LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Among stereotypes the British and the French like to cultivate about each other is a widely held British view that French pop music is dreadful.
But a new radio station, broadcasting in French from the heart of London, has high hopes of challenging local prejudice.
“Mainstream English radio tends to be inherently dismissive and arrogant when it comes to French music. They will just say ‘Ah, it’s French? Forget it,’” says Pascal Grierson, founder and CEO of French Radio London or FRL, which launched last week.
The bilingual Grierson is half-French but has spent much of his life in Britain and feels at home in both cultures.
A digital station backed by a few private investors, FRL is mostly aimed at the estimated 400,000 French residents of London, which is often called “France’s fifth city.”
“This is long overdue. We needed to represent ourselves and reflect the way in which our community integrates with this town,” Grierson told Reuters in an interview at FRL’s studios.
He wants the station to capture some of the spirit of London and why it attracts so many French people. For example, he says one of the joys of Britain is that people take themselves less seriously than in France, and FRL will aim to emulate the brand of self-deprecating humor that works so well in Britain.
But his ambition stretches further. He says there is also an untapped market of British francophiles, and FRL can conquer it.
“The likelihood is that the francophile community is huge, and I’m banking on it,” Grierson says, citing statistics like the fact that 14 million Britons visit France each year.
So how to draw in these potential listeners, given that FRL plans to devote most of its airtime to French music and that by Grierson’s own assessment, “the default man-on-the-street view in Britain is that French pop is crap?”
He blames that perception on the likes of the leather-clad rocker Johnny Hallyday, who has enjoyed decades of success in France but who is widely ridiculed across the Channel.
Grierson says that using Hallyday as the benchmark of French pop is about as fair as reducing British music to the works of veteran British performer Cliff Richard, who is deeply uncool in the eyes of many Britons, especially young ones.
“There is a lot of crap out there in British music too, and you can quote me on that,” says Grierson.
In any case, he says that if you scratch beneath the surface, British attitudes to French music are rather more nuanced. He draws a distinction between three broad categories.
The first is classic “chanson” from the mid-20th century, epitomized by artists with powerful voices and personalities, like Edith Piaf, Juliette Greco or Jacques Brel (who was a francophone Belgian). They are widely appreciated in Britain.
The second period spans the 1960s to the 1990s and includes influential singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg as well as pop acts who were hugely successful in France, like France Gall.
In Britain, French music from that period has been almost entirely ignored, says Grierson. At best, Britons remember Gainsbourg’s overtly sexual “Je t’aime moi non plus,” which caused such a scandal in 1969 that it became a big success.
That fluke hit overshadowed what many French fans would say was a wealth of far better songs by Gainsbourg. Through FRL, Grierson hopes to familiarize open-minded Londoners with those songs and other treasures from the period.
Grierson’s third category are French acts who have gained a large British following over the past decade or so, such as electronic music groups Air, Daft Punk and Cassius, or alternative rock band Phoenix, who sing in English.
He concedes that part of the secret of these acts’ overseas success is that they are not easily identifiable as French.
But he says their popularity offers hope that FRL can entice hip young Londoners into exploring contemporary French talent such as rockers BB Brunes or singer-songwriter Bertrand Belin.
“There is a huge amount of very palatable French music,” Grierson says, expressing hope that thanks to FRL, that view would become less controversial on this side of the Channel.
Editing by Paul Casciato