This month, I decided I wanted to tell you about a French rock star. But it turned out to be more difficult than I had thought, so instead I'm going to start with a question about language. Are you familiar with the idea of faux amis?
Faux amis are a problem for students of both French and English. The phrase means literally "a false or unfaithful friend." My dictionary translates it as "deceptive cognate," which is a nice Latinate way of saying that it means a word which seems to be similar or identical in both languages, but actually means something different. Tangling with a faux ami can, indeed, make you feel as if a friend has betrayed you. It can lead you into memorable mistakes. A good example comes from Spanish—English has "false friends" in all the Latinate languages—in which the cognate to the English "embarrassed" is the word embarazada. Unfortunately, as many a traveler has learned to her surprise, if you try to apologize for your bad Spanish by telling someone you're embarazada, what you actually wind up telling them is that you're pregnant.
French and English are full of faux amis. In the past two years, I've had the dubious pleasure of experiencing them from both sides: as an English-speaker learning French, and as a teacher working with French students to improve their English. Sometimes the words have completely different meanings—for instance, isolation, which in French means insulation, not loneliness. Other words simply have a different tone or nuance in French than they do in English. For example, the French cognate for "interesting," intéressant, can indeed mean "interesting," but it can also mean "cheap." Onéreux means not "onerous" but "expensive." Confus doesn't mean "confused" so much as "embarrassed" or "sorry." Usually, you can see where the French and the English meanings are related, and how in one language or the other they have branched out or narrowed over time. (Which doesn't prevent them from causing frequently hilarious errors. Take, for example, the French word organisme, which has the biological sense of "organism," but is also a synonym for organisation. Knowing this did not help me hold back a totally inappropriate whoop when a young man told me earnestly during a recent English practice interview: "Last year I went to Malta with an organism.")
The reason I'm bringing up faux amis is that I've started to wonder if we couldn't—you know—agree to extend the concept a little. What I mean is that I'd like to stretch it beyond language, to refer to culture as well. This brings me back to the guy I want to talk to you about. His name is Johnny Hallyday, and he is a rock star. A rock star! A big, famous, sexy, immortal rock star! We in the Western world all know what that means, right? We know what a rock star is.
Except that Johnny Hallyday is a rock star in France, and, somehow, that turns out to make all the difference.
Just so that we're all on the same page, let's start out with a little context. Johnny Hallyday is a huge celebrity in France. It would probably be fair to say that everyone in the country knows who he is. As I read on a Web site about this guy—actually, his French Wikipedia entry, to which I will be making frequent reference—he has achieved what is called in French "une reconnaissance quasi unanime," which means "nigh-universal recognition." He is at least as well known as the President. And, just like the President, he has been on the public scene for more than forty years now. That means that to the "baby-boomers," he was the darling of their youth, and to their children and grandchildren, he's quite simply been around forever. Just like Jacques Chirac! (On that subject, and apropos of nothing, I'd like to mention that among the films that recently hit French cinemas was a documentary on the political career of Chirac, based entirely on extracts from the TV appearances he's made since the start of his public career in 1959. According to the reviews, the result is an intriguing portrait of idées fixes, evolution, and self-contradiction. What an intriguing idea! Can you imagine similar "mosaic biographies" of American public figures? I can't believe the French have beaten us to it—I mean, to anything involving television. On the other hand, this is a country in which people will pay good money to go see a movie about the guy currently in office. On that note, let's return to Johnny Hallyday, shall we?)
Johnny Hallyday, then, is one of France's biggest celebrities. Now, to be a celebrity in France means pretty much the same thing as it does in the United States: you're worshipped, admired, eulogized, and persecuted by your fans and by the celebrity magazines (which, disturbingly enough, have recently started calling themselves "les magazines people": from which I conclude that the English word "people" has been adopted into French to mean not "human beings" but "the famous.") But the thing about Johnny Hallyday is that he's not just any kind of celebrity. He's a rock star. That's a phrase that doesn't translate, not even into French; for instance, the issue of Télé Magazine I was reading yesterday features an article in the Musique section about the new Johnny Hallyday tour, which is titled in the typical entertainment-style mixture of French and English: "Johnny: Flash-back d'une rock star." Rock is rock—in any language
Now, I admit I've been scratching my head for the last few months, trying to figure out what exactly it means to be a rock star in France. Is this possible? Is it some kind of oxymoron? Why does the idea seem slightly off-kilter to me? To figure this out, I've tried going back to what seem like the elementary cultural questions. Surely it's not the case that a rock star must be American in origin? Well, obviously not; even if Elvis was, and Jimi Hendrix, and Jim Morrison, one need only think of Mick Jagger and David Bowie and Freddie Mercury to be reminded that the rock star quickly became as English a concept as it was an American.
Only English and American, then? No, Irish, too, if U2 counts. And I'm sure that someone can point out to me rock stars of Australian and Canadian and New Zealand extraction whom I just can't bring to mind. The real questions, then, appear to be: Does a real rock star have to come from an English-speaking culture? And, furthermore—and I realize this is starting to get strange; it feels like questions one would ask about the Velveteen Rabbit—does the English-speaking world have to acknowledge him, in order to make him real?
These are big questions, so maybe I'd better start off by giving you some idea about Johnny Hallyday as the French know him—I mean, here within the borders of this country, where he's so huge. Johnny Hallyday, to begin with, is big only figuratively: he differs from late Elvis or later Marlon Brando in that, despite advancing age, he is still wiry like a rock star is supposed to be. I have often seen him referred to as a "monument," which makes me think of the Eiffel Tower or the Arc de Triomphe. To find details about him, you can look at any of a number of fan sites on the Web—nearly all written in French, of course—or do what I did, which is go to Wikipedia.org. Wikipedia has an entry on Johnny Hallyday in its English-language version, but it's only a page and a half long, not counting the discography. The French version runs twelve pages. Perhaps you can sense a difference there already.
