1 Possible approaches to the study of Renaud

There is very little published material available on the work of Renaud, therefore, one of the first tasks in this thesis is to establish a suitable methodology for approaching his work. Of the books available on him, most are biographical in origin, and include glossy photographs and anecdotal information rather than analysis of his songs, or a consideration of his role as a chanson artist. Renaud l’album, written by his brother Thierry Séchan and the journalist, Dominique Sanchez, is a fairly large, glossy book containing a biography, several photographs and an A-Z of key themes in his life and songs. Le Roman de Renaud, also by his brother, Thierry, is written in a journalistic style and provides background information to his songs and his career, although it does not provide direct analysis of his songs. The absence of scholarly material on Renaud is not unusual for the genre of chanson, as there is a relative absence of scholarly and theoretical work on chanson generally, in France and Great Britain. This trend is, however, beginning to change in both countries with work being done on Brassens, Brel and Ferré, and conference papers on chanson artists.

The published material available on chanson falls into three main areas. Firstly, there are biographies of individual chanson artists, like L’Album above. There are also various histories of French song available, focusing on different eras or themes, and mainly journalistic in style. Lucien Rioux’s 50 Ans de la chanson française, or Claude Fléouter’s Un Siècle de chansons, for example, are useful background works, but provide no critical analysis of individual songs. Cent ans de chanson française, compiled by three academics, however, stands out as, though fundamentally a history of chanson and set out in a A-Z style, it is more critical in its analytical style. There are, however, other studies written by academics: Le Rock: aspects esthétiques, culturels et sociaux, edited by Anne-Marie Gourdon, for example, contains material on the history of rock and a useful chapter by Catherine Chocron in which she examines journalistic approaches to ‘analysing’ popular music. Mignon and Hennion’s Rock: de l’histoire au mythe also contains valid material on the appeal of rock. However, in the above cases, and this is true of academic approaches generally, the writers address chanson from one specific angle, be it literary, sociological or linguistic. Louis-Jean Calvet, author of Chanson et société, however, is the only French critic to examine in detail the various approaches which can be adapted to the study of chanson. Unlike the above, he is not content to provide simply an historical overview, or approach chanson from a purely linguistic or sociological standpoint, but attempts to provide a multi-dimensional approach. Similarly, Peter Hawkins, one of the rare British scholars working on chanson, also assesses different methods of studying song. Some ‘Anglo-Saxon’ work is also useful, as, although it does not refer to chanson specifically, it does analyse popular music as a complex, multi-dimensional phenomenon. Simon Frith, for example, the internationally known British scholar in popular-music studies, has produced ground-breaking analyses of the importance of lyrics, music and performance in popular song, as well as of ‘the sociology of rock’.

From this brief survey of works available on chanson, Calvet, Hawkins and Frith stand out in particular as attempting to explore how to analyse critically chanson from a multi-dimensional standpoint. Therefore, I will frequently refer to their works in this chapter in my own attempt to assess the best approach to Renaud’s work. My survey will not, however, be limited to the above three authors but will refer to other material where appropriate to provide a balanced overview of approaches to studying Renaud.

The above survey, however, also makes clear the relative shortage of scholarly material on chanson. Why this is so needs to be explored. Calvet writing in 1981, sees chanson as undervalued in France by critics and the general public alike, and begins his study by providing an initial reminder of the genre’s importance: Face à une certaine péjoration qui tend à classer la chanson dans les sous produits de la culture, il ne suffit pas d’affirmer: ‘la chanson est une chose importante’. Reconnaître son importance à la chanson, ce n’est pas seulement dire cette importance, c’est étudier la chanson comme phénomène important, et se donner les moyens d’en parler de façon sérieuse.

The core of Calvet’s argument in Chanson et société lies in this last sentence: he is attempting to establish an analytical framework by which one can discuss chanson in the same intellectual and academic manner as one would, for example, discuss literature. Peter Hawkins equally alludes to a sense of devaluation by citing the work of Pierre Bourdieu, whom he describes as ‘one of the first representatives of the French academic establishment to pay serious attention to chanson’, and who, in his book La Distinction: critique sociale du jugement (1979) ‘mentions in passing that the upper echelons of French academia either dismiss it as not worthy of attention, or grudgingly admit to liking the more literary variety, such as Brassens or Ferré’.

