In the last chapter we saw how Renaud attempts through his songs to give young people a voice and new myths to identify with in a changing world where French culture is being dominated by Americanisation. In this chapter, we will examine how Renaud reworks Parisian myths, transporting his listener from the Paris of Bruant to a post-modern city, weaving references from popular culture. On one level, there is a definite evolution to be found in Renaud’s work, as he goes from mainly songs imitating chanson réaliste to songs which describe the realities of life in today’s Paris and the new ‘Zone’: the HLMs of the 1980s and their inhabitants. In his later songs, there is a sense of nostalgia, of looking back to past representations of the capital in an attempt to keep the memory of Paris alive collectively in its modern-day inhabitants. On a second level, there is a consistency in Renaud’s work which comes from the allusions to popular culture, and popular music in particular, allusions which link the postmodern to the pre-war image of Paris.
In Facing Postmodernity, Max Silverman comments on the fascination of writers such as Balzac, Baudelaire, Flaubert, Zola, and later Breton and Aragon, with modern cities which ‘became reworkings of the mythological labyrinth in which the clarity of line and the maze, order and disorder, coherence and those elements which inevitably escaped rational control and Utopian planning progressed in tandem’. In a comparable way, Renaud, too appears fascinated with the city and its contradictions. He portrays not only the beauty of the city but the irregularities and disorder also. Renaud’s inaugural album, Amoureux de Paname, is dominated by songs in the realist vein. On one level, this can be seen as simple imitation of a former musical style, or indeed a tribute to the artists working in the realist tradition: Bruant, Montéhus, Piaf, amongst others. However, given that Renaud released this album in 1974 when most French singers were turning to an American model for inspiration, it would suggest a very deliberate, almost ideological attempt to keep within French tradition. Before Renaud came on the scene, many young people in France were listening to Johnny Hallyday’s rock on the one hand, or Claude François’s ‘spectacle à l’américaine’ on the other. In both cases, the look and image of the artists as well as their songs bore witness to the American influence. Renaud, however, with his first album, made it clear that he was not following the same path. He projected an image of himself as a ‘Parigot’, having started his career by busking on street corners (Figure 7) and wearing a ‘déguisement complet de gavroche (foulard rouge, pantalon à carreaux, casquette et mégot), se voulant à la fois dans la tradition réaliste et enfant des barricades crachant sur la société, cette dernière attitude très influencée par François Béranger’.
The fact that Renaud chose to start his career by performing on the streets of Paris is significant to an understanding of his works. As Louis-Jean Calvet comments in Chanson et société, the ‘lieux des chansons’ is relevant to the full signification of a song as different places hold a recognisable set of signifiers. In the case of the street singer, Renaud can be seen to be following in the footsteps of, among others, the Piaf of the 1930s before her move to music hall. Similarly, for his first major concert, a month at Bobino in 1980, he sang Bruant, Montéhus and Fréhel for the first half and his own songs in the second, and brought out an album of these realist songs after the concert entitled Le P’tit bal du Samedi soir. Claude Fléouter comments on Renaud’s performance at Bobino, highlighting the fact that his first-half rendition of realist songs was delivered to ‘un jeune public populaire venu écouter les derniers succès de la radio.’ He also notes, however, that ‘la fidélité et la modernité, la tendresse légèrement ironique avec lesquelles il restitue cet héritage du début du siècle, lui permettent d’affirmer avec panache les racines de ses propres chansons et de dire au passage qu’il a repris naturellement le flambeau d’un genre qui semblait s’éteindre depuis la mort de Piaf.’ Therefore, even after he achieved success with songs such as Laisse béton, he continued to acknowledge his realist inspiration.
The vocabulary employed by Renaud also evokes
turn-of-the-century Paris as seen through the eyes of singers such as Piaf,
Chevalier and Mistinguett. The place- names and slang are all specific to the
Parigots and the faubourgs: Belleville; Pantin; Ménilmontant; La Bastoche;
Montmertre; ‘escarpes’; ‘marlous’; ‘le crime’; ‘l’arnaque’.
