Pop music that isn’t sung in English rarely gets much of a listen among U.S. audiences. once in a while a song, usually associated with an insanely popular film, that includes a verse–or a phrase or two–in a second language will be really popular, but for the most part it’s English all the way. I wonder at times if French pop is met with particularly studied rejection after the brief rage for Jordy’s “Dur Dur D’Etre Bebe” back in 1992 (apologies to all who had successfully blocked that memory. I think I remember buying the single when it came out, but mostly I remember a few instances of singing the lyrics along with a few classmates to torture our French teacher, who was remarkably patient and good-natured but hated the song. It does grate on the nerves after about 10 seconds.)
Dur Dur D’Etre Bebe (and the somewhat alarming image of family life portrayed in its video) aside, the general distaste for foreign pop and rock music is a pity on many scores. I’ve always found it particularly odd when a singer or a group makes the charts in several other countries, or all over the world, and remains virtually unknown in the U.S. As with so many things–particularly football/soccer–this feels like a sort of willful denial on our part, and a bit immature. As though we are covering our ears, scrunching up our faces and muttering “unh-uh” while a the rest of the world holds out a glass of good champagne and a plate of chocolate truffles to us, insisting that we’ll like it if we only give it a chance.
I stopped paying attention to music television and radio when I was finishing high school, save for a brief spell in 2001 when my otherwise tight-fisted landlord gave us free cable television for six months (so he could hike the rent on the next tenants) and there were a couple of music stations that still played music videos. Since then, I’ve relied on reviews, word of mouth, and television shows to hear new stuff. The Daily Show and Stephen Colbert have proved particularly useful in this regard–they don’t have musical guests on all that often, but those they do have are usually acts I find worth listening to. Or, in case of The National, find myself a week later trying to buy up their complete back catalogue.
The only other act from TDS I’ve really fallen for is Christine and the Queens, otherwise known as Héloïse Letissier offstage. She was one of Trevor Noah’s first few musical guests, if not the first, and I think I enjoyed Noah’s complete loss for words at how to respond to her performance as I did the music itself. She and her dancers/band are one of the few rock/pop acts that make live music an actual performance, not by adding a lightshow and other special effects, but by making dance and a number of cultural references an integral part of the show along with the singing. She also uses every song she sings to question and break down gender and sexual normativity, which a lot of people still find threatening; as I watched Trevor Noah’s brief interview with her, I wondered if he had bothered to listen to any of her music before the show.
I didn’t rush to iTunes for the album immediately, but when I did get to it a few weeks later I wished I had. I played it pretty much non-stop for a month, and it was one of the things that got me through last December without losing my mind. She has a lovely voice, and does 80s-style synth-pop better than they did in the 80s. (Granted, she probably has better equipment than was available 25-30 years ago.) She does sing in French, but she re-recorded the album for international release with some of the lyrics translated into English. It sounds like an odd proposition, and I’m sure in some cases it would produced questionable results, but she makes it work beautifully.
She seems to be making waves everywhere but here, which is a pity; we’re missing out. Of course the language barrier isn’t the only obstacle to her popularity over here–we may be making strides in terms of breaking down prejudice against the cishet status quo, but there’s a ways to go yet. Letissier just isn’t interested in waiting, or diluting her style to make it more palatable for the general population: she does what makes her happy. I’m sure it would make a great many more people here happy too, if they had a listen.
Further reading and listening: