2. Youth and Youth Culture

In this chapter I will explore Renaud’s depiction of youth and youth culture setting it against the background of the emergence of the teenager as a social phenomenon on the one hand, and the mass media’s projection of popular-cultural myths on the other. It will particularly explore the ways in which Renaud plays with and parodies these myths, often juxtaposing American imports (Spaghetti Westerns, Chicago gangs, James Dean) with French referents (apache, second generation immigrants, mobylette). Renaud, I would argue, is not content to imitate and recreate these myths like many French singers of the 1960s and 1970s (Johnny Hallyday, Claude François) but, instead, reworks the themes in a French context. In this way, he becomes a singer-songwriter with whom young people can identify, and who ‘se reconnaisent en toi comme dans un miroir Renaud mon fils’, as through his songs, he attempts to explore their world, and the difficulties facing them in the transitional period between childhood and adulthood.

In the 1960s and 1970s both the status of the adolescent and popular-cultural narratives were changing dramatically. The American import, rock’n’roll, altered young people’s attitudes to music, encouraging them to unite as fans, although this was not an instantaneous transformation as Edgar Morin, social anthropologist and commentator on the effects of popular music on adolescents, contends: La vague de rock’n’roll qui, avec les disques d’Elvis Presley, arriva en France ne suscita pas immédiatement un rock français […] la vague sembla totalement refluer; mais en profondeur elle avait pénétré dans les faubourgs et les banlieues, régnant dans les juke boxes des cafés fréquentés par les jeunes […] Johnny Hallyday monta au Zénith. Il fut nommé ‘l’idole des jeunes.’ Similarly, Henry Torgue comments on the origins of rock’n’roll and its capacity to unite young people in a ‘bande’: A l’origine, le rock est l’expression d’un courant populaire jeune, de milieu social économiquement faible ou moyen, souvent de pratiques marginales (blousons noirs et délinquance de quartiers). La rock’n’roll attitude réunit ‘la bande’ autour de valeurs viriles et d’objets-culte: moto et cuir’. The ‘blouson noir’, as a symbolic item of clothing, and rock’n’roll are linked in French culture generally. Pierre Mayol has described the two as a ‘couple mythique’ and Renaud chooses the image of the ‘blouson noir’ as a sign with which to identify in a number of his songs. The young people known as the ‘Blousons Noirs’ were working-class adolescents often excluded from school, knowing that their future would be one of economic and social marginalisation. Lagrée asserts that: ‘sur cette base, une image se crée. Confuse, mythique, auréolée de bravades, mais qui correspond bien à leur situation de réprouvés. Dans le groupe de copains, ces jeunes pourront confronter leurs expériences, éprouver le sentiment d’appartenir à une même collectivité et transmuer insatisfaction et frustration en illusion d’avoir délibérément choisi sa marginalité.’

As Lagrée highlights here, it is the knowledge that, in adult life, they will be marginalised and socially excluded, that leads these adolescents, as teenagers, to compensate through the invention of gangs, and the pretence that it is their choice to be marginal. Lagrée also comments on the importance of the ‘Blousons Noirs’: ‘pour être quelqu’un, il faut être un Blouson Noir, et pour être un Blouson Noir, il faut être en bande.’ For these young people, it is important to be seen to be a ‘Blouson Noir’, to wear the correct clothes and accessories, which act as a protective layer against the outside world. It is equally important to be a part of a gang.

The sociologist, Guy Avanzini has also commented on the association between rock’n’roll and young people. He contends that being part of a mass of fans, one in the same group, creates a loss of individual consciousness and a sense of fusion with the group so that the young person no longer has an individual identity but a collective one: ‘ainsi s’instaure une mentalité collective qui véhicule le mythe de la jeunesse, la cristallise et contribue à son homogénéité.’ This sense of fusion has been described in religious terms, as a feeling of communion: Dans nos sociétés ou l’individualisme se développe et la timidité avec lui, où il n’y a plus de codes sociaux qui permettent de rentrer en contact avec les autres, de mettre naturellement les gens à l’unisson, le rock ressoude les individus et procure un bien-être incontestable, un sentiment de communion.

Similarly, in the 1960s in France, the word ‘copain’ became fashionable among adolescents, and evoked much more than simply friendship, as Lucien Rioux explains: Pour les adolescents d’alors, ‘copain’ recouvre différents concepts: l’amitié, la fraternité et la connivence, mais surtout une sorte de conformisme généralisé qui permet de se distinguer des adultes et de reconnaître ses pairs. Un copain détecte un autre copain d’un simple coup d’œil. La coiffure, le vêtement, le comportement et, évidemment, les goûts musicaux, permettent à tous de se reconnaître instantanément.’ Inspired by the success of radio programmes for teenagers in America, Daniel Filipacchi and Frank Ténot launched ‘Salut les copains’ in 1959, on Europe 1, a programme dedicated to the musical tastes of young people, who were, by this time, according to Morin, a class in their own right and wanted to see themselves as such. The programme was immensely successful , and in July 1962 Filipacchi brought out a magazine with the same name, comprising song lyrics, dance tips and portraits of favourite singers (Johnny Hallyday, Sylvie Vartan) which was also very successful, more than 100,000 copies selling within hours of its first publication.

Importantly, Edgar Morin comments on the role of the mass-media in defining young people as a class: ‘les communications de masse (presse, radio, TV, cinéma) ont joué un grand rôle dans la cristallisation de cette nouvelle classe d’âge en lui fournissant mythes, héros et modèles’. Therefore, although young people may have seen themselves as an autonomous group, independent of adults thanks to their status as ‘copains’ and their own musical preferences, it was in fact the mass media who ultimately controlled their tastes by the promotion of certain musical or film stars, or access to certain styles over others.

Laisse béton (1975), Renaud’s first major success when released in 1978, is an excellent example of the way in which he plays with imported popular-cultural myths to comic effect. The plot follows the misfortunes of the narrator who is confronted by three violent thieves who physically attack him in order to steal his clothes. On one level the song can be seen as a pastiche macho Western. The musical introduction features the sound of a mouth organ evocative of Hollywood and Spaghetti Westerns. The mouth organ is repeated throughout the song especially after the title line ‘Laisse béton’ evoking a Wild West desert, despite the banal and obviously French setting. Similarly, the structure of the song reflects the infallibility of the narrator, who, like the Wild West heroes, survives beatings only to find himself facing a similar predicament in the next scene (verse). This type of repetitive structure where the framework of each verse is the same and many of the lines identical, is also reminiscent of a cartoon strip. Each new verse can be seen as a new cartoon sequence where the protagonist recovers instantaneously, and there is never a sense of consequence after the fights. The Western theme is also seen through the perpetrator inviting the narrator to accompany him to an area often used in Westerns for fight scenes, and therefore synonymous with violence: ‘ruelles’, ‘derrière l’église’, ‘l’terrain vague’. Finally, before inviting the narrator to fight, the perpetrator places a food or drink order. In a Spaghetti Western, it is normally a shot of whisky, or another form of strong alcohol that is ‘downed’ before the ‘showdown’, but here it is a ‘jambon beurre’ and then a ‘café noir’, which are standard French refreshments and therefore comically undermine the dramatic effect through their familiarity.

The setting of each verse, is suggestive of typical pursuits of the young French male. In the first verse, the narrator is ‘accoudé au flipper’, in the second ‘accoudé au comptoir’ and in the third he is repairing his ‘mobylette’. The settings also create the impression of the narrator having leisure time which he chooses to spend in a very relaxed, ‘tranquille/ peinard’ manner. This relaxed attitude is echoed through the even beat of the song, the rhythm not even being disturbed when the narrator is involved in a fight. This further parodies the slow, downbeat pace of Spaghetti Western films. The impression of the narrator spending his leisure time ‘hanging out’ in bars also suggests the importance of image, a trait which is echoed through the clothes stolen from him. Each item stolen is chosen for the way it looks: the perpetrator wants the ‘blouson noir’ to make him look like a ‘vrai rocker’ and the jeans because they are ‘l’même blue-jean que James Dean’. Consumer fetishism is common in young people as it is important for them to look a certain way in order to fit in with their ‘copains’. The objects stolen in Laisse béton can be seen as external signs which point to the narrator’s belonging to a certain sub-group of young people: the ‘Blousons Noirs’, or, more accurately, the narrator wanting to be seen as a one of a gang of ‘Blousons Noirs’.

