I've been listening to Radio 2's recent three-part series on the career of the French musical institution that is wizened Elvis-a-like Johnny Hallyday.
You wouldn't expect a Radio 2 documentary to take much of a critical approach to its subject, but having his son David ("who is also a singer"--Wikipedia) present the programme was a bit bizarre, telling the tale--of Johnny's failed marriages as well his unbridled success in the Francophone music market--as if he had just been an impartial observer.
I think that's got to be the big caveat with Johnny's success, massive as it has undoubtedly been: it's all happened in France, Belgium and Switzerland. Even the Radio 2 documentary couldn't deny that his attempts to crack the US market—like his 1996 concerts in Las Vegas—were a failure. The BBC web site admits that "even the French struggle to explain Hallyday's extraordinary popularity. His music is blatantly derivative, defiantly American and often consists of French language covers of stateside hits like Long Tall Sally and Roll Over Beethoven." I have to agree. There was some dreadful stuff played over the course of these three programmes.
There's something about a deep male voice belting out le rock'n'roll in French. Somehow the gentle, nasally sounds of the language don't work for Johnny in the way they work for Francoise Hardy's tuneful songs, Brel's dramatic ballads or Serge's deep Gitaney mumblings.
I think it’s fair to say that French pop music has had quite a dramatic rehabilitation in the UK in recent years after being roundly scorned for a long time from the sixties onwards. It struck me that when the excellent electro-lounge "Moon Safari" album appeared in the shops in 1998, it came with a label pointing out that the artists were "French group" Air as if that was suddenly a selling point. Since then, artists like Phoenix and Charlotte Gainsbourg (with her Jarvis Cocker/Divine Comedy/Air collaborations) have won critical acclaim and (some) success in the UK. Gainsbourg père is reverentially cited as an influence by Anglophone musicians (step forward again Jarvis). With the recent release of a new compilation CD of songs of the “yéyé” girls of the early sixties, even that fluffy, poppy music has been favourably reappraised (for example in an effusive review by Stuart Maconie in Word Magazine).
So here's my theory: French pop music's tarnished name this side of the Channel has all been Johnny's fault. Now he’s disappearing over the hill he’s no longer a threat and French music can move on.