4. Image, Authenticity and the Music Industry

The first part of this chapter will concentrate on the changing face of Renaud’s relationship with the music industry. It will trace his concerns with authenticity, image, americanisation and commercialism in his artistic career and determine his changing attitudes as his career matures. In the second section, it will investigate how Renaud has projected and played with his own image throughout his career, and attempt to explain the self-deflation of his artistic talents and status as a ‘star’.

At the start of Renaud’s career, his songs tended to realist narratives and/or an exploration of youth culture, as the previous two chapters illustrated. Two songs from this early period, however, are important in understanding Renaud’s concerns about the commercial side of the music industry and his attempts at declaring his autonomy and authenticity. He wrote Société tu m’auras pas in 1974, before he had achieved commercial success or notoriety as an artist. The song is the only one on his first album, Amoureux de Paname, to deal, at least in part, with the music industry. Two years later he wrote Le blues de la porte d’Orléans, a song which expresses many of the same thoughts and attitudes. For this reason these two songs will be studied comparatively. In neither song is the music industry the main preoccupation. However, it becomes evident that Renaud sees himself, and wants his listeners to see him, as a particular kind of singer. In Société there is a diatribe against social structures and in particular against the military (‘des cons en uniforme’) and the government (‘j’ai connu l’absurdité de ta morale et de tes lois’). With this anarchist attack on society, Renaud is, on the one hand, projecting an image of himself as a supporter of the working classes, and on the other hand placing himself in a protest-song tradition in the footsteps of, for example, Béranger and Ferré:

La Commune refleurira
Mais en attendant, je chante
Et je te crache à la gueule
Cette petite chanson méchante

He equally alludes to the power of chanson artists and the fact that society will never be able to constrain protest-song chanteurs like himself. There is also a strong sense of autonomy in Société tu m’auras pas, as Renaud gives a defiant, almost arrogant view of the ‘selling out’ of singer-songwriters before him and protests that he will never succumb to society’s pressures in the same way:

Y’a eu Antoine avant moi
Y’a eu Dylan avant lui
Après moi, qui viendra?
Après moi, c’est pas fini.
on les a récupérés
oui, mais moi on m’aura pas

This assertive defence is also heard through the musical composition and the way in which Renaud sings the song. The simple end rhymes of the chorus (fois/mois/toits/toi) are emphasised by Renaud holding the note for a fraction of a second longer than the final notes of the lines in the verses. The same is true of the notes accompanying ‘socié/té’ and ‘pas’ of the final two lines of the chorus. There is equally an aggressive rhythm throughout the song, exaggerated in the choruses by the fast and loud drumbeat, and in the rest of the song by the (musical) accent and pauses after particular words, for example:

> > >
Car la vé/ ri/ té vaincr/ a
> > >
La Comm/ une/ refleur/ ir/ a

The song also ends musically in a very decisive manner due to the repetition of the drum roll and the music coming to an abrupt end, with no fading out of instruments. A similarly enthusiastic and defiant stance is to be found in Le blues de la porte d’Orléans. Renaud initially describes different parts of France desiring independence:

Puisque les Basques et les Bretons
Les Alsaciens, les Occitans
Les Corses, les chtimis, les Wallons
Y veulent tous etre indépendants

He consequently decides that if all the regions can be autonomous then so can he:

J’prends ma guitare et j’crie bien fort
Que je suis le séparatiste du quatorzième arrondiss’ment
Oui, que je suis l’autonomiste de la porte d’Orléans

