‘Une bouffée d’air frais et de subversion post soixante-huitarde dans la chanson française.’
In May 1968, at the age of sixteen, Renaud Séchan, who was to abandon school the following year, barricaded himself behind the gates of the Sorbonne. In the midst of the student protests, he spontaneously wrote his first song, Crève Salope, which was taken up by any student present in possession of a guitar. Six years later, after having travelled to different parts of France, worked in a bookshop and acted alongside Miou Miou and Coluche, Renaud once again took up his guitar and performed on the streets of Paris with his friend and accordionist, Michel Pons. In 1975 his first album Amoureux de Paname was released.
This thesis will provide a critical investigation of Renaud’s work, from 1975 onwards. It does not purport to be an exhaustive study, but will attempt to assess critically the importance of his œuvre and suggest what original qualities he has brought to the sphere of French chanson. Furthermore, it will identify areas in his work of particular interest and examine his songs in relation to a wider social and cultural context.
The critic and writer, Michael Gray, describes Bob Dylan’s œuvre in the following manner: ‘What Dylan does not do is consciously to offer a sustained, cohesive philosophy of life, intellectually considered and checked for contradictions. What he does offer is the artistic recreation of the individual’s struggle in our times’. A similar description could easily be applied to Renaud. Although in Renaud’s work some very obvious political themes are prevalent: anarchy, anti-militarism, the Third World, the overriding ‘struggle in his times’ seems to me to be, above all, his attempt to come to terms with changing popular-cultural myths in a globalised society. My aim in this thesis is to trace the ways in which Renaud reacts to and deals with these changing myths. There are three main areas in his work which illustrate this, and these correspond to the three main chapters of the thesis. The first chapter will focus on the depiction of youth and youth culture in his songs and suggest in what ways Renaud becomes a mirror for young people, portraying their universe in the face of changing social structures and cultural narratives. The second chapter will explore his portrayal of popular-cultural myths in the context of the city of Paris and a section of its inhabitants. The final chapter will concentrate on Renaud’s concerns with commercialism, authenticity and image within the music industry and as part of his career as a chanson artist.
French chanson is a specific genre and as such has its own history. As this thesis will illustrate, Renaud sees himself as an Auteur-Compositeur-Interpète (ACI) in the French chanson tradition, and thus becomes part of the history of chanson. It is therefore important for a full understanding of his work to contextualise him, and briefly examine his predecessors and influences. The following account will provide a brief history of French chanson, followed by a concise biography of Renaud’s career, tracing his evolving preoccupations and a summary of his albums to date.
Pierre Saka contends that the official history of French chanson starts at the beginning of the eighteenth century with the creation of the ‘dîners du caveau’: meetings of chansonniers which often attracted cultured members of society. The first famous chansonnier was Desaugiers (1772-1827), author of Paris à cinq heures du matin, but Béranger (1780-1857) became the most well-known chansonnier of the epoch, and the first real ‘star’ of French song. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries song became ‘un instrument d’agitation populaire’. Louis Festeau was convinced of the social comment and ‘engagement’ a chansonnier should make. He wrote: ‘le chansonnier est l’écho, le pétitionnaire du peuple. Il rit de sa joie, pleure de sa souffrance, et menace de sa colère’. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are most famous for the chanson réaliste, whose narratives, for the most part, concentrate on the working-class inhabitants of the outlying areas of Paris: Belleville, Montmartre and the ‘Zone’ beyond. One of the first artists to be associated with this type of song was Aristide Bruant, (1851-1925) although Fréhel and Piaf are equally well-known for their realist style. Bruant was born into a bourgeois family and led a comfortable life. However, the content of his songs focused on the working-class and the parts of Paris they inhabited - Montmartre and the ‘Zone’ - and were realist narratives often written in slang. Songs about the demi-monde, ‘la pègre’ and the ‘apaches’ entered ‘the repertory of music-hall entertainment in 1909 when Max Dearly and Mistinguett presented a sensational dance act at the Moulin Rouge: la valse chaloupée.’ Although the popularity of the apaches had gone out of fashion by the 1920s, the Parisian demi-monde in different forms has always remained a fascinating subject for popular entertainment. Similarly, the Montmartre of Bruant’s songs, and the ‘zone’ - home to the ‘little people’ on the outskirts of Paris - changed dramatically after the war. However, the ‘folklore des faubourgs’, the myth of these little people and the area they inhabit goes on. Renaud, as will be further discussed in Chapter 3, evokes this era of Paris through the names of his characters, the places they frequent and the ‘realist’ style of narrative.