Gangs and the part they play in a young person’s life are further explored in a number of Renaud’s songs, such as Je suis une bande de jeunes (1976). The first person narration here recounts the story of an adolescent who is left in his town when all his other friends are away in different places. To compensate he forms a one-person gang. Renaud uses popular cultural representations of gang-life but re-enacted by the one-person gang to create humour but also to draw attention to the discrepancy between the role of the gang and the reality of their lives. As in Laisse béton, some of the humour in this song is created through the juxtaposition of images: 20s/30s adult gangs on the one hand and a Parisian adolescent on the other. The narrator is thus drawing on images of gang-land fights he has seen in American films and imagining his own ‘bande’ in a similar situation. He is borrowing these mass-cultural, conventional images as a form of escape, to allow his imagination to latch on to some form of projected reality in order to make his daydreams more believable, and thus, less ephemeral to him.

Quand je croise la bande à Pierrot
Où y sont beaucoup plus nombreux
Ça bastonne comme à Chicago
C’est vrai qu’dans sa bande y sont deux

Furthermore, the narrator compares himself riding on his ‘mobylette’ to the ‘Equipée sauvage’. L’Equipée sauvage is the French title of the 1954 film The Wild Ones starring Marlon Brando. Pierre Mayol describes the film as being based ‘sur le mythe du blouson noir, du motard qui terrorise les petites villes américaines’. Previously, the film Blackboard Jungle, known in French as Graine de violence, was released which, according to Mayol, ‘préfigure une longue série de films sur les jeunes délinquants, où la musique rock est largement utilisée. Cette filmographie contribuera à créer une association entre rock et délinquance, rock et révolte.’ These two films, in fact, helped to propagate the myth surrounding the ‘Blousons Noirs’ and their powerful motorbikes and also created the mythical link between rock music and delinquency. It is these popular-cultural myths that Renaud constantly turns to and plays with. Indeed the music is a typical 1950s or 1960s sentimental love song. The references in this song mainly come from the 1950s, the myth-making days of rock’n’roll and Renaud’s own childhood, rather than the 1970s. However, although the ‘Blousons Noirs’ are essentially equated with the 1950s, Lagrée contends that they underwent a resurgence in the 1970s, thus making Renaud’s reference to them here two-fold. Young people of the 1970s can identify with the image, but Renaud is equally drawing attention to the origins of the myth of gang-life.

Young people, then, can feel comforted by being part of a group, be it a ‘bande’ or a group of fans. However, being part of a group can also be a substitute for facing up to individual responsibilities and/or facing life alone, as the tragi-comic note to Je suis une bande de jeunes, revealed through the comic descriptions, illustrates. The narrator states that the reason he had to become a one-person gang was that all his friends are either doing their military service, working in a factory, or in jail. All these activities are associated with working-class youths and all of them are a step on the way to becoming an adult, which is why the narrator is left to conclude: ‘y’a plus de jeunesse, tiens! ça m’déprime’. The narrator is the last one of his group to make this step towards adulthood, and, by inventing his own gang, he is clinging to the myths surrounding youth gangs, hoping that they will protect him from reality. Indeed, the theme of retreat into childhood and refusal of adulthood is to be found throughout Renaud’s work. Here, the narrator’s fear of entering the adult world, and his consequent longing to keep youth alive in a way that will protect him, is highlighted in the final verse when he asserts:

