France's music scene: sounds a lot like nostalgia

In France the music scene, rather like its political parties, is polarised and allows for little or no middle ground.

It is indicative of the rather sorry state of the music scene in France that the hot favourite for Best Album and Best Concert of the 2010 Victoires de la Musique (the French equivalent of the Brit Awards) is a group that made its debut more than 30 years ago and whose name was almost entirely forgotten for 10 years. Back in 1977, the group Indochine was the closest that France got to new wave (think Depeche Mode meets The Cure). Today, this is a group that has truly stood the test of time, including the death of one of its musicians and a fair number of commercial flops. The only member of the original line-up is the guitarist and lyricist Nicola Sirkis, who has astutely managed over the years to work with young musicians who were fans of the original band. Musically, its more audacious sounds attenuated through accessible melodies, Indochine appeals both to its die-hard new wave fan base while also reaching out to younger generations of wannabe goths. La République Des Meteors, released last March and up for Best Album when the Victoires are announced later this year, pursues the group's eternal themes of the fear of death, separation and fantasies. With lyrics that express a sense of malaise and revolt in the face of the modern world, Indochine appears to reflect on issues without ever becoming offensive or distributing blame.
Indochine's current success cannot only be attributed to the lack of any other serious musical contenders but also to the nostalgic tendencies of a nation that, caught in the cold grip of the global economic crisis and with waning faith in its once popular president, prefers to look to the past for reassurance and happy memories. However, like other groups that cross the cult divide to achieve greater popularity, Indochine has its detractors as well as its admirers. A Facebook group with more than 10,000 members vocally expresses its distaste for the group.
The music scene in France, rather like its political parties, is polarised and allows for little or no middle ground. There are the staunch admirers of the long tradition of the French chanson. Despite Anglo-Saxon prejudice, the chanson, which can be defined only by its emphasis on text rather than music, is alive and kicking. Following in the wake of such illustrious names as Edith Piaf, Georges Brassens, Jacques Brel, Léo Ferré and Serge Gainsbourg, the chanson has over recent years had a new lease of life and today its representatives carry nationwide appeal and appear on the covers of magazines that aren't exclusively about music. Then there are the new generations for whom pop stars are created through television programmes such as Star Academy (a reality TV talent show) and who do their best to emulate their American heroes - whether they be hip-hop, rock or rap.
Nowhere is this musical divide more evident than when contesting 2009's title of Album of the Year. According to iTunes, the musician and singer Benjamin Biolay won the title with his album La Superbe. Biolay's music is firmly within the chanson tradition, although his public profile, including a well-publicised relationship with Chiara Mastroianni (the daughter of the actors Catherine Deneuve and Marcello Mastroianni), his penchant for badmouthing and even picking fights with fellow musicians, hints that he sees himself more in the bad-boy tradition.
On the other hand, the young listeners' music-only radio channel NRJ awarded the title to Mylène Farmer, the 48-year-old Canadian-born French singer and songwriter. If her age is more than twice that of her youthful fans, her success is uncontested and she holds the record for the most No 1 hits on the French charts - nine and counting. Nevertheless, Farmer's age shouldn't come as a surprise to any devotee of French music. It is typical of French musicians that they refuse to hang up the mike with the passing of the years and the weakening of vocal cords. The name on everybody's tongue at the close of 2009 was the unfortunate Johnny Hallyday, known in the foreign press as the French Elvis, who at the tender age of 66 was on the final leg of a farewell world tour when he was struck with a devastating infection after an operation on his back. Now convalescing in Los Angeles, fans are pretty sure this won't be Hallyday's last appearance - after all, the popular singer Charles Aznavour has just returned to the recording studio at the age of 85.