The 1950s saw the emergence of the ‘phénomène "rive-gauche"’ and the intellectual or literary song. Based mainly in the cabarets of Saint-Germain-des-Près, this type of song, also known as the chanson poétique, led to the rise of the Auteur-Compositeur-Interprète in France. Charles Trenet and later, Ferré, Brassens and Brel are the most well-known exponents of this type of song where the text is the most important element. The coming of pop in around 1960, and the wave of French pop songs known as yéyé (due to the imitation of the English ‘yeh, yeh’) ended the influence of the chanson poétique and songs where the text was of primary importance. Imported rock and pop songs emphasised both music and lyrics, and in France after May 1968, a new generation of ACIs combined pop and chanson poétique, Jacques Higelin being one of the first and most influential exponents of this new style. Renaud also belongs to this post-1968 generation, however, his originality stems from the fact that he combines elements of the chanson réaliste with modern rock and pop sounds and themes. On a superficial level, this combination of influences can be explained by his background. As a child he grew up listening to his mother’s ‘chouchous’: Maurice Chevalier, Edith Piaf and accordion music generally, whilst discovering in his youth, The Beatles, Hughes Auffray and Johnny Hallyday.
Renaud’s background also explains some of his preoccupations in his work. He was born on 11 May 1952 in southern Paris near the Porte d’Orléans, an area which he ardently defends in the song Le Blues de la Porte d’Orléans. His father was a writer, translator and German teacher, and his mother a housewife, raising six children. His paternal grandfather taught at the Sorbonne, and his great-grandfather was a protestant minister. However, his maternal counterpart, Oscar, the eponymous protagonist of one of his songs, was a miner in the North of France. Renaud’s immediate background then, like Bruant’s, was middle-class, but, through his songs one can sense a strong attachment to the working-class roots of his mother’s side of the family.
Throughout his career his musical influences and social and political concerns can be seen not only through his songs but also through the way in which he projects different images of himself through his album covers and stage clothes. His first album, Amoureux de Paname, for example, which was released when he was still relatively unknown in the music world, sees Renaud as ‘une espèce de Gavroche rigolard, clope au bec et foulard rouge, regard faussement candide et sourire insolent, coiffé d’une gapette d’apache’ (Figure 1). Similarly, the overriding theme of this first album is a reworking of Parisian myths. By his second album both his image and his narrative content have changed, and the title song Laisse béton brought Renaud fame and commercial success. The album cover (Figure 2) shows Renaud as more of a 'loubard' figure resting on his mobylette in front of a dilapidated, graffiti-covered building, with the phrase ‘place de ma mob’ written on the wall and an arrow pointing to Renaud, clearly identifying him with his surroundings. In 1978, the same year as the release of his second album, Renaud also played ‘Le Printemps de Bourges’ for the first time and with much success. ‘Le Printemps’ was first established in 1977 and gave space to new talents as well as being a forum for debates and analyses. Renaud’s next three albums Ma Gonzesse (1979), Marche à l’ombre (1980), and Le Retour de Gérard Lambert (1981) depict more violent scenes on their album covers. The image on the Marche à l’ombre cover (Figure 3), for example, is black and white except for red lettering and the red of Renaud’s ‘foulard’ (the only remaining item from his ‘realist’ phase, which, with his leather jacket, was to become a visual motif of his stage persona). Renaud is seen from behind a broken glass window, staring directly ahead with unwashed messy hair. The colour red makes a vibrant contrast to the black and grey of the rest of the photograph, and given the broken window, is suggestive of blood. Renaud himself is seen as a resolute young male, defiantly staring straight ahead as if to challenge the onlooker. Renaud’s success as a chanson artist continued to grow over the course of these three albums. In March 1980 he played a sell-out tour at Bobino for one month, and the press began to talk of the ‘phénomène Renaud’. In January 1982 he played solo at the Olympia, following Yves Montand. A review of his performance in Le Monde, concludes as follows: ‘en uniforme de loubard aujourd’hui désormais naturalisé banlieusard, comme à ses débuts il était Titi parisien [. . .] un révolté voilà ce qu’il est [. . .] anti-communiste, anti-fasciste, anti-n’importe quoi [. . .] Coluche et Reiser semblent les parrains de cette terreur à tête de mignon gavroche. [. . .] Il draine dans ses chansons tout un bric-à-brac contemporain. Peu importe qu’il soit sincère ou non, ce dont il parle existe, et son répertoire tient debout, même s’il n’est pas très varié.’
