Page last updated at 12:11 GMT, Thursday, 28 October 2010 13:11 UK

French rocking to an English rhythm

By Hugh Schofield
BBC News, Paris

English is often regarded as the dominant international language of business, but not everyone is happy about its spread - especially when it comes to music.

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If you are at all interested in things French and want to have a bit of a laugh, may I recommend a website called PardonmyFrench.

It is a kind of musical forum, where amateur French performers send in French versions of well-known English and American rock songs.

It is all in the spirit of high spoof, so the interpretations are comically deadpan.

You can hear Le Magicien du Flipper by Les Qui for example, and Je suis le Morse by Les Scarabees. That is The Who's Pinball Wizard, and I am the Walrus by the Beatles.

There are songs by Les Garcons de l'Animalerie (Pet Shop Boys), Les Pierres Roulantes (Rolling Stones) and Les Forgerons (The Smiths).

Naturally, the songs all sound plain daft, and intentionally so: the website is just a piece of fun.

However there is a slightly more serious undercurrent, I would venture.

First, the people at PardonmyFrench are actually having a light-hearted jibe at France's linguistic protection laws.

These are the rules that still oblige radio stations to play a set quota of French songs.

A new generation is emerging, which seems completely free of cultural and linguistic taboos

Okay if that is the way you want it - the website is saying - here is some excellent, quota-filling, politically-correct French language content.

But more to the point, the spoofs - by being so hilarious - also pose the question, can you actually sing rock in French and also sound convincing?

Coming from me, that sounds merely chauvinistic and Anglo-centric. But the point is the same question is being asked by more and more young French musicians.

A new generation is emerging, which seems completely free of cultural and linguistic taboos.

If they want to sing in English, they will sing in English "zut!" - and the officials who police the linguistic orthodoxy can all, as far as they are concerned, go hang.

To be sure there has always been the occasional French rock group that sang in English, but it is now halfway to being the norm.

Phoenix, Revolver, Hey Hey My My, Poney Pony Run Run, Cocoon, the Plasticines, Aaron. There are scores of them - musicians who grew up with the internet and YouTube, and who have lost the whatever it is - instinct or sense of cultural duty - that their forerunners had to sing in the national tongue.

But is it just a fad, a way of being in the modern groove, man?

Or is there actually something about the English language that attracts these young French singers and makes them prefer it to their own language as a medium for musical communication?

Well their point of view is that English simply works better.


In rock you need a much looser relationship with language, and that comes more naturally with the informality of English

Frederic Riviere, or the techno artist known to fans as Anoraak, told me that the rhythms and cadences of English were right for his kind of music, while the rhythms of French just were not.

A musicologist would have to explain the whys and wherefores, but that sounds convincing.

I mean English is full of one- and two-syllable words, and it is heavily accented, so as the old poets realised it is easy to beat out the metre: de-derr, de-derr, de-derr and that shifts naturally into a rock rhythm. French is somewhat what, less bumpy?

Loose language

Another point though is that the reverence the French have for their language acts as an inhibitor.

Serge Gainsbourg (R) and Jane Birkin (L)
Gainsbourg's grave in Montparnassse cemetery is the most-visited in France

Another singer told he could not let rip in French the way he wanted to, because he felt so self-conscious. He also spoke of what he called Gainsbourgitis.

This is the mentality that afflicts French performers and makes them all want to be clones of the late, great, revered crooner Serge Gainsbourg.

But Gainsbourg was not a rock musician, he was a singer-poet in the tradition of chanson. In French chanson the words precede, and the music follows.

But in rock you need a much looser relationship with language, and that comes more naturally with the informality of English.

Before anyone starts writing in and complaining about cultural imperialism, let me hasten to say that I know there are thousands of counter-examples of French rockers who have successfully stuck to their own language. The late Alain Bashung is perhaps the epitome. And there is the whole world of French rap.

So it can be done, and maybe all these Anglophones would be better off trying to sing in French - and thus communicating more directly with their primary audience - rather than aping the foreigner.

But I suspect it is too late now. Cultural globalisation has hit us all, including the French.

As Monsieur Robert Dylan (Bob Dylan to you and me) once put it: Les Temps Ils Sont A-Changeant (The Times They Are A-Changin').

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