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The French Misfits or the Effects of Globalisation

April 18, 2011

                There are a lot of French singers that choose to sing in English. I gather that this is common behaviour for all non-English speaking musicians as this language has become international and potentially offers them a broader audience. But does this tactic work unfailingly? Personally I doubt it: I’ve rarely heard someone other than a French person telling me about The Dø, The Bewitched Hands, Emilie Simon, Camille, or Mig (although I admit that barely anyone in France has ever heard of the latter either). And has anyone ever heard of Ben L’Oncle Soul? His album is partly in French and partly in English, “Soul Man” [see video above, or here for the French version] exists in the two languages because, although original in French, it was rerecorded in English…to me, this shows how some artists go to great lengths to appeal to a wider audience.

But the dream of becoming worldly famous is not the only reason driving bands to write in English. I’m not sure whether you rosbifs know this, but to French people – and I’m pretty sure to many others – English is cooooooool. It’s the language. It’s trendy, it’s stylish. Everyone admires a French person that can speak English. So to French people, singing in English is neat (why do you think I sing in English?) You can say whatever you like and no one cares nor understands. It just sounds good. Some might argue that English is more fluid, sing-able or suitable for music but these are just excuses for laziness.

Writing well in French (or maybe in your native language) is much harder and many artists don’t even try. I think it’s so hard to avoid making French lyrics sound fake and stupid. For some reason, putting two words together in French is to me so challenging, but when I write in English I don’t even think about it, I just write, I’m freer and I guess many foreign musicians share this feeling. When people tell me that they are so impressed that I can write in my second language, I keep trying to explain that it is easier to do so… but no one understands! I believe that writing in another language distances oneself from the direct meaning of the lyrics, and as a foreigner you don’t get all the connotations in each word. Consequently some lyrics in English that might sound stupid to you, will sound ok to us, and it’s much much easier to sing lyrics that sound ok to you rather than trying really hard to make French lyrics sound good.


But there is one other thing that explains why so many artists choose English for their lyrics. Globalisation has an enormous impact on music and even though the French government is famous for trying to regulate its effect on French culture (musical TV shows and radios are legally obliged to play 40 to 60% of French songs), English and American music still prevails in France. I have to say that trying to restrict the diffusion of foreign bands on the radios or forcing French artist to write in French is not as stupid as it sounds: they just want to save our musical culture, although what often happens is that French bands that write French lyrics make American music (e.g. M. Pokora, the Justin Timberlake lookalike [pictured above]). Globalisation is just unavoidable. Besides spotify, deezer, bit torrent, youtube and all these new ways of discovering music, the radio restrictions have just a tiny impact and the war for French culture is almost lost. Speaking for myself, there are very few French bands and singers that I listen to and for that matter that have “influenced” me. Of the covers I sometimes play at my gigs, barely two are French. It was just last summer that I found interest in Sylvie Vartan, Jacques Dutronc, Françoise Hardy, France Galle and company. To me, they had always been the old-fashioned singers that my mum and aunts used to listen to. And I still haven’t given a try to Edith Piaf, Jacques Brel, Georges Brassens, Charles Aznavour or Barbara, the stars of the pure chanson française [=a term used to define a genre that includes French songs which show that an effort has been made into writing the lyrics, maybe in the way poetry would be written, I would simply translate it as “French folk”]. We do have such an interesting musical background, which I too often neglect… There has been at some point “la nouvelle chanson française” with Bénabar, Arthur H, Vincent Delerme, Jeanne Cherhal, Albin de la Simone et autres, but those are already out of date and I don’t think anything will ever be cooler than the bands that use English as their main language.

Cocoon – Hey Ya

Cocoon – a French band that became famous after publishing a folky cover of ‘Hey Ya!’ on youtube  – explained in an interview that “pop and folk are types of music that have to be sung in English, otherwise they would be called chanson française”. So basically, these guys don’t want to write in French because it sounds like French folk and what they want to make is folk music… fair enough. But do genres really have a dedicated language? I do think that jazz is a very difficult genre to translate in French… “Les feuilles mortes” has always been a chanson française to me, while “Autumn Leaves” became one of the most popular jazz standards! And now people don’t want be labelled chanson française because it’s not cool, it’s out-dated. Cocoon added that their aims were not “to renounce French language but just to travel, to say that [they] love the English language and their culture and that [they] are anglophiles.” Eh, it must feel good to hear that guys!