The writings of the French intellectual Alain Finkielkraut provide a further example of how chanson is situated in the domain of popular culture and consequently considered inferior to high culture. In his 1987 book, La Défaite de la pensée, for example, he expresses his anxiety about a pluralistic, pleasure-based conception of culture, where ‘une paire de bottes vaut Shakespeare,’ and popular and classical music have the same cultural value. He is particularly fearful of a ‘société pluriculturelle’ where one no longer has the right to distinguish between what he sees as high and low culture, but must accept everything as being culturally valuable: Rimbaud ou Renaud, Lévinas ou Lavilliers – sa [the public’s] sélection est automatiquement culturelle. La non-pensée, bien sûr, a toujours coexisté avec la vie de l’esprit, mais c’est la première fois dans l’histoire européenne, qu’elle habite le même vocable, qu’elle jouit du même statut, et que sont traités de racistes ou de réactionnaires, ceux qui, au nom de la ‘haute’ culture, osent enore l’appeler par son nom. He goes as far as to ask: ‘Coluche et Renaud font-ils partie de la culture? La musique, le rock, est-ce la même chose?’.

Finkielkraut’s conservative doubts about the worth of popular culture generally, and of popular music in particular, are broadly in line with the standard critique of mass culture identified with Theodor Adorno and the Frankfurt school; that is to say, that the pleasure derived from cultural products (like popular music) rather than ‘serious’ genres (‘musique’) is superficial and false. Adorno, writing some forty years before Finkielkraut, was particularly critical of popular music, arguing that it is simply another manifestation of an industrialised, capitalist society where the public is given rationalized, standardized rules by which to understand music.

Two additional factors also come into play with regard to the reasons behind a devaluation of popular music. Like Calvet, Catherine Chocron points to the ‘impressionistic’ style of critics who are unable to analyse popular music: ‘[their articles] ressemblent plus souvent à des pamphlets impulsifs où le journaliste donne libre cours à sa verve naturelle […] qu’à un discours rationnel destiné à convaincre’. In this way, the preconception that popular music is not worthy of study is upheld. Similarly, Hawkins begins his investigation by providing a general survey of books available on individual French auteurs-compositeurs-interprètes (ACIs) or on chanson generally and highlights the mainly non-analytical nature of the majority of them. This preference for ‘glossy coffee-table’ books is equally true of books and articles about Renaud where biographical detail or tour photographs replace critical analysis.

Similarly, criticisms have been made of a strictly musicological approach to the study of popular music. In the first instance, the ideology behind musicology proves problematic as it was developed in nineteenth-century Europe to examine European ‘classical’ music. While it has expanded its horizons somewhat, that is still its touchstone. There has traditionally been therefore a devaluation of other music. Moreover, according to the musicologist Richard Middleton, musicology uses value-laden terms like harmony and tonality to the neglect of ideas like rhythm and timbre. He also argues that there are problems with methodology. This is true, he argues, of the use of notation in musicology which leads to an emphasis on those parts of music that can be written down using conventional notation. However, much non-classical music has features that cannot be expressed through the forms generated for the notation of European classical music. He in fact suggests that: Even in notated popular music – Tin Pan Alley ballad, music hall, vaudeville and minstrel songs, ragtime and nineteenth-century dances – the published sheet music, almost always for piano and voice and piano, sometimes ‘simplified’, acted to some extent as a prognostic device or a beside-the-fact spin-off.

The above illustrations demonstrate how popular music is devalued in society. In the case of French chanson, however, the devaluation is further complicated by the value which has come to be placed on the ‘text’ (i.e. lyrics) alone. Whilst it is acknowledged that chanson is a form of popular (as opposed to classical) music, it nonetheless differs significantly from, say, Anglo-American rock music due to the fact that the text is often taken as the main component of the song. Traditionally the French chanson has always been more literary than its Anglo-American counterpart, with the text taking precedence over the melody. Hence the term chanson à texte. Hawkins points to the Seghers’ Poètes d’aujourd’hui series in the 1960s which published song texts as it did poems, making no distinction between the two. Although the collection was later renamed Poésie et chansons, the close association of the two is indicative of how the French intelligentsia viewed chanson texts as poems, paying no attention to the relationship between words and music. Simon Frith points to the French chanson as the most obvious example of ‘narrative song’ and thereby closer to the poetic tradition than Anglo-American popular music. He explains that ‘it was always as much a verbal as a musical form’. Indeed, Renaud’s lyrics are sometimes studied in French lycées as poetic texts, and when his song lyrics to date were published by Livre de Poche in 1993, Pierre Saka maintained that, ‘les amoureux de la poésie populaire ne peuvent que s’en réjouir’.