Renaud also sings in an exaggeratedly Parisian accent. Rearick describes how
songs focusing on ‘the humble inhabitants of the Parisian faubourgs, old
working-class neighbourhoods just outside the central city’, and on pimps and
prostitutes, ‘had become a favourite folklore of popular audiences during the
late nineteenth century’. However, these themes were also popular in the 1920s
and 1930s when romantic love songs were interspersed with realist songs which
focused on ‘poverty, prostitution, unwanted pregnancies, drugs, crime, violent
conflicts over love, and heartbreaks.’ Rearick describes these songs in the
following way: These stories – myths of the little people – unfolded in the
Paris popularly known as Paname, also affectionately called Pantruche. Within
the great city of Paname the populo (population) were Parigots, speakers of
Parisian French. Parigots knew their neighbourhoods and stamping grounds by
terms that never appeared on city maps: Sébasto (the boulevard Sébastopol),
for example, and Ménilmuch’ (Ménilmontant), Popinque (Popincourt), and la
Bastoche (Bastille). The Parigots themselves went by such names as Dédé, Toto,
and Jojo. In songs, these nicknames made for piquant alliteration and easy
rhymes. Bouboule of Sébasto would fall in love with a môme from Ménilmuche, a
woman called Bibi or Nini The realist songs from Renaud’s first album (and in
many of his later ones) contain elements of these myths and names of the little
people and are expressed in a language spoken by Parigots. The plots of the
songs are similarly indicative of the melodramatic realism of this era. La java
sans joie, for example, recounts the story of a ‘p’tit gars’ born on a
pavement, never knowing his father, leaving school to take up crime and
eventually being guillotined by ‘les flics’. Throughout the song there are
also a number of Parigot references and names: ‘la racaille’, ‘Dédé’,
‘Julot d’Ménilmontant’. The vocabulary and plot are similar in Le
Gringalet. The word ‘gringalet’, although originating early in the
seventeenth century, was used in ‘popular’ French in the 1880s and 1930s
meaning a small, weak, feeble man. Renaud’s story follows this charming
Parisian weakling, who ‘savait causer aux dames’, an orphan ‘né un soir/
rue Rochechouart/ près d’une poubelle’ and who at the end of the story ‘est
mort de faim/ un beau matin/ rue d’la Roquette’. Similarly, the majority of
the vocabulary in Gueule d’aminche is mid-late nineteenth-century slang,
stemming initially from the Bruant era of realist songs, but slang which, as
Rearick points out, stayed on until after the First World War. ‘Aminche’,
for example, meaning ‘ami, amie’, originates in 1878, and changes its
meaning slightly in 1899 when ‘bonne aminche’ became synonymous with ‘concubine’,
as in Renaud’s story where it means ‘gigolo’. The plot follows the gigolo
who ‘aimait d’un amour stupide/ une bourgeoise des boul’vards’. Whereas
before meeting the ‘bourgeoise’, Renaud’s protagonist was ‘l’bon jules’
who ‘avait pas trop d’scrupules/ d’gagner sa croûte à Montmertre’, a
member of the archetypal faubourien demi-monde, after the meeting and his
subsequent amorous feelings, the narrator says he is no longer the ‘marlou qu’j’ai
connu’ as he is thinking of giving up crime and ‘y parle de s’mettre au
boulot/ de plus traîner dans les rues’. The narrator ends the song by giving
other young men of his former profession a warning:
Les escarpes et les marlous
Qui traînez su’l’macadam
Faites-vous plutôt couper l’cou
Que d’en pincer pour une grande dame
This story highlights the differences between the ‘petites gens’, a class the protagonist belongs to, and the bourgeoisie. To become involved with a member of the bourgeoisie is to lose your identity and status as a ‘marlou’ or ‘escarpe’. Jojo le démago follows a similar plot to Gueule d’aminche in that it recounts the story of Jojo, a ‘fils de prolo’ who ‘avait de l’ambition/ il voulait oublier san rang/ il rêvait d’grimper les éch’lons/ et d’finir un jour président’. One day he wins a considerable amount of money on the ‘cinquième course à Auteuil’ and becomes a member of ‘la bonne société’. This, the narrator states, means that he has ‘trahi le prolos’. However, Jojo soon rises in society and is first elected ‘député du coin’; later his wish comes true when he is indeed elected to the ‘Elysée’. The song ends on an acerbic note with the narrator describing Jojo as:
L’président des gogos
Qui vous paye l’apéro
Sur l’argent des impôts-pulo!
