I have long been accustomed, when faced with Americans’ skepticism, to taking up the defense of
Johnny Hallyday, the French rock musician who passed away on 5 December at 74. It has never been an easy task. The mirror that this unconditional admirer of America and its music held up to them was always too distorted for his extravagant stage persona to be recognized as anything but a kitschy Gallic misreading of rock, confirmation of the old Anglo-American saw that French pop music is insignificantly, insufferably, silly. Witness Hallyday’s failure to win a following in the United States, notwithstanding his 1996 concert at the Aladdin in Las Vegas and his 2014 North American tour (whose commercial success came thanks largely to French ticket-buyers), or his three English-language studio albums (like the 1994 Rough Town, which reached number one in France but whose sales outside the hexagon remained circumscribed). As the Times of London put it a few years ago, Hallyday was always “a bit of a joke outside the French-speaking world.”
Admittedly, there is something of
Spinal Tap‘s parodic trajectory in Hallyday’s successive embrace of virtually every major rock style over the course of his exceptional six-decade career – from ’50s rock ‘n’ roll and rockabilly to ’70s psychedelic rock and prog rock (culminating in a 1976 rock opera double-album Hamlet), from ’80s stadium rock and high-powered anthems to pop ballads. So too in his over-the-top, pyrotechnic-saturated concerts: his 1984-85 shows at the Zénith in Paris opened as a giant mechanical fist slowly unclenched on stage to reveal Hallyday standing in its palm; for his Parc des Princes concerts celebrating his 50th birthday, Hallyday walked through the frenzied field-level crowd before taking the stage; at the Stade de France in 1998, he rappelled down from a helicopter. (“Work on your entrances, work on your exits. In between, do your job,” was Maurice Chevalier’s advice to a nine-year-old Johnny, or so the legend goes.)
To be sure, Hallyday had his detractors even in France. His brooding mug, his unmistakable voice, and his peculiarly accented French made him a favored subject of lampoon. From the pages of the weekly satirical newspaper
Le Canard Enchaîné to the long-running and now-defunct Les Guignols de l’Info television puppet show, caricaturists gleefully parodied the singer as a semiliterate, intellectually limited buffoon. When, during a Rolling Stones concert in 2014, Mick Jagger asked the Stade de France if they wanted the group to perform Hallyday’s anthem “Allumez le feu”, the crowd booed. Unforgiving proof that, for French Stones fans just as for his myriad anglophone critics, Hallyday was nothing more than a derivative, Gallicized counterfeit who had no place in the narrative of authenticity upon which rock’s legitimacy depends.
What, then, are we to make of Hallyday’s collaborations with many of the English-language rock world’s most serious protagonists? Jimi Hendrix was Hallyday’s opening act during a 1966 tour in France. Jimmy Page played on the 1968 psychedelic-rock “A tout casser” (a terrific song written by Hallyday as the title track for a terrible biker film in which the singer unhappily starred). Foreigner-founder Mick Jones was his lead guitarist between the mid-’60s and mid-’70s, and composed and produced dozens of Hallyday’s songs. The influential sound engineer Glyn Johns, who worked with the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, the Stones, the Who, and the Clash, produced two Hallyday albums in the late ’60s. Peter Frampton played guitar on the studio version of “Quelque chose de Tennessee.” So too on the French side of the rock divide: his lead guitarist most recently was Yarol Poupaud, front man for the respected funk-fusion band Fédération Française de Fonck.
What, too, are we to make of Hallyday’s deep and enduring success in France, his 50 studio albums, his 110 million records sold, his nearly 3,200 concerts? How do we account for Hallyday’s more recent consecration by instituted arbiters of French taste? The very serious culture weekly
Télérama put him on its cover in 2014, and the mouthpiece of Paris-centric hipsterdom, Les Inrockuptibles – which no one has ever accused of Johnnydolatry –, published a glowing review of Hallyday’s 2015 Johnny Cash-inspired album De l’amour.
