How to (Be a French Pop Band and) Make It in America
Through an analysis of Daft Punk and Phoenix’s recent careers, a recipe for success may be unearthed for those French bands aspiring to win a Grammy or two.
It’s a busy couple of months for lovers of French music, as two of the world’s best-loved Gallic providers of pop music, Phoenix and Daft Punk, are set to release eagerly-awaited new albums in April and May, respectively Bankrupt! and Random Access Memories. Beyond the fact that French music is able to generate excitement the world over, what may be even more startling is that Daft Punk’s and Phoenix’s albums are seemingly expected with more anticipation abroad than in their homeland. Is a good French band without honor only in its hometown?
A simple glance at their recent albums’ chart performances suggests that they have done very well in several countries, as Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix reached peak positions of 14th in France, 54th in the UK and 34th in the US, while Daft Punk’s soundtrack to Tron: Legacy in 2010 grabbed the fourth spot in the US Billboard Top 200, whereas it barely made the top 25 in their home country. From a cultural standpoint, it may even seem that neither band seems intent on acknowledging their French audiences before their English-language fans. For example, Phoenix’s current 34-date tour is only set to grace France with their presence four times, albeit upon some of the country’s biggest festivals -- although more dates are probably to be added. Meanwhile, Daft Punk announced they would launch their new album at a rather obscure agricultural show in Australia. All in all, none of these established bands can be said to purportedly wallow in their Frenchness.
In a globalized English-language popular culture, is internationally successful French music still part of French pop culture, or is it sucked into American pop culture or global pop culture? In your local record store (if it still exists), what are Phoenix albums filed under: pop? rock? electronica? French? All of the above? Acclaimed French bands don’t seem to "belong" to France anymore. They are sometimes even better understood abroad than at home. Likewise, a handful of English-language bands are absolutely revered in France, but often remain more or less under the radar in their home country. British prog-rockers Archive temporarily gave up on releasing their albums in the UK while they were playing sold-out venues in France. Mika and Muse even wrote some songs in French to reward their extremely loyal fanbases.
While the very Frenchness of bands like Daft Punk and Phoenix -- who don’t sing in French and tour less in their homeland than in the US -- may be called into question, their international success indicates that there is a possibility for French acts to overcome the barriers erected by their own mother tongue to reach out to fans throughout the world. Through an analysis of Daft Punk and Phoenix’s recent careers, a recipe for success may be unearthed for those French bands aspiring to win a Grammy or two.
1. Don’t sing in French.
Both bands constitute telling examples of Frenchies who have “made it” in America and the rest of the world -- seemingly against all odds. Their success is all the more intriguing as pop music trade between France and, say, the United States bears much resemblance to a one-way street with heavy traffic towards France. The lack of exportability of French music may be attributed to the language barrier. One may, however, object that music can be appreciated without understanding the lyrics. I personally think that most of French pop music is not exportable because it quite simply sucks, especially when it tries to be a pale copy of international pop acts. Many examples come to mind, such as the French versions of Justin Timberlake, Ke$ha, and Eminem. I apologize in advance for inadvertently promoting such abysmal non-music.
What may more convincingly account for the difficulty to export French music is the French record companies’ reluctance to sign French English-language bands, which are encouraged to sing in French. Such a position results from the influence of a set of protectionist cultural laws, including a 1994 amendment requiring radio stations to air at least 40 percent of French-language music. Ever keen on protecting its so-called ‘cultural exception’, France may therefore protect its language and also place considerable obstacles to the export capabilities of its bands by encouraging them to sing in French.
However, a few stubborn bands stick it to the (French) man and decide to sing in English anyway, like Phoenix, Air or Tahiti 80 (who have enjoyed relentless success in Japan), which certainly opens the door to a much wider audience. There are, of course, a few counter-examples, as I can think of at least two recent cases of French-language artists who seem to have found a sizeable fanbase abroad. Housse de Racket, an excellent Phoenix copycat, toured the United States and landed a Coachella slot, while electropop chanteuse Yelle also embarked on an American tour. During their gigs, each of these acts showcased a predominantly French setlist, confirming the fact that singing in English is not a prerequisite for international success. After all, ambient post-rock wunderkinds Sigur Rós have built a very loyal fanbase despite singing in their native Icelandic (or even occasionally, and admittedly, in pure gobbledigook, as one of their single titles attests).
