France has been at the heartbeat of culture for centuries; but, over the last half a century, artists from the country have opted to leave their native tongue at the door to gain more international commercial success by performing in English. However, despite the riches that can be gained by taking that well-travelled route, many French nationals have become greats whilst paying homage to the country that has made them who they are.
It was only recently that Parisian dance legends Daft Punk announced that they had decided call it a day. The duo thrived at the top of the music industry since their emergence in the early-1990s; Daft Punk built the foundations of their music as part of the bustling French house movement and didn’t look back. Together, the duo successfully blended elements of funk, disco and techno with core trends within the rock and indie music sector. There’s a case to be made that they would never have become the unstoppable global force if their songs were performed in French rather than English, with the latter helping provide the band with their universal appeal.
However, it was a different story in their native country back when they started. “They hate us,” member Thomas Bangalter told The Guardian in 1997. “Take Les Inrockuptibles, the biggest French rock magazine. They had a big piece on us, calling us cheesy, mainstream stuff. We did a four-page interview with this magazine. The editor was always telling us: ‘Yeah, we’re really excited about Daft Punk, it’s great a French success at last.’ But then he went away and heard us properly and hated it so he insisted on the magazine carrying a bad review.”
There’s been a renaissance in international admiration for French-language music over the last decade. This piece aims to celebrate both the iconic musicians that first helped make people worldwide fall in love with French music and shine a light on those from the current generation who have helped put it back on the map. Let’s dive in!
The 6 best French-language musicians:
There’s no place better to start with this list than with the late inimitable talent of Serge Gainsbourg. It’s hard to look past his importance in shaping French pop, even did he play into the archetypes associated with his countrymen by always having a cigarette in hand and his liberal attitudes that oozed out of his lyrics. His infamous track, ‘Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus’ was deemed unsavoury due to the sexual noises in it performed by Jane Berkin that Gainsbourg was banned from appearing on the BBC’s ‘Top Of The Pops’, with the stiff upper lip of Brit’s preventing him from performing.
Following his death in 1991, Gainsbourg is a God-like figure in France. The Parisian house in which Gainsbourg lived from 1969 until 1991, at 5 bis Rue de Verneuil, is now a shrine covered in his ashtrays and collections of various items from Gainsbourg’s life. Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker once recalled his memory of visiting Gainsbourg’s grave: “I was living in Paris last year while the new Tame Impala album was coming together, and I was listening to a lot of Serge Gainsbourg – which I know is a really cheesy thing for someone living in Paris to do.
“Anyway, I used to hire a bike and ride around a lot with headphones on, listening to the Melody Nelson album. One day I was going through a cemetery, looking for Jim Morrison’s grave [it turned out Parker was in the wrong cemetery], when suddenly I stumbled across Serge Gainsbourg’s grave. It was really unexpected and pretty weird because I had him on the headphones at that exact moment. I knew it was his grave because there were all these empty packets of cigarettes and liquor bottles left around in tribute.”
The French icon and singer Francoise Hardy made her breakthrough in 1963 when she became a leading figure of a musical movement known as the yé–yé.
Hardy made her name, singing a song of sadness. Her melancholy melodies left her at the forefront of a movement that demanded romanticism and effortless style. She embodied everything the 1960s desired; she was slender, had long hair, offered intelligence and prowess in her field while still possessing a streak of wildness that left as a front-running star of the rock and roll scene both here and over the channel.
Hardy was described as “France’s most exportable female singing star” and would go on to forge a formidable career, performing live at some of the biggest stages, appearing in numerous cinematic pictures and catching the attention of the onlooking world. Her last album, Personne d’autre, arrived in 2018, which proved that her artistic prowess is still shining bright, even close to 60 years after her arrival.
The French chanteuse Edith Piaf did the above effortlessly, without a doubt. Her melodic whisper “Je vois la vie en rose” into the listeners’ ears mesmerised them into a dreamy state in which they saw life only through rose-tinted glasses.
A boundless free soul, Piaf worked her way up through the ranks of the entertainment industry with nothing less than pure talent and an alluring persona. “Singing is a way of escaping. It’s another world. I’m no longer on earth,” said Piaf, carrying her listeners with her on this heavenly journey, but that doesn’t mean she didn’t have a hellish side too.
After a long and successful career, Piaf died in 1963, aged just 47, due to a ruptured aneurysm and liver failure that stemmed from excessive alcohol abuse sustained throughout her life. What she left behind was her indomitable spirit that echoed: “Don’t care what people say. Don’t give a damn about their laws” and inspired many to do the same.
Christine & The Queens
Christine & The Queens, AKA, Héloïse Adélaïde Letissier, is the most significant contemporary singer who performs in French and is a bastion of current alternative music. Letissier has pop-leanings and, more importantly, holds a forward-thinking, progressive approach to her work that makes her a formidable force.
Christine has previously revealed that she “does not want to choose between French music and English pop music”, and this is why she chooses to perform in both.
Her debut album, Chaleur Humaine, was recorded entirely in French, with a couple of songs re-recorded in English for the American version of the album. Then her 2018 follow-up, Chris, included 23 tracks, with 11 in English and 12 in French, most of which are versions of the same song. This double album shows her loyalty to her French roots in-spite of her success in the States by still recording an album for her native contingent of fans.
Another French artist who has seen their star rise over the last decade is the Parisian rapper, Lomepal. French hip-hop has been on the boom for a long while, with commercial rappers like Booba being at the forefront of the country’s sub-genre rise. However, Lomepal has taken the sub-genre to a fascinating location, with his brooding combined with the introspective nature to his flow that allows him to express these emotions.
To date, the rapper has released four highly acclaimed records in the last five years, with 2018’s Jeannine topping the album charts in France. His hip-hop brand is cut from a cloth, not unlike that of Tyler, The Creator or Denzel Curry from a production standpoint.
Although he’s yet to break great ground outside of France, Lomepal is a symbolic fixture who represents the homegrown hip-hop growth in the country. On top of that, his flow is up there with anybody.
Quintessentially French, it is not only the sound of Juniore, which takes the listener to the heart of the French capital. The band’s well-considered black and white aesthetic, which stems through their videos with prolific effect, helps transports the listener to a different era. A place that makes listening to Juniore perfect escapism as you enter their universe, which seems as though Jean-Luc Godard could have dreamed it up.
The band is a stalwart on BBC 6 Music, and Juniore are among the most interesting alternative bands around. They even have high profile admirers, including Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner who previously recommended the band in a rare interview with Beats 1’s Matt Wilkinson.
“I think it’s great that I can choose to sing in French,” singer Anna Jean told Far Out in 2019 on the topic of singing in her native language. “To have that luxury of having multiple languages, it’s really wonderful. I’d love to make English versions of certain songs, but it’s tricky. Some things simply don’t translate well. And maybe music is universal enough not to absolutely need translation.”