Above all, how do we make sense of his outsized stature in France, whose footprint spreads far beyond the well-delineated precincts of popular music? The tens of thousands who turned out along his funeral procession route in Paris to pay their last respects, many astride their Harleys or clad in leather jackets bearing the singer’s effigy, provided a spot measure of a fan base as broad as it is deep. State authorities permitted the funeral procession to descend the Champs-Elysées – the same route that Victor Hugo’s coffin had traveled in 1885. His funeral mass was celebrated in the Madeleine – the same imposing neoclassical church where France had bid farewell to Edith Piaf, Josephine Baker, and Charles Trenet. In his eulogy, the President of the Republic Emmanuel Macron proclaimed that “he was a part of ourselves, he was a part of France.”Hallyday had – in the self-interested calculations of political leaders and news-cycle crazed media at least – quit the Arcadian pastures of pop music stardom for the altogether more Olympian heights of national mythology.
Hallyday was by no means the first French musician to perform a rock song in France, and American music – above all jazz – was already well-implanted before he ever picked up a guitar. But Hallyday played as big a role as anyone in introducing rock and blues to the hexagon. Born Jean-Philippe Smet in Paris in 1943 to a French hairdresser-fitting model mother and a Belgian singer-actor father who promptly abandoned the family, he was raised by his mother’s show-business relatives, who gave the young Hallyday his stage name and encouraged him to study and perform American rock. In 1960 his second single, American songwriter Cy Coben’s “Souvenirs, souvenirs”, found success.
In a 1960s France marked by postwar prosperity, rapid demographic growth, the traumatic aftershocks of the Algerian War, and Charles de Gaulle’s conservative ascendency, Hallyday became a powerfully charged site for the invention of a distinctive youth culture, one shaped, commodified, and conveyed by radio and television, vinyl records, and fashion. In June 1963, he figured in a watershed cultural moment that made legible this new generational divide and elicited anxious punditry about wayward youth. An estimated 150,000 unruly teenagers gathered on the Place de la Nation in Paris to dance to Hallyday and other musicians (including his then girlfriend and future first wife, Sylvie Vartan) in a free concert organized by the Europe 1 youth-oriented radio show “Salut les copains”. As always, channeling his profound conservatism through acid irony, De Gaulle quipped “These young people have energy to burn. Let’s put them to work building roads!” In two essays published in
Le Monde in the weeks that followed, sociologist Edgar Morin baptized this new culture yé-yé (a phonetic transcription of “yeah yeah”, intended to stand in for the English-language lyrics of the music they listened to), seeing in it an empty expression of pleasure-seeking individualism as well as an augury of a more substantive revolt – “the seeds of a refusal to adhere to this adult world which oozes bureaucratic ennui, repetitiveness, dishonesty, death; a profoundly demoralizing world for the deep aspirations of any young person; a world in which youthful lucidity … sees only the life of adults and failure”.
Thus began French intellectuals’ enduring fascination with Hallyday. Where Morin discerned in the singer an artefact of the historical forces that had shaped him and the premises of an unfolding epistemic sociocultural shift, most preferred to latch upon Hallyday the individual, to chronicle a riveting instance of charisma and artistic genius. Interviewing the singer shortly after the Place de la Nation concert,
Marguerite Duras perceived in him an elemental, quasi-divine force, an “Enormous thousands-of-horsepower motor, grinder, flamethrower, conjurer of tears, who hurtles across France at sixty kilometers an hour … Truly, he walks like a god.” At barely 20 years of age, Johnny was, to borrow a line from cultural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, already “good to think with”.
As Morin had recognized from the start, Hallyday’s importance wasn’t so much as a prophet of American culture – though he was certainly that – but as something specifically, even uniquely, French. To be sure, Hallyday venerated America. He sang countless covers of rock classics, from “Le Pénitencier” (“The House of the Rising Sun”) and “Noir c’est noir” (Los Bravos’s “Black is Black”) to “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Hey Joe”. He did his mightiest to imitate icons of American masculinity like James Dean and Marlon Brando. He spent much of his time in the States and regularly played with American musicians. He would have been honored that his obituary in
The New York Times proclaimed him “The Elvis Presley of France”.
But Hallyday’s America was largely an invention, a mythic land of freedom and possibility. “My own America,” he mused in “Mon Amérique à moi,” “is an open road without red lights / From the Hudson River all the way to California”, In this, he was no different from many Europeans who reinterpreted the magnetic consumer and cultural attractions of what historian Victoria de Grazia has described as America’s “irresistible empire” on their own terms. To judge dismissively that Hallyday’s success “reflected a cavernous void at the heart of French popular music,” as his obituary in The Guardian did, not only amounts to blaming continental Europeans for the cultural consequences of postwar American hegemony, it fails to recognize the fertile creativity of global refashionings of American models. It is precisely the specifically French cultural substance which is consubstantial to Hallyday and his music that has always inspired condescending incomprehension from Americans. Confronted with his syncretic aesthetic of denim, leather, and chrome, and his no less syncretic repertoire (to which we shall shortly return), they see only what Hallyday gets ‘wrong’ about American culture, and miss how embedded he is in French sensibility.
In short, Hallyday didn’t simply imitate American music. He appropriated and naturalized it, welding various strands of French popular music to it. Take his 1985 hit “Quelque chose de Tennessee”. A tribute to Tennessee Williams, whom Hallyday deeply admired (he played Chicken in a 2011 stage production of “Kingdom on Earth” at the Édouard VII theater in Paris), the song is manifestly the fruit of unqualified Americanophilia. It’s also something else, a tender, melodic composition easily mistaken for a straight-up love song if one doesn’t listen attentively to the lyrics. It’s a beautiful song, but one that expresses a specifically French vision of the playwright’s life and legacy. I’m not sure how many of even Williams’ most ardent American fans would agree with Hallyday when he sings, “We all have something of Tennessee inside us.”
In this, Hallyday could be compared to musicians in other cultural contexts. Take the late Pino Daniele, a gifted guitarist and singer largely unknown in the English-speaking world, but revered in his native Naples and commercially successful in an Italy whose pop music suffers in the US from a reputation about as poor as French music. While Daniele defined himself as “un uomo in blues” – a blues man – there’s little in his ethereal marriage of
canzone napoletana, Mediterranean-inflected world music, and rock (sung in a mix of English and Neapolitan dialect to boot) that most Americans would recognize.
Another characteristically French hallmark of Hallyday’s work is his musical ecumenicism. Where American popular music has, from its very beginnings, been partitioned into sharply distinct cultural spheres, grounded in dynamics of social, cultural, and racial differentiation (most infamously with the music industry’s invention of “race records”), French popular music has tended to be more centripetal. France’s record companies and the television networks’ tediously ubiquitous variety shows, which give artists prominent platforms present a genre-mixing ideal of
musique française as a variegated yet coherent field. Musicians too tend to see themselves engaged in a shared musical conversation, feeding from and contributing to a single, living canon. Not that French popular music isn’t crisscrossed with stylistic, cultural, and political fissures – the hexagon’s radio dial has long been partitioned along precisely such lines, and the controversy over hip-hop formation NTM’s 1993 “La police” evokes the racialized debates ignited by NWA’s “Fuck the Police” in the US. But there are numerous examples of insistent style-bridging, from the Algerian-born rai singer Rachid Taha’s cover of the Charles Trenet classic “Douce France” to rapper Demi Portion’s homage to Georges Brassens.
Next Page (link below): Always Over the Top
Always Over the Top
This ecumenicism helps account for Hallyday’s insistence on keeping each musical chapter in his career’s dizzying succession of stylistic reincarnations alive in his repertoire. Hallyday may have declared that “All the music I love comes from the blues” in “La musique que j’aime”, but he was in fact decidedly polygamous in his musical affections. His concerts functioned not as palimpsests on which each new musical turn necessitated a rejection of what had come before, but rather as musical cabinets of curiosities in which a wide range of musics happily rubbed shoulders. His career was animated by the postulate that such pluralities could in fact make up seamless wholes. He was always happy to cross musical aisles, collaborating with rap formation Ministère A.M.E.R. on the 2006 “Le Temps passe” and with Ministère A.M.E.R. veteran Doc Gynéco on “La rue”, a version of Hallyday’s “Je suis né dans la rue”, which appeared on the rapper’s 2008
Peace Maker album.
