Can we learn to love French pop music?

  • 17 November 2010
  • From the section Magazine

A French language radio station launching in the UK will play mostly Gallic pop. Could this be the right time for Britain to rethink its sniffy attitude to le genre?

It's hard to know what will get you first - the avalanche of imitative Europop, Johnny Hallyday's clunky cover versions or the moans and heavy breathing of Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin.

And that's without the risk of being ambushed by a thousand accordionists who have momentarily abandoned the restaurant-goers of Montmartre. Yes, the launch today of French Radio London, the capital's first Gallic music station, may not be to everyone's taste.

For most of the past 50 years, French music has not been cool, with a reputation stuck between Allo Allo-style theme tune and a desperate desire to ape Anglo Saxon sounds, the latter with cringe-worthy results often delivered in breathless Franglais.

When Johnny Hallyday, the Grand Fromage of French pop, announced his retirement last year, the Times described him as "a bit of a joke outside the French-speaking world" who through songs like Quelque Chose de Tennessee offered "cheesy pastiche of an imaginary America".

If any more evidence were needed, Black Lace's notorious 80s hit Agadoo - judged by critics to be the most loathed song ever made - was written by French duo Michel Delancray and Mya Symille.

And yet, away from France's pop radio, which often appears to have Rihanna and James Morrison on a permanent loop, the last 15 years has seen the emergence of cool Gallic acts like Daft Punk, Air and Phoenix.

Indeed Stuart Maconie, presenter of BBC 6 Music's Freak Zone, says that to typecast the music as cheesy ballads and cringe inducing covers has always been unfair.

"Basing your view of French music on Johnny Hallyday is a bit like the French viewing English music in terms of Cliff Richard's Millennium Prayer. We can be incredibly insular as a society. For those in the know French music has long been cool."

But what of the widely held view that the French language just doesn't scan in songs? "I think that's a very anglo-centric view. You might say that about German. But doesn't 'Je ne regrette rien' sound better than 'I have no regrets'?"

So can the new station convince us that French pop is cool? With DJ slots including "Les mid-morning avec Frank McWeeny" and "Drivetime avec Joshua Thorpe" some may already be running for the hills. But Pascal Grierson, the station's chief executive, ask Brits to put their stereotypes to one side.

"The English have a strange relationship with French music. They know and love the traditional chansons by Piaf and Brel. But then there's a huge gap until you get to the modern era when you arrive at Air, Daft Punk, Cassius and Phoenix."

For more than a decade France has imposed quotas of about 40% French language songs on radio. But Grierson is going further.

In a bid to make his station a beacon of tasteful Gallic sounds, 80% of the station's music will be by French artists or in their native tongue. However he admits there are some parts of the French musical canon the station will be steering clear of.

"Johnny Hallyday and Eddie Mitchell are a problem. Covers like Noir C'est Noir were all terribly earnest but sounded like a parody and became ripe for mickey-taking."

Then there was Jane Birkin sighing and moaning her way through Je t'aimeā€¦moi non plus with lover Serge Gainsbourg. Another embarrassment was early Vanessa Paradis.

"Joe Le Taxi did more damage than good to French music. But let's face it she's managed to reinvent herself and is cool these days."

Grierson must hope that like Paradis, his new venture can shed French music's stripy top, beret and whiff of stale garlic.

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