Can we learn to love French pop music?

Nemone from BBC 6Music went to meet French Radio London presenter Pascal Grierson.

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.

Start Quote

Stuart Maconie

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”

End Quote Stuart Maconie

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'?"

Best and the worst of French pop

Johnny Hallyday

Artists to avoid:

  • Mireille Mathieu
  • Eddie Mitchell
  • Johnny Hallyday (above)
  • Vanessa Paradis (early material)
  • Alain Chamfort (early material)

Artists to investigate:

  • Bertrand Belin
  • Daft Punk
  • Air
  • BB Brunes
  • Phoenix
  • Alain Chamfort (newer material)
  • Alain Bashung
  • Francoise Hardy
  • Jean-Claude Vannier

Sources: Grierson/Maconie

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'aime…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.

Below is a selection of your comments

Every time I used to be on holiday in France I would always try and buy a random selection of around 10 singles (trying where possible to find illusive tunes heard on the local radio and taking a lucky guess on others). I even invested in one of those adapters to cope with the huge hole in the middle of the record. Some of them turned out to be excellent, some less so as one would expect.

Hugh, London

Its no better nor worse than English language pop music. Boyzone = Alliage; Placebo = Indochine; Bjork = Zazie (at a pinch; they're both 'odd', at least). Myléne Farmer sounds like a cross between The Cure and Madonna with her head in a bucket. And brought Alizee (see below) into the pop world. Jean-Jacques Goldman I always saw as a sort of Paul Weller meets the Beatles in terms of popularity and style. He did write some of Celine Dion's songs though but we can forgive him that .

Ian Oliver, via Facebook

I think the main difference between French and British music is, in general, that French music has much more emphasis on the lyrics whereas British music is more music oriented. This gives the French music an inherent disadvantage in a non-Francophone world, and is why I don't think this radio station will find many non-French speaking British listeners. Good luck to it though, and perhaps it can do ok if it focuses on music without words... If so we can expect to hear more Daft Punk, but perhaps they can sneak in some Grand Corps Malade every now and then.

Al, London

Personally I think that the French do some things well. Rap, for one.

andrewducker, vis Twitter

Actually, I'm a Johnny Hallyday fan - maybe the only English one - used to have a wonderful "greatest hits" wonky cassette in my Renault 25 (my "French Jag".)

Ian William Johnson, via Facebook

French dance music is hugely popular in the UK so clearly the question has already been answered.

Tim Stone, via Facebook

I've been listening to one hell of a lot of French music in the last three years and have drawn far more inspiration for writing music from it than anything else. I have to add Jacques Dutronc and France Gall to your list. They are simply awesome. Then there's the more obvious Serge Gainsbourg and Jacques Brel. Whilst you may dismiss je T'aime as embarrassing, if you listen past the moaning and concentrate on the string arrangement you'll soon realise what an immense piece of work it really was.

Demis CousCous, Winchester

French music hasn't been cool for 30 years?? French music has been amazingly cool for 30 years - the 70s and 80s spawned some amazing tracks. I think the author of this article doesn't really have the necessary credentials or authority on what's cool and what's not. Artists to investigate: Daft Punk? Come on please. Are you kidding me, that is hardly 'new music'. Artists not to investigate Vanessa Paradis's early material? That's her best material. It really irritates me when people who have such a backwardly mainstream education on music, start to make a career out of music journalism.

Andrew Freshman, Bristol

And this is coming from the country that brought the world Oasis? We're still waiting for an apology. Sorry, but pop music by nature is garbage. Perhaps a more relevant article would take a look at the innovative and avant-garde approach that REAL French musicians take when it comes to music.

Greg, USA

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