Olivia, the singer & lyricist of The Dø explained: “English is my musical language, it’s what I’ve listened to all my life.” She also said: “I’ve always sang in English and when you make music, you don’t address yourself to only one nation. I’m Franco-Finnish and I’ve always lived in a double culture with many others all around me and English has always been the natural language that I’ve used for singing, I’ve never asked myself [which language to choose.]” The Dø also claimed something that I quite like but that somehow discredits all I have said above: “Americans don’t care about where we come from. Actually, rare are the ones that know that we are French. Even here in France, half of the people that come up to us speak in English. It is about music, not about flags. (…) We play rather British music, so whether we own a passport of this colour or that one, the public – American, English, Turkish, Mexican – does not care.”

Anyways! I hope I’ve sparked your interest in the Anglo-Franco musical mystery tour. I am not going to pretend that I am an expert in French music; after almost 4 years in the UK, my knowledge of what is hype out there across la manche has been reduced to very little… you will see that I did not include in this series of articles successful French bands such as Daft Punk, Air, Phoenix or Justice, for my defence I’ll say that I am just going to talk about some bands that I actually know and like (or not). I’ll tell you more next week.

To be continued…

38 Comments leave one →
  1. Chris Bingo permalink
    April 18, 2011 9:41 am

    Nice introduction to the topic. I’m not sure what to make of the “rosbif” term though! Nor am I entirely convinced people speak English to be cool or because it’s trendy. Many international people I’ve spoken seem to only know it through a “needs must” basis and often prefer the rhythm and sound of their mother tongue. In fact it seems that a lot of people find English to be a somewhat ugly language (something I find quite unfair) however often I believe this is more to do with the rapid decline in common vocabulary in our generation than anything else.

    Also I was wondering about what you thought of the rhyming side of English usage in France. I had read somewhere a while ago that English was often used in song because it has a wider variety of rhyming words…although a quick search on Google has proved fruitless to back this idea up! Your thoughts?

  2. Athénaïs permalink
    April 18, 2011 12:07 pm

    It was Robert who insisted that I mention the term rosbif! He sent me the urban dictionary link which taught me something: I actually thought that the reason why some French people call you rosbif is because you are a bit pink like roast beef, the fact that we pronounce roast beef, rose beef (=pink beef…) confused me! Take a look at this to find out more about the expression:

    I probably generalised a bit by saying that knowing English is cool, this is just the impression that I got from my friends and family (which is a quite restrained). Of course lots of people learn English because they have to for their jobs or for anything, and when you don’t choose to learn, you often find things to complain about… Personally I’ve never heard anyone saying that English was ugly (I’ve only heard that about German!) I can’t speak for everyone around the world, but I definitely can tell you that around me, everyone thinks English is cool! 😀

    And I think that the thing about rhymes might be true… it could explain why I find it more easier to write in English… The fact that you have about 10 times more words in your dictionary might help! Just an example to show you how the two languages works:
    The French verb “regarder” means “to look”. But in English you have all those single word synonyms = watch, behold, regard, view, gape, gawk, gaze, glare, glance, glimpse, goggle, peek, peep, peer, rubberneck, stare, etc. And to translate a word like glance in French, you will use more than one word: jeter un coup d’œil, or you will add an adverb to describe how you look (to peer = regarder fixement). That sort of explains why you have more words than us… Here is something interesting:

  3. jouliejools permalink
    April 18, 2011 2:06 pm

    I totally agree with you Chris; I didn’t chose to learn English because it’s cool but more because it’s necessary for my career. I would have prefered never understand some songs in English!! About the rhyming side, it’s true that it’s easier to write in English due to the large English vocabulary compare to the French one, however it’s not impossible to be good at writing in French. So please Athe, not only bands using English as their main language are cooool! Check out Mano Solo, his lyrics are not ridiculous at all and don’t sound fake or lame. (Unlike Matt Pokora, OMG!!) With all the respect I have for Cocoon, I’d say it’s a great thing they sing in English because seriously, the lyrics are stupid! But I mean I still like them a lot. And you’re right give a try to Brel, Brassens & Piaf, way better than shitty Vartan!

    Good job on extending what I started to say on my previous posts all about French bands!

  4. rbiz permalink
    April 18, 2011 2:15 pm

    woah! the fact that you call Sylvie Vartan, an ambassador for your country, “shitty”, negates your whole point!

