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Paris has inspired untold numbers of musicians and songwriters over the years. We’ve looked beyond the clichés and rose-colored glasses to the honest, gritty, and real songs that defined the last century in the City of Lights.
Here comes a love story just as good as any of Emile Zola’s dramas, filled with humor and typical Parisian argot. Julot meets Nana at a bal musette, they fall in love and start ‘working’ to earn money for their home. So, as you would, Nana becomes a prostitute and Julot ends up in jail for killing a policeman while getting caught stealing in the métro. A few months later, while on her way home, Nana walks past the prison and realizes that Julot has been sentenced to death. The song ends with Julot’s head rolling down the guillotine.
‘Ah, écoutez ça si c’est chouette ! Ah, c’est la plus bath des javas !’
The most Parisian of all American performers – or perhaps the most American of all Parisians – confesses her love of Paris in this 1930 song that revealed her to the public scene. She was then performing in an exotic cabaret show held during the Colonial Exhibition, an event during which indigenous people and cultures of the French colonies were presented to the Parisian public. Baker, an African-American woman born in St. Louis, Missouri, became a muse to the Parisian artistic scene throughout the 1930s and was naturalized a French citizen in 1937.
‘J’ai deux amours, mon pays et Paris.’
‘My two loves are my country and Paris.’
Released just after the Liberation of Paris from Nazi occupation in 1944, this cheerful song soon became the anthem of renewed times in the French capital. The combo of joyful rhythms, happy tunes, spring metaphors, and a lot of patriotism made it an immediate success. It also probably helped Maurice Chevalier clear his name of collaboration accusations during the Occupation. Oh, and if Chevalier’s voice sounds familiar, it’s probably because you have heard it in the opening song of Disney’s 1971 feature film The Aristocats.
‘Pendant quatre ans dans nos cœurs elle a gardé ses couleurs : bleu, blanc, rouge, avec l’espoir elle a fleuri, fleur de Paris !’
‘During four years in our hearts, it has kept its colors: blue, white, and red, and with hope it bloomed, the flower of Paris!’
You may remember this one from Baz Luhrmann’s flamboyant Moulin Rouge. But long before that, the song was composed by the Montmartre-born film director Jean Renoir (son of famous painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir) for another movie, French Cancan in 1954. The song tells the story of a heartbroken poet who has fallen in love with a street urchin in Montmartre and lost her. He then composes the song in the hopes of meeting her again.
‘Les escaliers de la Butte sont durs aux miséreux ; les ailes des moulins protègent les amoureux.’
‘The stairs up the hill are painful to the poorest; the windmills’ wings give shelter to the lovers.’
If you’ve ever made the climb to Montmartre, you will undoubtedly understand the struggle.
From bakers ploughing bread dough to workers in the Villette slaughterhouse, from the first trains in Montparnasse station to a foggy Eiffel Tower…Jacques Dutronc’s song is like a living picture of Paris in the wee hours of the morning, moving to the notes of an amazing flute soloist. A true 1960s idol, Dutronc has always had a playboy image and this song is no exception: while everyone else is waking up to go to work, he is going home after a long night out.
‘Il est cinq heures, Paris se lève ; il est cinq heures, je n’ai pas sommeil…’
‘It’s 5am, Paris is getting up; it’s 5am, I’m not feeling sleepy…’
Renaud has been a household name in France for about four decades. His songs can be poetic, light and funny, as well as cruel, dark, and deep. A true heir of the May 1968 student protests, he often tells the stories of working-class characters struggling to survive in Paris and the suburbs. Using one of the most famous May-68 slogans, Renaud ironically but genuinely claims his love for asphalt-clad Paris (nicknamed Paname by Parisians) and shuts the mouths of anyone who would rather live in the countryside.
‘Moi j’suis amoureux de Paname, du béton et du macadam. Sous les pavés, ouais, c’est la plage!’
‘I’m in love with Paname, with concrete and macadam. Under the cobblestone lies the beach!’
From the 1980s onwards, songs about Paris become more critical. Paris failed to fascinate the Parisians and no longer appeared as the capital of love and romance. French duo Taxi Girl sing their disillusion of a filthy, smelly, and polluted city where nothing happens. The song and the video clip have this 1980s vibe and explore new wave themes: tortured minds roaming with no sense of purpose in a city that is too big, too full to welcome the new generation. Taxi girl members Daniel Darc and Mirwais Stass both have had successful solo careers in later years. The latter notably produced three of Madonna’s albums at the turn of the 21st century.
‘C’est Paris. On ne sait pas ce qu’on attend, mais ça n’a pas d’importance parce que ça ne viendra pas.’
‘This is Paris. We don’t know what we are waiting for, but it doesn’t matter because it’s never going to happen.’
The key word of 1990s French hip-hop is undoubtedly ‘multiculturalism.’ While many bands were rapping about their lives in the suburbs, where children of immigrants were dealing with poverty, racism, and crime, Doc Gynéco brings it within Paris’s walls. He gives a genuine portrayal of the 18th arrondissement, one of the poorest in Paris, plagued with petty crime and drug trafficking, but also where friendly people from all walks of life have developed a certain sense of community to live together and help each other.
‘Dans ma rue pour communiquer il faut être trilingue et faire attention quand on marche sur des seringues.’
‘In my street to communicate you have to be trilingual and be careful not to step on syringes.’
How to escape life when all you can afford is a metro ticket? Florent Pagny’s song takes place within the claustrophobic corridors of one of Paris’s biggest and busiest metro stations: Châtelet Les Halles. It becomes a sort of paradise for those who will never have the chance to see beautiful beaches other than on the ads posted on the station’s walls.
‘Le samedi après-midi prendre des souterrains. Aller voir où ça vit de l’autre côté, ligne 1.’
‘On Saturday afternoon, walk the underground corridors to go where life happens on the other side, line 1.’
Oxmo Puccino’s ‘Pam Pa Nam’ is a contemporary ode to the French capital. This song tells Paris as it is, plain and simple, the good and the bad. The title of the song reminds of the waltz-like three-beat signature and hides Paris’ nickname, Paname. Oxmo Puccino is well known in the rap scene for his poetic writing, strong metaphors, and deep voice. Here, Paris is like a gentle but terrifying monster in a metaphor in which the metro network becomes the city’s bloodstream and the commuters its fuel.
‘Des globules métissés circulent dans les artères bouchées du cannibale aux mille-pattes métalliques roulant dans ses bouches qui à l’aube crachent des gens qui baillent, et les mangent aux heures de pointe.’
‘Mixed-race corpuscles flow in the cannibal’s blocked arteries filled with mechanical centipedes; its mouths throw up yawning people at dawn, and eat them at rush hour.’