Above all, Hallyday saw himself in dialogue with the
chanson française tradition. He frequently sang Jacques Brel and Edith Piaf songs in concert. The same Hallyday who shook his hips in the ’60s and smashed guitars in the ’70s took to his knees in spandex pants and a perspiration-drenched muscle t-shirt at the close of his 1984 shows at the Zénith in Paris to sing Brel’s “Ne me quitte pas”. The raw intensity of his performance showed just how carefully he had studied Brel; his careful phrasing showed just how at home he was with the lyric-driven character of the chanson française tradition. Hallyday always strove to bind music, vocalization, and lyrical meaning together to communicate emotion.
What made this all possible was Hallyday’s extraordinary voice. Like everything else with him, his singing was always over the top, pushing the pedal of power and vibrato, of pathetic sobs and plaintive wailing to the metal of his seemingly bulletproof vocal cords. But he could wield his mighty tenor with great precision and control. As music critic Olivier Cachin put it, his was “a voice … that has the intensity of a bomb and the precision of a missile.” One can only marvel at his sustained high notes in “Vivre pour le meilleur” or “L’Envie”, at the mournfully drawn out lines in “Elle m’oublie” or “Marie”, or the bulldozer saturation of “Ma gueule” or “Que je t’aime”. It’s hard to think of another male pop singer who could hold his own alongside exceptional female vocalists like Céline Dion. Listen, for example, to Hallyday and Isabelle Boulay sing “J’oublierai ton nom” at his 2003 Parc des Princes concert, or his “Requiem pour un fou” duet with Lara Fabian at his 1998 Stade de France show. With a mix of disingenuity disguising his hard work and of unintended irony given that he ultimately succumbed to lung cancer, Hallyday claimed of his voice that “I polish it with unfiltered Gitanes.” Strangest of all, his voice
improved with age, coming into its own in the early ’00s when the same songs took on richer, deeper musical presence.
In the final analysis, Hallyday probably shared more in common with “belters” like Boulay, Dion, and Fabian than with rockers like Mick Jagger. To take up Hallyday’s defense is thus to make the case for musical hams more generally, for singers who use their vocal gifts to mount unsubtle yet potent appeals to their audiences’ emotions, and who find ways to make art out of harmonious schmaltz. The Paris-based correspondent John Litchfield was on to something when he lamented in an otherwise positive assessment in
The Guardian that Hallyday’s “tragedy” was that “he should have sung Piaf, not Presley” – but then, we would never have had “À tout casser” or “Je suis seul”, his gripping version of Ben E. King’s “What is Soul” (not to mention that, thankfully, he did sing Piaf).
It was this voice – and the on-stage charisma of the man who wielded it – that drew so many of France’s most important songwriters to write specifically for him. Hallyday wrote some of his own songs, but he preferred to cover the work of others or cultivate creative collaborations: Charles Aznavour composed “Retiens la nuit” for him in 1961; Michel Berger wrote the album
Rock’n’Roll Attitude (1985); Jean-Jacques Goldman composed Gang (1986); Pascal Obispo wrote Ce que je sais (1998).Recently, Hallyday turned to a younger generation of artists like Christophe Miossec, Vincent Delerm, and Yodelice for new material.
He was what is called in France a
bête de scène, an indefatigable performer who gave his physical, musical, and emotional all on stage. There was something of Bruce Springsteen to his marathon concerts and the rapport he could strike up with large stadium audiences, minus the Boss’s social conscience. Instead, Hallyday wore his wounded heart on his stage-persona sleeve. This was the paradox flagged by his old friend Claude Moine who, like Hallyday, took on an American-sounding stage name to build a successful career singing rock ‘n’ roll as Eddy Mitchell: “He takes the stage looking like a cross between Goldorak and James Dean. He makes a dramatic entrance, an ax in hand, and five minutes later, he cries his despair because his girlfriend just dumped him.” He sang of lonely, lovelorn, broken-hearted souls in search of solace, freedom, and dignity. Songs like “Je suis né dans la rue” were personal confession, alluding to his absent father, his brushes with death (whether to automobile and motorcycle accidents, his suicide attempt in 1966, his struggle with drugs, or his more recent health problems), his relationship with his children (conceding how he had fallen short as a father in “Laura”), or his commitment to his fans (narrating the price he had paid “for having thrown my heart into a microphone” in his song “J’ai oublié de vivre” – “I forgot to live”). There was something of Brel’s total commitment to his art in Hallyday, as he so clearly demonstrated in the way he threw himself into his 1984 performance of “Ne me quitte pas”.