  5. jouliejools permalink
    April 18, 2011 2:17 pm

    Rob?? I never said all French lyrics are good!

  6. Athénaïs permalink
    April 18, 2011 3:42 pm

    I admit that Sylvie Vartan and the other yéyé singers aren’t very impressive, most of them didn’t even write their music nor sang very well… In quoting them, I wasn’t trying to convince you to like them, I did not say that they are THE French singers that you must listen to, I quoted them because they do represent French popular music whether they are good or not. I am fascinated about them not especially because of the quality of their music but because to me they represent the 60’s in France. I love the fact that Vartan was johnny Hallyday’s first wife (although I pretty much dislike everything about him) and I love listening to the songs she wrote when she was sad that he was always away on tour.

    I am not saying that writing well in French is impossible, I was just sharing my opinion in that writing in English seems easier. As I said, I don’t know much about actual music in France and can’t really tell you about it, what I wanted to point out is the fact that it struck me that more and more French bands write in English. That is what my article is about. Maybe you got worked up because of my sentence “I don’t think anything will ever be cooler than the bands that use English as their main language” again, this is only my impression and I have to say, I’m not even sure I can vouch for it. I absolutely did not mean to undermine French bands that stick to their Native language, I’m actually really admiring of them. While I was looking for material for this article, I found out about lots of new French music and was really impressed by the way most of them handle French. This might lead to more articles about French artists proud of their nationality. And if you stay tuned for next week’s article, you’ll see I’m gonna talk more about French artists!

    Oh and I’m not sure what you mean by saying that I extended what you previously said, I remember you mentioning that BB Brunes started writing in English but then shifted to French. Then in your last article, Chris commented that he mostly listened to songs written in English which did encourage me to finish this article that had been waiting in my TWLT folder for weeks.

  7. Camille permalink
    April 18, 2011 10:13 pm

    My mother tongue is french, actually I’m Belgian. (my English is not perfect, sorry for the mistakes…)
    Your article is very interresting, Athénaïs ! In fact, I’ve already thought about that topics some times… I’m not gonna write a long comment because I agree your opinion. English seems to be the cool language for french speaking people, including me. I admit the beauty of the French language, no doubt about it, but I really like speaking English ! I don’t know why… maybe, as you said, the rythmic, the sounds, the ‘fluidity’ of the English language… I’m clearly influenced by the English and American culture – it is everywhere in our lifes, in first plan by music and cinema, but I start interrestting me in English literature…
    We are here speaking about music : it’s not surprinsing that to write songs in English would be easier for many singers… You explained it very well : no really care about the meaning of the lyrics because not all the people aren’t going to understand them and so criticize.
    Cocoon is a good example. I love them ! but it’s true that, when you pay attention to their lyrics, these are not always very devellopped … So “A plane is making a loop… the beavers are so cute” is ok for a french listenner… But (translation) “Un avion fait une boucle, les castors sont tellement mignons” … It’s not cool, it sounds like a kid’s song in French…
    I think sometimes that it’s a good thing that I can’t understand all the English lyrics (not only written by French speaking) immediately, and so that I can enjoy a song for the music, before I realize the lyrics are so stupid…
    And I want to say that sometimes I find sad that french speaking singers start to sing in English to expend their career across the world. For example, I love the french singer Camille : she plays with the French language beautifully, and when she sings in English, I can’t get her nuances and astuces of language as easy that in my language anymore.

    • Athénaïs permalink
      April 19, 2011 12:00 am

      Merci d’avoir lu et commenté Camille!! 😀 I felt the same with Camille! I don’t really like her latest album because it seems like we French are not good enough for her anymore! Hopefully, she’ll write another album in French! My favourite album is the first one, “Le sac des filles”, and I really love her lyrics, even though sometimes they are really weird and don’t mean much! I was planning on writing something about her and Nouvelle Vague later, maybe in two weeks! Hope you check the blog and comment more 🙂

      • Camille permalink
        April 19, 2011 7:34 pm

        Haha ok! Good news ! 🙂 Me too, I’m fan since her first album. Her second is a little different, more difficult to appreciate at the first listening, but now I really like some of these songs. Yeah, some lyrics are wery weird, but sometimes, the sens of some of them appear suddenly full of meaning I haven’t seen before… But it’s not the debate here ! ^^ I’ll check your articles !

