French pop helped me survive Covid

A few weeks ago I came into contact with the Covid and entered a 14 day isolation period alone in my one bedroom flat without access to outdoor space. I had dreaded this scenario and now here it was: confined and likely to become ill with a potentially deadly virus. And so I turned to music.

So far during This Time We Now Live In I’ve been drawn to nostalgia comfort listening: reliable playlists, liked songs and long loved albums have been dominant as I grappled for safe and solid emotional anchors. But with the reckoning of total isolation and coronavirus upon me I needed more. I needed a whole new oeuvre.

So I started listening to French pop. The inane impetus was that I’d just watched Emily in Paris and had semi-enjoyed the fluff but was left craving something actually authentically French. To the streaming I went and a casual flirtation quickly became obsessive as a new universe of music opened up within my confinement. Favourites became a playlist and I scoured across genres and ages for tunes that somehow pleased me but whose lyrics I didn’t understand.

In the Anglophone world we are accustomed to understanding the lyrics. Save for the odd ‘Despacito’ moment, culturally we stick to our own globally-dominant tongue and we are missing out. In my quarantine I adored dwelling in the lilts and sounds of French sung or rapped variously over beats, brass, flute, acoustic guitar and more. Having rinsed a song to death I took the next delicious step of translating the lyrics and finding out what it all means. Oh what shining gems I discovered.

‘Je Voudrais Partir en Weekend’ by Anaïs has a driving acoustic guitar riff with sweet voice verse before cracking break out chorus moments. I’ve loved listening to Anaïs: her debut 2005 album The Cheap Show is a captivating live solo performance of her French folk-pop-blues with classic chanson and pops of rap and ragamuffin thrown in. Taken from her second album, Je Voudrais Partir en Weekend, hooked me and even more so when I got into the lyrics: Anaïs wants to go away for the weekend (FEEL THAT) and takes us to the windy cobblestones of Saint-Malo, canoeing in the Canadian wilderness and to watch elephants bathing in Mandalay. Vicarious travel in Frenchy blues-pop form is meeting a need. See also ‘Ta Douleur’ by Camille, a quirky and captivating tune whose repeated refrain means “I take away your pain”. Thanks Camille. I needed that.

Elsewhere research would throw up less straightforward adoration and resonance. I immediately fell for ‘Poupée de Cire, Poupée de Son’ by France Gall. There’s so much to love – the 60s yé-yé beat, swooping strings and punchy brass, fabulous light and shade – but Gall’s delivery is the star here. She is persistently slightly flat and it sounds like she can’t quite be arsed to hit the note. The way this clashes with energetic instrumentation and dancing melody is just perfect.

The story of the song is fascinating. Written by Serge Gainsbourg, it’s the 1965 Luxembourgian winning entry to the Eurovision Song Contest and has a lengthy Wikipedia entry explicating the poetic majesty of Gainsbourg’s lyrics about a “wax doll, rag/sound doll” who ponders her own superficiality. Gall was 17 when she performed in the contest and later distanced herself from the song, feeling her naivety and youth were exploited by Gainsbourg. C’est problematique.

I had a similarly difficult time reconciling my immediate appreciation of Alizée’s 2000 dance-pop hit ‘Moi..Lolita’ with contentious lyrics performed by a teenager and an utterly bizarre video in which Alizée runs away with her toddler sister to a nightclub to hit the dancefloor while the infant cheerily watches on.

Speaking of music videos, please stop everything and watch this 1984 masterpiece, Marcia Baila by Les Rita Mitsouko. It is a riot of joyous artistic expression and possibly the best music video of all time. The song is a magnificent memorial to the band’s dancer and choreographer friend Marcia Moretto who died of aggressive breast cancer in 1981.

French hip hop is another whole world of mastery and magic. 90s and 00s superstar MC Solaar is a great place to start with two landmark French hip hop albums Qui sème le vent récolte le tempo (1991) and Cinquième As (2001). Keeping it on a pop bent, I’ve become somewhat enamoured with rapper Diam’s and her strutting 2006 hit ‘Jeune Mademoiselle’.

Bringing things up to the present, Yseult’s 2019 EP Noir is a trap RnB showcase of emotional depth and raw songwriting mastery. Yseult’s velvet voice dwells low and soars high. ‘Corps’ is a stunning, stripped back ballad with affecting lyrics delving into madness and despair: “I’ve lost my mind,” she sings in the chorus, “where’s the way home?”. Despite being very much confined to my home, this song soothed in the bleakest moments of isolation as the Covid symptoms took hold.

I also found cool trap rap RnB excitement from Lous and the Yakuza whose debut album Gore was released last month. The alias of Congolese-Belgian Marie-Pierra Kakoma, Lous and the Yakuza is a force of style and substance with striking videos, a foot in fashion (she modeled for Chloé during this year’s Paris Fashion Week) and a fresh sound combining bare trap sensibilities with African beat inflections. See ‘Amigo’ and her debut hit ‘Dilémme’.

The Francophone musical odyssey has had me trawling obscure playlists, recommended listens and best of lists. It’s injected much needed novelty into the desperate boredom of isolation and has opened my ears to artists, sounds, genres and a language I was heretofore ignorant of. I’ve hardly scratched the surface of course.

While I could and do encourage you to listen to French pop, my principal recommendation is to take your own international journey through music. We cannot travel but there’s a world out there to invite into your home. Pick a country or a language and go explore. Choose your own adventure. It may just save your lockdown. It certainly got me through Covid.

Words by Felicity Clarke

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