One of the thoughts I had when I started this blog was a semi-serious idea of trying to write about an asymmetry: I had been reading lots of Simon Reynolds, and was struck by a sense that while lots of late ’70s early ’80s new wave music was influenced by French Theory of a certain sort (all those art school boys and girls), French Theory itself is largely devoid of any pop sensibility at all (Roland Barthes is perhaps the exception who proves the general rule, and for that very reason, might just be the most interesting thinker of the whole lot).
Anyway, as I said, this is only a semi-serious, half-formed idea, which is what blog posts are for after all. Buy me a drink, or two, and I might be prepared to develop and defend some hypothesis of some sort around it. The canon of French Theory has impeccably modernist cultural reference points – Kafka, Boulez, Mallarmé, Artaud, that sort of thing. And a heavy investment in Kant’s Third Critique too. Not very ‘pop’ at all, really (maybe work on ‘Film’ is an exception, but actually, ‘Film’ is a terribly arty way of thinking about movies). Whatever hypothesis it is that I might want to defend should this thought ever become more than a half-formed one would be around the distinctiveness of ‘pop’ in relation to more serious sounding topics such as the popular, populism, the everyday, or the ordinary. None of which, however much you like them as concepts, have very much to do with fun. The semi-serious thought has to do with the idea that theories of culture, meaning, subjectivity and the like tend to be based on very select canons of favoured texts, which are thought to exemplify or allegorise or serve as best-case analogies for cultural processes in general. Or, just that it matters which cultural texts underwrite general theories of culture (should I admit that the only reason I know or appreciate anything about that canon of avant-garde modernism is because I once read too much Theory?).
The reason I have been thinking about this recently is entirely frivolous. We are about to embark on our first overseas holiday with our children, to France, and part of my fatherly role in this is obviously to make sure we have things to listen to in the car – I’m the playlist monitor. So I have been trying to construct a ‘French Pop’ playlist, obviously. There are certain rules – it has to have about 14-15 songs on it, so it can be burnt to a disk for playing in the car; it has to be able to sustain the interest of a toddler and a 6 year old on a long journey (so it’s an ‘experiment’); it consists of songs we already have (with a couple of exceptions – I learnt some things doing this); and it is flexibly francophile rather than narrowly French (in the spirit of the Frenchness of French Theory).
Avoiding things like Michelle, Psycho Killer, Roxy Music’s Song for Europe, difficult songs by Throwing Muses, various Blondie/Debbie Harry possibilities, as well as anything by the Violent Femmes or St. Etienne, and fully aware that I am exposing something about my own tastes which is perhaps left private, here is the list:
- Get Lucky, Daft Punk
- Désenchantée, Mylène Farmer
- Ping Pong, Stereolab
- Le Freak, The Ukulele Orchestra Of Great Britain
- Spacer, Sheila B Devotion
- Lady Marmalade, LaBelle
- Tu veux ou tu veux pas, Brigitte Bardot
- Complainte Pour Ste Catherine, Kate & Anna McGarrigle
- La Danse De Mardi Gras, Steve Riley & The Mamou Playboys
- Un Gaou a Oran, 113 Clan, Magic System & Mohamed Lamine
- Marieke, Jacques Brel
- Non La Vie N’est Pas Triste, Martha Wainwright
- Bonnie and Clyde, Brigitte Bardot & Serge Gainsbourg
- Don’t Go, Nouvelle Vague (rather than this, which was vetoed as not age-appropriate).
- Ça plane pour moi, Plastic Bertrand
I’m not sure if the list is clarifying for me what exactly it is that my semi-formed hypothesis should be, other than to confirm that the lack of pop sensibility amongst a generation of French thinkers can’t be blamed on an absence of good pop. There is actually some Marx in there somewhere, as well as Cioran too, apparently, so something for the Theory-boys. As well as trying to be catchy, I’m assuming that listening to this as we drive across Normandy will help to refresh all those useful phrases one needs when holidaying in France: “Voulez-vous couchez avec moi, c’est soi?’
Why Theory? indeed.