March 07, 2007

L'amour à la Franglaise

We Americans mostly don't care or even notice, but European excitement is building for the annual Eurovision song contest. And this year, the French are taking a new approach: the French entry L'amour à la française is half in English and half in (fractured) French, with the French lyrics sung in a fake English accent. According to

Ce sont donc les Fatals Picards qui ont été sélectionnés pour représenter la France à l'Eurovision, en mai.

Se définissant eux-mêmes comme de la "punk pour les nuls", les cinq membres du groupe ne manquent pas d'humour - leur nom donne déjà le ton. Ils chantent leur chanson L'amour à la française avec un faux accent anglais et leurs paroles veulent pas toujours dire grand chose. On est bien loin des mièvreries qu'on a l'habitude d'envoyer au concours.

So it's the Fatals Picards who've been chosen to represent France at the Eurovision song contest in May.

Defining themselves as "punk for dummies", the five members of the group don't lack humor -- their name already gives the tone. They sing their song L'amour à la française with a false English accent and their words don't always mean much. We're far away from the vapidities that we're used to sending to the competition.

You should reserve judgment about that last sentence until you've heard the song: how far away from vapidity is an ironic send-up of vapidity? As for the words not meaning much, they seem at least as comprehensible as your average pop lyrics, except for being partly in French and partly in English ("... sur le pont de la Seine, let's do it again...").

Of course, the Fatals Picards have a videoblog, where they explain (entry of January 21) that:

30 années d’échecs ont sali l’image de la France à travers le monde. Il est temps que cela cesse. La France ne peut plus être la risée de la chanson européenne une minute de plus. Votez pour les Fatals Picards lors l’émission du 6 mars sur France 3.

30 years of failure have soiled the image of France across the world. It's time for this to end. France cannot continue to be the laughing-stock of the Eurovision song content one minute longer. Vote for the Fatal Picards during the March 6 broadcast on France 3.

They offer a video of L'amour à la française, so you can judge for yourself. (I think the official entry is here if you want the full early-Beatles video styling; and another version of the video is here):

The subtext here seems to be, "Hey, Europe, this is what you expect from French culture? OK, here you go." It reminds me of the discovery, a couple of years ago, by Libération's Washington correspondent that all the Washington Post cared to hear from him was a comment on food.

Some more bilingual (non-)vapidity:

Et je cours, je cours, je cours,
I've lost l'amour, l'amour, l'amour,
Je suis perdu
Here without you
And I'm crazy,
Seul à Paris !
Je tu le manque [sic?],
Sans toi I can't.
Et sous la pluie, I feel sorry!

Here's a clip that illustrates the song's fractured French:

Je le cherchais à toi, dans les rues.
Je ne suis pas venir car tu ne l'es plus.
Je le regarde partout, where are you.
My heart is bleeding, oh I miss you.

With repect to pronunciation, focus on the vowels of "rues" and "plus" (IPA [u] instead of [y]), the heavily aspirated [p] in "plus", and the r's throughout, among other characteristics of caricatured English approximations to French. (And maybe it should be "chercher" instead of "cherchais"? I'm not sure just what sort of mistake they're trying to imitate here.)

Before becoming a "punk for dummies" band, the Fatal Picards were French university students, and there's apparently something wierd going on in the relationship between this generation of French students and the monde anglo-saxon. The world of the Fatals Picards is full of little clues to this. Let's start with the American flag in the group's picture at the top of this post. Then there's the fake English accent and the mixed English-French words of L'amour à la française. And on their bio page, the group's founder (Ivan) explains:

Quelle est ta date de naissance secrète ? : pour des raisons de secrétisme je ne peux malheureusement pas le dire mais c'est proche d'une date qui revient tous les ans
Si tu étais un animal secret tu serais : un chewing gum vivant
Si tu étais un personnage célèbre secret tu serais : François Valéry
Si tu étais une femme secrète tu serais : Maggie (Margaret Tatcher bien sûr, pas la série!!, Elle existe pas en vrai)

What is your secret date of birth? For reasons of secretism I unfortunately can't say, but it's near a date that recurs every year.
If you were a secret animal you would be: a living chewing gum.
If you were a secret famous person you would be: François Valéry.
If you were a secret woman you would be: Maggie (Margaret Tatcher [sic] of course, not the [TV] series!! She doesn't really exist)

Is this sort of like the post-cold-war fad for Soviet regalia among among some American youth? If you think you understand it, please clue me in.

[Hat tip: Ana Stulic]

[Update -- Julien Quint wrote to help me with some French linguistic and cultural translations. First, "... pour les nuls" is how the "... for dummies" series is translated into French. I didn't know that, and guessed incorrectly that given glosses in other contexts such as "void", "crappy", "trashy", "les nuls" would be a social category rather than an intellectual one. The rest of Julien's explanations:

* "secrétisme" is not an actual word, but a neologism which could recall French presidency candidate Ségolène Royal's neologisms such as "bravitude" or Chirac's older ones (e.g. "abracadabrantesque", which was stolen from Rimbaud (!) although it made a lot of noise at the time...)
* François Valéry is a cheesy singer who was popular about 20 years ago.

I knew cheese would come into it somewhere! But Julien saved the best for last:

* "Maguy" (mispelled as "Maggy") was a popular TV show on Antenne 2 (now France 2) in the eighties. Wikipedia says that it is a French adaptation of a US TV show called "Maude".

That's amazing. And it shows that there's still no substitute for human insight -- my net search skilz are pretty good, but I don't think I could have made the connection from "Maggie" to "Maguy" to "Maude". ]

[Ella writes:

I don't have any clues for you really, just more to add to the mystery - one of my favourite musical acts right now is a French group called Nouvelle Vague, who do Bossa Nova style covers of classic 80's New Wave hits and other classics from the same era. All sung by breathy francophone girls dripping classic French sex-appeal.

Well, it was more than 40 years ago that Jean-Philippe Smet changed his name to Johnny Hallyday, so learning that a French girl group is doing inspired covers of old Joy Division, Depeche Mode and Dead Kennedys songs doesn't surprise me as much as learning that this year's French Eurovision entry is a "punk for dummies" band pretending to be Brits singing in a mixture of English and bad French.

In a completely different vein, Alexander Kranjec wonders if there might be some resonance here with the anti-Germans, (wikipedia article here), a left-wing group in Germany (in fact a faction of the communist left), who support the American intervention in Iraq in the mode of a popular front against fascism. Surely there's no real connection here with the Fatals Picards, except that the increasingly strong anti-Americanism of Europe's elites apparently creates a space for a variety of strange cultural developments. Specifically, in France, the cultural hegemony of anti-liberal, anti-Anglo-Saxon attitudes has apparently made it amusingly daring for a punk rocker to say that if he were a woman, he'd be Maggie Thatcher. (Though songs like this one suggest that Ivan's attitude towards Thatcherism might be more than irony.)]

[And just to bring everything together, someone claiming to be Ann Coulter wrote in to comment on the preponderance of lavender hues in the Fatals Picards' music video. ]

[Hannah Levine suggests that

If you're looking for the influences behind the Fatal Picards' pidgin-pop, you have to look at the hugely popular Manu Chao, who, in the words of his Wikipedia entry "sings in French, Spanish, Arabic, Galician, Portuguese, English, and Wolof, often mixing them in the same song."

True enough, he's been singing mixed-language songs, including English and French, for years. Hannah also reminds us of another mixed-language entry (English, French and Hebrew), which may be banned by Eurovision for being too political. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at March 7, 2007 08:47 AM