As with the previous song, both protagonists are examples of an arriviste following the example of Julien in Flaubert’s L’Education Sentimentale, wanting to climb social ladders and be a part of the bourgeoisie for political, financial or amorous reasons. In both of Renaud’s songs, the commentary concerning the protagonist is clear: to break with the proletariat of one’s birth is betrayal. Additionally, throughout the song, there are numerous simple rhymes based around ‘Jojo l’démago’. For example, the second chorus:
C’est Jojo l’démago
L’président des gogos
Qui fascine les péqu’nots
Quand il danse le tango
On this first album Renaud also refers to his love for Paris, for its history and place in popular culture, through Amoureux de Paname and Ecoutez-moi les gavroches, both released in 1974. In the latter song, Renaud represents himself as a fraternal figure sharing experiences and giving advice to the younger generation. At the same time, there is a two-way process in that, through his own constructed image as the Parisian street kid, Renaud provides the new ‘gavroches’ of the 1970s with an image to relate to, and in turn keeps his own image, and the memories and history it contains, alive. He talks directly to the ‘gavroches’ of today, reminding them that Paris is still a wonderful city and advising them to enjoy it in the present rather than always thinking about the future. He is encouraging the new generation of ‘gavroches’ to soak up the atmosphere of Paris, as he himself did, in order to keep the traditions and the vivacity of the city alive:
Ouvrez vos yeux pleins d’innocence
Sur un Paris qui vit encore
Et qui fera de votre enfance
Le plus merveilleux des décors
By encouraging them to wander through the ‘ruelles, dans les vieux bistrots, dans les cours et sur les pavés éternels’ he is asking them to retrace the traditional image of Paris, the Paris of Piaf and Bruant. Renaud is thus placing himself within the myth of Paris through his own image as a ‘gavroche’ and street-singer, accompanied by an accordionist. He equally reminds this generation that ‘les rues sont pleines de chansons’ indicating that Paris remains a rich source of myths to be mined by today’s songwriters. Amoureux de Paname gives a personal, quite passionate defence of Paris, putting forward all of the city’s strong points and advantages. The song is aimed at the ‘écologistes du sam’di soir’, armchair ecologists. When Renaud states that ‘j’aime encore l’odeur des poubelles/ l’gaz carbonique c’est mon hygiène’, it is probably not to be taken in the strictest literal sense. However, on a sensory level the reference can be taken to describe how the strength of smells and the general atmosphere makes an important impression. As a child growing up with these smells and atmosphere, he would always see them as a symbol of ‘Paris’. Therefore, while factors such as these can de dismissed as examples of filth and pollution in the city by some, for Renaud – who has cast himself as a Parigot gavroche – they are essential elements which make up the mythical landscape of the city.
Furthermore, the claim that there is ‘d’poésie dans les gratt’ciel’ is very similar to the claims made in Ecoutez-moi les gavroches that there is poetry and music oozing from Parisian streets and buildings. In this way, Paris is seen as inspirational as it holds the memories of great poets and singer-songwriters. Adrian Rifkin refers to the way in which certain areas of Paris became world-famous thanks to the popular singers of the time: ‘the Ménilmontant of 1943 [was] known throughout the world of cinema and gramophone as the ‘Ménilmuche’ of Maurice Chevalier [and] in the songs of the 1920s and 1930s it was they [inhabitants of Ménilmontant] who were the gratin du pavé or the true Paris parigot. […] Pace the inhabitants, it bore the double name of Belleville-Ménilmontant, and was a community cut off from central Paris by its self-sufficiency in the circuits of work and pleasure and by the mythologies of its independence’.
Renaud draws on the mythologies surrounding the people’s Paris and especially its representation in popular songs. He is encouraging the younger generation not to forget the cultural heritage embedded in Paris. The realist narrative style stays with him throughout his career, but as Renaud himself grows older his décor changes. In the 1980s Renaud updates the typical realist song and reworks the myths to make them more appropriate for his present-day audience. In this way Belleville changes into a ‘banlieue rouge’ or an HLM, and the characters similarly evolve. Dédé le surineur’ or ‘Julot d’Ménilmontant’ become ‘des anciens d’soixante-huit’ or ‘la Doudou’. As with the songs in the realist tradition, however, here Renaud describes the changing Parisian landscape in acute, local detail, making references to familiar figures, buildings, or areas of Paris identifiable to the inhabitants. In this way, he reflects the social and geographical changes to the city and the new zone and faubourgs.
In La mère à Titi, written in 1988, Renaud describes the dwelling of his friend and guitarist, Jean-Pierre Buccolo (nicknamed ‘Titi’) at a time when he lived with his mother. He describes in detail the décor in the apartment as well as the mother-son relationship. In this way Renaud is describing his contemporary characters’ lives in the tradition of the realist song. As with Piaf’s ‘half-glimpsed, snapshot narration’ and ‘naturalistic detail’, Renaud too captures a moment in a character’s life, and provides us with an almost photographic depiction of them. The small, cluttered apartment which the pair inhabit is brought to life through a list of references to multicultural bric-à-brac: a clumsy and tasteless mixture of ‘cornes de chamis’, ‘statuettes africaines’, ‘une belle corrida’, ‘un taureau’, ‘une pauvre vierge’. The detailed description of the apartment gives a lifelike accuracy. The apartment itself could be one of any number of homes of the ‘petites gens’ and is easily identifiable to the working-class Parisian. To a certain extent, then, this apartment has become symbolic of the décor of the new ‘zone’. The author-subject relationship is not one of animosity towards the owner of the flat and her ornaments, but rather there is a certain ironic empathy. It is obviously a flat that Renaud has visited on a number of occasions, as he comments that:
Sur la télé qui trone
Un jour j’ai vu un livre
In describing his friend and his life in the flat Renaud is
equally describing any number of sons in his position:
C’est tout p’tit, chez la mère à Titi
Le Titi y s’en fout
Y m’dit qu’sa vie est toute petite aussi
Et qu’chez lui, c’est partout
Titi’s life and the décor of the apartment are seen in tandem; and just as the inhabitants of Ménilmuche were identified with their quartier, and in turn looked to that quartier as a means of self-definition, so too does Titi. Similarly, the song Doudou s’en fout, written in 1983, portrays the life of a West Indian woman who runs a shop selling women’s swimwear. We are drawn into her world through Renaud’s descriptions. Moreover, we are presented with a new imaginaire of Paris and given a portrait of changes in the city which has become multi-ethnic, and where the peuple have changed and therefore need new referents. The music echoes the crossover of cultures in contemporary Paris. For the most part the music is reminiscent of a traditional folk song, with an acoustic guitar being plucked as the principal accompaniment, and an accordion and violin also used as backing instruments. However, the musical refrains intoduce a more ‘tribal’ sound, with the repetition of the name ‘la Doudou’ set to a rhythmic drum beat. This particular song displays all the humour of the typical realist song where boredom, poverty and hard work were counteracted by mirth. The song ends with a quotation from the protagonist who sells bathing costumes all year round but ‘n’en porte jamais/ elle dit, ce truc idiot, c’est bon pour les cageots’. Again, Renaud updates the realist song to make it pertinent for a 1980s society. Rifkin suggests that ‘it has probably taken until the 1980s to evolve an ‘imaginaire’ of Paris that can really cohere with the (post)modern entertainment industries,’ and cites Beineix’s Diva and Besson’s Subway as reinventing ‘an urban unconscious for a new public that has not as yet acquired one’. He argues that whilst pre-war popular cultures defined and reflected the French, and especially the Parisians, after the war this changed and they ‘maintained their power at the expense of the loss of their sense. They continued to define the national in mass cultures while occupying an ever more insignificant portion of their terrains’. Renaud too can be seen, like the film directors cited by Rifkin, as attempting to establish new referents with which French people can identify. Just as his use of images relating to youth culture re-empowers young people, so too does the reworking of Parisian myths for its new inhabitants in a contemporary context.
In Banlieue rouge and Dans mon HLM Renaud describes life in a cité on the outskirts of Paris: the new décor for the new ‘zone’. In both songs there is a sense that the HLM or banlieue is a microcosm of society as a whole. Banlieue rouge recounts the life of a fifty-five year old woman living in ‘la cité Lénine’, who only has her ‘poisson rouge’ for company. Her tedious job as a trolley collector at a supermarket makes her ‘pense[r] à ces gars/ qui sont dev’nus voleurs/ elle comprend mieux pourquoi’. She attempts to keep her flat clean as a contrast to the rest of the ‘cité’:
Chez elle c’est du lino
Mais faut pas mettre les patins
Dehors c’t’assez crado
Faut qu’dedans ça soit bien
She is trying to separate herself from the general impression of grime and desolation of the banlieue by keeping her own flat tidy. However, as the chorus of the song indicates, living in Cité Lénine demoralises her to such an extent that she feels she is not really living, but simply existing. Her situation also reflects the fragmentation and feeling of displacement from the centre of Paris that is common to the banlieue:
Elle habite quelque part
Dans une banlieue rouge
Mais elle vit nulle part
Y’a jamais rien qui bouge
Pour elle la banlieue c’est toujours la zone
Meme si au fond d’ses yeux y’a un peu d’sable jaune
She feels that she still lives in the ‘zone’, that is to say the violent area on the outskirts of Paris. Jill Forbes in her essay ‘The City as Signifying Practice’ comments that despite the creation of the RER (Réseau express régional) ‘the distinction between Paris intra muros (the twenty arrondissements "within the walls" created in 1859) and Paris without the walls [ . . . ] has been exacerbated, and the poor have, as they were in the time of Zola, been expelled further and further from the centre of the city to the outlying parts. The area of dangerous criminality known generically as la Zone has seen its confines and boundaries shifted outwards with the expansion of the city’. Forbes also comments on the number of films that have been made about the Zone, such as Bertrands Blier’s Les Valseuses (1974) and Alain Corneau’s Série noire (1979), set in the bleak high-rise estates ‘constructed on the very edge of cities and which cause the characters in these films profound psychological and linguistic dislocation’. Renaud, like the directors of such films, reflects the emotional lives of inhabitants of the estates and the impact of location on these lives. His realist style and acute observations allow the listener to enter the inhabitants’ world and empathise with them. This is true of Mon HLM also, which describes each of the floors of a high-rise apartment block, from the ‘espèce de barbouze’ on the ground floor to the ‘communiste’ on the fifth. The portrait is not one of overwhelming poverty but rather reflects the mix of people who lived in HLMs and in France in the 1980s. There is the ‘jeune cadre dynamique’ and ‘celle qui bosse dans la pub’ as well as the ‘anciens d’Soixante-huit’, who never pay the rent. Renaud’s portrayal of the estates in both of the above songs is thus multi-dimensional. In the song Rouge-gorge, written in 1988, Renaud pays tribute to the photographer of Paris, Robert Doisneau and his photographic depiction of the working-class areas of Paris. Interestingly, Pierre Saka compares Renaud to Doisneau in the preface to Dès que le chant soufflera: ‘Renaud est à la chanson ce que Robert Doisneau est à la photographie: un poète de la rue, l’observateur implacable des laideurs du monde et de sa beauté’. Renaud is an observer of the world around him and his realist style translates into snapshot images of his subjects and their city. However, unlike glossy photographs where the image is all important, Renaud’s portraits have a depth of meaning which, at times, results in an ambivalent position, as in La Mère à Titi above, or the inhabitants of his HLM or Banlieue rouge. Renaud portrays them as real people, and the world in which they live as multi-dimensional, which means both they and their world can be ugly and beautiful at the same time.
Renaud’s tone in Rouge-gorge is very different from that in his earlier ones about Paris where he enthusiastically defends the city. This is a portrait of Paris being destroyed by modernity, ‘parkings et bureaux/ ont bouffé Paris’ and no longer a home for the ‘petites gens’. In Renaud’s view real life is being chased away along with the real inhabitants of Paris, to make way for ‘la lumière/ de tristes néons’. The authentic ‘life’ of Paris is moving out of a commercialised centre into a largely heartless, abandoned periphery.
A similar portrait can be found in Les Passagers du
Roissy-Express by writer and left-wing ex-publisher Francois Maspero. Max
Silverman when commenting on the book points to the character of the
photographer, Anaïk who photographs ‘marginals’ and ‘frontier’ people,
but cannot sell her photographs because ‘rather than show a surface gloss they
reveal the anxieties of her subjects’. Silverman concludes that: The
photographs, like the encounters as a whole, are not simply records of a
momentary event during the journey but are an attempt to incorporate into that
moment of freezing and fixing a sense of depth, dialogue, responsibility and
moral weight – all things which are resolutely effaced by the fleeting image
today. They are a snapshot which links this moment with others (with a past) in
the same way that the journey on foot through the hinterland of the suburbs (rather
than simply flashing through them via the motorway) is an attempt to reintegrate
space and time, memory and history, which have become disconnected fragments.
Similarly, Peter Hamilton comments on the deconstruction in Doisneau’s work of Parisian landmarks. He asserts that, ‘such pictures have an almost too-easy and romantic allure yet, on examining them more closely, they are given life by their laconic humour and lack of perfection.’ Therefore, even as early as the immediate post-war period a certain amount of borrowing and deconstruction of mythologies was done, and Doisneau himself is not simply the nostalgic, naturalist photographer one may presume him to be. Renaud’s tribute to him in the form of this song, and in his Doisneau-like eye in other songs, therefore not only helps to keep alive the memory of Paris but also pays homage to the photographer’s irony and wit. In this way, the comparison between Doisneau and Renaud is even more acute: it is not simply that they are both street poets, but that they both use the images they create to evoke humour and irony, that is to say in order to demystify or deconstruct the myths of Paris, whilst portraying its evolving landscape. Renaud recycles the myths from different decades and reassembles them to form a new imaginaire, and like Anaik’s and Doisneau’s photographs Renaud’s portraits are more profound than simple fleeting images. Renaud, as a chanson artist however, makes references not only to the physical features of Paris, and the mythical characters who inhabited the Zone, but also reworks those myths from popular songs.
In Rouge-gorge he evokes Paris seen through Doisneau’s lens,
with ‘rues des enfant rois’ and ‘bistrots et bougnats’ emphasised by the
accompanying accordion. Through the evocation of Doisneau’s world of bygone
Paris, it is as if the photos as well as Renaud’s songs keep alive the memory
of Paris as it was before modernisation: ‘chante la mémoire que Doisneau
préserve’. However, Renaud’s evocation of the traditional, mythical Paris
is more complex than a simple, romantic, nostalgic flashback. Renaud wrote this
song in 1988, at a time when not only had Paris changed but popular song had
already marked those changes. Rearick comments that ‘the most explicit and
resounding lament for bygone days was the 1925 hit song Où est-il donc?, [the
second verse of which] tells of Montmartre seeming to disappear as old houses
are torn down to make way for big bank buildings’. Rifkin similarly comments
on representations of changes to the zone in popular culture. He notes that one
of the most significant changes to the meaning of Paris was the plan to demolish
and redevelop Thier’s fortifications of the 1840s and the military ‘zone non
aedificandi’ – the 250 metres of officially bare land on either side of them.’