Si un jour en banlieue
Toute ma bande est décimée
Par toute une bande de vieux
Je me battrai jusqu’au dernier, car
Je suis une bande de jeunes

However, as the song makes clear, the myths cannot protect the protagonist forever as they are merely an illusion, a mask to hide behind. A similar portrayal of the use of a ‘bande’ can be seen in Deuxième génération (1983), a song which recounts a period in the life of a second-generation immigrant living in the Parisian banlieues. The protagonist Slimane attempts to conceal his feelings of not belonging by emphasising his importance as a gang member

Dans la bande c’est moi qu’est l’plus grand
Sur l’bras j’ai tatoué une couleuvre

As with the protagonist of Je Suis une bande de jeunes, Slimane’s feelings of loneliness and fear are also portrayed through the recurrent (in Renaud’s work as a whole as well as in this song) theme of mythomania. He invents ‘des frangins/ des amis qui crèvent aussi’. The image of gang-life is further explored in Manu, (1981). In this song, Renaud calls on the combined myths of American hoodlum and French early twentieth-century ‘apache’, both of which are classic, virtually timeless markers of gang life and le demi-monde. Manu is a ‘mec en cuir’ with ‘tatouages’ and a ‘lame de couteau’, whom the narrator also describes as an ‘apache’, a character made popular through the chanson réaliste and the songs of Chevalier and Mistinguett, who brought Montmartre and its inhabitants to life. Manu tells the story of the eponymous protagonist’s loss of a girlfriend and the consequent pain he feels. It is told through the eyes of a narrator, a friend of Manu who is talking directly to him in the second person familiar singular, telling his story whilst trying to help him deal with his loss. In a clumsy though tender attempt to console Manu after his separation, the narrator tries to revive the macho imagery of their former gang life, and delivers a string of morals in an attempt to convince Manu that being part of a gang is far better than being in a couple: ‘J’vais dire on est des loups/ on est fait pour vivre en bande/ mais surtout pas en couple/ […] Manu vivre libre/ c’est surtout vivre seul/ […] une gonzesse de perdue/ c’est dix copains qui r’viennnent’. Although Manu initially chose a girlfriend because all the other members of the gang had one, and he was anxious not to be left alone, the plan backfires and he gets caught up in adult emotions. The narrator insists that the other members were not with their girlfriends out of a need for love and tenderness, but more as a pastime, and that ultimately ‘on est fait pour vivre en bande’. However, Manu has taken it all too seriously. The underlying irony of the song is that, like Manu’s symbolic tattoos and clothes, the convincingly delivered morality of macho gang life is also false. Manu’s real emotions reflect the need for love, women and emotional security, and hiding behind the protective cover of gang life cannot fulfil the apache forever. The music underpins this sentiment. It is written in a minor key, thus adding a melancholic edge to the song and further undermining the macho portrayal of gang-life expressed by the narrator.

The ‘Blouson Noir’ myth is further exploited in C’est mon dernier bal (1978), where Renaud draws on the links between rock’n’roll and violence, set against a traditionally peaceful, rural image of a ‘bal’. The story unfolds through the eyes of the narrator, in the first person singular, and recounts the exploits of a group of friends who decide to amuse themselves by attending a ‘bal’. The music is in keeping with classic rock’n’roll with Renaud’s voice, at times, shaking in an imitative Elvis style. The impression of a group of friends is accentuated on the recorded version with a dialogue directly preceding the main text of the song, in which a number of young people chaotically discuss their intentions for the night out. The plot of the song follows a stereotypical media portrayal of a group of ‘Blousons Noirs’ on a night out: the purchase of inexpensive beer beforehand; an unwillingness to pay the entrance fee; a fight with a rival ‘bande de mecs’ followed by a hasty reconciliation. However, the conclusion to the song introduces a most unexpected tragi-comic twist:

J’aurais pas dû bouger
Maint’nant je suis mort
Dans la vie, mon p’tit gars
Y’a pas à tortiller
Y’a rien de plus dangereux
Que de se faire tuer

