Bloomsbury Popular Music - France
Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World
Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World

John Shepherd

John Shepherd is Vice-Provost and Associate Vice-President (Academic) and Chancellor’s Professor of Music and Sociology at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada. He was from 2007-2012 Carleton’s Dean of Graduate and Postdoctoral Affairs. Dr. Shepherd has been a member of EPMOW’s editorial board since 1990. In 2000, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in recognition of his role “as a leading architect of a post-War critical musicology.” Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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, David Horn

David Horn was a founding editor of the journal Popular Music and a founding member of IASPM (The International Association for the Study of Popular Music). He was Director of the Institute of Popular Music at the University of Liverpool from 1988 until his retirement in 2002. Together with the blues scholar Paul Oliver he first proposed the idea of EPMOW in the 1980s, and has worked on the project since that time. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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and Dave Laing

Dave Laing is the author of several books on popular music and a former editor of Music Week. Former Research Fellow at the University of Westminster where he conducted research on the music industry. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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The Continuum International, 2016


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DOI: 10.5040/9781501329197-0002026
Page Range: 168–176

Population: 60,424,213 (2004)

Situated at the western tip of the European continent, north of the Spanish peninsula, France has had a slow development as a country. More than one thousand years ago, it began as the Kingdom of France and included not much more than the present-day city of Paris. Progressively, from the tenth to the eighteenth centuries, through marriage (the way by which Bretagne was added), conquest and warfare, the Kingdom of France grew larger. At the time of the French Revolution in 1789, it included about 70 percent of the country as it is known today. The early nineteenth century was marked by Napoleon’s conquests followed by defeat at Waterloo in 1815. The return of royalty in the 1820s, and of the Empire in the 1850s, slowed the industrial development of France. The Republic was firmly established in France in 1871 and has lasted since that year, with several constitutional changes and a brief interruption between 1941 and 1945. During the second half of the nineteenth century the so-called ‘county of Nice’ and small districts of the French Alps were added to the French territory. During the twentieth century France also became a colonial power with possessions in Africa and the Americas as well as Asia. At the beginning of the third millennium, France shares borders with Belgium and Luxembourg, with Germany (the Rhine River from Basel to Strasbourg, and west of the river), with Switzerland, with Italy (from the Alps to the Mediterranean Sea) and with Spain (the Pyrenees).

From early times until the sixteenth century, the French kingdom was divided into two linguistic areas; each called by the local equivalent of the word ‘yes’: the northern half of the kingdom was the oïl linguistic area and the southern half of the kingdom was the oc linguistic domain. These general linguistic zones gained recognition through professional singers who went from castle to castle during the winter months, singing for the noble families who lived there. These trouvères in the oil area and their southern counterparts, the troubadours in the oc area, gave each linguistic family its claim to fame. Today the oc language is still spoken in France and is also used by several professional popular singers.

Until the sixteenth century, French intellectuals and the elite spoke Latin, the French court spoke French and Latin, and the peasants (all of them indentured at the time) spoke the dialect of the region where they were forced to live. In 1539, King Francis I passed the Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts. It forced the use of French, instead of Latin, in all official documents. This ordinance helped develop the popularity of the French language among the kingdom’s elite. It also led to a significant increase of the use of French in the songs of court musicians and in the works of writers. Parallel to this, but not documented seriously until the nineteenth century, were the folk tunes, dances and songs that accompanied and characterized the everyday life of the peasants.

Folk Music and Popular Music in the Nineteenth Century

The traditional songs of the peasants were often adopted by musicians of the royal court or by other professional musicians (successors of the trouvères and troubadours) who modified what they called ‘primitive’ songs or dances to the ‘refined’ tastes of their audiences. Continuing a tradition that had emerged in the royal court earlier in the eighteenth century, the French Revolution marked the emergence of new songs by the people, who vented their feelings against the court and the king or against the nobility and its privileges. These street songs followed a tradition of street singing by ambulatory sales people who advertised their wares by singing short inventive songs – a pattern similar to British and North American so-called ‘street cries’ as well as broadside sellers. After the Revolutionary years, Parisian newspapers mentioned these popular songs. Sometimes, the lyrics were printed on sheets of paper and sold in the street, just like British or North American broadsides.

