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Music in the early twentieth century has experienced a lot of changes over the decades. La chanson française by auteurs-compositeurs-interprètes such as Jacques Brel, was a genre that included the literary analysis of the text. Their songs were often qualified as ‘chansons d’auteur’, ‘chansons à texte’ and ‘chansons poétiques’. One of the most famous artists who sang chansons réalistes was Edith Piaf. This type of music genre has a recurring theme of songs which deal with dramatic subjects, marked by a certain darkness and are often inspired by the everyday life of the Parisian neighbourhoods. Finally, the commercial pop song known as ‘yéyé’, featuring young female singers with catchy rhythms and light-hearted lyrics. French rock’n’roll came around years after yéyé, having taken inspirations from the Anglophone world of popular music, such as Elvis Presley. Commercial pop is often described as “frivolous, inauthentic and effeminate”. On the other hand, auterists chansons produced by Edith Piaf are considered by Drott as “serious, authentic and masculine”. Edith Piaf’s music was deriving much meaning as she sang about issues relating herself as well as social issues, which makes her a serious and authentic artist. However, Piaf also adopted characteristics of inauthenticity and femininity in her music. This essay will explain further the differences and possible similarities between Edith Piaf’s music and other popular music genres in the 20th century.
History and Background of Edith Piaf
Edith Piaf was born in 1915 and was abandoned by her mother since birth. She was raised in her paternal grandmother’s home who ran a brothel. She was part of a low social class and poor family, having to sing on the streets of Paris to raise money. She was discovered in 1935 by Louis Leplée, a cabaret owner who gave Edith her first night job. In the same year, she made her theatrical debut, and a few years later she started singing in the large music halls of Paris. Originally her material was standard music hall fare, but with experience she had songwriters such as Michel Emer writing songs specifically for her. She suffered many losses, such as one of Marcel Cerdan who was one of her significant partners. She shared these experiences through her musical pieces, which highlighted her expressive voice and moved audiences with her passionate lyrics often about loss and love. The idea that her personal tragic life converges with song lyrics is portrayed in majority of her pieces. At that time, the suffering of the underclass and the urban poor was a big issue. Lyrics often consisted of social or romantic adversity and Paris was the key location for most songs. This was known as ‘chanson réaliste’ and occurred during the time of social ‘realism’, which was an established literary genre since mid-19th century – Guy de Maupassant is an example of a well-known realist author from that period.
Edith Piaf’s music style
Many critics and the French audience saw ‘serious’ music as the most important. “In art discourse, the ideal is music that is serious, transcendent, pure”. (Loosely, D.2015: 99). Piaf has written around 90 songs, which she sang herself. One can detect the frequent fast waltz of java, as well as melodramatic orchestra, accents with accordion which would have an indication of vulnerability and femininity. However, this was counteracted by the piano and choirs, which gave a rousing effect in choruses. An example would be in one of her pieces ‘Elle fréquentait la Rue Pigalle (1939)’ where in each verse the orchestra would intensify the sound, creating more drama. Her voice was very strong with modulations, sung in a husky, guttural voice and accompanied by instruments traditionally used in cabarets. “She has a big, brassy voice…”. It was described as a strong voice in a small body, which can be an analogy of her masculinity in her music.
Piaf was capable of political action through her delivery of her songs, which was able to stir the masses. On the other hand, she had non-confrontational lyrics that would still attract the audience. Her music was considered as recognisable ‘traditional music’, for example “Je ne regrette rien” has a traditional melody and rythms associated with ‘la chanson française’. Furthermore, Piaf’s selection of aesthetic devices, such as the swelling orchestra, spoken word and melodic singing, her traditional black dress, few movements and isolation – all of this has made her recognisable. Her chansons réalistes are perfect vehicles for urban, working class dramas that come to life in her expressive and theatrical delivery. An example is her performance of La Foule (1957), where she’s in her traditional black dress, standing in the middle of the stage, and stays stationary throughout the whole performance, using limited hand gestures. This insinuates that Edith Piaf can be considered as serious. After France was in defeat during the Occupation and was desperate to be restored, the serious and self-aware song that she produced, thanks to her voice and performance style as well as autobiographical content was becoming aware of itself as a French folk art, a generic category in its own right and a vehicle for self-expression and communication. “In one sense, this social realism was perfectly in tune with the Depression” (Loosely, D. 2010: 134).As a result, Edith became a blueprint for chanson auterism and embodied an auteur-compositeur-interprète aesthetic. Most of the artists who were singer-songwriters, were male. Therefore, it can be argued that Piaf adopted some of the masculine characteristics in music.
