Ironic distance is one of the traits which traditionally separates British popular music from French chanson. Simon Frith describes the narrative convention of British popular songs as such: The lyrical and narrative convention here is to use a song to portray a character while simultaneously drawing attention to the art of the portrayal. The singer is playing a part, and what is involved is neither self-expression (the equation of role and performer, as in chanson or blues) nor critical commentary but, rather, an exercise in style, an ironic - or cynical – presentation of character as style. The art of this sort of singing becomes a matter of acting, and there is always a question concerning the singer’s relationship to his own words.
The ironic distance then is seen in contrast with the way in which French singers – and Frith cites Piaf as an example – play a part within the narrative: Edith Piaf’s stories were authenticated by her own story; and her story was as much shaped by her songs as were those of her lyrical protagonists. People flocked to her shows not just to hear good tales well told, but also for the spectacle of narrative-in-action, for the sight of someone hanging onto life, pummelling and defying it, by putting it into words. And this pleasure was, from the beginning, imbued with nostalgia.
Renaud re-popularised the French realist song, his early narratives reminiscent of Piaf, or her predecessor Fréhel. However, as we began to see in the last chapter he does not, like realist singers, place himself within the narrative, but rather comments on his narrative from a distance. Moreover, like the British tradition, he draws attention to the art of portrayal at the same time as portraying characters and their lives. The song Le Retour de Gérard Lambert is a classic example of this. Renaud, hyperbolically at times, narrates the adventures of the protagonist whilst simultaneously drawing attention to the construction of the song. In this sense, the song is reflexive: it is as much about the art of song-writing as it is about Gérard Lambert, and Renaud is self-consciously drawing attention to the fact that he is the ‘author’ of this ‘chanson’. This trait is, in fact, true of the majority of songs dealt with in the last chapter. The intertextual references not only serve to establish Renaud’s place in a French chanson tradition, but also as reminders of the medium Renaud is working in and that he is the author of his songs. Similarly, his songs which explore image and stardom ultimately draw attention to the fact that Renaud is a French chanson star in a globalised music industry. Furthermore, the way in which Renaud reworks not so much reality but constructions of reality, the Doisneau image of Paris, or the youth ‘bande’ for example, is indicative of his constant awareness of the genre in which he is working and its place in popular cultural history.
In the opening citation to this thesis Renaud is described as a ‘bouffée d’air frais’. This is not primarily, in my view, because he is an authentic, rebellious singer. His main contribution to the sphere of chanson is that he brings an element of reflexivity and ironic distance. He is an observer of changing popular-cultural narratives. Through references to realist songs, rock’n’roll, ‘yéyé’ and other popular-cultural myths he is not only attempting to update them and make them more relevant to contemporary French society, but he is also drawing attention to the fact that chanson is a part of French cultural history. Although, he places himself in a chanson à texte tradition and his lyrics are extremely important in their own right, he uses music to add meaning and create specific associations. For example, his use of the accordion in songs in the 1980s transports the listener back to the early twentieth century, and his use of a piano in a song such as Mistral gagnant marks a sharp contrast to electronically produced music of the era.
Renaud’s œuvre, then, merits an important place in chanson history, and further academic study. His songs give an important insight to social and cultural changes in contemporary France, and the difficulties facing young people and/or inhabitants of the ‘zone’ in a diversifying and increasingly globalised France. His songs are also important in that they address issues facing chanson artists and ‘stars’ in a commercially-based music industry, and explore the difficulties in juggling authenticity with the need to live from one’s work. Thirdly, his songs are important because of their original qualities and in particular their postmodern reflexivity, narrating a story but at the same time commenting on the art of the narration.
However, Renaud’s concerns with the power of the music industry and his constant need to (re)-establish his place in the French chanson tradition, as was seen in the last chapter, suggest vulnerability and a loss of faith in his profession. This could also explain why he has not released any new material since 1994, and although he has recently been on tour (where he did sing two new songs), he was visibly fatigued, and appeared downhearted. One cannot help, therefore, but wonder if Renaud’s career as a chanson artist is perhaps over, and a career change, some twenty years after he confided to Claude Fléouter that he would like to ‘faire autre chose’, now inevitable.
1.Frith, S., Performing Rites, On the Value of Popular Music, Oxford University Press, 1996, p.171.