The early years of the nineteenth century were marked by the rebirth of the Caveau de France, a publication associated with a group of Parisian popular singers who published their new lyrics (associated with particular tunes) in order to make them available to the largest possible number of amateurs and other popular singers in other cities. Other popular song genres appeared at this time as well, one of which was the romance, a predecessor of the modern love song. And in the first decade of the nineteenth century the goguettes appeared. These were groups of people who gathered together, usually in a bar, and sang and drank. They were declared illegal in 1819 but continued, often informally, in the 1830s. The goguettes produced songs highly critical of the bourgeois taste for romantic tragedies as well as of bourgeois life in general. In these decades, the goguette singers and other popular performers composed parodies and imitations, often humorous, as well as songs dealing with the political happenings of the day. These singers may be seen as the precursors of the chansonniers who, several decades later, focused on humorous satirical criticism of the political situation of the day.

It was not until the second half of the nineteenth century that French folklorists, or ‘antiquarians’ as they sometimes called themselves, made a concerted effort to record and collect ‘peasant’ traditions. They included all aspects of the traditional life of the farmers, the so-called ‘folk’: songs, dances, tunes and other traditions, whether oral, technical or practical, that were part of everyday life in each dialectal area of France. A good number of these early collectors were local priests who understood the dialect of the members of the parishes they served. They were also able to write cogently in standard French, the language that scholars used.

Between 1850 and the early years of the twentieth century, all aspects of the traditional life of every region of France were collected and recorded. The linguistic component changed significantly after 1884 when the government decided that all French children must attend primary school between the ages of five and 12. In order to force parents to send their children to school, and deprive them of excuses for not doing so, the education in the French public system was declared free of charge (it still is, at all levels, from kindergarten to university). From this point onwards children were forbidden to use their local dialect within the confines of the school. This marked the beginning of the decline of French traditional dialects as well as of the culture that had been associated with them. Most collections of songs, tales, music and customs were published in book form and copies were deposited in many public libraries throughout the country. These collections offered – and still offer – a coverage of French folk traditions that is almost complete. They have helped significantly all researchers in French folklore. By 1914, for the first time in French history, all soldiers in the French army spoke the same language and understood each other clearly. Today, it may safely be said that only a few older people, the members of cultural folk groups, a few linguists, as well as political defenders of the traditional life of a given area still speak the traditional regional dialects of France.

The Twentieth Century: Popular Music and Its Development

The early decades of the twentieth century marked the emergence of popular music in France, of both French and foreign origin. The development of French popular music in the twentieth century was influenced first by the popularity of radio. This could be heard throughout the country, even in the most remote of areas. Newspapers were not easily available in the countryside during these early decades, and radio sets were expensive and could not be bought by the so-called popular classes. However, by the 1930s, a fair number of rural families, the richest of them to be sure, owned a radio set and, in the evening, members of the village gathered to listen to broadcasts and discuss the news of the day. Popular songs were also heard on the radio, and these were often imitated by village musicians who played them at local dances. Some of these local musicians could read music while larger numbers of them simply played by ear.

Record production began in France at the start of the twentieth century. Records were bought by the urban bourgeois who had the money to buy the record player as well as the records and who had easy access to record shops. During the years preceding World War II, popular music also spread through the music halls and music clubs, focusing on specific popular musical styles. While early in the century records were expensive and many families perceived a record player as a luxury investment, in the 1950s many more began to buy the equipment, and this number grew significantly in the 1960s with the arrival of the so-called baby-boom generation and the mass availability of recordings of all types.

African-American Popular Music in France

The 1920s were marked by the arrival in France of two African-American musical styles: jazz and popular music. In 1917, when the US Army came to France’s aid, African-American soldiers and musicians came along also. The army marching band under the leadership of James Reese Europe is widely considered to be the most significant factor in the introduction of jazz in France. After the war, in 1925, Josephine Baker created a shockwave when she appeared in the Revue Nègre show wearing very little other than a belt made of bananas. Josephine Baker spent most of her artistic life in France. During World War II, she earned the appreciation of the people and government when she joined the French résistance movement during the German invasion and occupation of the country.