However, changes in Renaud’s private life also marked a change in the tone of his songs from 1983 onwards. He is now married with a daughter, Lolita, to whom, the album, Morgane de toi (1983) is dedicated. The cover (Figure 4) marks a sharp contrast to the preceding violent images. It shows a full-length shot of Renaud in the centre of the cover holding his daughter in one arm, and a guitar in his free hand, walking along a path in what appears to be a park. The softer image equally reflects the narrative content of the songs. The album sees Renaud as a husband and father rather than an anarchistic and violent youth. Morgane de toi sold 1,300,000 copies in a few months and, as Marc Robine comments, this is a ‘chiffre qui n’avait jamais été atteint par un chanteur s’exprimant en français, depuis le fameux disque testament de Jacques Brel, Les Marquises’. When his subsequent album, Mistral gagnant, was released two years after Morgane de toi, in 1985, Renaud ‘est alors au sommet de sa carrière. C’est à lui que l’on demande d’essuyer les plâtres du Zénith, en janvier 84, [. . .] lui enfin, qui, en ’86, à l’occasion des manifestations estudiantines contre la loi Devaquet, sera désigné par 31% de jeunes (de seize à vingt-deux ans) comme la personnalité incarnant le mieux leurs aspirations’. Therefore, not only is he immensly successful at this period in his careeer but he is also seen as a personality with whom young people can identify. The album cover (Figure 5) continues the softer tone seen in Morgane de toi. It shows Renaud from the waist up, staring dream-like, but fatigued, to centre right sucking his thumb and holding his red foulard as a child would its ‘comforter’. In his other hand he is holding a fishing rod. The out-of-focus background is of a lake. Again the image reflects the songs on the album, such as the wistfully reminiscent La Pêche à la ligne or Mistral gagnant. His following album, Putain de camion, 1988, was not as commercially successful as the two previous albums due to Renaud’s decision not to engage in publicity for its release (see Chapter 4 for a full account of this decision). However, the ‘beauté et la qualité de l’album’ earned Renaud a number of prizes, from the ‘Ville de Paris’, the ‘Ministère de la Culture’ and the SACEM’. The album cover is solemn in tone reflecting the sentiments of loss expressed in the title song for the comedian, and close friend of Renaud’s, Coluche, who had recently been killed. A vase of red poppies is depicted encased within a large black background and the title of the album, along with the name ‘renaud’, all in lower case is subtly displayed at the top centre of the cover. The cover to his next album, Marchand de cailloux, 1991, (Figure 6) is interesting in that it reflects his tendency towards a less challenging and anarchistic tone in his songs. It shows a close-up of Renaud from the shoulder upwards, wearing the usual leather jacket and with a cigarette in his mouth. He appears to be adjusting his hair with one hand and staring to the left, either at the title of his album which has been displayed in letters unravelled from a pile in the bottom left of the cover, or at an imaginary mirror. His gaze is far less menacing than it was on the Marche à l’ombre album, which also saw a close-up of Renaud, as here he is avoiding the public’s gaze by staring away from the camera. This suggests a less challenging and subversive temperament, although Renaud appears to be frowning, which would suggest annoyance. In 1993, he released Renaud cante el nord which will not be studied in this thesis as the songs are, for the most part, written and sung in ‘chti’, the traditional language of the people of the north of France. His last album to date of new songs is A la Belle de mai (1994), a tribute to the working-class area of Marseille of the same name. Although there have been various compilation albums released since 1994, he has not produced any original material since this album.
1.Gérardy, D., Histoire du rock et de la chanson française, Editions Dricot, 1987, p.109.
2.Fléouter, C., ‘Renaud, la chanson nature’, Le Monde, 21 January 1984.
3.Gray, M., Song and Dance Man, The Art of Bob Dylan, Hamyln, 1981, p.8.
4.Saka, P.., La Chanson française à travers ses succès, F. Nathan, 1995.
5.Cited in Charpentreau J. and Vernillat, F., La Chanson française, PUF, 1983, p.36.
6.Rearick, C., The French in Love and War, YUP, 1997, p.107.
7.Rioux, L., 50 Ans de chanson française, L’Archipel, 1994, p.59.
8.Sanchez, D. and Séchan, T., Renaud Album, 1987, p.80.
9.Robine, M., ‘Le Dossier Renaud’, Chorus: les cahiers de la chanson, 1995, p.90.
10.‘Renaud à l’olympia’, Le Monde, January 8, 1982, p.17.