  8. April 18, 2011 11:45 pm

    I love this. But it works both ways. How about the English speakers that want to sing in French, like me? I find the same to be true, that I can write freer without those awkward connotations, the overthinking, the embarrassment factor… It’s ‘french’, it’s chic, it sounds sexy no matter what you’re saying… Hahah. Bon, bref…

    ‘Papillons’, full of massive clichés and faux-pas to the French speaker.
    To the English speaker, delicious. (At least I think so anyway :D)

    • Athénaïs permalink
      April 19, 2011 12:17 am

      Oh thank you so much Emily!! I was wondering whether it was the same or not! I love your French song I hope you write more! Even though the lyrics are quite simple, it’s lovely and cute! I’ve actually thought about the other way round and I was thinking of talking about April March later. She’s American, loves French 60s music and wrote her own songs in French!

      By the way, this is my myspace: If you click on blog, I think there is a note with the lyrics and translations of my songs! Check it out if you have some time 🙂

  9. jouliejools permalink
    April 19, 2011 8:39 am

    Look, I didn’t mean to lead you to a debate, especially if you are repeating what you already said in your post 🙂 I jjust needed to say I don’t like Sylvie Vartan.Your article is well written, in a good English so end of the discussion!

  10. Lena permalink
    April 19, 2011 4:18 pm

    It’s a good question that you raised! I like to listen to English music also, even if my English is not good I can feel the words are nicer. But it’s true that sometimes I can’t make the difference of a native English speaker and foreigner when I listen to their song, and I don’t know if the lyrics are a joke! What is your favourite French singer in English?

    • April 19, 2011 5:39 pm

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts Lena! Your question is a tough one though… I would say that I prefer The Dø because I quite like their music in general and I think Olivia is a really good singer, she sings beautifully and actually knows English very well! So their lyrics aren’t weird or silly and it gives them much more credit than other French bands like The Bewitched Hands who can’t even pronounce their own name properly!

  11. Mathieu permalink
    April 20, 2011 2:57 pm

    Very interesting article and excellent analyse!! I am French and I admit most of the French artists I like sing in English: Phoenix, Tahiti 80, Cocoon, Moriarty etc. Ben l’Oncle Soul has to be one of the very few exceptions. I’ve got a Brazilian friend of mine who is fond of French/francophone music who always makes fun of me because he says I’m French in name only since I don’t like most of the artists he makes me listen to (often names I’ve never heard before). But well, the point is, while I love English, I love my native tongue as well and someone singing in French is anything but a turn-off for me. It’s just that I really don’t like the musical style that goes with it. I totally disagree with Cocoon. They make folk music, if they sang in French, it would still folk music (and I don’t see chanson as French folk). The problem to me is that people singing in French sound far too much chanson or variété for my tastings, in 99% of the cases. I love Ben l’Oncle Soul because I’m a soul music lover and hearing someone making soul in French so tastefully is just great. The problem, I think, about French music is that we can roughly divide it into 2 categories : those who aim worlwide appeal (and most of the times sing in English and make pop, rock, electronica, soul etc.) and those who catter only to the francophone audiences and sing music from the variété or chanson type. A very striking example is that Phoenix are successful nearly all over the world, except in their native country, where we prefer the lame variété of Christophe Maé… Something I’ll never understand.

    • April 21, 2011 12:31 pm

      I think it’s a very complex debate! I agree with you, it’s harder to find good French bands with good French lyrics that aren’t variété or chanson… There must be some though! Do you know any? Maybe Julie can give us some ideas? But you know it’s everywhere the same, what most people listen to, popular music, is never the best music… I’m sure there are even some Christophe Maés here in the UK! I hope that you try to listen to the stuff your Brazilian friend likes and let us know if you find anything good! And thank you for your comment!