Phoenix, running toward fame (press photo)
2. Don’t sing at all.
Then, an even safer bet to leap over the language barrier consists in scrapping lyrics altogether, even though that would probably confine you to the electronic genre. This may account for the plethora of respectable French electronica acts, also known as “La French Touch”, starting, of course, with Daft Punk, but also Air, Cassius, one-hit wonder Stardust, and Bob Sinclar. Most of these bands emerged in the '90s, then a more recent wave of French House music spawned around two Paris-based electronica labels, Kitsuné and Ed Banger Records, spearheaded by beardy duo Justice. Though most of these bands’ output is, by definition, instrumental, most of their best-known hits, it has to be acknowledged, featured English titles or lyrics, such as Daft Punk’s “Around the World” or “One More Time”, or Justice’s “D.A.N.C.E.”.
In a way, writing instrumental, electronic music provides a way not to choose between French and English, leaving the door open to international audiences whilst not completely casting all Frenchness asunder. After all, one of the most widely praised French films of all time was a silent flick, The Artist, which indicates that, A) it is possible for a French actor to win an Academy Award, and B) the latter is only possible as long as said French actor keeps his mouth shut. Such a tour de force handily avoided two tenets of the language barrier as the film was not in French and the actor, not required to speak English, was not embarrassed by his accent.
3. Hide your Frenchness, but not too much.
A question which logically ensues could be: is this kind of French music even ‘French’ anymore? Most of the aforementioned bands sing in English, but there is more to a band’s identity than the language it uses. Phoenix frontman Thomas Mars is married to director Sofia Coppola and therefore Green Card-eligible. Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel De Homem-Christo’s names sound mysteriously European, but not necessarily French, plus they’re constantly wearing masks in public appearances. For all we know, they may just be droids.
Hiding one’s Frenchness can easily be done by choosing an English-language name like Phoenix (though the actual French spelling would be Phénix) or Daft Punk (which sounds much better than its French equivalent “stupide voyou”), but also by using a vague, universal concept whose spelling is fortunately the same in both languages (Air, Justice) – or you could even go by your actual name (like David Guetta), hoping that it would sound cool enough. However, not all French DJs are as lucky as David Guetta, which is more memorable than Christophe Le Friant (Bob Sinclar’s real name).
This latter point could be reversed, as a French-sounding name may supply a certain je-ne-sais-quoi, and even Anglophone artists have deliberately decided to choose a French-sounding alias (Bon Iver, Les Rythmes Digitales, Saint Etienne, Bastille, etc). Even Air, in the early stages of their career, were officially known as “Air, French band”, and Phoenix were occasionally known to wear their Frenchness on their sleeve -- not their record sleeves, that is, but rather by discreetly displaying a French flag on their keyboard during an appearance on the Conan O’Brien show.
4. Expand your network.
Phoenix was the first French band to become musical guests on Saturday Night Live, and returned to the show recently to promote their new release. The SNL musical guest spot is usually a good sign of the times and features the most popular bands each week. Without putting the band’s musical and commercial achievements aside, the band members’ personal connection to the Coppola family cannot have hurt in getting Phoenix some of the best bookings on American TV and soundtrack snippets in both film and TV. Charlotte Gainsbourg is another example of overseas success which can be (in part, at least) accounted for by personal connections: the daughter of French songwriting legend Serge Gainsbourg and British actress Jane Birkin, she teamed up with no less than Beck, Jarvis Cocker and Air. But there has to be more to popular success than a very big little black book.
5. Be pretty darn good!
Featuring on SNL is one thing, but a very prestigious network alone is not what accounts for soaring sales and sold-out tours; that’s where talent comes in. Phoenix are simply a brilliant band whose musical achievements are undeniable, as underlined by their sold-out Central Park shows a few years ago.
So this last piece of advice to emerging French bands is really the only one that matters: Just be pretty darn good! Even though singing in English may certainly help open up the airwaves for more recognition overseas, what will ultimately set a band apart is how good they are. But then France can boast several brilliant bands that have not made it in America, for want of ambition perhaps, or lack of promotion by record companies. I then humbly suggest you have a listen to some of my personal favorites and perhaps help them build an unexpected international following: Les Innocents, Dionysos, Kaolin, and Sourya.