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The Death of the ‘French Elvis’

December 6th, 2017 · No Comments · France

French music is strange.

France is a large country, with lots and lots of history, including a fair share of celebrated composers of classical music, especially over the past 150 years — Debussy, Ravel, Bizet, Delibes, Offenbach, etc.

But French pop music, at least to the expat’s ear, seems to have ended with Charles Trenet in the post-War years, if not with Edith Piaf, who died in 1963.

When rock and roll appeared on the scene it almost instantly eclipsed the “chanson” stuff of the 1950s and France mostly just waited for foreigners, American and British, in particular, to let them know who was writing and/or recording good music.

That has been the situation for half a century now, with French radio giving lots and lots of air time to imports from the anglophone countries … or to French singers who interpret those songs.

Which is where Johnny Hallyday, the French Elvis, comes in.

Hallyday died early today, a victim of lung cancer at the age of 74, and a nation went into mourning.

Which makes sense on a certain level: Hallyday was considered thoroughly French by the French, even though he was born to a Belgian father with the surname  “Smet”.

Hallyday played thousands of concerts and sold millions of records, almost entirely in French-speaking countries or regions.

To Americans and Britons, his music clearly was derivative. It did not help Hallyday’s outside-France reputation that many of his hits were remakes of English-language hits (like “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Let’s Twist Again”) or that he described his musical awakening, at age 14, after having seen Elvis Presley in a movie.

As time went by, Hallyday also became famous for being famous. His personal life was fraught with love affairs and substance abuse. There was talk of two failed suicide attempts.

He also managed to remain relevant. He was pushing 60 when, in 2000, he performed “Live at the Eiffel Tower” before a crowd of 500,000 and a TV audience of 9.5 million.

Despite being mostly ignored in the wider world, Hallyday was vastly popular with the French public, which saw him as one of their own. He always seemed accessible. He was a regular guy who everyone loved.

His French-language movie career certainly outstripped anything the wooden-before-cameras Elvis managed. There was that.

Some French, who tend to look at things like this through the eyes of philosophers and intellectuals, saw his career as the manifestation of the emergence of the post-war generation untainted by the German occupation and part of a three-decade boom in the French economy. Hallyday spoke to France’s Boomers but managed to reach subsequent generations, as well.

I am no music expert, but I have been struck by the comparative lack of star power among contemporary French pop stars. Stuff popular in England and the U.S. … is popular here, as well, which necessarily would seem to block out younger performers.

France, however, continues to cling to its ancient rockers … Serge Gainsbourg, Jacques Brel, Hallyday and the like, all of whom now are dead.

Someone will replace them, I suppose, but no one with their popularity has yet emerged.

Meanwhile, the French media responded to Hallyday’s death with 30-plus-minute reports at the top of the TV news and, on Saturday something approaching a state funeral will be held for him.

He was a big deal among his countrymen, and maybe that is the greatest legacy any musician can leave.



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