He goes on to lament the positive aspects of his district. The only drawback with the area, he argues, is that the River Seine does not pass through it, but he claims, ‘ça peut toujours s’arranger […] on pourrait p’t’etre la détourner’. Despite the obviously tongue-in-cheek subject matter, this hyperbolic claim is in keeping with his overall attitude of infallibility. He sees himself as an independent artist who can achieve anything he wants. He is attached to his immediate locality and not to outside influences. Renaud’s choice of musical style in this song also adds to the message of autonomy and fidelity to a specific locality. As the title suggests, the music is a typical blues composition, with an introduction not unlike the musical introduction to John Lee Hooker’s famous Crawling King Snake. The guitar rhythm and Renaud’s drawling voice ending the song (on the sung version only) with ‘oh yeh’ confirm the blues style. In discussing the importance of the career of Delta blues singer Muddy Waters, Brian Longhurst points to ‘the origination of a style in a particular local setting’ and ‘the way in which the music was performed in social contexts for the local market’ as two decisive factors in the definition of blues. Similarly, in Renaud’s blues version, not only does he allude to the importance of his locality through the lyrics, but also, by association, through the chosen musical style. This spirited defence of his independence is perhaps to be expected in a singer-songwriter who had only just started his career and had not had to deal with commercialism or the power of the music industry. As we shall see later in this chapter, Renaud’s confidence in the power of song and in his own ability to stay independent of social pressures changes considerably as his career progresses.

However, it is interesting that even before commercial success, the issue of authenticity and ‘selling out’ should be among his concerns. In this song he is obviously very much aware of how other singer-songwriters have coped with the music industry, and acknowledges that if he is to continue in his chosen career it is an issue which he will also face. Authenticity is a major concern at this stage in his career, and in Chtimi rock (1978) he expands, again (semi-)humorously, on the sentiments expressed above to comment on the influence of American music on the French chanson tradition in the late 1970s. In the title, Renaud juxtaposes the words ‘chtimi’ relating to the traditional inhabitants of the north of France, and their authentic patois, le chti, and ‘rock’, a modern American import. This opposition is further exploited through the music and rhythm, which are classic rock’n’roll, and Renaud at times imitates an Elvis Presley slur. He also employs the English word ‘feeling’ to reflect the influence of Anglo-American culture on the French language. However, Renaud reacts against the American influence by asserting that, although ‘tous les rockers francais’ have travelled to America ‘pour trouver le meilleur feeling de la planète,’ he does nothave to:

Mais moi, pour m’éclater, pas b’soin d’aller si loin
Je joue du rock’roll à Lille-Roubaix-Tourcoing

He can still derive pleasure from more traditional sources, and find his ‘feeling’ in an area of France known for its independent spirit. However, towards the end of the song, a slight but significant change of attitude towards stardom can be found. Initially there is a defence of French culture and a disregard for travelling to America, yet, in the final verse the narrator imagines that one day he and his friends will become pop stars and gain international acclaim and stardom. He still maintains that he would not forget about France but the fact that he dreams of travelling and achieving success overseas is indicative of his growing ambitions. This song, then, can be seen, above all, as a nostalgic celebration of the importance of amateur rock culture to provincial youths.:

Un de ces quatre matins, on d’viendra des pop stars
À nous les hit-parades et puis à nous Guy Lux
Même si on est mauvais, on garde quand même l’espoir
De connaître la gloire, la fortune et le luxe
Mais on n’oubliera pas notre pays natal

One can sense therefore a certain ambiguity creeping into Renaud’s works. He is no longer the street singer paying tribute to Bruant and Montéhus and adamantly protesting that his authentic chanson style will not succumb to the pressures of commercialism and Americanisation. Although it is the narrator of the song who has ambitions of travelling and finding stardom, Renaud as a chanson artist is very aware of the difficulties of making a living from singing without compromising his principles. This ambiguity is echoed on his subsequent album, Marche à l’ombre through the song Où c’est qu’j’ai mis mon flingue? (1980). Through this work Renaud questions the power of song and his place in the chanson tradition. His ‘flingue’ can be compared to his song, which is itself seen as a metaphorical weapon. Throughout the song the title line is repeated, referring to Renaud continually searching for an arm with which to react against passivity. In the opening verse he declares that:

J’veux qu’mes chansons soient des caresses
Ou bien des poings dans la gueule
À qui qu’ce soit que je m’agresse
J’veux vous remuer dans vos fauteuils

