Johnny Hallyday Was More Than Just a Kitschy Gallic Misreading of Rock
It's hard to think of another male pop singer who could hold his own alongside exceptional female vocalists like Céline Dion.
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.