The importance of the text, however, is not exclusively a trait of French chanson. Frith points to an entire tradition of ‘content analysis’ with respect to Anglo-American popular music, stating that, in the early stages of popular-music analysis ‘most academic analysts […] assumed, like commonsense listeners, that pop’s meaning lay in the lyrics.’ He continues: ‘words matter to people, […] they are central to how pop songs are heard and evaluated.’ Similarly, Calvet devotes a chapter of his book to the importance of the lyrics of a song, maintaining that they do hold meaning in isolation from the music, but that the meaning they contain is not necessarily the full meaning of the song.

The distinction, then, between chanson à texte and other less literary popular songs has lead to value judgements being made in France on the basis of the text alone. Both Calvet and Hawkins, however, make the point that although the song lyrics may well stand up to traditional poetic analysis (though not in all cases) when separated from the music, such an approach is inadequate if the aim is to assess the full meaning of the song. Hawkins believes that the close association between poems and song lyrics is in fact misleading: ‘However poetic they may be they are not poems, but song lyrics, designed to be sung and indissociable from the music and even the orchestration that accompanies them’. Simon Frith argues a similar point: Good song lyrics are not good poems because they don’t need to be: poems ‘score’ the performance or reading of the verse in the words themselves, words which are chosen in part because of the way they lead us on, metrically and rhythmically, by their arrangement on the page (a poem is designed to be read, even if in an out-loud performance, and such reading directions are just as much an aspect of ‘free’ as of formally structured verse forms.) Lyrics, by contrast, are ‘scored’ by the music itself.

Chanson, then, is a somewhat problematic genre in that, although traditionally it has been accepted in France that chanson texts can be studied as poems, there is very good evidence, provided by Calvet, Hawkins and much of the Anglo-Saxon tradition of analysis represented by Frith, to suggest that this approach is reductive. However, one of the main difficulties with any approach to chanson which does not concentrate on the text alone is the fact that at present there is no existing analytical framework. Both Calvet and Hawkins assess a range of possible methods for studying chanson and form their own conclusions, neither opting categorically for one single approach. In order to establish the most effective and practicable method by which to study the works of Renaud, I will investigate a number of these methods and assess their feasibility for this thesis.

Hawkins ponders the question of what would constitute the ‘works’ of a chanson artist and, taking Brel as an example, concludes that ‘it would be the Oeuvre Intégrale of his recordings [. . . ] rather than the volume of his complete lyrics, [. . . ] yet even the boxed set of compact discs leaves something out of account. [. . .] One would have to include video recordings of his concerts as well in order to capture this essential aspect [stage presence] of his art’. Calvet too regards the live performance as the ultimate medium by which to understand the full meaning of the text. He argues: ‘la scène est […] plus que le disque, le lieu privilégié de réception de la chanson, parce que s’y conjuguent tous les discours, celui de l’ombre et de la lumière, de la voix, du vêtement, du geste, du public aussi’.

The reason why both writers see the stage and the performance as so important is that, in their view, it is not the lyrics alone that convey meaning, but the look of the artist, the instrument he or she plays, his/her position on stage in relation to the orchestra, and how s/he moves on stage and organises the stage space. Ideally, therefore, as Hawkins comments, it would be the videos of singers that one would study when analysing their works rather than the printed copy of their lyrics. An illustration of the semantic shift from lyrics to performance can be seen through a reference to Renaud’s most recent concert, part of his 1999-2000 tour entitled ‘Une guitare, un piano et Renaud’. As the title suggests, Renaud was accompanied by only two musicians on stage: Jean-Pierre Buccolo on guitar and Alain Lanty on piano, a minimalist style which is unusual for him as he is customarily accompanied on stage and on record by at least five musicians. Therefore, on a tour such as this, the song as heard on the original recording and the song as heard and seen in performance differ. Although the song in performance is in theory a replica of the song already known to the audience, it is, at the same time, a new reading, as instruments that formed part of the semantics of the song as a record, that confirmed or added meaning to the lyrics, or indeed that altered meaning through irony and humour, are no longer present. For example, for the performance of the song Dès que le vent soufflera, a song about the sea, at the ‘Une guitare’ concert, Renaud is accompanied only by Jean-Pierre Buccolo on acoustic guitar. However, on his ‘Paris-Provinces’ tour of 1996, for the same song he was accompanied by a bass, another acoustic (as well as the guitar he played), an accordion and a mandolin. The marriage of mandolin and accordion in the final two verses (from ‘Ne pleure pas ma mère’ to ‘mais c’était mon destin’) as well as being suggestive of traditional folksong and thereby underscoring the traditional quality of a song about the sea, creates a lighter air to the song, especially as the guitars marking the strong beat are absent. There is still tension, however, as both instruments are played at a fast tempo with quick note changes. This layer of meaning, however, is lost when there is only a guitar for accompaniment.

