Whatever the opposite of patriotism is, I felt it last week at around 8pm in Somerset House, in central London. I was at a gig with a British friend and the support act, a very blonde and very French woman, was singing about blowjobs.
“Zis song is called Yum Yum Yum,” she’d announced to the crowd. It was still broad daylight and we were stone-cold sober. I felt my muscles trying to withdraw into themselves. My friend burst out laughing when she saw me, conceding that yes, there is French and French.
About an hour later, La Femme arrived on stage. A psychedelic, punkish rock band from Biarritz, they are both tremendous fun and still largely unknown on this side of the Channel. It’s a shame, but perhaps understandable; although they do sing in multiple languages, including Spanish and – of course – English, their best songs are in French.
Hearing Où Va Le Monde and Sur La Planche live felt deeply cathartic. I knew all the words and so did the people around me; had a bomb dropped on us that evening, it is clear that the French community in London would have taken a sharp hit.
There was also a pleasing symmetry to it all, at least for me. I discovered British guitar bands in 2005 and my obsession with them eventually led me to move here in 2009. It took 14 years after that for me to stand in a crowd, close my eyes, and sing along to French songs.
In my defence, music isn’t necessarily something my people ever excelled at. We’ve got the art and the clothes and the architecture and the food, but the music? We usually prefer to import it, or to have our artists ape British and American bands, to the extent that there is no longer anything Gallic about them. Phoenix and Daft Punk are great, they really are, but there is nothing intrinsically French about them. They’re also exceptions.
I was brought up to think that popular French pop was bland at best, embarrassing at worst. I never knew the so-called “classics” – your Daniel Balavoines and Michel Sardous – and didn’t feel I was missing out.
Ironically, moving here is what made me discover them. Some friends from school followed me to London a few years after I switched countries and, as it happened, several of them had a soft spot for all that syrupy and corny stuff. They made me listen to it all as we got ready for nights out and I hated it, and made fun of them for it.
Over time, they all ended up leaving, either returning to France or moving to other countries. All I had left after that were those cheesy, terrible tunes. I made myself a playlist of them in 2018 and, slowly, ended up learning all of them by heart.
Coincidentally, 2018 was also the year I discovered La Femme. They were playing at some random, corporate festival I’d been invited to, and, well, I’ll watch anything if it’s free and there’s a glass of fizz in my hand.
They were brilliant, of course, and it took me five long years to see them again, this time as a bona fide fan. To my shame, I am yet to get hooked on more French music, but I do intend to at some point.
Pasty boys from the north of England were the ones who got me into guitar music in the first place, but there is something special about poignant or fun and sleazy lyrics being sung in your own language.
All my French friends have now left London, meaning that the only time I get to speak French is on the phone, or by going back home. Screaming along to lyrics I know by heart isn’t quite the same as a face-to-face conversation with a loved one, but it does heal the soul, at least for a little while. I’m just not sure I’ll be checking out that Yum Yum Yum girl again.