Here is what I've learned from Wikipedia and other research: Johnny Hallyday began his singing career in 1960, when he was 17 years old. The rock 'n' roll revolution was just starting to hit France, and the young people, like young people around the world, were in love with everything American. Johnny Hallyday even pretended to be American for a little while there, right at the start of his career, but that was a sham: like so many rock stars, he'd changed his name. He had actually been born in Paris under the name of Jean-Philippe Smet. (That sounds as un-star-like in French as it does in English, but it wasn't his fault; his father was Belgian.)
"Johnny," as he quickly became known to his legions of fans, embraced everything that signaled America in the early 1960s: the language, the clothing, the imagery, the guitars. In the early publicity photographs I've seen, he's wearing dark suits and skinny ties, or standing on lonely street corners in the rain, or riding on a little white horse. (France has wild horses—not everyone knows this—in the deep Southern region called the Camargue. It's a good place to pretend to be a cowboy.)
But, despite all the American imagery, Johnny sang in French, which the French have always preferred. He quickly became one of the most marketable properties in the country. His tours drew hordes of fans and created small-scale riots. His movies, which he started to film in the early 1960s, were a box-office guarantee.
And—here's what really surprises me—when you trace the course of his career, what you find is that, unlike nearly any American rock star I can think of who ever blazed that hot, Johnny Hallyday has never burned out. With inexhaustible energy, he turned out at least one album a year, and frequently more, every year between 1960 and 1986: 37 studio albums in 26 years! He has changed tack as the times changed, scampering, with varying success, from soul to disco to psychedelia. But his image has always been grounded in the concept of the "hard rocker"—at least, as the French understand it. The titles of his albums, often in English, give an idea of the themes to which he keeps returning: in the sixties, "La Generation Perdue" (The Lost Generation), "Jeune Homme" (Young Man), "Johnny Hallyday Sings America's Rockin' Hits"; in the seventies, "Country, Folk, Rock," " Rock À Memphis" ("Rock In Memphis"); in the eighties, "Pas Facile" (It Ain't Easy), " Ca Ne Change Pas Un Homme" (A Man Don't Change), "Destination Vegas"; in the nineties, "Gang," "Cadillac," " Rough Town." I read that by now, he is reckoned to have released a total of 1,000 songs, done 400 tours, released 19 platinum albums and played for 25 million live viewers. (For reference, the total population of France is approximately 61 million people.)
In his personal life, Johnny Hallyday has had his ups and downs, as I suppose any good rock star should. He was a brawler in his youth, which was taken as being good form since it was known to be what James Dean did. He made an unsuccessful suicide attempt in 1966. (This should be compared to the sudden and mysterious death of Claude François, the French disco idol who perished in 1978, apparently while attempting to change a bathroom lightbulb.) He has been married and divorced four times to three different women, and has an adult son who sings and a daughter who acts. They were born to different mothers, and one out of wedlock, though this is not nearly such a big deal in France as it is in the United States, and wasn't even in the 1960s. Both children have fairly successful careers, which doesn't stop them from frequently appearing in celebrity magazines talking about the difficulties of being the son or daughter of somebody famous. On the up side, he has been married to his current wife for ten years, which everyone seems to interpret as a good sign, and the couple recently adopted a Vietnamese orphan whom they named, with what was if you ask me a disappointing lack of originality, Jade.
At the age of 63, Johnny Hallyday continues to record—he's released eight studio albums and 11 tour records since 1987—and to perform, generally for hyperstimulated, sold-out audiences. As I learned from last week's Télé Magazine, he has just begun his new tour, which is called "The Flashback Tour" (deliberately titled in English) and is going to last ten months. It is a "pharaonic" undertaking, involving a large group of back-up musicians and vast moveable sets, with a first act evoking a "destroyed opera set" and a "futuristic" second half. Johnny Hallyday will perform this show 114 times all over France, Belgium, Switzerland, and Quebec: just about every large country, in fact, that speaks French.
Because, of course—and this really is the strangest thing about Johnny—nobody knows or cares about him outside of the French-speaking world. No one at all. Within the French cultural and linguistic sphere—the western French cultural sphere, if you want to be specific, since his popularity doesn't necessarily extend to the French-speaking Caribbean or Africa—he's huge, monumental, pharaonic, unmissable. In the English-speaking world, nobody cares.
And that is what is puzzling me. It keeps buzzing around in my head, like one of the frustrated summer flies that get trapped inside my half-open windows and can't get out again. Does it matter that no one in the U.S. or Britain has heard of Johnny Hallyday? Does it matter that no one acknowledges him? Because, really, is it the case that it rests in the power of the audiences in English-speaking countries—the countries whose cultures gestated, developed, exploded, and exported rock 'n' roll—to consecrate a rock star? Or is it the case that rock has expanded and escaped, liberating itself from us, the original makers and fans? Like the English language, does it now belong to whoever takes it and runs with it?
And do I—as a skeptical, dubious, thoroughly American visitor to France—have the right to decide that, to my mind, France's biggest and most "American" star is not really a rock 'n' roller at all?
I'll leave you till next month to chew that one over. Until then, I wish you happy summer days from Lille, where the sky doesn't get dark until eleven P.M. and the insanely sprouting greenery of the North shades the warm stone streets and public gardens with flowers, birdsong, and leaves.
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