Even in the case of singers who do not necessarily appear to use the stage as theatre, such as the late Georges Brassens, the fact that Brassens was alone on centre-stage with a guitar nonetheless carries meaning. Calvet highlights the fact that the use of the guitar was made popular again in France with the cabarets of the rive gauche, as it was the ideal accompaniment for the given space, being small and portable. He also notes that not all the artists who played in the rive gauche cabarets were necessarily good guitarists to start with, ‘d’où cette tendance très caractérisitique des "chanteurs rive-gauche" à composer sur trois accords, en do majeur ou en la mineur: ce sont les accords les plus simples pour un guitariste débutant.’ He also points to the invention of the accordion in 1822, and the fact that it is historically situated, and a ‘sign’ of Frenchness and the chanson réaliste. Although Renaud started playing professionally in the mid 1970s, some twenty years after Brassens and the era of the rive gauche concerts, the fact that he chooses to play the guitar on stage, and is accompanied by an accordion, adds layers of meaning which cannot be ignored.

One of the main difficulties, however, with an approach which relies on the analysis of performance is of a purely practical nature: to analyse a major part of an artist’s works by referring to their performances would require access to footage of concerts. In the case of Renaud, such material is not easily available as many of his concerts were not recorded. Even if it were possible to obtain recorded footage of concerts, such an analysis would require a major study, and a specific methodology, which is beyond the scope of the present critical introduction. However, both Calvet and Frith mention the importance of the voice as adding a layer of meaning to a song. Calvet even describes it as an instrument in its own right: On pourra trouver par ce biais de la voix l’introduction de l’ironie, de l’agression, de la caresse, de la même façon qu’un violon ou une batterie peut venir soudain modifier la perception du texte. Frith, when discussing the importance of the voice, points out that it is ‘accents and not just words […] which situate the singer and listener’. That is to say that, at times, the singer may change his/her accent to appeal to a different audience or to make him/herself identifiable to a particular part of society or to suggest a particular type of character within a song. Therefore, some sense of physical performance can be acquired from the use of the voice (and of course the instrumentation and arrangement). Indeed, Michael Gray, in justifying his particular approach to the work of Bob Dylan, cites the recordings rather than performance as providing the most meaning: ‘his finished works of art are his recordings. Like his vocal performances and his music, his words are just ingredients’. In Renaud’s case the voice as an instrument carries, at times, important meanings and will be discussed in the subsequent chapters.

Hawkins also explores an intertextual approach to the study of chanson. He emphasises that the intertextual referencing often found in French chanson does not apply exclusively to the lyrics but also to the music and that ‘even the persona of an artist can often have clear intertextual references, such as Renaud’s allusion to Gavroche or Aristide Bruant’. He continues: ‘this proliferating network of cross-reference leads me to suggest that in many respects, chanson ought to be one of the most characteristic genres of post-modernity. Its constant self-conscious reference back to a cultural heritage, its inherently fragmentary nature, its status as a popular art form on the margins of "serious" artistic production ought to put it in the forefront of such contemporary preoccupations’. Renaud is a particularly good example of intertextuality and postmodernity as Hawkins describes these concepts, and throughout this thesis, I shall endeavour to analyse the ways in which Renaud uses intertextuality, especially in the final chapter. The sociologist Dominic Strinati describes the differences between modern and postmodern song in the following manner: They [postmodern songs] are concerned with collage, pastiche and quotation, with the mixing of styles which remain musically and historically distinct, with the random and selective pasting together of different musics and styles, with the rejection of divisions between serious and fun or pop music and with the attack on the notion of rock as a serious artistic music which merits the high cultural accolade of the respectful concert (a trend identified with punk). By contrast, ‘modernist’ popular music can be understood as an attempt to fashion new and distinct forms out of previous styles.

Renaud, I shall argue, is also a good example of postmodernism as Strinati describes it. Strinati equally alludes to the domination by media images and popular-cultural signs of our sense of reality and identity in a postmodern society, commenting on the way that postmodernist thinking attempts to make sense of life in a media-saturated society. Again, these themes are common in Renaud’s songs. As I shall endeavour to show, he often addresses the power of the mass media with particular emphasis on the music industry, and his predicament, as an artist, in coming to terms with media domination.

A number of conclusions can be drawn from the above observations with regard to a suitable approach to the study of Renaud. Firstly, although chanson is a form of popular music, it differs from Anglo-American music in that traditionally it is the text which is seen to provide the core meaning. Recently, however, this literary view of the chanson, as a text which can be regarded virtually as a poem, has been challenged. Hawkins and Calvet both argue that an analysis of chanson based on text alone is reductive, although that is not to say that the written text is devoid of meaning, as both Frith and Calvet acknowledge the text as an important part of the song. Therefore, an initial conclusion can be drawn: Renaud’s texts will not be regarded as poems, to be analysed according to the traditional methods and values of literary criticism, but as song lyrics. They will, however, be analysed in detail as they do provide an important layer of meaning, particularly in view of Renaud’s clear intention to place his work within the French chanson à texte tradition. The thesis, therefore, will essentially take the form of a thematic study of the works of Renaud, establishing his importance in the chanson tradition and as an important figure in French popular culture. Given this aim, a thematic analysis of the song lyrics will occupy a major part of the thesis. I will, however, refer to the instrumentation and musical arrangement of Renaud’s songs, wherever appropriate, and make use of album covers, photographs, and my own experience of seeing Renaud live, in relation to the lyrics, where these factors alter or add meaning. Finally, given Hawkins’ insistence on the relevance of an intertextual approach, I will examine the self-conscious references in Renaud to chanson and popular music generally and attempt to explain their usage and importance to the overall meaning(s) of his œuvre.


1.D. Sanchez and T. Séchan, Renaud Album, Messidor, 1987.
2.T. Séchan, Le Roman de Renaud, Seuil, 1989.
3.L. Rioux, 50 Ans de chanson française, L’Archipel, 1994.
4.C. Fléouter, Un Siècle de chansons, PUF, 1988.
5.Cent ans de chanson française, Seuil, 1981, is written by Chantal Brunschwig, a singer-songwriter who uses the name Chantal Grimm, and who also lectures in history at the Sorbonne, Louis-Jean Calvet, lecturer in linguistics at the Sorbonne, and the historian Jean-Claude Klein.
6.A.-M. Gourdon, ed., Le Rock: aspects esthétiques, culturels et sociaux, CNRS, 1994.
7.P. Mignon and A. Hennion, Rock: de l’histoire au mythe, Anthropos, 1991.
8.L.-J. Calvet, Chanson et societe, Payot, 1981.
9.P. Hawkins, ‘How Do You Write About Chanson?’, French Cultural Studies, 1993.
10.Calvet, p.18
11.A. Finkielkraut, La Défaite de la pensée, Gallimard, 1987, p.149.
12.ibid., pp.157-8.
13.D. Strinati, An Introduction to the Theories of Popular Culture, Routledge, 1995, pp.64-9.
14.C. Chocron in Gourdon, p.218.
15.Cited in B. Longhurst, Popular Music and Society, Polity Press, 1999, p.159.
16.S. Frith, Performing Rites, OUP, 1996, p.170.
17.ibid., p.159.
18.Hawkins, p.70.
19.Frith, p.181.
20.Hawkins, pp.70-71.
21.Calvet, p.47.
22.Calvet, p.86.
23.ibid., p.97.
24.Frith, p.166.
25.M. Gray, Song and Dance Man, The Art of Bob Dylan, Hamlyn, 1981, p.7.
26.Hawkins, p.78.
27.Strinati, p.234.