This can be seen as a description of his œuvre generally, especially his earlier works (cf. Hexagone) where he did actively try to shake people up and fight passivity through song. He equally maintains that for him being a singer is not about achieving ‘un disque d’or’ or securing a solo performance at the Olympia. It is not for the fame or publicity but to say something, to produce a reaction through his songs, which therefore draws one into a wider debate concerning the role of the artist and the workings of the music industry. Renaud has made the choice to place himself in a ‘chanson de contestation’ tradition, but as the narrator of Chtimi rock finds, it is not always easy to stay local and oblivious to the music industry. As Renaud too becomes more famous, he cannot remain a small local artist. Although he is still maintaining his rebellious, anarchist stance, there are clues in this song that song generally is not as powerful a medium as he had hoped, and that the public are drawn to the image and fame of an artist rather than paying attention to the content of his/her songs. Renaud comments that it is not only ‘les mômes’ who want his autograph when he is out:

Y’a même des flics qui me saluent
Qui veulent que j’signe dans leurs calots

In earlier songs, Renaud has attacked the police, violently at times. Therefore, it is bitterly ironic here that policemen are now asking for his autograph. They too see only the star, which ultimately indicates that his songs have done little to change the world. The final verse also portrays an ambiguous position regarding the power of song:

Pour l’instant ma gueule est sur le zinc
D’un bistrot de plus cradingues

This final line indicates that he has succeeded in finding his weapon, and that therefore he once again poses a threat. However, there is still a sense of impotence and the reality of the threat is unclear as he remains in his ‘bistrot’, rather than fighting injustices. In this sense, the song reflects Renaud’s feelings of uncertainty and inadequacy. However, there are a number of intertextual references in this song which serve to reinforce Renaud’s anarchistic tone as well as his antithetical assertion that song should be ‘des caresses/ ou bien des poings dans la gueule’. The choice of references is important as Renaud uses them to establish his place in relation either to the author of the cited text or to a part of the text itself. In this way, he seems to be searching for his own specific niche in the chanson tradition and calculating exactly where he belongs. For example, in line 56, he makes reference to Gainsbourg’s reworking of the Marseillaise:

La Marseillaise, même en reggae
Ça m’a toujours fait dégueuler

He is making reference to another ACI known for his non-conformist attitude, but even Gainsbourg’s scandalous reggae version of the Marseillaise is not shocking enough for this rebellious, anarchistic (and potentially slightly despairing) Renaud. This is equally true for his rewriting of lines from a Jean Ferrat song entitled La Femme est l’avenir de l’homme, which begins ‘le poète a toujours raison’ and has as its refrain: ‘je déclare avec Aragon/ que la femme est l’avenir de l’homme’. Renaud, however, turns this into a more acerbic version:

J’déclare pas avec Aragon
Qu’le poète a toujours raison
La femme est l’avenir des cons

The nihilist Renaud here describes all men as ‘des cons’ and at the same time challenges the power of the ‘poète’, of the author, of texts such as this one. Indeed, Ferrat himself was considered subversive because of his PCF sympathies, and several of his songs were banned. It would appear, then, that even at a comparatively early stage in his career (1980), there is an air of gloom surrounding his attitude to the power of the individual artist faced with the mighty machine of the music industry and of wider capitalist society. Indeed, in an article in Le Monde Claude Fléouter comments on the fickleness of audiences faced with choice in a consumer market: ‘le public est tellement abreuvé tous les jours de produits et de bruits qu’il se lasse rapidement’. He then cites Renaud who, in view of this attitude of consumerism, hints at a career change: ‘Je veux m’arrêter avant qu’on me le fasse sentir. J’aurai toujours envie, je crois, d’écrire des chansons mais pas celle de les défendre sur une scène ou à la télévision. Mais j’aimerais faire autre chose, écrire par exemple des scénarios ou des romans policiers’. Clearly, Renaud finds it difficult to come to terms with working in an industry which is dominated by commercialism. However, he does not change his career, but continues writing chansons.