Edith Piaf as auteur-compositeur-interprète
La chanson from the 1950’s onwards was considered to be the ‘golden era’ of la chanson française. The artists were very valued because they wrote their own songs “…a process characterised by ‘a slow gestation and a painstaking, auterist perfectionism” (Tinker, C. 2005: 3).Singer-songwriters such as Brel and Brassens have a special status due to their “double legitimacy within French republican culture their work is poetic and popular, aesthetically demanding yet democratic”. They represent the broader category of ‘chanson’, with subgenres of ‘chanson à texte’, ‘chanson auteur’ and ‘chanson poetique’ and they were regarded as poets. During the 1950’s, singer-songwriters such as Brassens held a consistent artistic self-expression – the sole purpose of that was to write from their own experience, rather than to satisfy the music industry. Piaf did not fit this category, but rather was classed more as an ‘interpreter’. “In France, where the concept of auterism began with film criticism, ‘author-composer-interpreter’ carries a rhetorical gravitas that ‘interpreter’ alone doesn’t (Loosely, D. 2015: 98).One reason may be because her songs were not considered poetic enough. As mentioned earlier, the standard social structure of the French singer-songwriters was majority of the time white, heterosexual males. This undermines Piaf as a singer-songwriter and therefore because of her gender, she was disregarded. The distinction between singer and auteur against the historical relationship between French identity and the written word is the “literacy, derexity and narrative quality of the auteurs-compositeurs-interprètes lyrics have given la chanson française a national, para-literary legitimacy”. Romantic conceptions of personal expression and individual authorship also come into play. In the case of Piaf, her identity as an auteur-compositeur-interprète is also weakened because of the process of collective fabrication. Her being the product of concerted teamwork could argue for manufacture and against autership. For most of Piaf’s songs, she would write her music by tailoring the songs of other artists to her own – using her voice and expressions that would personalise the songs. Here, one could argue that there is a lack of authenticity.
Modern music – le yéyé and French rock’n’roll
The definition of frivolous is when something has no serious purpose or value. Effeminate is when something or someone is regarded as having characteristics that are feminine. In the early 1960’s, the yéyé pop song was dominated by young women such as Sheila and Françoise Hardy, and “was cast as a lower, feminised form of expression, deficient compared to genres that supposedly resisted commercial pressures” (Loosely, D. 2015: 98).This music was inspired by English and American bands, including the name “yéyé” which derived from the term “yeah! yeah!” in the English language from bands like The Beatles. A lot of pieces in French yéyé pop was about love and social issues. It may be possible that although Piaf had a strong voice with serious expressions and body language, she may have shown her feminine side. The concept of “universalism” regarding the cultural industrialisation of the music business that she has created throughout her music career, made it sociologically diverse and available to an international audience. Especially due to her time in New York, where she made a new name for herself. It is clear that Piaf has influenced the music world, including pop in the 21st century.
Loosely highlights that French-pop has had a longstanding image of recycling “… the repertoire, tropes and mannerisms of global pop”(Loosely, D. 2010: 127). For example, Johnny Hallyday, had adopted an “Anglo-American pop identity”. It is argued that a lot of ‘la chanson française’ is authentic in that it appeared from the “spirit” of the French. Whereas Hallyday’s music is considered inauthentic, because it mimics a form foreign to that ‘spirit’. “In 1945, musical life in France was very much as it had been before the war”. (Sterenfeld, E. Breatnach, M. 2000: 245). It’sbeen said that the music was conservative and the innovators of the early twentieth century prejudice against modern trends was vigorous. This idea of simulation in turn implied that ‘Johnny’ the star has been deliberately and collectively ‘fabricated’ (Peterson, 1997). Hallyday himself confirmed that his music was inspired by the imitation of the US rock’n’roll. He rarely wrote his own songs and he began his career with songs by Brassens, and later Goldman and Berger wrote albums for him. Therefore, it can be argued that this music genre was not authentic due to major inspiration from Anglophone pop and rock’n’roll, such as the Beatles. Therefore, the commercial pop song can be described as feminine and inauthentic.
Nonetheless, Johnny Hallyday was compared most notably with Edith Piaf. Hallyday has been previously described by auterists-chansons including Jean-Jacques Goldman as “la seule et unique star de la chanson depuis Piaf” (Chorus, 2003: 84). Piaf also did not compose songs completely by herself, “…but a succession of writers and composers learnt to write for her stage persona”. An example if the song “Je ne regrette rien”. It is internationally recognised and sung by many other artists, however it is still associated as Piaf’s own. Her full, tragic and strong adoption that she portrayed in the song has made it her own. The intimacy between discography and biography demonstrated why she has been accepted into the circle of chanson all-stars alongside Brel and Brassens, without being an auteur-compositeur-interprète.
To conclude, due to Edith Piaf’s lower-class background during her childhood and her tragedies throughout her life, she was able to use that to her advantage and produce ‘auterists chansons’. Her strong voice and distinct aesthetic, such as the plain black dress, limited use of body language made a recognisable persona. She is a serious artist and has adopted masculine features because she has been observed by scholars as utilising characteristics from auteurs-compositeurs-interprètes. In addition, Piaf was political in her songs and she would tend to sing about social issues, known as ‘chansons réalistes’ and restored French ‘chanson’ in a new French folk-art, where one was open to self-expression through music, becoming a blueprint for auterism and therefore making her a serious artist. On the other hand, she has adopted several feminine features also, because of her vulnerable lyrics regarding certain topics, such as love. Her lack of authenticity shows when she used other artists’ songs and interpreted them as her own, as well as other artists writing songs for her. It is clear that Piaf’s music dives into both the world of singer-songwriter as well as the commercial pop song, fitting her music into a unique category.
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- Looseley, David. ‘Making history: French popular music and the notion of the popular’ in Barbara Lebrun and Jill Lovecy (eds). Une et divisible? Plural Identities in Modern France (Peter Lang 2010), 127-140.
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- Piaf, Edith. ‘Je ne regrette rien’, La Vie En Rose 100 Classic French Lovesongs. (Track Music, 2011).
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