Jazz and Josephine Baker contributed to a new trend in French popular music-making with significant impact from the 1920s and well into the 1930s. African-American musicians and artists contributed to the growth of the bourgeois appreciation of jazz and other African-American musical forms. By the mid-1920s, several French jazz orchestras were recording and performing in Paris. The most popular was Ray Ventura et Ses Collégiens. In 1932, Hugues Panassié created the Hot Club de France. This association of jazz lovers helped establish jazz in France among record collectors as well as musicians. Beginning in 1935, the Hot Club de France published a magazine Jazz Hot announcing new and forthcoming recordings and giving space to enthusiasts wishing to exchange and/or sell records. The Hot Club de France also contributed to the spread of jazz through its own ensemble (usually a quintet, with musicians such as Django Reinhardt on guitar and Stéphane Grappelli on violin). The group invited African-American musicians to tour France in order to present US music.

Jazz was sustained by dedicated amateurs until World War II. After the war a further development took place: sometimes called the ‘acculturative step,’ during these years French jazz musicians began to compose their own tunes and record their own covers of jazz standards. At the same time, the Hot Club de France was shaken when Panassié dismissed bebop. He judged it to be ‘outside the realm of jazz.’ Boris Vian, an intellectual as well as a musician, became the representative of the anti-Panassié trend among jazz collectors.

The fourth step in the history of jazz in France began in the 1960s. The number of fans diminished in France during this decade but, at the same time, jazz became a fixture of the French popular music scene. In the early years of the twenty-first century, there are French jazz artists who enjoy recognition in the United States as well as in Europe, for example Martial Solal and Michel Petrucciani. In 1986, the creation of the French National Jazz Orchestra marked the official recognition of jazz as part of the popular music of France.

Parallel to the reemergence of jazz in France after World War II, other styles of African-American popular music were brought to France in the late 1940s and in the 1950s: the blues, following the North American folk revival, R&B and gospel. Later in the decade and during the early years of the 1960s, the arrival of rock ’n’ roll revolutionized the French popular music scene.

The French Chanson: Origins and Growth

Radio had helped the French chanson and its performers gain a popular following during the 1920s and 1930s. The popularity of French performers during these decades was based essentially on the broadcasting of their songs as well as on their shows in music halls. The number of records they sold was not taken into consideration.

In 1940, the defeat and division of France led to the creation of the Vichy Government – a government collaborating with the Germans – under the command of Marshal Pétain. One significant impact of the German occupation of France was the need to suppress the English titles of jazz recordings broadcast on the radio. Usually a very literal translation of the original title was chosen. ‘St Louis Blues’ thus became ‘La tristesse de Saint Louis.’

Most of the popular singers of the 1930s remained popular during the war, many of them even continuing to perform. Only a few French musicians and popular singers emigrated during these years. Edith Piaf, who had begun by singing on street corners and became popular for her powerful singing style, continued to perform in Paris.

After the war, several French singers lost popularity when resentment about their singing for the Germans surfaced. Such was the case of Maurice Chevalier whose wife was of Jewish origin. His accusers said that he had not exhibited a ‘clear attitude’ during the war years. He had responded to these changing times by adapting to any new trend (very few French singers were jailed after World War II) and escaped serious loss of popularity when he was taken under the wing of Elsa Triolet and Louis Aragon, two French Communist poets of note. Charles Trénet, a French popular singer whose career lasted until his death in the last decade of the century, was already popular in the 1930s when he had performed jazz-influenced songs. His songs of the 1940s were more melancholy and timeless; they could not be linked easily to the atmosphere of pre-war France during the early 1940s.

There was little significant evolution of French popular repertoires during these times and most of the singers who had performed during the war started touring again after it ended. The Liberation of France was not clearly marked by any significant trend in popular music and few new performers gained widespread recognition. The world of French popular entertainment continued to function according to the rules in place before 1940, with only a growth in popularity of US music to show for the intervening years. The only new French performer of note during the 1940s was Yves Montand, a popular singer as well as a movie actor, who kept both careers alive all his life.

The 1950s were, again, marked by a continuation of the musical trends that had emerged before the war. The most popular French performers among adults were either jazz-inspired musicians or singers who, like Trénet, sang songs influenced by jazz melodies, as well as the so-called ‘charm singers,’ popular artists singing about love whose most devoted fans tended to be women of all ages and of all social origins. Tino Rossi and Luis Mariano fitted this description.

In Paris, on the Left Bank of the Seine River, new singers gathered and contributed to the birth of the so-called ‘intellectual chanson.’ To be sure, many of these artists were not intellectuals, but their outlook on life reflected that of the intellectuals of the day: a strong antagonism against the means of popularization as well as a simple but somewhat unusual attention to dress. The Left Bank intellectual singers included Juliette Gréco who, with Boris Vian, became one of the most popular representatives of this area of Paris and of its specific style.

In 1956, composer Michel Legrand returned from the United States. He brought with him several rock ’n’ roll records and played them to Boris Vian. The latter decided to compose several rock ’n’ roll tunes, as well as a couple of blues numbers. They were recorded by himself (under the pseudonym Rock Fellair – a pun on Rockefeller) and by Henry Salvador (one famous song of Salvador’s was ‘Blues du Plombier’ [Plumber’s Blues]). These new rock ’n’ roll tunes had a very limited impact in France; they were associated with the intellectual world of the Parisian Left Bank and did not spread among the younger generation. One reason was that those who would be called baby-boomers were too young to be recognized as an influential factor in popular culture. It was a little too early for this to happen in France.

Several French popular singers of note emerged in the second half of the 1950s: Gilbert Bécaud, Charles Aznavour and Sacha Distel, who had begun his musical career as a jazz guitar player. Notable French chanson singers and composers included Léo Ferré, Georges Brassens, Jacques Brel and Serge Gainsbourg. Brassens and Ferré were close to the anarchist tradition; Brel was born in Belgium but was often seen as a French singer; Gainsbourg became a renowned French composer in the 1960s before branching out in new musical directions in the 1980s and 1990s. Each of them has left a clear mark and a deep trace in the history of French popular music.

The 1960s: Rock ’n’ Roll and Yé-yés

The musical revolution that took place in France in the late 1950s and early 1960s may be seen as the result of several technical developments in music production. First, the easy availability of electronic instruments (initially electric guitars) allowed volume to rise and led to the transformation of popular orchestras and bands. Electric guitars had appeared in the United States in the 1940s. When they arrived in France, teenage bands emerged with dreams of emulating the popular artists of the day and becoming famous.

The second evolution took place in the world of recording. Microgroove records appeared in France in the 1950s. 10″ 78 rpm discs could hold three minutes of music; each side of a 12″ microgroove album could contain about 20 minutes. The 45 rpm records were also a result of the development of microgroove record production. In 1952–53, both 78 rpm and microgroove records were sold side by side. By the late 1950s only microgroove records were available. Vinyl led, too, to the first recognition of gold record sales, earned by artists who had sold 100,000 copies of an album. In the second half of the 1950s, Gilbert Bécaud and Charles Aznavour were among the early popular artists to ‘go gold.’

The third shift was caused by the availability of transistor radios that were easy to carry and offered more independent listening. Listening to radio lost its old familial or group activity context and became a private one. A parallel development was that of the cheap record players – young music enthusiasts were now able to buy their own and invest in the recordings they liked. This in turn led to increased musicianship among amateurs. The availability of portable personal cassette players in the late 1970s and the 1980s reinforced listener independence.

Two groups of performers became noticeable on the young French rock ’n’ roll scene. The first was made up of those dedicated fans of US rock ’n’ roll who gathered at the Golf Drouot, a Parisian club. Among them were three future artists of note -Johnny Hallyday, Dick Rivers and Eddy Mitchell. The second group was made up of artists who came to rock ’n’ roll because it was in fashion at the time, and because they hoped to become successful recording artists. This was the case for Danyel Gérard and Richard Anthony. It goes without saying that both groups strongly disliked each other. The first considered that the second was made up of opportunistic exploiters of musical fashions. The second group considered that the calls for respect for the original tunes were misplaced because both groups sang in French. Fans of US rock ’n’ roll became known as yé-yés, a French phonetic approximation of the ‘Yeah! Yeah!’ often heard in early rock ’n’ roll.

