Making money from music is no longer easy, and inventive merchandising has become almost as important as the songs themselves.
And so, on the website of Belgian pop star Angèle, who has just released her second album and is the subject of an engaging new Netflix documentary, is a golden waffle keyring, priced at £15.
It celebrates her single Bruxelles je t’aime, which entered the Belgian charts at No.1 in late October.
The choice of gaufres de Bruxelles, a rather whimsical culinary symbol of the Belgian capital, to mark the single, is typical of Angèle’s playful, self-effacing and slightly screwball posturing, her humorous visuals being a major part of her appeal.
The Bruxelles je t’aime video, which had two million views in its first week, finds Angèle partying on a Paris Gare du Nord to Brussels train, and finally standing astride a model of the city’s Atomium sculpture – another symbol of the capital and, indeed, Belgium.
While the song was born of her homesickness while in lockdown in Paris, it is a far-from-uncomplicated homage to the city.
As well as acknowledging the city’s “grey sky and rain”, Angèle sings: “We don’t have the longest of histories/We know it, we haven’t always won”, and, in a surprising turn for irresistible pop music sung by such a consummate pop star, takes up the theme of Flemish separatism.
Angèle sings in French, “And if one day she comes to split and we have to choose our side, it would be the worst of nightmares, all this for an issue of language. I lived my most beautiful stories in French and in Flemish”, before adding: “Laat me het zeggen in het Vlaams, dank je Brussel voor m’n naam”(Let me say it in Flemish/Thank you Brussels for my name). Her surname, van Laeken, echoes the Laeken area of north west Brussels).
Bruxelles je t’aime is the first single from new album Nonante-Cinq (the title is a reference to the year of her birth, 1995). It follows 2018 debut Brol (a light-hearted Belgian slang term for ‘chaos’), which sold more than a million copies in France.
It is not the first time Angèle has used her sweet face and understated voice, with its echoes of jazz and chanson, as a cover for engaging with a controversial topic. Brol’s Balance ton quoi, inspired by the BalanceTonPorc hashtag, a French parallel to #MeToo, told predatory men to, in no uncertain terms, “go f**k yourself ”, and was adopted by the protestors who took to the streets of France in late 2019 to demand stronger laws against domestic violence.
Brol was something of an ‘issues’ album, featuring songs such as La thune (Dough), lamenting the pursuit of fame and money through social media celebrity, and Ta reine (Your queen), a celebration of same-sex attraction, Meanwhile, Nonante-Cinq is more personal.
This is made clear on the second single from the album, Démons, a collaboration with the Congoleseborn Belgian rapper Damso. The track is about Angèle’s inner anxieties and killing them off through musical creativity (“If the magic happens, they will all fall”, she sings). The video finds her dancing feverishly with a host of blonde-wigged doppelgangers.
Démons perfectly reflects the themes of the Netflix documentary Angèle, released last month, which follows her working on Nonante-Cinq during lockdown and trying to cope with both her self-doubt and her scarily rapid climb to fame.
The 26-year-old singer is candid about how terrifying she found her first taste of fame (“I’d cry all day at that time”), but is remarkable for the way she is determined to take control of her own narrative at what is still the outset of her career.
“No one will ever be able to tell it better than I can,” she says.
While Angèle is as much prey to a predatory media as any other star, recounting her extreme upset at the publication of a photo in Playboy that she had rejected as too objectifying, and the Belgian tabloids outing her as bisexual after an appearance on an irreverent French talk show, she is the anti-Britney, Whitney or Amy. That’s because she is self-aware about everything, from her drive to be successful in order to move out of the shadow of her actor mother and musician father (“I was just looking for recognition”), to her public image (“I created this girl. An improved version of myself. A combination of my fantasies”).
She is starting as she means to go on – with her eyes open and as no one’s victim – and is now fully embracing her success.
Intelligent, genuine, and very much in control, if Angèle is the future of European pop as we go into 2022, it is bright indeed.
Angèle in five songs:
La Loi de Murphy (2017)
Angèle’s bilingual French-English debut single Murphy’s Law showcased her talent for humorous, jaded-beyond-her-years lyrics, as she recounts a day gone awry via everyday irritations.
Tout oublier (2018)
A collaboration with her brother, hip hop artist Roméo Elvis, Forget Everything reached No.1 on both the Belgian and French charts. The video found the pair taking to a beach in full skiing gear, an apt metaphor for the lyrics’ weary irony (“Depression is no longer in fashion, it’s not difficult to be happy”).
Oui ou non? (2019)
A Belgian No.2 and French No.3, this typically sardonic tale of romantic rejection was accompanied by a video where Angèle starred in a series of amusing pastiches of TV adverts.
This duet with Dua Lipa, which featured on the British star’s smash hit Future Nostalgia album, was another No1 in both Belgium and France in late 2020.
Bruxelles je t’aime (2021)
Angèle’s fourth chart-topper in Belgium, this love letter to the city she grew up also engages with the issue of Flemish separatism.