The French Mythic America

Mei Yau and I were recently discussing the unusual relationship that France has with American popular culture. We came to the conclusion that despite (or maybe partly because of) France’s general resistance to the sort of full-scale Americanisation that we have experienced in the UK, for years the French have appeared to be fascinated by a mythical, archetypal vision of America that bears little relation to historical or current reality. That is to say that whilst American culture and ideas have permeated almost every insignificant aspect of British life – due in part, no doubt, to our shared linguistic and cultural heritage – this has perhaps not happened to quite the same extent in France. Therefore, French film-makers, musicians and other artists have been able to explore and cultivate an idea of America that might seem ludicrous and contrived in a country such as the UK, where every other television programme or song on the radio is from the USA.

Examples of this can be seen in many different strands of French culture: the slightly bizarre popularity of Western-themed French language cartoons such as Lucky Luke and Willie Boy; the French film industry’s hero worship of such Hollywood outsider figures as Samuel Fuller and Mickey Rourke; Serge Gainsbourg’s scabrous yet also somewhat enchanted take on American trash culture in many of his most famous songs; the sincere fascination displayed by young French musicians like M83 and the Valerie Collective towards American teen films such as those of John Hughes, along with other more ephemeral aspects of 1980s US youth/pop culture that are often held up for derision and ridicule here in the UK.

This topic could clearly be discussed at much greater length, and maybe I will do so at some point. For now though, I’ll just leave you with a nice homemade video (not by us!) for a classic song that – along with the above links – hopefully illustrates to some extent what I’ve been saying.


3 thoughts on “The French Mythic America

  1. I can’t help but read this post and think immediately of two tracks from the genius mind of Mr. Luke Haines: “New French Girlfriend” from The Auteurs’ wonderful second album and “French Rock and Roll” by Black Box Recorder from their second album.

    I think Mr. Haines was attempting to mimic/get at/mock/honor the efforts of Gainsbourg and his ilk — that sort of awkward mix that a song like “Ford Mustang” so clearly illustrates.

    I also recommend highly the cover of this Gainsbourg track by Nick Cave associates Anita Lane/Mick Harvey from one of Mick Harvey’s first two albums of Gainsbourg material — where he didn’t literally translate all of the lyrics.

  2. Yes, two great songs from a (once) great songwriter (one of the few recent ones who could vaguely hold a candle to Gainsbourg), shame he’s become a bit irrelevant and uninteresting now.

    Shall have to check out that Mick Harvey cover. His and Anita Lane’s version of Harley Davidson was a minor hit over here years back, and I actually once saw him do a couple of songs from Melody Nelson live as part of a special all-star performance of the LP.

  3. You didn’t like his most recent 2009 album? He’s not breaking any new ground but I do honestly think that “Ex-Teds” is almost an equal to The Auteurs’ “Junk Shop Clothes” and he’s entered that interesting phase where he’s writing about himself quite a bit — the self-mythologizing has taken hold.

    Personally, the first two Black Box Recorders seem almost perfect to me now, unlike some of the Auteurs tracks I used to enjoy so much.

    Not to derail your French post but the question on my mind now is: Where is Anita Lane?

    The ultimate “meta” French moment is perhaps in “Irma Vep” when Luna’s cover of “Bonnie and Clyde” is playing in one sequence and it seems there are too many references to keep track off on the screen and soundtrack at once — America filtered through France and back again.

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