Hallyday knew how to wield his voice and his total investment to seize upon other peoples’ songs, to infuse them with feeling all his own, to appropriate them and make them his own. Consider how he sang Piaf. Singing “L’hymne à l’amour” to close his 1995 Bercy concerts, accompanied only by a piano, he modulates the dynamics of his voice and calibrates his vocal timing to intensify the song’s lyrical drama and grace its expression of love with verisimilitude. In his performance of “Je ne regrette rien” with which he concluded his 2000 Eiffel Tower concert, he turns La Môme’s autobiographical hymn into a confessional narration of his own life. As the singer Axel Bauer said of the song he wrote for Hallyday, “J’ai rêvé de nous”, “he completely appropriates the song to the point where one feels utterly dispossessed.He invests every piece of it.”
Like few others, Hallyday’s long career served as a kind of musical reagent, which detected and made visible fundamental social, cultural, and political shifts over nearly s60 years of French history. His embrace of American culture, of sports cars and loud motorcycles (he purchased his first Harley in 1964) was a celebrity-inflected episode in the broader tale of France’s postwar fascination with speed, Americanization, and modernity, which Kristin Ross told in her classic book
Fast Cars, Clean Bodies: Decolonization and the Reordering of French Culture (MIT Press, 1994). In some sense, Hallyday was pop music’s answer to Françoise Sagan, the young writer who provoked scandal by pushing the boundaries of gender and propriety in her novel Bonjour Tristesse (1954) and who (like Hallyday) almost lost her life at the wheel of a sports car. (When they finally met in 1996, Sagan was inspired to write the text of the song “Quelques cris” for him.)
It was sheer staying power as much as talent or the postwar zeitgeist that made his metamorphosis into an icon possible. He fittingly titled his 2014 album Rester vivant – “To stay alive”. And so he did, along with French baby boomers who, lifted up by universal health care and the postwar rise in standard of living, pushed life expectancy boundaries, defined a new consumer culture, and challenged pillars of France’s political, social, and sexual order. Hallyday didn’t so much capture the imagination of those who came of age during the “Trente glorieuses”, as the three-decades of rapid economic growth between the Liberation and the mid-’70s are known in France, as grow up with them. His musical shifts followed (and helped shape) the arc of their evolving tastes.”I am the young people’s idol” (“Je suis l’idole des jeunes”) sang Hallyday to the turbulent, adoring crowd assembled at the Place de la Nation in 1963 in what was instantly recognized as a performance of social, cultural, and sexual rebellion. Like his fans, who left the spirit of ’60s cultural revolt and the Trente Glorieuses’ prosperous certainties behind them, he pressed ahead, offering not only a rock ‘n’ roll answer to France’s fascination with fast cars and clean bodies, but a controlled experiment in tracking how this fascination grew up and grew old.
Nostalgia was easy enough to read on older fans’ faces at his concerts in recent years, but unlike many aging rockers still on the road, Hallyday was never a nostalgia act. To the contrary, he never ceased producing new work. To be sure, he ultimately became an overdetermined symbol of the Trentes Glorieuses. But like the Trente Glorieuses, which enjoyed a long and fecund afterlife as a mythic golden age of economic expansion and full employment that French people confronting the harsh challenges of neoliberalism longed for and leaders from Giscard to Hollande strove in vain to restore, Hallyday lived on. Janus-like, he functioned as a reminder of lost youth to his earliest followers, an ever relevant musical figure to newer fans, and an aging totem of an increasingly mythologized recent past to France as a whole. He became a generational kaleidoscope, crystallizing and refracting the aesthetic and cultural inclinations of successive cohorts of French people, a musical archeologist excavating the strata of personal and historical memory even as it accreted, a real-time curator of the national archive. As one writer remarked at his death, “His songs formed the soundtrack to our lives.”
