Zou bi-zou. Season five of Mad Men is over and we’re sad. But the retro fever for pop a la francaise that it kicked off continues apace. Suddenly it’s like an invasion of devastatingly sexy women with smoky voices and an alluring je ne sais quoi. They sing in French, they sing more often in English, and most importantly they proudly inherit a crown of chanson passed down from Piaf to Hardy. Charlotte Gainsbourg interprets with broken whispers, Brigitte brings the swing with a laugh, but the common denominator is always drama. With sliver of nonchalance — these are Parisians after all.
In 2012, the Parisian chanteuse may not be wearing liquid eyeliner (although often she is) but there’s nothing more French than these ladies’ attitude of le cool. And while drop-dead sexy, they’ve all got the smarts to keep us in the age of third-wave feminism. Take that, Brigitte Bardot!
Ok there’s a lot of feathered hair and smoke machine in Birkii’s video for “Holy War,” but we still count her as a Parisian chanteuse. The heartbreaking songwriter sings from her heart directly to yours, like the classic cabaret diva. AND she likes synthesizers, which is not a crime.
La Nouvelle Edith Piaf
There’s a scene in her video for “Je Veux” where Zaz is singing in the back of a bar, wowing the fifteen or so evening drinkers, like Edith Piaf did in the earlier years of her career. With unmistakably limber pipes, Zaz has the kind of voice that could live off singing on the street. But Edith’s inheritor doesn’t have to deal with Edith’s greatest sadness — not being a great beauty. Cause Zaz is pretty set in that département.
Le Sexy Co-Ed Berry gets compared to Francoise Hardy a lot, and understandably: her naturalistic delivery and soft voice are a dead ringer for the 60s icon. But it takes skill to bring back a retro style and update, and she has, with licks of Motown and doo-wop for good measure. Her album Les Passagers, now out in France, proves that she’s no flash in the pan.
The Ice Queen Wow, where do we start to talk about the diversity of awesome that is Charlotte Gainsbourg’s career? From gut-wrenching roles in Lars von Trier films to collaborating with Beck for her third album IRM, the woman has no fear. She’s also very upfront about not writing her own songs — that it’s as an interpreter that she shines. Unflinching in her directness, her take on Beck’s vision is frostbitten and ethereal, like a silvery mist. She sings like someone who’s cried a lot, but stopped a long time ago. Isn’t that devastating? Yeah.
Yes, she’s a model-actress daughter of Jane Birkin. No, she’s not Charlotte. She’s her half-sister Lou, whom you can just tell is the goofy one. She just debuted her first few singles, produced by French pop legend Etienne Daho, and the result so far is, like, crazy good. Her smoky talk-singing in single “I.C.U.” is like if Bob Dylan and Serge Gainsbourg had a daughter. That’s a confusing analogy because Serge Gainsbourg is actually her step-father, I think. But anyway she’s bringing it like Patti Smith, and it seems like her upcoming debut full-length, set for this fall, will be her Horses.
The Chanteuse Deconstructed
Camille is an alum of Nouvelle Vague, that bossa-style indie cover band that produced instant ear candy (and eye candy too, just sayin). It was kind of like a Motown-style hit machine, in its hipster way, so it makes sense that upon her departure, Camille got in touch with her avant-garde side. For her album Ilo Veyou — a title that is just SO DAMN FRENCH — she plays with unusual percussion and vocal experiments, and very willing to get weird within the confines of the chanson-pop song. She’s like the tUnEyArDs of the French songstresses — so confident in her delivery that you’re like, okay, I’m cool with your singing in a grandpa voice and harmonizing with yourself.
Bonnie and Bonnie Aurelie and Sylvie, the women of Brigitte, broke out with a cover of a hardcore rap song, and no one embodies the esprit of the neo-chanson than that. They spoof Johnny Hallyday for being so French, and like Serge Gainsbourg exploit a love of the American west in their songwriting. They love Nashville, so their album Et Vous, Tu M’aimes twangs as often as it croons. But with this dueling duo, who also happen to be two of the hottest moms in show business today, you can expect something fun in the mix, whether it’s le rap or a cowboy song.