As we have seen, Renaud often situates himself in relation to other ACIs and his reworking of Boris Vian’s Le Déserteur, in 1983, serves a similar purpose. Vian’s version was written in 1954 and immediately added to the artist’s scandalous reputation: ‘après avoir lancé une bombe dans la littérature avec J’irai cracher sur vos tombes (1946), roman signé Vernon Sullivan et qualifié de pornographie, il en lance une autre dans la chanson avec Le Déserteur, chanson antimilitariste qui sera interdite’. Therefore, by choosing to rework this particular song, Renaud is comparing himself to Vian and the sentiments the latter originally evoked. He is once again portraying himself in an anarchist vein and using chanson as a means to shock an audience. Renaud updates the song to make it relevant and pertinent to a 1980s French society by addressing the polemic to François Mitterrand. However, ultimately, Renaud’s version is not as scandalous as Vian’s original due to the obvious fondness Renaud has for Mitterrand, seen in this song near the end when the singer is willing to proffer a dinner invitation to the President.

However, the impotence first seen in Où c’est qu’j’ai mis mon flingue? is magnified in songs from 1988 onwards. The album Putain de camion was released that year and is a homage to the comedian Coluche, a close friend and Lolita’s godfather, who was killed in a motorbike accident on 19 June 1986. Renaud engaged in no publicity for this album, writing the following message on a whiteboard at his record company: ‘pour son prochain LP (avril 88) Renaud ne fera AUCUNE promo. Ni presse pourrie, ni radios nulles, ni télé craignoss’. In a later interview with Claude Fléouter, Renaud explains his decision and the consequences of it: ‘partagé entre le ras-le-bol de devoir me justifier dans cent émissions de radio et trente de télévision, et l’envie viscérale de m’exprimer en dehors même de mes complaintes, j’ai eu finalement une trop grande confiance en la capacité de mes chansons à se défendre toutes seules. J’ai refusé les médias. Je me suis fait piéger. Je me suis autobaillonné. D’autant plus que je n’ai pas fait de prouesses au Top 50. Résultat: je me suis aperçu que, dans les régions, des gens qui m’aimaient bien ignoraient la sortie de l’album. Je me suis planté. Je reprends un peu du collier pour dire: voilà, j’ai un spectacle au Zénith. J’ai envie de m’éclater sur scène et de donner du bonheur à ceux qui m’aiment’. As we have seen, from his very first album Renaud has been aware of the power of the music industry, the media, and commercialism and has tried to fight against it. However, he humbly admits here that the media, as well as the commercial side of the music industry, is an integral part of being an artist. That is not to say, however, that he believes it to be a positive thing. On the album there is an interesting mixture of songs which explore the music industry. There is criticism of commercially-minded radio stations who put profits before original talent in the song Allongés sous les vagues:

Plus c’est con, plus ça passe
Sur les radios FM

Similarly, in L’Aquarium (1991: Marchand de cailloux album) Renaud also displays his tiredness with the mass media by throwing first his television and then his radio out of the window. Impotence and an ability to answer questions or even suggest solutions can also be seen in Triviale Poursuite, which like Dylan’s Blowin’ in the wind poses questions about society without ever offering practical responses, making it rather trite and bland rather than a true protest song likehis earlier offerings:

Combien de victimes
Combien de milliers d’enfants
Dans les décombres des camps
Deviendront combattants?

However, in the song Jonathan, Renaud again compares himself to another ACI, this time Johnny Clegg. Clegg grew up in South Africa and first sampled Zulu culture in his teens. His group Savuka combined rock’n’roll with traditional sounds. There is therefore a certain similarity between Clegg and Renaud in that both artists combine traditional and more contemporary sounds in their music. In the main body of the text, Renaud also makes references to the similarities between Clegg and himself:

Jonathan, je suis comme toi un peu fou
Un peu kanak, un peu zoulou
Un peu beur, un peu basque, un peu tout
Rebelle, vivant et debout

In this way Renaud confirms his (and Clegg’s) status as rebels, outsiders within the music industry. Renaud also makes reference to the power of Clegg’s songs:

Entre guitare et fusil
Jonathan a bien choisi
Ses chansons sont des pavés
Des brûlots
Qui donnent des ailes aux marmots

It is perhaps significant that such a song appears on an album which seems increasingly disillusioned with the power of the individual artist. This song may well be a comforting reminder to Renaud as to the potential of song at a time in his career when he seems impotent in the face of mass media pressures. This song is also the last in which Renaud compares himself in such a positive way to another singer-songwriter, and the last in which he alludes to the power of song.

Negativity towards the music industry and a faltering sense of identity is also seen through Renaud’s portrayal of his own image, and the way in which he questions his status as a chanson artist. Image is an integral part of being a chanson artist and throughout his career Renaud plays with and projects his own image in different ways through his songs, album covers and official photographs. As is well known, the music industry manipulates a singer’s image for commercial ends, and the mass media generally elevate pop singers to heroic proportions, especially if there is a market of ‘fans’ who are willing to buy into the marketable product of the ‘star’. Renaud continually plays with fantasy and reality, persona and personality in such a way as to both knowingly demystify the entire ‘Renaud’ star persona and, on a broader level to problematise the whole status and position of the singer in capitalist society. Vicki Hamblin in an essay on French chanson in the 1980s argues that ‘the role of the singer and his place in a media-obsessed world is [. . .] one of the most prevalent themes to be found in popular music in the 1980s. […] the late Daniel Balavoine’, she argues, ‘was one of the first to express distaste with the star image afforded popular singers: Je ne suis pas un héros/ Faut pas croire ce que disent les journaux’. Furthermore, she asserts that Jean-Jacques Goldman ‘actively sought to demystify the performer who, […] was himself seeking to minimise rather than aggravate the distance between the "star" and the public’. Addressing the influence of the mass-media in this manner is not exclusively a 1980s phenomenon either. Serge Dillaz draws attention to the fact that in the 1960s, with the onset of thecommercial song, artists such as Leo Ferré attacked commercialism and the influence of Anglo-American culture:

Si tu chant’s ma chansonnette
Pour fair’ ton métier d’vedette
T’as qu’à barrer c’qui t’embête
Avec des x, avec des x
Ou bien chanter en "engliche"
Les conn’ries qui plaisent aux riches
Alors tu s’ras sur l’affiche
A Coquatrix, à Coquatrix!
(La Maffia)

In certain songs which deal with his image, Renaud plays with the audience, tempting them to believe certain things about himself. Peau aime (1978) is a good illustration. Renaud teases the audience through his chatty style and way of seeming to talk directly to them as friends or acquaintances, which is exactly what he is doing in performance. On one level this challenges the performer-public myth and brings the performer closer to the audience and vice versa. However, on another level Renaud is still the artist on stage, controlling events and the public are still in the subservient position of watching and listening to him. He has constructed an image and is acting a role. He also suggests to the audience throughout the song that he is demystifying his image for them (‘laisse béton/ j’démystifie!’). The demystification however is highly ironic, as the lines intended to demystify, only generate further mystification, carrying the listener back and forth from image to reality and not actually clarifying anything at all:

J’ai garé ma mobylette
Devant l’entrée des artistes
[…] J’ai jamais eu d’mobylette
ou alors quand j’étais p’tit
et j’l’avais achetée avec
les ronds d’mes économies
laisse béton,

However, the sense of almost being let in on a secret is exciting for the audience, as most ‘fans’ want to know a little bit extra about the private lives of their ‘stars’. Renaud exploits this by continually questioning the truthfulness of the statements he makes, through phrases such as, ‘sans blague’. He uses a similar formula in Sans dec’ (1978). As the title suggests, Renaud in each chorus is trying to convince the audience that what he has just said is the truth, not invention. The phrasing of each of the choruses is interesting in that the structure stays the same each time, but Renaud introduces one new middle line:

J’vous jure qu’c’est vrai les mecs
Jambe de bois, paille de fer
Si je mens, j’vais en enfer

This is reminiscent of a child’s rhyme for telling the truth. Therefore, Renaud is again using a child’s way of phrasing in order to question the line between fantasy and reality. Similarly, Ma gonzesse (1987) is a humorous love song with a final deflating twist, which self-consciously draws attention to Renaud’s image and, at the same time, portrays the narrator as no more than a child with schoolboy fantasies. The first-person narrator is associated with Renaud from the initial description:

J’aimerais bien parfois chanter
Autre chose que la zone
Un genre de chanson d’amour
Pour ma petite amazone

In this way Renaud reinforces his image as a ‘zone’ singer, but also leads the audience to believe that they will be listening to a song which the real Renaud wants to sing: a love song. However, throughout the song there is an intermingling of fantasy and the constructed real. When in the second verse he informs the audience that his ‘gonzesse’ deserves to have a love song written about her, it is as if they are being allowed a glimpse of a secret part of the singer’s life. However, the description slips into schoolboy fantasy as he compares his feelings to the portrayal of love in a classic film:

J’suis amoureux d’elle
Un peu comme dans les films
Ou y’a tout plein de violons
Quand le héros y meurt

In this way the narrator uses external, mass-cultural images of being in love to try and explain his own feelings, in the same way as a teenager might. Furthermore, throughout the song there is a childlike, smutty way of speaking, describing the statues in the ‘jardin des Tuileries’ who ‘exhibent leurs guibolles/ et se gèlent le cul’, describing his gonzesse’s eyes as marbles, and threatening to punch anyone who says that his girlfriend is ugly, or indeed beautiful; in the former instance he would be insulted and in the latter he would be jealous. Additionally the grammar is very poor, and imitative of childlike speech where the rules are often ignored: ‘ma princesse/ celle que j’suis son mec’. The final humorous twist in this song comes when Renaud deconstructs his story of true love with an absurd ending which reinforces the image of the narrator as a child:

J’aimerais bien un d’ces jours
Lui coller un marmot […]
Son mari, y veut pas
Y dit qu’on est trop jeunes

Renaud is clearly uncomfortable with the self-importance that accompanies a singer-songwriter. This is made clear through the way in which he deflates not only his ‘star’ status, but also his songwriting talent. For example, at the end of Pourquoi d’abord? the audience is not only left with the impression that they do not know the real Renaud, but that Renaud does not take writing his songs seriously:

C’est vrai qu’elle est un peu bâclée
C’est parc’que sur mon disque
Des chansons j’en avais qu’neuf
Et y m’en fallait dix!

Furthermore, he continually draws attention to his physical weaknesses through his song, which has the effect of deflating his ‘star’ qualities. In Peau aime, for example, he informs the audience that:

Dans l’dos j’voulais m’faire tatouer
Un aigle aux ailes déployées.
On m’a dit: y’a pas la place,
Non, t’es pas assez carré,
Alors t’auras un moineau.

Similarly, he jokes about the size of his muscles, when writing the captions for Claude Gassian’s photographs of him on tour (Figure 8). The way in which he uses humour, and continually laughs at his own weaknesses, suggests he is striving to hide inner vulnerability, much in the same way as a comedian would. Another way in which he displays his insecurity as a singer-songwriter is through substituting his own narrative voice for that of his daughter Lolita’s. He does this in a number of songs, but perhaps most significantly in his final album to date where an entire song is written using her ‘voice’ rather than his own. Renaud released the album A la Belle de mai in 1994 as a tribute to the working-class district of Marseille, of the same name. Many of the songs on the album are reminiscent of Renaud’s realist songs: simple, often full of pathos, the narrative style at times evocative of Prévert (cf. Son bleu, Le Petit chat est mort). One song in particular, Mon amoureux, is interesting in that whilst it explores Renaud’s image, it does so entirely through the eyes of his daughter Lolita. The narrative follows Lolita trying to convince her father that he will like her new boyfriend, which she does by comparing the two:

Il aime René Fallet et y pêche à la mouche
Et en plus il est protestant
[…] t’en fais pas Papa, mon amoureux tu l’aimeras
au bras d’fer l’est aussi nul que toi