The popularity of these new performers reached levels never imagined by their agents and managers, for several reasons. First, this new musical form appealed to youngsters because their parents hated it. For them, it was a clear indication that this music must be good. Second, many teenagers were able to buy records because their parents gave them money that they were free to spend without control (this trend of weekly or monthly allowances started with the so-called baby-boomers in France). Record buying became a favorite activity among many of the postwar generation in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s.

The popularity of Johnny Hallyday grew by leaps and bounds between 1959 and 1962. In 1959 he began performing in France for very small amounts of money in small clubs where his music was seldom listened to with attention. By 1962, he was the best-paid artist in France and his concerts usually sold out. Hallyday’s style was to follow trends and fashions, and he has remained a very popular performer throughout the decades. Dick Rivers was more focused on rockabilly and has continued to perform since the 1960s (his popularity diminishing later on). Eddy Mitchell was more focused on US rock ’n’ roll. He maintained this focus from the early 1960s and was still very popular at the end of the century. Rock ’n’ roll and the French yé-yé movement revolutionized French popular music in the 1960s. Many artists belonging to the chanson tradition (Boby Lapointe, Guy Béart, Anne Sylvestre, to name a few) also emerged during these years, but seldom reached remarkable levels of popularity.

While teenagers listed to their favorite music, and radio programs kept them appraised of the latest records, the impact of television in France was negligible in the early 1960s. During this decade the record business developed significantly in France; the importance of mass media and electronic communications technology in the popular music industry grew and has never diminished. Several artists of note appeared during the decade and enjoyed long and successful careers: Claude François, Sheila, Sylvie Vartan and Françoise Hardy. Others, like Jacques Dutronc and Nino Ferrer, introduced new elements in the popular styles they proselytized. Dutronc’s songs often included allusions and puns, while Ferrer’s music was very close to the African-American styles of the day, with frankly humorous and even derisory lyrics.

Edith Piaf died in 1963, and two younger singers (Georgette Lemaire and Mireille Mathieu) were soon declared her successors. Mireille Mathieu’s career peaked in the 1970s and 1980s. Dalida, another singer who emerged during the 1960s, was very popular when she was alive and, after her death, her recordings became very popular in European gay clubs. In the 1960s, Joe Dassin, the son of the movie director Jules Dassin, became known for his light melodies and unpretentious lyrics. Georges Moustaki had begun his artistic career as a lyricist and became a popularly successful artist when he started singing his own songs as well as those of others.

Openly Communist singers had never emerged in France. Maurice Chevalier had been close to Communist ideas but never openly. Jean Ferrat became known as the most famous French ‘Communist singer’, although his songs seldom praised Russia openly and seldom made reference to the political program of the French Communist Party. However, Ferrat has enjoyed a long and fairly popular career. Other notable popular artists who appeared in the 1960s and had careers that stretched into the 1970s and beyond include Serge Lama, who sang chanson, and Claude Nougaro, whose repertoire was strongly influenced by African-American jazz and African music and rhythms.

The Late 1960s and the 1970s

In France, 1968 was marked by student and worker demonstrations. The so-called ‘1968 effect’ was also felt in popular music. Singers of songs based on the repertoires of old provinces were recorded and several became famous. Breton singers and musicians (Glennmor, Alan Stivell) as well as Occitan artists (Marti) recorded in the early 1970s and gained a steady following, without ever becoming vastly ‘popular.’ (Occitan is the southwestern family of French dialects.)

The 1970s also witnessed the popularity of Hair in France. This musical introduced both Julien Clerc and Gérard Lenorman who, after their performances in the stage show, started their own careers and recording artists. Among the more folk-oriented popular artists who emerged in the 1970s were brother and sister Maxime and Catherine Le Forestier.

