Thinking in French, singing in English

Chances are that you’ve probably heard of a band called Phoenix. Even if you don’t know them by name, you’ve surely heard at least a song or two by them on the radio, an advertisement for Apple, or in countless 2010 television and film releases. What you may not know about this band with impeccable English lyrics and an enjoyable electro-pop sound is that they are French.

The band’s front man Thomas Mars and his fellow band members grew up just outside of Paris in Versailles. Despite their French background, the band has struggled to gain popularity in France largely because of French sanctions that require the majority of the music played on the radio to be in French. Until recently, Phoenix had been more or less shunned by their homeland because they weren’t singing in their native language. It’s interesting that Phoenix was all but rejected by the French because of this. Though I think it’s almost certain that you wouldn’t hear an entirely French song on American airwaves, a French verse or two often seem to sneak their way into some popular songs.

Even though they weren’t necessarily accepted in France, doesn’t mean that their French background didn’t influence their music. Of growing up in Versailles, Mars explains that it was like living in a museum. He says, “The frustration we had was that everything great happened in the past, and they wouldn’t give the chance for anything new to happen.” Mars and his young band mates were determined to make something new happen, despite this background. The band was also heavily influenced by the French yé-yé music of the 1960s.

Finally, there’s the aspect of language in their music. What drives a native speaker of French to create music in English, especially considering that some of the greatest poets and authors have been French? Perhaps it is simply a ploy to be more marketable, or perhaps this relates back to the band’s resistance to the versaillais opinion that all great things have been done. Instead of going along with tradition and singing in French, they have chosen to do something new and sing their French thoughts in English. Perhaps, I’m over thinking this though. Mars says, “When I started writing, the first thing that came out was in English. I liked a few French things, but they were very overwhelming.” He also says, “It’s much easier to sing in English because it seems that all the words are more separate; they don’t have to blend.”

It seems as though that this choice to sing in English has certainly paid off for the French band. Since the release of their 2009 album, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, they have had a song hit #1 on Billboard’s Alternative Rock charts, earned a Grammy, and have finally started playing gigs in front of welcoming French audiences.