Controversy thus gave way to consensus. Whereas the conservative daily
Le Figaro compared the 1963 Place de la Nation concert to Adolph Hitler’s Reichstag speech, by the ’70s Hallyday had begun his slow transformation in public discourse into a universal cultural referent, invoked with increasing frequency as a symbol of national identity. Commonly referred to with varying degrees of sincerity or irony as “Notre Johnny national” (Our national Johnny) or, simply, as “Johnny”, Hallyday became as much a cliché as an icon. But even the most overused clichés can burrow deep into a nation’s psyche. It was to Hallyday that the TF1 television network turned on the eve of the 2002 World Cup to sing “Tous ensemble”, the national football team’s insufferable (and ill-fated) official hymn, whose catchy chorus “We are all champions” echoed with unwittingly pitch-perfect irony as the aging, arrogant team crashed out of the tournament. It was to Hallyday that the mayor of Paris turned for the commemorative ceremony one year after the 2015 Charlie Hebdo-Hyper Cacher attacks to sing “Un dimanche de janvier”, the song he had written to honor the victims. (Given Charlie Hebdo‘s ferocious treatment of the singer over the years, Hallyday’s tribute was a measure of his graciousness.)
Saddled as he had become with such heavy symbolic responsibilities, the Pantheonization in all but name occasioned by Hallyday’s death came as little surprise. A fan from Marseille who had traveled to Paris for the funeral told a reporter from TF1 that Hallyday was now a part of “le patrimoine français” (France’s national heritage). Prime Minister Édouard Philippe concurred, arguing that the singer represented “a form of popular culture … which makes up a part of our identity.” In
Le Monde sociologist Jean-Louis Fabiani boiled such sentiments down into a succinct equation between singer and nation: “Johnny, c’était la France” – “Johnny was France.”
To take such declarations at face value, however, is to miss what they leave unsaid. For one thing, they presuppose the existence of a stable, legible French national identity. When
Le Monde invited Morin to comment on Hallyday’s death, the sociologist, today 96, quipped that “the memory of Johnny Hallyday reheats the meaning of French identity” – as if contemporary French identity was akin to a plate of stale leftovers to which even a microwave could not restore their original savor. The very proliferation of emphatic affirmations of Hallyday’s essential “Frenchness” are, in this view, more wishful thinking than descriptions of any real state of affairs, more symptoms of the increasingly contested character of national identity than expressions of self-evident national truths. The emotion stirred up by Hallyday’s death reveals a hunger for unifying national symbols at a moment when the national community is at odds over how best to represent itself.
For another, such affirmations elide the simple fact that, like the Parisian who told a reporter from
Libération when he was buttonholed near the funeral procession that “me, I’m not Johnny”, there were always many people in France who “were not Johnny”. As the Stones’ French followers made perfectly clear at the Stade de France in 2014, Hallyday’s fandom kingdom never conquered all of France.
Indeed, the contours of the “France that is Johnny” came to be coded with powerful sociocultural meanings. It was no accident that sociologist Pierre Bourdieu cited Hallyday as an example of how social groups mobilize cultural forms to differentiate themselves in his seminal 1979 book
Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. As a rough rule whiter, more provincial, and more working-class than France as a whole, Hallyday’s fan base was appropriated by conservative politicians and transformed in their self-interested hands into the idea of an essentialized French heartland, regularly held up to represent “la France profonde” (roughly, “middle France”). When pressed to clarify what he meant by “la France d’en bas” (the France of below, or of ordinary people), Chirac’s second prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin – himself an ardent Hallyday fan who loved nothing more than to treat audiences to his renditions of the singer’s songs, and who was in attendance at the Madeleine for his funeral – explained that it is “the France that listens to Johnny.”
