An Everyman — Just Not Ours

Johnny Hallyday Credit Derrick Ceyrac/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Johnny Hallyday Credit Derrick Ceyrac/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

One balmy summer night in 2000, I was visiting Paris with a close friend to attend a wedding. It was a pretty bourgeois affair, with a party on a barge that cruised down the Seine and docked not far from the foot of the Eiffel Tower. After a day of foie gras and Champagne on high heels, we disembarked to find an enormous throng of people.

They were French, but not the kind that fashion magazines and style guides lionize; with their track suits and fanny packs, they looked more like my American countrymen than extras in a Claude Chabrol film. A loud electrified wail came up from the tower grounds as we searched in vain for a cab. My friend figured out that Johnny Hallyday was playing a concert there, and that we could forget finding a ride. I rolled my eyes, took off my heels and the two of us walked the very long way back to our hotel at the Palais-Royal. Merci, Johnny.

Johnny Hallyday, who died last week at age 74, was by all accounts generous and warmhearted, and an undeniably charismatic showman. But understanding France’s ardor for him does not come easily to us Americans. Mr. Hallyday arrived onto a pop scene that was dominated by well-spoken musicians in neckties, pitter-patting out songs full of saucy wordplay. Stars like Serge Gainsbourg and Jacques Dutronc were intellectuals who sang from the head, even when their lyrical content was perverse. Johnny — one-name-only since his first album, “Hello, Johnny” sold one million copies in 1960 — dispensed with cleverness, and emanated from somewhere considerably further south. “Ah, c’est tout dans la hanche,” he growled to his audience in 1961 before launching, in English, into a cover of “Let’s Twist Again.” It’s all about the hips.

As rock music in Britain and America entered a Dionysian phase in the mid-1960s, the only French musician to achieve any success in the genre was Mr. Hallyday, who abandoned English as quickly as the world at large abandoned the Twist. French isn’t a language that lends itself well to the cadences of Mick Jagger and Robert Plant. Everything is equally stressed, with no natural emphasis in any single part of a phrase. French goes ba-da-bi-ba-da-bum rather than heyyyyyyyyyaaaaahh. That didn’t matter to Johnny, who loaded up on sequins and booze and cocaine, threw decorum to the wind and gave his audiences something they could finally wail along to. It never convinced Anglos, who, after all, had the real thing. But it didn’t need to.

All the tributes note that Mr. Hallyday was called the French Elvis. In America today, Elvis’s flame burns brightest when rendered figuratively on velvet, hung in the waiting room of a Las Vegas wedding chapel. The people who remain devoted to the King, well, perhaps they’re still hoping he’ll reappear in the aisles of their local Piggly Wiggly. They’re not our kind, dear.

The social typology of Elvis fandom extends to Mr. Hallyday, too, though the lines are less firmly drawn. Another common refrain in the obituaries is that he was “a man of the people.” A working-class hero.

“Johnny was a bit thuggish, embraced by people who worked in factories,” said Olivier Seiler, a Parisian production designer and one of the few people I know who harbors an unabashed and unreconstructed love of Mr. Hallyday. The French elite is made up of well-spoken front-row kids like Emmanuel Macron, products of exclusive schools, and often from aristocratic families. Mr. Hallyday was for those who didn’t do so well on the test, and in France, that’s most people. Flunking out in France is not glamorous the way it can be in America, where enough college dropouts become Silicon Alley moguls that it’s a cultural cliché. Johnny’s rebelliousness may no longer be connected to a youthquake, but it still means something.

Even if most hip Parisians dumped Johnny in the 1970s, that still left a lot of incredibly loyal fans. Many will be present on the Champs-Élysées — ground zero for celebrating national soccer wins and commemorating war anniversaries — on Saturday for Mr. Hallyday’s funeral, in the company of President Macron and a long line of bikers. Some are using the occasion of Mr. Hallyday’s death to affirm their uncoolness as a point of pride. A rough translation of what one young woman wrote on Twitter is: “There are those who look at the fans of Johnny like, ‘I’m dying, look at all these losers.’ But, hey, no one asked you, Marie-Jeanne. It’s lunchtime, so go eat your quinoa salmon bowl and let people be sad if they want.”

There is no loyalty quite like French loyalty. As I learned after moving to Paris in 2006, when compared with Americans, the French may be standoffish and circumspect at first, but once they let you in, you are family.

They do not let go of old stars easily either. Even if someone’s music has become objectively terrible, if he was once embraced, he will be forever. To wit, the runaway success of Stars 80. The first time I heard of it, I thought it referred to “Star 80,” Bob Fosse’s retelling of the murder of Dorothy Stratten. Quite the opposite.

Stars 80 — it’s French, the “s” is silent! — is a concert series featuring the absolute worst of 1980s French pop. It toured 10 years ago as a nostalgia revival and sold out stadiums all over the country. So great was its success that it spawned a comedy film franchise starring the same talent whose third installation came out in French theaters last week. (Disclosure: My partner worked on it as an assistant art director last year.) I will not be rushing to the “ciné,” but I do not begrudge anyone else’s doing so.

As low-cost airfare, Instagram and avocado toast homogenize our leisure pursuits, encroaching on France’s exceptionalism, the French treasure anything theirs and only theirs steadfastly. I don’t blame them. Johnny’s fame is most connected to France’s cherished “Trente Glorieuses,” the 30 prosperous years after World War II — which is the same period that brought the country its lavish social security system and a taxpayer-funded culture industry that allows people like my partner to work on movies and television productions without fear of penury.

The night of my long walk back from the wedding turned out to be a history-making night for Johnny’s fans: The concert was free, celebrating his 40th anniversary as a singer, and was attended by an estimated 350,000 people. A good mile away from the tower, we turned around and, like so many other enchanted Americans before us, watched it sparkle. Paris was beautiful spread out below. I wouldn’t have seen it zipping away in a cab.

Over the weekend, the Eiffel Tower will be emblazoned with the message “Merci, Johnny.” This time I will not be rolling my eyes.

Alexandra Marshall is a writer.

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