MISCELLANEOUS FRENCH REFLECTIONS
French Popular Music
France undoubtable has the greatest store of 1950s music. One hears it on the radio all day everyday and every week there are TV shows featuring current artists crooning the songs. Mostly ballads but with a sprinkling of R&R, R&B and country, the single twang guitar or piano features as the backing instrument, often an accordion, and - if the budget stretches to it - strings. The big stars, those who have been around for more than 5 years, are credited with backing singers and strings by the major recording studios like Universal Music, while the up and coming chanteurs have to make it with the basics.
The unfortunate part about all of this is, that most of the songs are new ! France is still producing exactly the 50's genre now, in the third millennium, and in huge quantity. What is more interesting is that there is a large and appreciative audience. What is even more interesting is that most of the stuff they produce would not have cut it in the 50s since the songs are badly constructed, banal in the extreme and the modern singers are sadly often out of tune - captured for all time in recordings.
Radio stations and real life TV shows are full of new and old artistes, all accompanied by frenzied audiences of both young and old fans. There is a reality TV program here called Star Academy where the group of young people live in a country chateau staffed by dancing and singing coaches, drama and voice tutors and the directing staff. They do their daily lessons and are captured in their leisure times by hidden cameras in bedrooms, bathrooms and toilets. Some interesting issues have arisen.
Firstly, the vicarious pleasures reinforced by producers of other such programs have all but disappeared. We no longer see the bathroom shots of half naked girls in or out of the showers or the other student=s beds, nor are there romps in polls or lounge rooms after wine soaked dinners. What we do see are the naked emotions of kids under pressure to become stars. They are raked by their tutors and constantly pushed to perform. Not only do they have to perform in the classroom for the teachers but weekly on live to air, big budget production shows where they share the stages with recognised artists. But, like the steak knives, there is more. They are also voted on by the audience and the staff to retain their positions in the >academy= for in the end there will only be one winner.
Unfortunately, the way voting has gone in this land of quixotic musical and artistic tastes, the ones left standing so far may be high on teenage heart-throb appeal but they have almost no talent. That=s not quite true - the two leading boys left in the series (for the also rans are kept around to fill out the backing singer line up) have no singing, dancing or performing talent. Like zero, nought, none ! They stand awkwardly still in front of both cameras and audiences, singing cruelly out of tune and time, unable to make any sense or meaning from the material they are given to perform, both 50s French and some more exciting American or English recognised songs.
The two leading girls on the other hand, have fine voices and make great material sound and look good - like themselves - but, it appears, they have very little chance of success in this program since the majority of voters and young girls and they desperately want Jean Paul or Pascale.
I have no doubt Jean Paul or Pascale will eventually come through as the next French heart throb artiste. He, whoever gets the vote, will join a long list of other current French stars putting out dreary records that sound like rejected American 50s pop and will probably continue into old age like the hero who died just a couple of weeks ago, famous, wealthy, respected but talent-less.
Its this strange time warp quality of contemporary French life that makes living here so appealing. This is a land where there are still boutique shops in every village and by boutique I don=t mean those glitzy clothes shops of Australian shopping mall existence, I mean the small >magasins= run by artisan boulangers, chocalatiers, boulangers, epiciers and the like. The places we go to choose the specific tart, cut of meat, range of chocolates or fruit and vegetables while the others in the shop wait patiently for their turn to indulge in the art of living.
In these shops there is no rush, that is left for the supermarket aisles for there are such things. Here, the accent is on choice and discussion about choice, its about freshness and taste, flavour and appearance, about quality of life. This is where one exercises the right to live to eat rather than eating to live. It is also about passing the day with pleasure rather than just efficiency.
Who knows how long this way of life will last or how soon it may die out from the villages and small towns before the next generation, or the one after that, vested with the task of making the national budget balance and with the demand for a new, bigger car, house, holiday, will usher out the generations of artisans and turn their shops into pizza shops - delivery only.
The Academy Francais
One of the reasons the French way of life is perpetuated is that successive governments have led the argument for the need to reinforce and preserve La Belle France. This has been supported by the demand from outside French borders for its way of life. British, German, American, Swiss, even Australian citizens find themselves heading for France to holiday, buy a French farmhouse or just to flavour their lives at home with Foie Gras, Champagne, Brie and Croissants.
One way they have taken to preserving the best of the French culture is through the Academie Francais. This august body is the final arbiter in all matters of language and culture and it seems, it is because of this mechanism and the process that leads to it=s existence, that much of the way of life here is reinforced.
Not only do we in Australia have nothing like the Academie, but also we have nothing like the result its presence in French life produces. I suppose we depend on the Universities and the Macquarie dictionary people to be the arbiters of how Australian as a language should be constructed and used - or is it that since it=s not really our language, we really just don=t care. It seems that here things are different.
Take for example a prime time television program that dominates one of the French government TV channels most of the week AThe question for champions@. This is a quiz show, but unlike those we are used to, this one asks questions about language. Spelling, punctuation, meanings, sense, grammar, all these things are the grist of this show=s particular mill. Different n=est pas ?
How does a country not only encourage excellence in its products internally but also promote that excellence to the outside world ? One way, originated in France, is to encourage the spread of the process of Appellations Controllee.
These locally elected and administered bodies are in place throughout France to devise and develop the rules and then enforce and judge the product of them in produce such as wine, cheese, chickens, beef and other specialist products. In order for a product in a region covered by an appellation controllee to be accepted and therefore be able to promote itself as a quality product it must qualify under the committee=s rules.
Champagne for example, to be called and promoted as Champagne (the real one - not the imitations produced outside France) must be from particular types of grapes grown and crushed in the Champagne region. It must be hand picked, turned into wine by the laid down procedure and let age to the rules of the committee. Any transgressions of the area, basis, production method and other regulations will have it ejected from the system and able only to be known as Blanc de Blancs, a product that sells for a fraction of the price of Champagne.
An attempt was made in the Hunter Valley in New South Wales, Australia to begin a similar system. Unfortunately, local jealousies interrupted the process which works in France because it already exists and everyone not in wants to be in it. In Australia the concept was seen as a threat to some, to be perpetrated on them by competitive others.
Walk down any street in provincial France and you will pass locals strolling to or from work, the shops, the bar or each other=s houses. In almost every case you will be greeted by these strangers with a friendly >Bonjour M=sieur= or if in company with a female >Bonjour M=sieur, Dame= a sort of short hand version of Monsieur and Madame.
This is somewhat alarming at first since one is unsure how to respond, whether one should have initiated it or if it is the be the beginning of a longer and probably daunting conversation. When it has happened a few time and one has made enquiries of locals about the custom, it is taken on as a pleasing part of French life and one uses it often when walking through town or out on the country paths.
In this way, life here takes on a personal flavour. Here is real contact with French people, no matter that it is a fleeting occasion, it takes the suspicion away and adds in personality and a sense of community. Not a bad thing for today=s life in cities and suburbs in Australia, peut etre ?