For some, their favorite school subjects are the core classes like science, math and English.
Mine were the elective classes. Band, then choir from my sophomore year on, and French class.
I began taking French in eighth grade (when I was about 14 years old) and I continued taking French through high school. Every day at school, I opened my mind to a new culture and language. Most of the time we spent our class time doing grammar drills.
However, my teachers would sometimes play French music in class and let us dissect the lyrics. One of the first songs they ever played was La vie en rose by Edith Piaf, a song that’s apparently just as well known in English as well as French (I prefer the French version of course!):
When we learned the passé composé, a.k.a. the basic past tense, my teacher played Et maintenant, a paean to lost love:
Another past-tense favorite song (if you recognize the melody, there’s a reason why; this was the original French-language version of My Way by Frank Sinatra):
Now, if you’ve clicked on the videos above to listen to these songs, you might notice something about the music my teachers would play for us in class. It was all older music. The other kids in my French classes always talked over the music, not paying the slightest attention to the lyrics on the overhead projector.
I was the weird kid who actually liked those songs. My parents played music from the 50s and 60s in the house when I was a kid, so I preferred music from that time anyway.
Also, I loved those little cultural learning moments. It made the language more than just grammar drills. I was learning what French people know and like. And I was listening to something that I had never heard before.
Before I took French, I had never heard a non-English song in its entirety. You don’t hear a foreign language song on American top 40 stations unless it’s a novelty hit like Gangnam Style or, if you go back a little bit to the mid-80s, 99 Luftballons. The French hear our music mixed with their local language hits. American radio sticks to English-language songs.
One afternoon in high school, I went on an Internet search for other French music. I wanted to know what else was out there that someone my age at that time (the early 2000s) would know. Every culture has their popular songs. What would a French person know?
As it would turn out, a lot!
That Internet search brought me to a young artist named Alizée and her song Moi… Lolita. I’d never heard a modern French pop song before. It was cool. It was in French. And it was DIFFERENT. I’d never heard anything like that song before in my life. I. WAS. HOOKED.
I then found the whole album that song came from and it kept me sane through the last few years of high school. I learned new words. I had a new favorite singer too. Alizée was only the beginning. After I played her first and second albums to death, I sought other French music too. My teachers loved that I was asking them about the various French artists I’d found online. They even gave me some cassettes and I’d dub my own copies.
Another world of music I’d never heard before had opened up to me. It amazed me that someone could be so popular in one country but be unknown in another. French artists like Alizée, her songwriter and fellow French artist Mylène Farmer, Daniel Balavoine, and Indochine were on regular rotation in my Walkman. It became the best learning tool for learning new French words. I also learned how real French people communicate and what those songs are that everyone seems to know.
The Internet helped me find even more French music when I discovered Internet radio. For a time, I listened to NRJ Radio to discover new French music. I stopped listening when I realized I was hearing more English-language than French-language songs, so I switched to Cherie FM. When I was in France for three months, I listened to that station on my portable CD/radio. Then I found MFM, which I sometimes play for my students while they’re working in class because they only ever play French music.
Over the years, I have amassed my own collection of French music. I have everything from Jean-Jacques Goldman, a pop-rock singer famous for writing songs for Celine Dion. If I’m in a thoughtful mood, Francis Cabrel is there with his gorgeous acoustic songs, of which my all-time favorite song is this number:
There’s also the raspy, passionate voice of Florent Pagny, who is one of the current judges on the French version of The Voice (I really need to get into more of his music):
One of my favorite French voices is Nolwenn Leroy, who possesses one of the most beautiful, rich voices I’ve ever heard in my life OMG…..:
And lastly, I can’t forget about Zazie (speaking of the French The Voice, she is also a judge on that show). Her wordplay has influenced a little of my own French writing:
That love of French music that began in a dusty high school classroom in 2002 has never left me. I have happily passed on to my students, who love hearing me play real French music for them in class. What I love about French music is not just the exotic quality of listening to a foreign language song you’d never hear on the radio in the US. It’s connecting with another culture and realizing that music is universal. Even if you don’t know any French beyond “bonjour” and “au revoir,” you can hear the song and like the beat and the emotions of the singer. The words become another instrument in the mix. That’s probably what our music sounds like to every non-English speaker!
Case in point, this Dominican radio show that featured a caller looking for a song called, in Spanish, Are those Reebok or those Nike (in reality, the song he wants is The Rhythm of the Night):
To close this out, I will leave you with another Alizée song, one which I played almost as much as Moi..Lolita: L’alizé, a playfully written song about Alizée’s often overemotional state and how her moods change like the alizé, a Mediterranean trade wind: