FRENCH KICKS: Even if you don’t know what Vanessa Paradis is singing about, it’s the sound that hooks you.
Must we still make the case for French pop? Just as Jerry Lewis gags are a stand-by when claiming that French tastes belong at the bottom of the pissoir, threadbare bon mots about plastic, lifeless French pop are hauled out to assert those froggies can’t rock. Typical is Jim Farber’s recent New York Daily News review of No Promises, the second CD from the sudden first lady of France, Carla Bruni. He drags out all the clichés about French chanteuses substituting fey breathiness for singing and then shoehorns Bruni in among them. (Note to Farber and his editors: don’t let it bother you that Bruni is Italian and sings this album in English.)
We’ve long since reached the stage where hipsters can be relied on to have an Air or a Serge Gainsbourg CD in their collection, maybe even a Françoise Hardy or a Keren Ann. But where’s the clamor for the latest from premier French hip-hopper MC Solaar, or new discs from Étienne Daho and Benjamin Biolay? Biolay, with his designer scruffiness (Bruce Weber shot the photos for his new CD) and velvet-gravel voice, is lately being treated as something like the reincarnation of Gainsbourg. He has far to go for that — but his work does have some of the master’s sly dreaminess, and his marriage to Chiara Mastroianni (daughter of Marcello and Catherine Deneuve) gives him a chance to reach Serge and Jane levels of coolness (as does their duo project, Home).
It’s high time non-French pop fans discovered Vanessa Paradis. Best known in these parts as the gal who lured Johnny Depp to France (and bore him two children), Paradis has been a huge star since her first hit (at 14), “Joe le taxi,” and her second album, which was composed for her by Gainsbourg. She’s also proved to be a superb, instinctive screen actress.
Paradis has recently released her fifth studio album, Divinidylle (Barclay import), and though it doesn’t have the sustained pop punch of her live Vanessa Paradis au Zénith or Vanessa Paradis, her 1992 English-language album written (mostly) and produced by Lenny Kravitz and capturing, as nothing else quite does, the sound of early ’70s candypop, it offers the pleasures that make it worth waiting for her albums.
The bass downbeat of the opening title track seems based on the “I love him/I love him/I love him” chorus of Little Peggy March’s “I Will Follow Him.” These notes might be Paradis’s way of declaring herself in a tradition of girl pop singers, happy to be among their romance-drenched, hook-laden, dit-dit-dit, dit-dit-dit choruses.
Apart from the moment toward the end when one of the Depp-Paradis progeny can be heard singing “I’m Popeye the Sailor Man,” I, being American and therefore monolingual, have no idea what the hell Paradis is singing about here. (I do pray that “Les piles” isn’t what I think it might be about.) But so what? It’s the sound that hooks you — something that should be easy to understand in this age of electronica, where singers are just another instrument in the mix. That’s what makes Farber’s dismissive comments about breathy singing so laughable.
I won’t make the claim that Paradis is a great singer, but there’s something about her purr — which can go low and throaty, or æthereal (especially when double-tracked) — that I find extremely pleasing. And the accompaniment, incorporating bits of country, soft pop, even dance music, is never obstreperous or saccharine.
French pop, like Hong Kong gangster films or Bollywood musicals, seems to have no qualms, no embarrassment about entertaining its audience, no need to appear superior to the genre. It’s an unselfconscious approach to pleasure that American pop could learn from. And it has few instructors as consistently delightful as Paradis.