The relationship between the French and the British has always been somewhat flirtatious. For centuries, both countries have shown signs of sincere appreciation for one another, yet with each nation taking great pride in ‘playing it cool’, neither has wanted to acknowledge such a fact.
As a native Brit myself, I know that much of our time is spent secretly gawping over the channel at our neighbours. Deep down, we envy their blasé attitude towards life, their beautifully romantic language, and the fact they can consume as much bread/cheese/wine and as many cigarettes as they wish whilst remaining effortlessly attractive. However, we will of course make it clear to the outsider, that we believe the nation of ‘frogs’ to be an ignorant bunch of stinking sex addicts.
Having lived in Paris for just over eighteen months, I have noticed they also like to play this game. Despite claims that Britain has the world’s worst cuisine, that we sound patronisingly ‘trop mignon’ when attempting to speak French, and that we’re all stern Brexiters, France seems to have a peculiar interest in the British way of life. From obsessing over our Royal Family to their love for the Union Jack, the French appear to secretly have a soft spot for the British.
This bizarre interest manifests itself in another way too: via popular music. Since moving here, I’ve met several French people who have declared The Smiths to be their favourite band, heard Joy Division played at a number of parties and even been asked if I preferred Oasis to Blur, a question I thought only British people were familiar with. These scenarios were not scenarios I was expecting to face when I arrived in the City of Lights. I was expecting to hear the smoky vocals of Serge Gainsbourg in every corner café, or Jacques Dutronc’s ‘Les Cactus’ echoing down the streets on a Saturday night.
But this was not to be.
Instead, I noticed teenage boys sporting the same haircut as Arctic Monkeys front man, Alex Turner, and once witnessed a debate between two chaps over which Beatles’ album is the greatest (everyone knows this is an unanswerable question, they are all equally fabulous in their own way).
Who’d have thought the adolescent tales of a lad from Yorkshire would entice the French in such a way? Stories of ‘kids who like to scrap with pool cues in their hands’ and riot vans, as well as references to Rotherham and Topshop appear to have struck a chord with the French, and it appears that this has been the case for a number of years. Since the 1980s and the rise of ‘indie-pop’ and later ‘Britpop, musical terms derived mostly from British post-punk, there has been an ongoing international surge of interest for such bands.
With a Japanese cover of Mancunian band, The Smiths’ (or as the band are referred to over there, ザ・スミス) song ‘There Is a Light That Never Goes Out’ becoming an internet sensation, and the lyrics to several of their other songs having been discovered on slogan t-shirts in Thai markets, it is clear the band’s dark humour, wit, and irony appeal to the inner, anguished teenager in many of us; no matter where we come from.
Wanting to delve a little deeper into the foreign obsession with British indie bands, I decided to partake in an Arctic Monkeys tribute night (as an audience member, not an Alex Turner impersonator) at Paris’ Le Supersonic (a venue that even has a particular Britpop band to thank for its name) on a quest to discover why exactly the French, and many other nations, fall in love with this music so easily.
Upon entering the venue, I was greeted by a number of individuals sporting leather jackets and Converse, the majority with fresh, frosty pints in hand, prepared for the evening’s event. As the music commenced, I noticed just how well the singer of the first band imitated Alex Turner’s accent; a very bizarre occurrence considering I had earlier heard him speaking so eloquently in French. The dingy, sticky floored venue full of excitement and enthusiasm for the music made me feel almost as though I was back in a Mancunian music venue. People had come along to the evening because they enjoyed live music and people and laughing and drinking (although I think a little more alcohol is likely to be consumed in Great Britain), and I felt comfortable and at home.
the interval, I noticed the majority of bands played were in fact British. But
didn’t have my answer as to why it was so appealing. I decided to make the brave move of pushing through many a sweaty body and run the risk of spilling my pint for the sake of an answer. I noticed the Alex Turner imitator in the crowd (real name Thomas) and got talking to him about how and why he became interested in the music of the Northern English lads.
“When I first listened to Arctic Monkeys’ ‘I Bet That You Look Good on the Dancefloor’ in 2006,” Thomas explained, “I was genuinely mesmerised. This band had such an electrifying sound, I felt totally lost in it. The lyrics were somewhat confusing to me at first, but once I had listened again and again, I could totally relate to what the guys were saying, despite it not being spoken in my native language. I think they were about eighteen at the time the record was released, as was I, so we would have both been discovering new things about life, like relationships, hangovers, and how very mundane yet remarkably curious society is around us, no matter where we live.”
Thomas’ opinion and observation of the band perfectly matched my own. Since living in Paris, I have obviously noticed differences between French culture and the British culture I grew up surrounded by. Often, it is easier to focus on the differences because not only are they interesting to an outsider, but they also help a person to become more understanding and empathetic of the others around them. Bizarrely however, Thomas made me realise that our similarities do the same. Despite the fact both he and I were brought up speaking different languages and being exposed to different customs and traditions, we likely have, and have had, many feelings and experiences in life that can be fully understood by each other and by many other people in the world. As children, we probably both yearned for the school bell on a Friday afternoon, we probably both enjoy spending time with friends, and we probably both appreciate the kindness of other people.
The themes within music are, more often than not, universally applicable and relatable. People listen to The Smiths when they’re feeling depressed or down or angry (usually) because Morrissey’s blissful moans about heartbreak and the mundanities of life are easy to comprehend. People listen to The Beatles because their
diverse catalogue of music can touch a person’s soul in a million places, whoever and wherever you are. In the same way Pete Doherty likes to gallivant around Paris speaking faux French, Thomas likes to occasionally pretend he’s a lad from Sheffield, and it is this interest in each other’s culture that in actual fact, connects us.