Rifkin notes that, although the plan did not actually come to fruition until the
1970s, the demolition was decreed in 1919 and proposals to make it more ‘organised’
and ‘worthy’ drawn up. He asserts: Yet if the plan took decades to bring to
fruition the reaction of the music-hall, night-club or cinematic song to its
beginnings was rapid. Precisely because these margins were already the myth
materials of a literary treatment of city spaces and social differences, and
were already signifiers of nostalgia, the threat to their actual existence could
only elevate their status in systems of representation. So, these fantasmagoric
margins were consigned to the past and to loss if anything more rapidly in song
and in cinema than in the execution of the city plan. The repertoire of the
principal singers of the 1930s, amongst whom were Fréhel and Piaf, mourned
their loss and celebrated the popular texture of their life, their marvellous
sexuality, with songs like Où sont-ils donc, Entre Saint-Ouen et Clignancourt
and Chand d’habits.
Renaud’s song in the late 1980s then, would seem to be a postmodern recycling of the myths of Paris using popular song and photographic images as principal referents. Doisneau himself after the Second World War marked the changes to Paris in photographic form: ‘after World War Two […] Doisneau and Ronis, who both worked for the Rapho agency, concentrated their energies on recording the psychological and physical reconstruction of France and continued a systematic documentation of different working districts in Paris’. Rifkin describes a Doisneau image as coming ‘direct from Bruant, spying over Paris from his far-off, high-up Montmartre’. The association between Bruant and Doisneau is interesting here. Dillaz makes the point that the ‘chantre de Belleville’, Bruant, did not sing about the ‘peuple’ in general but ‘la pègre’, in ‘la fange des boulevards extérieurs’. In this sense Renaud is indeed comparable to Bruant in that his subjects are the modern-day inhabitants of ‘la fange’ rather than the entire population of Paris.
In Mistral gagnant (1985) Renaud also focuses on tradition and collective memory, and how images unlocked by songs and photographs can be a way of keeping memory alive. There is a sense of Renaud trying to preserve the oral tradition of handing down memories and stories. Indeed, the medium of the song is a natural tool for this process and Renaud is staying very much within a long established tradition. In this song Renaud in the first person singular recounts stories of childhood to a child, who, it can be assumed, is his daughter Lolita. The childhood memories are brought to life through them being passed on to a new child. In the second verse, when Renaud describes his joy at talking to the child about old times, he takes the child’s hand in his, as if to physically, metaphorically and emotionally hold on to his memories and times past and also metaphorically to pass on the past through the clasped hands:
Te parler du bon temps
Qu’est mort ou qui r’viendra
En serrant dans ma main
Tes p’tits doigts
The preservation of the past is a concern, not only of Renaud
but of contemporary society generally, as ‘although modernity clearly
transformed the "language" of the city – disrupting and
reformulating the connections between place, the past, memory and identity –
it also established, in the process, a complex interweaving of different layers
of "reality"’. However, many recent commentators have expressed the
fear that recent changes to the city ‘have effaced that complex and layered
language, banishing, at the same time, a "lived" sense of place
(lieu), and replaced it with representations or simulations of that reality’.
Silverman cites the cult of the preservation of heritage (le patrimoine) as ‘an indication of the anxiety that surrounds the loss of the past and a sense of time and the need to fill that absent space. Lived place, with its popular and private memories which were frequently at odds with official history, is replaced by the idealised reconstruction of the past, driven by media systems, capital and politics in order to be consumed as a heritage myth’. In Mistral gagnant therefore, Renaud is challenging a simulated version of the past by calling on natural means of passing on lived histories and authentic memories. This also explains the number of references to nature in the song. Like Brassens, Renaud combines the city and the natural world. It is noticeable that in Renaud’s earlier work there is a sense of violence and anarchy, and his ‘paysage’ is the city, and in particular, Paris. His descriptions centre around the buildings that the various characters inhabit, whereas later in his career, as in his personal life also, the natural world and natural life cycles occupy a much more prominent place. In this song there is a recurring theme of nature. The narrator frequently compares his daughter with the natural world. Renaud affirms that he wishes to ‘raconter la terre’ to his daughter, which is still very much in keeping with the oral tradition of passing stories and information on from one generation to the next in a traditional way. It also serves as an opposition to the technological advances in society and the computer age. In the 1980s, computer-generated techniques and technological advances were beginning to influence the music industry. Renaud chooses to write a simple piano accompaniment for this song, further distancing it from artificially produced sounds.
