French Artists' English-Language Songs Top Charts

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Popular native rock bands topping the charts in France this year are writing and singing in English. At the country's oldest and biggest rock festival this week, the young talent section's performance featured only English lyrics. Francophiles are calling it a threat to the French language and culture.


You want to know what really gets a Frenchman's goat? It's the suggestion that French may not be the most important language of all. A lot of French musicians seem to have forgotten that. A new crop of rock and roll stars in France are making it to the top of the charts singing in English.

Anita Elash has more.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. SEBASTIAN TELLIER (Singer): (Singing)

ANITA ELASH: When Sebastian Tellier was named as France's entry in next month's Eurovision music contest, there were calls to man the barricades - not because there's all that much wrong with the music, but because the lyrics are in English.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. TELLIER: (Singing) I'm looking for a band today.

ELASH: Even the French government said an English-singing Tellier should not be allowed to represent the country. Lawmaker Jacques Myard who belongs to ruling UMP Party called Tellier's appearance unconstitutional.

Mr. JACQUES MYARD (French Lawmaker): We are French, we speak French. And all those who don't like that, they go where they want to go, but they don't bother us anymore.

ELASH: But Tellier isn't going away, and neither are the new stars of the French rock and pop scene - French bands who've replaced their mother tongue with that of the Anglo-Saxon.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) ...something about you...

ELASH: They were on full display here last week at the springtime festival in Bourges, a gorgeous medieval town in central France. It's the oldest rock and pop music festival in the country, a showcase for France's hottest bands. For the first time ever, most of the French bands who played here sang their lyrics in English.

Ms. MARILENE BARON(ph) (Singer): (French spoken)

ELASH: I think rock sounds better in English, said Marilene Baron, who is from Bourges. The rhythm and everything, it's just better in English.

British and American rock has always been popular in France, but for most French bands, singing in English used to be the kiss of death. But now that's changing.

(Soundbite of music)

CAMI (Singer): (unintelligible) I didn't get…

ELASH: The singer, Cami, one of the stars here, has already had two successful albums in French. Her latest, released last week, is in English. Cami is bilingual. She says her record company was nervous about the album.

CAMI: I didn't feel it was a risk. I feel it was a need. It was a need to see how far I could go writing English, how far I could go singing English, how far I could go mixing those two languages that I feel both belong to me.

ELASH: The risk is paying off. Cami's album is already in the top five, and the latest album by the folk rock group, The Doe - sung entirely in English -reached number one on the charts, a first for the French record market.

Jean-Claude Carnasta(ph), the artistic director for Virgin Records in France, says French groups are a lot better at singing English than they used to be. He says they've been exposed to many different types of music on the Internet, so their work is more creative.

Mr. JEAN-CLAUDE CARNASTA (Artistic Director, Virgin Records in France): (Through translator) Ten or 15 years ago, French artists tried too hard to imitate English singers. They were just a pale copy and less interesting. They were mixing English with a musical talent that is more genuine and that is more authentic.

Mr. BERTAND NACOMB(ph) (Singer, Guitarist): (Singing) I'm only wasting time.

ELASH: And what about the need to defend the language? For musicians, like Bertand Nacomb, who plays guitar with a Paris-based band Brooklyn, that's yesterday's story.

Mr. NACOMB: We want to be a part of the world. We don't want - I don't care about being French. I love my roots, but now I want to try that everywhere, and I want to be able to communicate with everyone.

ELASH: The language purists are still fighting to banish English from everyday speech in France, but thanks to the influence of popular culture, it seems like they're fighting a losing battle.

For NPR News, I'm Anita Elash in Bourges, France.

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