On one level this song is a simple, touching narrative reflecting a father-daughter relationship. On another level, however, it is perhaps significant that Renaud chooses to use Lolita’s narrative voice when evoking his own image. It is, to a certain extent at least, symptomatic of his not being able to define himself anymore. He appears to have lost faith in the power of song and in his own position as a chanson artist and now, it seems, has lost the confidence to define himself through his own narrative voice. The song Laisse béton was discussed in Chapter Two in relation to youth and youth culture. However, the final verse is also relevant here as it is suggests Renaud is contemplating his own status as a singer-songwriter. Having described the plight of the adolescent protagonist and seemingly concluded the song by providing ‘la morale de c’te pauvre histoire’ which is, unsurprisingly, that one should not frequent such bars for fear of losing one’s clothes and possessions, Renaud then adds another verse, which reads:

Quand à la fin d’une chanson
Tu t’retrouves à poil sans tes bottes
Faut avoir d’l’imagination
Pour trouver une chute rigolote

In this way the focus of attention shifts from simple narrative to a self-conscious reflection on the role of a singer-songwriter. It is equally a humorous musing as one imagines a naked Renaud searching for inspiration. Therefore, by stripping himself of all clothes, he also strips himself of all pretensions as a chanson artist and thus deconstructs his image.

Parallel to the deconstruction of Renaud’s own image is a deconstruction of heroic figures generally. In Le retour de Gérard Lambert (1982) a sequel to Les Aventures de Gérard Lambert (1980) which follows a similar storyline. Renaud mixes the banal with fantasy and in so doing deconstructs the heroic status of the protagonist. The plot follows the character of Gérard Lambert as he drives from the Parisian suburbs to the city and his adventures en route. In line 9 the narrator states: ‘Lambert, c’est un héros’, this single line constructing the myth of Lambert as a larger-than-life heroic figure. However, Renaud then goes on to deconstruct the myth throughout the song. Lambert panics when he finds himself in an unknown spot, one of the windscreen wipers on his ‘Simca 1000’ does not work. His heroic qualities are similarly undermined through the music and rhyme scheme. The music is ironically and mockingly heroic, like a Piaf realist song taken to extremes, with drum rolls and wolf sounds, reminding us that Lambert is himself not heroic. The exaggeratedly simple end-of-line rhymes (Elvire/ rire; froidure/ aventure) create humour rather than heroic awe, especially as in the sung version Renaud lingers on and repeats the syllable ‘ure’ of froidure. In this way Lambert is seen as banal and ordinary rather than a stereotypical hero figure.

Similarly in the song Le père Noel noir (1981) there is an ambiguity of images between the expected image one has of Santa Claus through popular-cultural references in the form of films, children’s stories and popular songs, as a mythically heroic figure, and the one being portrayed by Renaud. In particular, the song can be seen as a parodic version of Tino Rossi’s extremely popular song Petit Papa Noël. Renaud demystifies the figure of Santa Claus by deconstructing the parts on which the myth was built, turning an otherwise heroic figure into a banal, risible one. The plot follows the amusing arrival of Santa Claus to Renaud’s house and a description of his time there. As with Le Retour de Gérard Lambert, Renaud mixes the banal with the extraordinary. Santa Claus is a mythical character whose appearance would usually cause excitement. However, here Renaud describes his manifestation in a matter of fact way, saying ‘il est v’nu mais manque de bol’, and then goes on to demystify the figure through describing his drunken antics and his clumsy, noisy manner. These are characteristics which contradict the traditional image one has of Santa Claus, but are nonetheless logical deviations from the myth, as Santa in most popular stories takes a small drink in each house he visits, and, although needing to be quiet so as not to wake the children, has a large and therefore, slightly cumbersome frame.

