 1963, “Le temps des yoyos”. In this song, Gainsbourg plays with the homophony between the “yoyo” toy and the “yé-yé” movement that emerged in France in the early sixties. The yé-yé (after the English “yeah yeah!”) is a musical style inspired by British and American pop groups. I think that the whole history of postwar popular music is summed up in this 2 minute song : Le temps des yoyos est désaccordé / J’ai mis mon banjo au temps des yéyés / Le temps des yoyos c’était l’andante / C’est l’andantino, le temps des yéyés. The time of yo-yos (the high culture of the past) is gone, and here comes the new age of the yé-yé, the pop culture age, so to speak. And naturally, the orchestration constantly varies between jazz (with classic violin lines) and a hectic rock’n’roll rhythm. I’m listening to this song again while writing those lines, and I still find it entirely perfect in its form and content.
M: What did you hope to achieve through your project?
V: My primary intention was to share the richness of this francophone legacy to the Anglophone Parisian poetry scene. My aim was to be catchy, to be “seriously funny” (I like the serio ludere oxymoron a lot). I have a wide variety of sources: I could mention the American songwriter Jeffrey Lewis, who does micro history lessons in his gigs using his own comic books. He also composed a brief history of punk music in fifteen minutes. It’s somewhere online and, believe me, it is as funny as it is brilliant. More broadly, my aim was to contribute to the history of popular culture, a topic I have also followed throughout my academic life.
I should also mention a book called Tubes : la philosophie dans le juke-box, by the musicologist and philosopher Peter Szendy. It’s a brilliant essay, in which the author meditates on what a musical hit is, studies the life and death of popular “earworms”, and goes in search of their philosophical meaning. In any case, this project is anything but a musical performance! I’m not unhappy with a few covers, but I shamelessly allowed myself imperfections, which – I hope – make the whole thing more entertaining. In this poem, tunes act as quotes. I liked the idea of trying to catch the spirit of a song, and decode its mechanism within a 20 seconds excerpt.
M: What is your favourite chanson française?
V: That’s a scary question! I’ll try to give as few names as possible…
I’ll start by saying that I actually rarely listen to French music, and even less so when it’s contemporary. At the moment, Bertrand Belin is by far my favorite songwriter, and the last chapter of my poem is an undisguised homage to him. Refined and elegant, Belin sculpts the French language and tries keep it from everything from contemporary society that could pollute it. No politics, no “advertising”, no direct references. He can talk about violence while singing about a country road, he can talk about precisely nothing, but above all, he saves a comfortable interpretative space for his auditors. There’s no “message” with him, nor is there an endless variety of messages. He is at the same time literarily complex and pure: he plays with the core aspects of the language. In my opinion, Hypernuit (2010) is the most beautiful and accomplished French record of this early 21th century.
But our postwar “classics” didn’t become “classics” by chance. Let’s remind ourselves of the famous French “triad” Jacques Brel-Georges Brassens-Léo Ferré. Even if I prefer Brassens to the two others for the extraordinary linguistic strategy he elaborated to wage his social and moral struggle, all of them have undeniable qualities. My poem doesn’t hide that I worship Gainsbourg for his intelligence and his marvelous use of French. His life and work shouldn’t be reduced to his three or four radio-friendly songs, or his lame provocative alcoholic TV appearances. Gainsbourg had an impressive musical and literary culture, and an incredible capacity to understand the chanson as a genre, its power and its limitations.
To summarise, the songwriters I like most are those that really analyse and think about what a song actually is, with their own verbal and musical tools, and without any “literary” claim. They stay popular, while at the same time remaining very demanding on the quality of their work. “If song is literature, then it is an oral literature; a separate entity, and truly the property of the people” said Dick Annegarn, whose songwriting is remarkable, even though he is a native Dutch speaker!
M: How was la chanson française different/special compared to other cultures’ music of the time?
V: In my opinion, what makes the specific nature of French songwriting unique is the way it tries to integrate itself, or conversely, to distinguish itself from the huge weight of our literary heritage. It is a fact: for European culture (and for a very long time) Paris has been the place where art needed to be legitimised as an art (in literature, fine arts, etc.). As an artist, you needed to be recognised in Paris, from Joyce to Jacques Brel (who came from Belgium to conquer the francophone world). For the postwar songwriting scene, it was essential to stay in touch with this prestigious past to sing about social progress, sexual revolution, women’s rights, etc. That’s precisely the reason why Brassens is a wonderful songwriter: he mastered all the codes of the high culture of the past, and made use of outdated words to fight against conservative and reactionary people. The other distinctive characteristic of the chanson française is the emergence of the variété as a musical genre. The variété française is a post-modern composite genre that borrows from all kinds of musical styles. It is often terrible, but sometimes wonderfully joyful and light. There are always gems to be found.
M: Is French music slowly becoming Americanized, or is there still a strong sense of French musical identity?
V: Like every other Western “radio music”, the Anglophone modern pop-rock wave hit the chanson française full force when it appeared. At this point, a sociological approach of the music world is required: beyond the fact that everybody starts copying each other, that songs get translated word for word from one country to another (the fifth chapter of my poem), this is a whole economic model that goes global. The way pop music is produced, broadcasted, and consumed, its reception, become standardized. Here, the American model played a major role. Financial issues became more and more important, and (not always!) took precedence over the quality.
But the true musical revolution that came from the other side of the Atlantic has been the global expansion of the radical, powerful Afro-American music in all its diversity. Concerning the role of the songwriter in the society, the American protest-song also had a considerable influence on the French scene, especially around May 68 – it is easy to understand why.
But the wrong track would be to consider national styles as independent entities: records travel a lot from country to country! But again, it’d be absurd to deny the American hegemony in the mass culture industry since the postwar period.
M: What are the clichés about French music, and are they correct/how are they incorrect?
V: American music is supposed to be intuitive, powerful, and simple; opposed to the romantic, poetic, lyric, social and “realist” chanson française. Also, the chanson française is often judged according the codes of high literature. Those are clichés, of course. But, like all clichés, maybe they partly speak the truth. The reality is that this vision of French songwriting is fed by the chanson française itself. France still produces and promotes artists that are supposed to resist a supposed “loss of quality” of the French chanson, whose qualities could be endangered. Take some guy, give him a beret, and make him sing in the French café-slang of the 1950s, or make him point out social problems and sing dead love affairs, and you’ll have success as a producer. I think that authors or producers trying to defend “la belle chanson française traditionnelle” are either corny and old-fashioned… or businessmen. Les révolutionnaires d’hier sont les conservateurs de demain !
If you want to catch the supremely talented Victor in action, you might just get lucky at the weekly Thursday Open Mic, run by Paris Lit Up at Culture Rapide, Belleville, Paris. From 8… till late!