Audio Advent 2021 Day 21: The History of La Chanson Française

In this article I will briefly introduce you to la Chanson Française, its history and a few artists to listen to if you fancy discovering some new French music!

La Chanson Française (literally translated as French song, sometimes referred to in English as French Chanson) does not cover a particular genre of music; it’s better described as the music of the people, and it contains songs from numerous genres. The songs tell a story by combining music and poetry, and the language used is much more important than the melody, because it’s the words that express the meaning of the song. Charles Aznavour, often described as a legend of la Chanson Française, said that in la Chanson Française, good lyrics are more important than good music, but in English and American music, the music itself is more important.

La Chanson Française became extremely popular after the First World War, with the general joie de vivre being reflected in the songs, and it evolved a lot over the course of the twentieth century. Artists such as Charles Trenet (1913-2001) and Édith Piaf (1915-1963) began to have their first success in the years following the First World War. Many of Édith Piaf’s songs became classics, such as ‘La vie en rose’, ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’, ‘Hymne à l’amour’ and many others. You have most likely heard at least one of them before, possibly in films.

After the Second World War, many more artists began to become more well known, including Canadian artist Félix Leclerc (1914-1988), French artists Georges Brassens (1921-1981) and Serge Gainsbourg (1928-1991), and Belgian artist Jacques Brel (1929-1978). Towards the end of the 1950s, the genres of rock ’n’ roll and twist music emerged, and they expressed the large desire for independence that the young people at the time had. Johnny Hallyday, Eddy Mitchell and many others made their debuts, and they were strongly influenced by Anglo-Saxon music. In the 1980s, la Nouvelle Chanson (new song; New Chanson) emerged as a more modern form of la Chanson Française, and has continued to develop in the twenty first century. Not all of the artists of la Chanson Française and la Nouvelle Chanson actually sing in French, and on the other side of the Atlantic, there have been artists who were inspired by the anglophone context around them, but who continued to sing in French as a marker of their identity. One example is American artist Zachary Richard, who has been engaged in maintaining and promoting French culture and language in Louisiana, which was a French territory in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Another example known across the world is Céline Dion, who has produced albums in both French and English since the 1990s. Today, she is one of the most popular singers in the worlds of both languages. 

Anglophone and Francophone cultures have evolved together and continue to influence each other. For example, the electronic music known as French Touch is considered to be the French variation of house music. Artists that produce French Touch music are well known across the world, such as Daft Punk and David Guetta, who have collaborated with several famous American artists. 

However, anglophone culture is not the only one to exchange its influences with French music. The long period of colonisation and the waves of immigration that followed it also made a mark on French music, which appropriated rhythms and instruments that came from elsewhere. This influence is reciprocal, as North African and African artists have been equally inspired by French music. For example, le raï, a genre of Algerian music formed at the start of the twentieth century, contains well known artists such as Rachid Taha, a French singer of Algerian origin who mixes his two cultures and uses song to reach out to young people from an immigrant background.

To sum up, la Chanson Française is not a genre of music in the sense of representing a particular style of music. Its aim is to focus on the transmission of a deeper message through the lyrics of a song, rather than focusing on the melody. La Chanson Française has a very rich history and the importance of the lyrics makes the songs very interesting to listen to. La Nouvelle Chanson is the more modern form but maintains the same values, and continues to develop today. Some notable artists of la Nouvelle Chanson include artists Camille (who sings 'Le Festin' from the film Ratatouille!), François Breut and Benjamin Biolay. I highly recommend listening to songs from artists of la Chanson Française and la Nouvelle Chanson - if you understand French then the message of the lyrics will of course reach you much more easily, but even if you don’t I think you’ll be able to enjoy them!

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