Le retour de Gérard Lambert is also important on a self-conscious level, in that it draws attention to its own creation and construction. There is a pastiche crime story element in that mock suspense and tension are created through the use of mechanisms such as time scale. The narrator informs the listener that the story is unfolding ‘ce soir’, which gives a sense of spoof immediacy. He equally states that blood will be spilt. In this way a sense of tragi-comic destiny is created: we are not told why, but simply, and concretely since it is written in the future and not conditional tense, ‘y va y avoir’. The mechanics of creating suspense are equally ironically exploited through references to the weather. In line 26 when the narrator states, ‘voilà l’brouillard qui tombe’ the audience expects this reference to have sinister consequences due to the associations in popular culture and especially crime fiction between fog and violence. However, Renaud demystifies this connection by adding: ‘c’est normal c’est l’hiver’. The self-conscious construction is further exploited through the narrator’s admission that ‘pour l’ambiance d’la chanson faut des intempéries’. Similarly a repetition of the word ‘suddenly’ in French in two different ways demystifies the melodrama and suspense of the song: ‘tout à coup soudainement’. Renaud also draws on a number of very typical, clichéd crime/ horror film techniques, ‘la silhouette qui passe’ and ‘les ruelles noires’ as if he is explicitly pointing out the cheap, B-movie nature of this type of fiction. The mechanisms of plot construction are exposed again in verse 9 when there is reference to the ‘gonzesse/ car c’en est une c’est sûr’. The ‘pluie qui ne cesse’ as well as the rhythm of line 34 (four times three syllabic beats) and the internal rhyme of ‘nuit’ and ‘pluie’ all add to the contrived feel of the song. Equally, Renaud provides a constant commentary, on the plot and uses a typical child’s dramatisation device: ‘da-da-daaaa’ to create mock suspense. Drawing attention to the construction of the song is something which Renaud has done throughout his career. Even his early ‘realist’ songs have self-conscious elements to them although the plot and vocabulary used could easily be taken for Bruant or Piaf. For example, in Jojo le démago, there is an awareness of the fictitious nature of the song. The opening verse illustrates this:

Attachez vos ceintures
Éteignez vos mégots
Car voici l’aventure
De Jojo le démago

Renaud is, in this way, inviting the audience to participate in the adventure. He is informing them that the adventure – the main body of the song – will start, like a roller coaster at a fairground they will experience the turbulent life of Jojo. They will travel through the adventure with the narrator. There is also a comment on the fact that this is a constructed piece of fiction in lines 23 and 24 of the written text:

Surtout des gars d’Gorges-lès-Gonesse
Qu’étaient la que pour faire rimer

Renaud is thus drawing attention to the construction of the song and the rhyme scheme and also to the tendency for songs describing the myths of the little people to invent numerous rhymes around the characters’ names, as Rearick highlighted in the last chapter. Similarly at the end of Le Gringalet there is a comment on the song, and in particular the tragic destiny of the protagonist:

Ma chanson se termine
Ça m’déprime
C’est pas humain
Moi j’aime pas les chansons
Où les héros
Y meurent à la fin

This is an interesting dénouement in that although Renaud as author of the song has control over its construction, here as author/ narrator he is commenting on the fatalistic aspect of it. This, on one level, reinforces the idea that the song is a true story and that Renaud is simply recounting that story and is thus experiencing the same emotions as the audience when singing it. On a second level, however, the distance he gives himself from the authorship of the song can be seen as an ironic distance more common to British than French songs. Renaud’s projection of his own image and commentary on his status as a French singer-songwriter, as seen in this chapter, are self-conscious elements, which will be further explored in the conclusion.


1.Longhurst, B., Popular Music and Society, Polity Press, 1999, p.135.
2.Fléouter, C., ‘Renaud et le P.C.’, Le Monde, 24 July 1980.
3.Brunschwig, C., Calvet, L.-J. and Klein, J.-C., Cent ans de chanson française, Seuil, 1981, pp.383-4.
4.Fléouter, C., ‘Une Rencontre avec Renaud’, Le Monde, 4 October 1988, p.4
5.At time of writing, September 2000, Renaud has a new album in the pipeline but the completion date is unknown.
6.Hamblin, V., ‘Le Clip et le look: Popular music in the 1980s’, The French Review, 1991, p.810.
7.Cited in Dillaz, S., La Chanson française de contestation, Seghers, 1973, p.136.
8.A typical English equivalent would be ‘cross my heart and hope to die’.