Does French Music Have a Place in the United States?

While Aznavour and Brel enjoyed their 15 minutes of fame in the U.S., musicians who sing in French still struggle to make it big across the Atlantic – unlike those who opt for English.
In October 2016, the singer of the French band Christine and the Queens made the cover of Time.

French DJ David Guetta and the Versailles-born rockers from the band Phoenix won their first Grammy Awards for songs with English lyrics in 2010. The number of concerts played by French artists has increased by 20% every year in the United States ever since, according to Bureau Export, the agency that promotes French music across the world.

With 57,100 albums sold and 2.5 million downloads, Kungs were the French revelation of 2017 – followed closely by Petit Biscuit and Caravan Palace. The arrival of these artists on the American market reflects the rise in popularity of the DJ and dance movements, in which the absence of lyrics, in English or any other language, makes them accessible to all.

“The market offers greater opportunities to artists who sing in English,” say Pauline Guedj and Michele Amar, head of the Bureau Export. “But some musicians who prefer French have also enjoyed a certain success with both critics and the public.” New York concerts by Jane Birkin at Carnegie Hall on February 1, 2018, and by Camille at Le Poisson Rouge were completely sold out, while other artists rely on their popularity with French communities in America.

Is English the Key to Success?

“French lacks a tonic accent,” says musicologist Danièle Pistone. It has a clear articulation and is more adapted to changes made by the tongue and the lips. The lyrics tend to play a more important role than the music.” And the French specialty of chanson à texte, poetic songs in which the lyrics are the real spectacle, have previously won over the Americans thanks to artists such as Charles Aznavour, Jacques Brel, Maurice Chevalier, Sheila, and Yves Montand.

When Edith Piaf arrived in New York during the 1930s, she was initially rejected by American audiences who didn’t understand her lyrics. She only became famous after taking English lessons and translating her songs. Perhaps the problem is that singers of French songs only appeal to a certain elite?

“Not necessarily,” says Danièle Pistone. “The general atmosphere, rhythm, and melody of a song can counterbalance the weight of words.” The musicologist also highlights the importance of “artistic and sociopolitical” criteria. French artists popular in the 1940s and 1950s (Trenet, Piaf), were replaced by the rock music of the 1960s. Today, the latter genre is now losing ground, reopening the market to French and Hispanic musical trends.

Francophone Success Stories

The artists who currently stand by their French lyrics in the United States have used their originality to carve out a niche. The spontaneity of Yelle, and the daring videos by Stromae – as well as his inspirations drawn from formal music, such as his take on the opera Carmen – resonate with U.S. listeners. In the same vein, Zaz is loved for her jazzy overtones, and Christine and the Queens draws the crowds with dancing and irregular melodies.

Series, movies, and online content are the three main channels used to promote French artists. Audrey Hepburn sang “La Vie en rose” in Billy Wilder’s 1954 film Sabrina, which helped popularize Edith Piaf’s work. And more recently, the series Girls showcased “iT” by Christine and the Queens.

Bureau Export and Francophonie Diffusion both help promote French music in the United States. The France Rocks festival in New York welcomed 35,000 people in 2017, while Californian mega-festival Coachella has already hosted Francophone artists such as Yael Naïm, Air, La femme, M, and Catherine Ringer. And rapper MHD is on the bill for the 2018 edition. Such variety could certainly be a good sign. As Danièle Pistone sees things, “if an artist has melodic quality, novelty, a strong personality, and effective communication, then we can have high hopes for our language.”

Listen to the 15 most successful French recording artists in the U.S.: