Part of trying to understand another culture is getting acquainted with its pop songs.
Before I left for Paris I’d downloaded a best-of collection of Charles Aznavour – who’s certainly not unknown in the Anglophone world – as well as one of Charles Trenet, not quite a household name in the United States, but the composer of beloved songs, a few of which became hits here in translation, such as “Beyond the Sea,” which Bobby Darrin adapted from Trenet’s “Le Mer.”
Like a lot of people – French or otherwise – I fell under the spell of Trenet’s “Que reste-t-il de nos amours” or what remains of our love (later an American hit by Keely Smith under a more ordinary title, “I Wish You Love”).
When I first started listening to these songs – on the plane over to Paris – I of course couldn’t make out what the lyrics were saying. But I still wanted to hear the singing tone of French, and to have a sense of the melodies so that later, when I hoped my French would be good enough, I might actually understand what was being sung, and perhaps even sing one of the songs myself.
I eventually found the sheet music for one of my preferred Aznavour songs, “Viens au creux de mon épaule,” or come cry on my shoulder, which isn’t among his best-known (that might be “La Boheme,” to name but one of many). But I loved its tender yearning – and found at the time, even with a rudimentary Google-enabled understanding, that French is perfect for expressing sorrow for something unspoken and then hoping not only for forgiveness but maybe the possibility of actual connection. Kind of like what I was seeking in general.
Thanks to my enthusiastic new friends – who’d seen how eager I was to learn – I was quickly introduced to many, many other singers and singer-songwriters who make up a rich part of French culture, such as Leo Ferré, Georges Brassens and Serge Gainsbourg (whose work I’d had a passing acquaintance with). Not to mention Dalida, Sheila, France Gall, Claude François, Barbara, Claude Nougaro and others.
My friend Pierre, a huge fan of Françoise Hardy, provided me with quite a few of her records, so that I could chart the arc of her career, from one of the first ye-yé girls (a pop-music movement in the 1960s) to a sort of éminence grise of French pop music (she still records, but doesn’t perform).
And shortly after my arrival, new friends pressed upon me a somewhat recent record, “La Superbe,” a hit double CD by Benjamin Biolay, a noted producer, songwriter and singer (his singing is more of a rhythmic whisper). Like an adolescent in swoon to a favorite group, I listened often to “La Superbe,” painstakingly deciphering the lyrics printed in the accompanying booklet and marveling at how different French song lyrics were, in style and even substance, from English ones.
This was rock music, but French rock music, or perhaps the French equivalent of adult alternative or whatever appellation is given to intelligent but hard-to-classify pop songs.
My favorite on the disk was, and is, “Reviens mon amour,” come back my love, but I happily listened to Biolay on this and others of his CDs over and over, in between studiously making acquaintance with the songs of Ferré, Brassens, Gainsbourg and their musical descendants whom I felt I should at least know enough to recognize. As my French has gotten better, so too has my understanding of French lyrics, their wordplay and their use of vernacular. But even at the first I become something more than the old me by bathing myself in such a wide variety of approaches to song in another language.
The popular music that people listen to, what they grew up hearing, defines how a generation relates to itself, and to others. I didn’t grow up with French pop but as I had done with my enjoyable study of French films, I slowly began to have a sense of passing references to it in conversation and in newspaper articles.
And I allowed myself a license to grow, in a way, by hearing what was heard on another shore, at another time, by another people and becoming, in a small, grace-note sort of way, more a part of that country and those people.