The 1970s and 1980s were marked by Serge Gainsbourg’s progressive transformation into an artist for whom sex was an important topic. His suggestive recordings with Brigitte Bardot were forbidden on Vatican Radio. He then lived with Jane Birkin who became the chosen performer of many of his songs. Gainsbourg was highly appreciated until his death in 1991.

Jean-Patrick Capdevielle gained popularity in the 1970s with oddly poetic lyrics accompanied by a strong rock-influenced music. The disco wave had a limited impact in France in the 1970s, as did punk music from Great Britain in the second half of the decade.

The late 1970s were marked by the development of the use of popular speech, even of slang, in lyrics; a trend exploited by Renaud. They were also marked by the emergence of a new French rock, with attention given to the lyrics, a trend illustrated by Alain Bashung and Charlélie Couture. Singers of French chanson of all types, from the humorous (Richard Gotainer), to the ambiguous (Michel Jonasz), or to the more international (Bernard Lavilliers) also emerged in the 1970s.

The 1980s and the 1990s: Chanson, Rock and the Coming of Rap

The early 1980s were marked by the unexpected success of the musical Starmania, composed by Michel Berger and Luc Plamondon. Daniel Balavoine, the lead, became a popular artist who, several years later, died in an accident during the Paris-Dakar automobile rally.

Music from the French Caribbean also appeared in the 1980s. Zouk from Martinique and Guadeloupe and groups such as Zouk Machine gained a strong following in France. Music from other former French colonies also reached France. Raï, from Oran, Algeria, emerged in France in the 1980s, with the support of Arab immigrants. Cheb Khaled and later Cheb Mami became very popular in the 1980s and 1990s and remained so till the end of the century.

In 1985, following the example of British and North American artists, a group of French singers, calling themselves Singers Without Borders, made a recording for Ethiopia then suffering terrible famine and drought. The French group Les Garçons Bouchers emerged in the second half of the 1980s and recorded several popular albums in a post-punk style that became known as the ‘alternative style’ in France.

Rap arrived in France in the late 1970s, but the fact that its lyrics were in US English limited its impact. The French group Chagrin d’Amour recorded an album in the early 1980s and used techniques borrowed from rap. The lyrics were much more innocuous than US and future French rap lyrics. Rap became a truly popular phenomenon when young artists from the French suburbs appropriated the artistic trends of hip-hop culture. In France, the suburbs are where the poor, the immigrant and the working classes live; wealthy people and the bourgeoisie live in the downtown areas of French cities. In 1982, the law on radio broadcasting allowed private radio stations (until then the French government had been the only institution allowed to broadcast in France). These ‘new’ radio stations had their own agendas, specializing in specific musical trends. Several included rap in English and also in French (often performed ‘live’ by artists from the suburbs not yet known and not yet recorded). Several self-produced rap albums appeared in the 1980s and sold in small numbers.

The first album of French rap artists produced by a large commercial company was a compilation of 10 artists and groups titled Rapattitudes. It sold very well and led record companies to look for more rap artists to record. The early 1990s witnessed increased popularity and sales of rap albums (MC Solaar, Lionel D, IAM and Suprême NTM all produced early albums that sold very well). Approximately 250 rap albums were produced each year until 1996. French rap is not ethnically exclusive – groups include members of different ethnic backgrounds. Their music differs from the US groups: French rappers are more into ragamuffin, a form influenced by Caribbean musical styles. Other groups compose tracks mixing occidental, Arabic and oriental musical styles. At the turn of the millennium France had an important rap market, sustained by a network of radio stations dedicated to rap as well as magazines promoting the music.

In the late 1990s, techno emerged and was developed and sustained by artists whose musical productions warranted attention, including French groups (Air) and DJs (Stéphane Pompougnac).

The French chanson had not disappeared, although the 1990s witnessed the emergence of no new significant chanson artists. Earlier popular artists in the genre (such as Patricia Kaas) continued to perform and to sell large numbers of records and lead successful tours.

At the beginning of the millennium, musical styles of all origins can be encountered in France, from the typically French chanson to French adaptations of rock and US genres to recent popular forms such as techno and rap, as well as more locally and ethnically specific styles such as zouk and raï.


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