Next Page (link below): A Darling of the Political Right
A Darling of the Political Right
That it was the right that adopted Hallyday was no accident. However apolitical his music tended to be, his own politics were decidedly partisan. With the exception of a short-lived post-Woodstock turn (in lyrics written for him in 1970 by his oft-time lyricist, the two-time Goncourt-winning novelist Philippe Labro, he famously sang, “If he still exists today / He must live in the United States / He must play the guitar / And sleep on train station benches / He must smoke marijuana / … Jesus Christ is a hippy”) and two performances at the Communist Party’s annual Fête de l’Humanité, Hallyday always leaned right. He wrote in his 2013 autobiography, Dans mes yeux (Plon) “I don’t like mediocrity, I think the left encourages it.” He consistently threw his support behind right-wing politicians, endorsing Valéry Giscard d’Estaing for president in 1974 and 1981, and singing “On a tous quelque chose de Jacques Chirac” at a rally for his favored candidate during the 1988 presidential campaign (“Quelque chose de Tennessee” author Michel Berger, who supported the Socialist candidate François Mitterrand, was not pleased). His clumsy though fiscally effective move to low-marginal-tax-rate Switzerland, and his abortive effort to reclaim Belgian citizenship and escape France’s wealth tax, made Hallyday a controversial symbol of capital’s efforts to escape taxation. In the 2002 elections he energetically supported Nicolas Sarkozy, a friend who had officiated at his fourth wedding. The Hallydays were guests at the infamous victory celebration at the exclusive Fouquet’s restaurant in Paris, a gathering of the rich and famous which came to symbolize Sarkozy’s ‘bling-bling’ presidency. (The singer had also promised to move back from Switzerland if Sarkozy won; the president never forgave him for not following through.)
That the French right was more than happy to bask in the support of this show-business symbol of hedonistic excess offers an illuminating measure of its rapid move away from social conservatism since the ’70s. In 1961, the politically engaged Catholic writer, Nobel laureate, and Gaullist champion François Mauriac condemned Hallyday’s “erotic delirium tremens”; half a century and several lifetimes of youthful indiscretions later, the singer shared a meal of coq-au-vin and Coronas with Chirac in the Élysée Palace.
Once Hallyday had been remade into a politicized symbol of the virtuous
peuple, it was altogether predictable that Alain Finkielkraut, the nouveau philosophe turned embittered pedlar of racist jeremiads, would make this a matter of xenophobic polemic, the latest exhibit in his case against the allegedly apocalyptic state of multicultural France. The day after Hallyday’s funeral, Finkielkraut declared in a radio interview that “the common white people took to the streets to bid farewell to Johnny. They were out in number and alone. Those not of old stock distinguished themselves by their absence.” With logic as perilously divisive as it was absurd (as if all white people are Hallyday fans and all visible minorities are not), Finkielkraut posited a racialized opposition between ‘true’ French men and women and those of North and West African origin whose ostensible repudiation of Hallyday confirms their illegitimacy as full citizens of the Republic. (After proposing that a taste for Hallyday should serve as a litmus test for Frenchness, Finkielkraut admitted the insincerity of his sudden embrace of the singer, dismissing his music as an inferior form of popular culture, even arguing that to compare Hallyday to Victor Hugo, as many were doing, “would mean turning the page on national identity.”) Given Hallyday’s endorsement of the Black Lives Matter movement in “Dans la peau de Mike Brown” (“Inside Mike Brown’s Skin”) on his last album, it’s unlikely he would have been particularly comfortable with Finkielkraut’s narrow vision of national identity in any event. (On the extreme right, Hallyday had this to say in 2011: “It’s aberrant to vote for the Front National.”)
To Hallyday’s credit, he never took his role as star or national symbol entirely seriously, even revealing a generous capacity for self-derision. When the impressionist Laurent Guerra made a pitiless caricature of the singer a staple of his act, Hallyday invited Guerra to sing alongside him in concert. Most remarkable in this regard is Hallyday’s role in Laurent Tuel’s 2006 film,
Jean-Philippe. (Hallyday was also a pretty good movie actor, alternating roles in serious films like Jean-Luc Godard’s 1985 Détective and Johnnie To’s 2009 Vengeance, both Cannes festival selections, and Patrice Leconte’s 2002 L’homme du train, which won best film at the Venice Mostra, alongside unwatchable bombs.) In Jean-Philippe, Fabrice Luchini plays a middle-aged head of family who leads an unremarkable suburban existence and punches in at a deadening white-collar office, whose only passion in life is Hallyday. After a sharp blow to the head, he awakens in a world identical in all respects to the one he had known except that Johnny does not exist. After a long search, Luchini’s character tracks down the ‘real’ Jean-Philippe Smet, a middle-aged owner of a dingy bowling alley; he teaches Smet Hallyday’s songs, convinces him to embark on a musical career, and ultimately succeeds in making him into a superstar, thus reuniting the two parallel universes. It’s a good film: Luchinni takes manifest pleasure in exploring the obsessive, totalizing character of fandom; Hallyday takes equal pleasure in mocking the accidental, even absurd, character of stardom in general and of his own persona in particular.
More broadly, the film forces audiences to ask whether France would have been any different had Hallyday never existed. The film’s answer – which Hallyday himself implicitly endorses through his portrayal of ‘Jean-Philippe’ – is twofold. On the one hand, it celebrates the life-changing happiness his music brings to the lives of fans like that portrayed by Luchini. On the other, its self-reflexive parody of the pop music world unmistakably suggests that Hallyday has had no meaningful impact on French society as a whole.
The film’s counterfactual thought experiment is another way of asking what legacy Hallyday will leave. In this spirit, it’s striking just how few have sought to appropriate his songs for themselves. Unlike the music of other giants of postwar French pop music, say Serge Gainsbourg and Alain Bashung, Hallyday’s work is rarely covered by others, tribute bands aside. While Gainsbourg and Bashung were both great performers, neither had particularly exceptional voices, and those who take up their work have substantive material to wrestle with in the songs. When it comes to songs associated with Hallyday, however, it is as if singers are intimidated by his virtuosic, if not imperious, vocal performances. This helps explain why so few of the efforts on the 2017 tribute album
On a tous quelque chose de Johnny, or Les Inrockuptibles‘ project to invite young musicians to cover his songs, are successful. They aren’t reinterpreting a song – they are thinking with, or against, Hallyday’s interpretations. Those who attempt arrangements and vocalizations in keeping with Hallyday’s versions are quite simply crushed under the weight of his own voice and emotion. The only interesting examples are those who tack away hard from Hallyday, like hip-hop singer Ichon’s electro-rnb cover of “Retiens la nuit”, La Féline’s almost Joy Division-like electro version of “Quelque chose de Tennessee”, or Victorine’s bossa nova “Allumer le feu”.
By any calculus, Hallyday stands as one of the most important figures in the history of postwar French popular culture. His place in the history of music, however, is less secure. He commands an enormous public and many fans, but no disciples or students; the sturdy branch he added to the genealogical tree of French popular music will, I suspect, spawn few ramifications. Having performed music largely written by others, he leaves no real oeuvre of his own; so all-embracing was his proteiform practice of musical genres that he defined no real style. He was well aware of his own limits (“I’m not a very good guitarist” he confessed to
Télérama in 1995; when asked in 2009 if he knew when his acting was good, he retorted, “No, I know when I’m bad”), as his constant search for gifted session musicians, songwriters, and lyricists attests. What he could offer was his voice, and with it he succeeded in inventing a role as an incandescent showman, a gripping interpreter of electrified, at times hard-rocking, chanson française, someone who could create and communicate emotion to audiences and enter into communion with them. Music as abstract creation mattered less to him than music as performance. Admitting that the recording studio bored him, Hallyday himself once confessed, “I only record albums so that I can perform them on stage.”With Hallyday now gone and unable to sustain his supercharged relationship with fans in concert, it is legitimate to wonder what trace he will leave. But he never nursed any musical ambitions beyond “throwing my heart into a microphone” – and anyone who ever heard him sing knows that the Jean-Philippe Smet born in hardscrabble Pigalle and raised in the long shadow of French music halls delivered on that promise a thousandfold.