- Post-War French Popular Music: Cultural Identity and the Brel–Brassens–Ferré Myth by Adeline Cordier
Adeline Cordier’s wide-ranging study uses the famous photograph by Jean-Pierre Leloir of the ‘holy trinity’ of contemporary French chanson as the starting point for an analysis of the reasons for their complementary status as symbols of post-war French national identity. The meeting between Jacques Brel, Georges Brassens, and Léo Ferré in January 1969 was organized and documented by François-René Cristiani as a major media event — radio discussion, photo opportunity, and journalistic article — and it has since taken on the aura of a symbol of modern Frenchness. It was even restaged in 2008 at the Comédie-Française as a dramatic performance and a tribute to the lasting interest of the public in these three heroes of French popular music. Cordier’s interpretation of the significance of this is admirably thorough and well documented, drawing on many journalistic articles and reviews of the trio’s live performances, as well as the growing body of anthologies and studies of their work, including those of David Looseley, Chris Tinker, and my own. She makes good use of various theoretical approaches such as those of Barthes’s Mythologies, Bourdieu’s Distinction, and Paul Zumthor’s study of Oral Poetry. What emerges is that the photo and its associated media events crystallized an association of the three singer-songwriters that was by no means predictable, nor obvious: they were in many ways contrasted, and did not necessarily know each other well. Why not Serge Gainsbourg, Jean Ferrat, or Barbara, equally famous at the time? Brel, Brassens, and Ferré embodied a mixture of social revolt and nostalgia for past values, and an ordinariness that put them at odds with the commercial pressures of stardom and the contemporary Anglo-American-dominated popular music scene: they represented role models for their audience in the morally ambiguous years after the German occupation and the colonial wars of the 1950s and 1960s. All three came from modest, [End Page 427] non-Parisian backgrounds — Brassens from Sète, Ferré from Monaco, Brel from Brussels — and struggled to find success in Paris, eventually moving from the bohemian cabarets to the music halls and exposure in the mass media. Persuasive and revealing as Cordier’s book is, it explicitly leaves out of account any assessment of their lasting artistic merit, which is surely the main reason for their durable popular appeal; this is confirmed by the limited reference to their recorded works — there is no discographic reference to Ferré’s output before 1960 or after 1974, for instance — and by the absence of any allusion to the numerous audio and video recordings of their live performances. Brilliant as it is, the study is thus sociological rather than aesthetic, and treats the three figures as symptoms of France’s post-war malaise rather than as successful artists in their own right.