The announcement, by the narrator himself, that he is dead, is delivered in such a deadpan way as to make it, and the accompanying words of advice - the bathetic last two lines of the song - humorous. The realist theme is also echoed in these final lines, by the narrator referring to his listener as ‘mon p’tit gars’, a very old-fashioned phrase, reminiscent of Piaf. The knowledge of the narrator’s death equally sheds a new light on the title line and chorus:

C’est mon dernier bal
Ma dernière virée
Demain dans le journal
Y’aura mon portrait

Before this announcement, the narrator’s claim that this ‘bal’ would be his last could be interpreted in a number of ways: given the violent overtones of the song, he could have been arrested for involvement in a fight, or, on the other hand, he could have simply decided that it was time to move on from the ‘bande’. However, his death confirms beyond doubt that this was his ‘dernier bal’.

A similarly tragi-comic ending can be seen in Tu vas au bal? (1985), which follows the conversation of two friends deciding on whether or not to visit certain places. For six of the eleven verses the structure consists of a series of questions based on an initial enquiry as to whether the narrator is going to the ‘bal’ or ‘aux putes’ or ‘à l’église’. The subsequent verse repeats the structure but changes the subject in that it is the narrator asking the second character:

Tu vas au bal? – qu’y m’dit
J’lui dis: qui? – y m’dit toi
J’lui dis: moi? – y m’dit oui
J’lui dis: non, je peux pas
C’est trop loin – y m’dit bon
Et toi, t’y vas? – qu’j’ui dis
Y m’dit: qui? – j’lui dis toi
Y m’dit: moi? – j’ui dis oui
Y m’dit: non, j’y vais pas
J’ai un rhume et j’ai froid

The style of questioning creates humour in that it evokes an adolescent’s undecided, lethargic manner of discussing plans. The comic effect of these verses is heightened in performance by the fact that Renaud sings them at an extremely fast pace resulting in breathlessness and adding to the pantomime humour. The penultimate and final verses, however, emphasise the tragi-comic element of the song . The narrator’s friend dies yet he flippantly brushes this death aside saying that it is of little importance as he was annoying and ‘y savait que/ poser des questions un peu cons’. The ironic twist comes in the final verse when he relates how after the friend’s burial he did all the things they had decided not to do in the previous verses. As in Manu, however, there is also a slightly embarrassed, indirect suggestion of male tenderness in this song.

In both of the above songs the tragi-comic element functions in much the same way as the invention of friends, or a ‘bande’ in the previous songs. It is a protective device used to detract from the seriousness and reality of the negative situation, in this case death. The humour allows the narrator (as well as the author and audience) to escape from the tragedy. Therefore, both the protective cover of gang life and humour are seen as ways of escaping reality and adult concerns in Renaud’s discourse. He also comments on how young people turn to drugs as a further means of escape, but warns of the dangers inherent in such a choice. La Blanche (1981) is a monologue where the first person narrator talks directly to ‘Michel’, an old friend and drug addict. P’tite conne (1985), a second anti-drugs song, describes the drug-induced death of Bulle Ogier’s daughter, Pascale. In both songs there is a feeling of lost innocence, as the young person involved has succumbed to the adult world too soon. In La Blanche Renaud’s narrator attacks the drug dealer rather than Michel whom he describes in a pathetic way: ‘paraît qu’toi tu marches sur un drôle de ch’min […] t’as l’regard triste come c’lui d’un épagneul’. In P’tite conne the attack is again aimed at the drug dealer, but also at the victims’ ‘branchés’ friends. In this way, like the songs on youth gangs, the discrepancy between the image and reality is emphasised. The victim protagonist may have thought it was ‘cool’ to associate with other young people who took drugs. For her it was a mask, and a way of pushing back the need to become an adult, to grow up, like the invented gang of Je suis une bande de jeunes, or the cover of the ‘apache’ in Manu. However, the reality is as Renaud states:

Qu’à pas vouloir vieillir
On meurt avant les autres…
[…] tu voulais pas mûrir
tu tombes avant l’automne

In Deuxième génération, the problem of drugs is also addressed. Slimane admits to taking any sort of substitute for drugs when he cannot afford drugs themselves:

J’ai même pas d’tunes pour me payer d’l’herbe
Alors, je m’défonce avec c’que j’peux
Le trichlo, la colle à rustine

The need to take drugs stems from a sense of not really belonging and therefore of wanting to escape his immediate reality. Slimane’s feelings stem not only from the fact that he is an adolescent and in the difficult transitional period between childhood and adulthood, but that he is also a second-generation immigrant trapped between France and representations of his parents’ homeland:

Des fois, j’me dis qu’à trois mille bornes
De ma cité, y’a un pays
[…] qu’là-bas aussi, j’s’rai étranger
qu’là-bas non plus, je s’rai personne

He pretends to cope with the adult world he is forced to live in ‘à la Courneuve’ by mentioning the fact that he has not yet been sent to prison, but only because he is too young. However, glimpses of his naivety and innocence do show through when he is describing prison, ‘paraît d’ailleurs qu’c’est pas Byzance’. This ability Renaud has to suggest psychological depths in his songs, is also a feature of his skill as an ACI. Slimane also turns to other forms of escape from the reality of his everyday existence. He enjoys ‘musique avec les potes’ and admits to going ‘aux putes, juste pour mater/ pour s’en souv’nir l’soir dans not’ pieu’. In many of the above songs Renaud employs language which is specific to young people and which thereby acts, like the ‘cult’ items of clothing, as signs of belonging to ‘la jeunesse’. Guy Avanzini comments that language common to young people ‘possède une valeur magique et son emploi signifie l’appartenance à la jeunesse. Ses abréviations, ses tournures elliptiques, ses termes spécifiques, ignorés des adultes, constituent un code réservé aux initiés’. The language Renaud uses in his songs can be seen as a code in that the language imitates adolescents’ way of talking and expressing themselves. In this way, Renaud’s songs can be seen as comforting for young people in that they provide a mirror and a means of identification. In other songs, the slang that he employs can be understood by young people more easily than the older generation because it is specific to their age group. Marc Robine, for example, singles out Laisse béton for the use of verlan, calling it a ‘phénomène de société’ although it must be remembered that the title is the only part of speech written in verlan in the song. There is a certain amount of disagreement as to the origins of verlan, with certain commentators recognising its usage as early as 1585, while for others it is a 1950s phenomenon. Either way, its relevance lies in the fact that Renaud’s use of an old and outmoded form of slang became an expression for young people all over France in the late 1970s. Le Robert’s description of verlan is particularly interesting here: ‘la maîtrise du verlan ne réside pas dans celle du code, élémentaire, mais dans le fait que seuls certains mots, dans un milieu donné, sont traités, sans que le locuteur extérieur au milieu puisse le savoir; il s’agit ainsi d’un véritable argot d’exclusion et de reconnaisance.’ Indeed, Renaud’s use of verlan in a song about youth, and of references to youth culture results in adults being the ones excluded from this language.

In other songs, however, the use of language results in lyrics which can be seen on one level as nonsense rhymes. So far in this chapter we have seen representations of youth in the songs’ content, however, through the language, word-games and forms of songs this theme can also be seen metaphorically. Renaud’s word-games as author are a metaphor of his characters’ games of evasion. Where this is the case, the theme of the song tends to be love, and therefore, the apparent ‘nonsense’, like the humour of the songs discussed above, arguably serves as a reflection of the difficulty of passing from adolescent feelings of love to adult ones. La menthe à l’eau, written in 1974, is, on a first level, a love song dedicated to the narrator’s girlfriend, Marie. However, the more interesting aspect of the song is to be found in the use of language. The form of the song is similar to that of a limerick or nonsense rhyme. Renaud plays with the sounds contained in the title, and in particular the letter ‘m’. The pun comes in the last line when the play on words of the title is exposed, and ‘la menthe à l’eau’ becomes the homonym ‘l’amante à l’eau’. There is, in this way, a logical progression from the first phonetic manipulation through to the final pun, reminiscent of certain word games where one letter or word in each line is changed to reveal a new word or a new sentence at the end of the game, thus:

Si j’aimais sa tombola
Si jamais ça tombe à l’eau
Mon amante deviendra
Ben voyons, l’amante à l’eau

Similarly in the first of his two ‘chansons d’amour’, Rita, also written in 1974, the love song is manipulated through a humorous final pun. The song only contains four lines in a simple and repetitive structure. Each line begins with the name Rita followed by a comma. The first three lines follow the structure ‘donne-moi’ plus ‘ton/ta’ and noun. The first two lines follow the expected pattern of a love song, with the narrator asking for Rita’s heart and then hand. However, the third line culminates in the narrator asking for Rita’s sister, adding a humorous twist. In performance, Renaud lingers on the final letter ‘a’ of the word ‘Rita’ singing it at increasingly higher notes until he can go no higher, leaving the final three-word phrase ‘nous partons demain’ as a comic drop in pitch, and a quick and amusing conclusion to the song. The second of Renaud’s ‘chansons d’amour’, Mélusine, was written two years later, in 1976. Again, the title is the same, a woman’s name with the subheading in brackets underneath. Mélusine comprises six verses and is also in the vein of nonsense rhymes and limericks. There is a play on letters and exaggerated alliteration which produces a humorous effect. In the first verse, for instance, there is a repetition of the letters ‘m’, ‘l’ and ‘s’, all of which appear in the name Mélusine:

J’ai connu Mélusine au mois de mai à l’usine
A côté de Liévin
This structure is repeated in the second verse when the woman’s name changes to

Quand j’ai connu Sabine, elle était dans son bain
J’aimais bien sa bobine

In this way, the sense of the song becomes absurd with no real continuity other than the play on words and letters. Renaud appears to be playing with the sounds in an innocent, childlike way, which, like the gang life of the above songs acts as a disguise. The subject of love thus becomes caught up in a child’s world, reflecting an unwillingness to describe such a subject in an adult way. There is a reticence, an awkwardness about adult emotions.

Another song that falls into the above category is Greta, written in 1974. Again on a simplistic level it can be seen as a love story. This time, the lovers are divided by a physical and political structure: the Berlin Wall. On one level, the word-play in this song can be seen as a metaphor for spanning the wall; words can jump to different words, be attached to different syllables; they are not grounded by ‘concrete’ sense or the wall. They are powerful in their nonsense and have the power to reunite different languages and people. The potential power of (song)words as a leitmotiv of Renaud’s earlier work will be explored more thoroughly in Chapter 4. Suffice it to say that the blend of the serious and comic in Greta is not a tool by which Renaud makes an overtly political statement or comment on the political system in a divided Germany. It is the power of language that dominates the song rather than a political theme. In the last verse, especially, there is a sense of crossover, of metaphorically jumping the wall through the repetition of the same linguistic structure but replacement of one word in each sentence:

Dis-moi warum Greta
Dis-moi pourquoi Greta
Pourquoi qu’t’habites à Berlin-Est
Pourquoi qu’j’habite à Berlin-Ouest

The constant questioning in the song in both French and German also adds to a sense of childlike questioning of the world rather than direct political engagement. The system employed by Renaud here to distort the words and lines is similar to verlan in that, to create the new, seemingly nonsense words, he inverts syllables of different words to produce the new ones. There is, therefore, a logical pattern to the absurdity, and one that draws on turn-of-the-century slang:

Ich liebe dich Greta
Ich liebe d/a gret/ich
Ich liebe ta/ac gre/di

In the same way as the syllables are interchangeable, there is also a crossover of languages. Renaud says the same thing in three different languages – German, English and French. On a second level, the word-play (seemingly nonsense but with a logical structure governing it) harks back to the Montmartresque chansonniers (Georges Sécot, Xavier Privas, Lucien Boyer), and their word-games in song. The wall being referred to in this song has a particular social and political significance to the audience at the time of writing. However, the notion of the wall and its use in a song which contains word-play is equally, coincidentally or otherwise, reminiscent of ‘Le Mur’ which Olga Anna Dull describes as a ‘pseudojournal produced on a wall of the Quat’z’Arts cabaret’, which itself was based on Rabelais’s Gargantua and a wall-less utopian vision. She makes the point that, ‘in the 1890s, and especially in Le Mur, parody, together with verbal and visual word games, became so extensive as to target not only figures and symbols of the establishment outside of the Montmartre utopia, but also the constituencies of the avant-garde community itself.’ It would appear, therefore, that Renaud’s word-play, in this song and those mentioned above, is important on more than one level. It does reflect the immature sentiments of a young person faced with adult decisions and emotions. However, Renaud also appears to re-work the parody and word-play of the muristes: punning for punning’s sake; playing in a childlike manner with words. Dull equally notes of the muristes that, ‘imitation, whether of contemporary or past, political or aesthetic models, was believed a means of providing new sources for reshaping the self-image of a country recovering from the hardship and humiliation of such disasters as the Franco-Prussian war.’ This is also interesting in that, although French identity has changed since the Montmartre days, Renaud, like the muristes and their contemporaries, is giving the French public the means with which to reshape their self-image. For Renaud, this rests largely with French youth, for whom he provides a mirror and a means of identification, as we have seen in this chapter. Renaud arguably uses language to re-empower young people in the face of a changing society and changing cultural references. Through parody and pastiche, he plays with new cultural imports and adapts them to French society. He does not simply imitate Anglo-American culture but challenges its dominance in contemporary society by humorously mixing it with French referents. In this way, the discrepancy between the role and the reality in life in, for example, an adolescent ‘bande’ or in a group of rock fans, is explored. Young people can identify with the reality found in Renaud’s songs rather than the surface gloss of images projected by the mass media. However, on a different level his reworking of ‘self-image’ can also be applied to la chanson française itself. In the next chapter, I will explore how Renaud reworks myths from the Montmartre era through to the Americanisation of the chanson and the influence of rock’n’roll sounds, in order to comment on, and ultimately re-establish an authentic urban French song in contemporary France.


1.San-Antonio in the preface to Mistral gagnant.
2.Morin, E., ‘Salut les copains’, Le Monde, 6 July 1963.
3.Torgue, H., La Pop-music et les musiques rock, PUF, 1997, pp.33-4.
4.Lagrée, J.-C., Les Jeunes chantent leurs cultures, L’Harmattan, 1982, p144.
6.Avanzini, G., Le Temps de l’adolescence, J.-P. Delarge, 1978, p.87.
7.Calamme, cited in P. Mayol, La Planète rock, Séminaires de Saint-Sabin, 1994, p.18.
8.Rioux, L., 50 Ans de chanson française, L’Archipel, 1994, p. 159.
9.See Rioux, pp 159-160 for a comprehensive account of ‘Salut les copains’.
10.Morin, E., ‘Salut les copains’, Le Monde, 6 July 1963.
11.See, for example, Charles Bronson in Once Upon a Time in the West.
12.Mayol, p.7.
13.ibid, p.6.
14.Avanzini, p.87.
15.Robine, M., ‘Dossier Renaud’, Chorus: les cahiers de la chanson, 1995, p.91.
16.An example would be ‘Transformations’ or ‘Doublets’, invented by Lewis Caroll and first published in 1879.
17.The Quat’z’Arts cabaret, in boulevard de Clichy, was founded by François Trombert in the late nineteenth century.
18.Dull, O.A., ‘From Rabelais to the Avant-Garde: Wordplays and Parody in the Wall-Journal Le Mur’, in Cate, P.D. and Shaw, M., eds., The Spirit of Montmartre, Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, 1996, p.203.