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In France, a Revolution on the Pop Charts

Actress-singer Charlotte Gainsbourg
Alberto Pizzoli
AFP/Getty Images
Actress-singer Charlotte Gainsbourg

Over the years, France has produced some remarkable music, from the emotive chanson of Edith Piaf, Serge Gainsbourg's iconoclastic work and the electronic melodicism of the band Air. These days, too, there are plenty of young artists stirring the charts in France — so many that it feels as though French music is in the process of reinventing itself.

"Marly-Gomont," a celebration of rural multicultural life by the rapper Kamini, was the No. 1 single in France during February; it's indicative of the increasing pride France is taking in its homegrown music. At one end of the spectrum is a singer who's been around for decades — Johnny Halliday, who began in 1960 as the country's answer to Elvis. At the other end is Emilie Simon, whose big break came when she wrote the soundtrack for the film March of the Penguins. Her follow-up album, Vegetal, became one of the best-selling albums of 2006, proving she was more than a one-hit wonder. Catchy, with a beguiling, naïve cuteness, it captured French hearts.

Simon isn't the only artist to break through. Camille, a former politics and literature student who uses just the one name, became a sensation when her second album sold almost half a million copies in France alone. Her adventurous style, part Bjørk and part her own dangerous imagination, makes beautiful use of her voice. It makes you think Camille could be a global star.

One French singer who's never gone out of style is the late Serge Gainsbourg. He was provocative, lyrically brilliant, and a musical chameleon. Although he's probably best known internationally for 1969's orgasmic "Je T'Aime ... Moi Non Plus," his influence has always run much deeper at home. There, he's regarded as one of the most important artists of the 20th century, continually challenging the norms throughout his life.

His daughter, the celebrated actress Charlotte Gainsbourg, recorded with him as early as age 13, and last year released her solo debut, 5:55. With some big-name French and British help, she crafted a record that became an immediate critical and commercial success. Continuing the family tradition, it's something that squeezes together art and pop.

Gainsbourg was already well known when she released her album. Cali, another mononymic performer, has had to work harder for his success. His emotional anthems look back to the 1980s for inspiration; his passionate, widescreen sound is ineffably French, but it also transcends language to deliver a very satisfying jolt of vibrant music.

Homegrown French music isn't limited to pop, rock, or even more traditional chanson these days. France has a large immigrant population, mostly from former African colonies, and they've added colors and textures to music. The Algerian rai sound has been part of the mainstream for a decade, as artists like Khaled and Faudel have become major stars. But a new generation of immigrants who've come of age in France have brought fresh cross-cultural fusions.

In the southern city of Montpellier, for instance, you'll find Les Boukakes. With members from France, Tunisia and Corsica, they bring a pan-Mediterranean perspective to their heartfelt rock 'n' roll. With a nomination for a BBC Radio 3 World Music Award, they've become a presence on the world music scene. And when you hear them tackle the song "L'Alawi," it's easy to understand why.

There's a growing energy in French music. Individual artists have broken out here and there in the past, but these days, there's a sense that it's ready to burst beyond the borders and take the world by storm. It's some of the most interesting and varied in Europe today, stepping happily away from the cookie-cutter sounds that dominate other countries.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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