  12. Emily N permalink
    April 21, 2011 1:50 am

    I really liked your article, and found it interesting to read about foreign music from a French perspective. I’m English, and I listen to music from all over the world, although French music has got to be my favourite. I’m always trying to get my English friends listening to French music (and have pretty much succeeded with Ben L’oncle Soul, and a few others), and most of the French music I listen to is sung in French. I’ve always found it wierd how French artists sing in English, and just assumed it was to increase audiences, but what you say about making better sounds in a different language makes sense. The one thing that annoys me though, is English people refusing to listen to anything in another language. Music can always be enjoyed whatever language it’s written in, and in my opinion a lot of English people can be too closed minded. I look forward to reading more 🙂
    And @Emily, I love the song, it’s nice to hear an English person singing in French for once 🙂

    • April 21, 2011 12:41 pm

      I think you’re right, it’s a shame that English people don’t listen to more foreign music… It’s easier for us though because since we were born, there has been English/American music around, so listening to lyrics that aren’t in our Native language isn’t that uncommon. We just get used not to understand everything! I’m glad to know that some English people actually do listen to French music! And I hope we’ll manage to make it happen more often! Maybe I should start by writing my own lyrics in French… :s Thank you for your message! 🙂 Oh by the way, could you let us know what are your favourite French bands that write in French?

      • Emily N permalink
        April 21, 2011 1:04 pm

        As impossible as it is to write all of my favourite French bands (the list would probably go on forever! :P) I’ll put some of them. BB Brunes have got to be up their, one of my favourite bands ever, although the lyrics to the songs in English don’t really make much sense 🙂 Also Ben L’oncle Soul, Guillaume Grand, Rose (I only know one song, La Liste, but it’s one of my favourites), Madame Kay, Carla Bruni, Colonel Reyel, Joyce Jonathan, Coeur de Pirate, Camelia Jordana, Superbus, Zaz. That’s not all of them, but a few 🙂
        And I’m working on getting more people to listen to French music, most of my friends have now downloaded at least one French song 😀

    • Chris Bingo permalink
      April 21, 2011 1:33 pm

      I think it very much depends on what you take out of a song at the end the day Emily N. There is some Middle Eastern and African music that I genuinely love in terms of sound and melody…but there is always a point where I cannot enjoy it as much as something sung in English because the vocal melody and being able to piece together the phonetics and meaning of a song gets completely lost when sung in another language! Saying that, I do enjoy French and Romanian hip hop where the general rhythm and rhyme seems to work very well and also I can at least half work out what is being said as rap is sometimes clearer in pronunciation than singing. For a lot of English people I don’t necessarily think it is close minded as it is not being exposed to it to begin with – how can we expect people to embrace other languages in music when you very rarely get exposed to it through incidence alone?

      I guess I agree and disagree with you then in terms of music being enjoyable regardless of language. It is enjoyable to a point but if you are the sort of person who pays most attention to vocal melody and lyrics you would tend to struggle more with songs in other languages.

      • Emily N permalink
        April 21, 2011 3:04 pm

        I get what you mean, I’ve never really listened to music for the lyrics. I suppose if you did then you would want something easier to understand. Although, it is always possible to translate lyrics of songs (I always do if it’s a language I don’t really know, just to check I’m not singing anything dodgy :P). I guess I’ve always found it easy to pick up melodies and lyrics quite quickly, so I don’t mind if it’s in a language I don’t know. It also really helps if you are trying to learn a language, as you can pick up little words and phrases through songs that people have never thought to teach you, and gives you an insight to the culture of the particular country. So I guess you are right, if you’re a person who listens to music for lyrics, then you’d want to be able to understand it. Personally, I’ve never been able to get much out of lyrics (like poetry) so for me it’s all about the melody 🙂

    • Mathieu permalink
      April 21, 2011 6:18 pm

      There are more and more non-francophone singers which try to sing in French, especially in the jazz area. Check Stacey Kent, Fredrika Stahl, Nikki Yanofsky and even Melody Gardot on one song. Generally I love French with a foreign accent, I think it’s lovely

      • Emily N permalink
        April 22, 2011 3:41 pm

        Ooh I’m going to listen to some of that 🙂 If I could sing, I would definitely sing in French 🙂

  13. May 22, 2011 6:32 pm

    English sounds better, period.

    And as you said, it seems that nowadays it’s extremely challenging to write French lyrics that don’t sound either commonplace or stupid. Some young artists such as Soan or Stille Volk are talented enough to come up with surprisingly good French lyrics, but they’re exceptions IMO.

    Now, considering the oldies… Brassens, Brel, Le Forestier, Cabrel… are/were great songwriters as well.

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  15. November 27, 2012 4:09 am

    Thank you so much writing this! I’m actually a student from America currently studying abroad in Paris and I’m writing a paper for my intercultural communication class on this topic of why so many French people sing in English, so this was really helpful 🙂

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