The song, through its nostalgic reminiscences, is a call to regain the earth and find one’s roots. The images in the song are at times sensual, describing the mouth and eating sweets, ‘et les vrais roudoudous/ qui nous coupaient les lèvres/ et nous niquaient les dents’. The sensuality comes from nature and a certain childlike innocence. Renaud compares the child’s laugh to the sea or the cries of birds, ‘et entendre ton rire/ comme on entend la mer […] et entendre ton rire/ s’envoler aussi haut/ que s’envolent les cris des oiseaux’. The child and nature become indistinguishable in these images where even the verb ‘lézarder’ is used to describe the echo of the child’s laugh, ‘entendre ton rire/ qui lézarde les murs’. The repetition of laughter evokes a happy, contented scene and the harmony is to be found through being at one with the natural world and possessing a childlike innocence. This, though never explicitly stated, contrasts with the commercial society of the 1980s where money was publicised as being the bringer of happiness, and capitalism reigned.
Therefore, in both Rouge gorge and Mistral gagnant Renaud is reacting to the shallowness of postmodernity. As at the start of his career, where he sought inspiration from the realist tradition, here he is looking to a certain representation of the past and a reworking of popular-cultural myths as a reaction against the shallow, image-based definitions of the past. He is using popular-cultural references, songs and photographs in order to project an image of the past that is complex. In Mistral gagnant he also turns to memories that he has inherited to paint a natural, lived image of the past as a reaction to simulated impressions for commercial gain. Commercialism, then, is a major concern for Renaud which carries over into his relationship with the music industry. In some of the above songs he challenges one-dimensional images of life in the Parisian banlieues, or simplistic, shallow representations of the past. In his songs dealing with the music industry a similar challenge to commercialism and inauthenticity can be found.
1.Silverman, M., Facing Postmodernity: Contemporary French Thought on Culture and Society, Routledge, 1999, p.68.
2.Brunschwig, C., Calvet, L.-J., Klein, J.-C., Cent ans de chanson française, Editions du Seuil, 1981, p.326.
3.Fléouter, C., ‘Renaud à Bobino’, Le Monde, 15 March 1980.
4.Rearick, C., The French in Love and War, Yale University Press, 1997, p.95.
7.Rifkin, A., Street Noises (Parisian Pleasure, 1900-40), Manchester University Press, 1993, pp.34-5.
8.Rifkin, A., ‘French Popular Song: Changing Myths of the People’, in France and the Mass Media, ed. by B. Rigby, and N. Hewitt, Macmillan, 1991, pp. 200-219 (p.201).
10.Forbes, J., ‘The City as Signifying Practice’, in French Cultural Studies, an Introduction, ed. by Forbes, J. and Kelly, M., (Oxford University Press, 1996), pp.246-263 (p.254).
13.Hamilton, P., Willy Ronis: Photographs 1926-1995, Oxford: The Museum of Modern Art, 1995, pp.9-10.
15.Rifkin, A., Street Noises (Parisian Pleasure, 1900-40), Manchester University Press, 1993, p.27.
18.Rifkin, A., ‘French Popular Song: Changing Myths of the People’, in France and the Mass Media, ed. by Rigby, B. and Hewitt, N., (London: Macmillan Academic and Professional Ltd, 1991), pp.200-219 (p.203).
19.Dillaz, S., La Chanson française de contestation, Paris: Editions Seghers, 1973, p.48.