Or, an excursion into one of the murkier recesses of my iPod.
There’s something uniquely satisfying about a really good piece of pop music – and I mean pop, as opposed to rock, meaning music that seems to be relatively lightweight, that on the surface is essentially disposable. Done well, a good pop song can hook itself into your brain; once it’s in there, you’ll never be rid of it, however hard you try to flush it out of your memory. And “flush” is often the operative word; there’s an awful lot of crap out there, and an awful lot of guilty pleasures.
This is neither. The song is a French classic – ‘Désenchantée’, sung by Mylène Farmer (who also wrote the lyrics; the music is by Laurent Boutonnat). Musically, it’s several steps above most of Ms. Farmer’s output, which tends towards the cheesy end of the europop spectrum – it’s got a strong melody and an infuriatingly catchy chorus – but it’s the lyrics that make this so intriguing. It’s a strong, upbeat Eurodisco song with a really, really bleak lyric – existential nihilism set to a dance beat, reinforced rather than mitigated by Farmer’s expressionless, clear, somewhat wan vocals. Ms. Farmer’s lyrics paint a world in which there’s neither comfort nor purpose, and suggest that the defining feature of her generation is a state of disenchantment:
Si je dois tomber de haut,
Que ma chute soit lente.
Je n’ai trouvé de repos
Que dans l’indifférence.
Pourtant, je voudrais retrouver l’innocence,
Mais rien n’a de sens,
Et rien ne va.
The chorus is even happier:
Tout est chaos
Tous mes idéaux:
Des mots abimés.
Je cherche une âme qui
Pourra m’aider – je suis
D’une génération désenchantée,
Grim, yes, but it’s also the biggest-selling single ever by a solo female in France. The video, directed by Boutonnat, is equally fascinating – it’s a full-on nine-minute costume prison drama, starring Ms. Farmer as a concentration camp prisoner who leads her fellow inmates in a rebellion against the guards, with an ending that manages to be bleaker even than the song’s lyrics:
It’s got it all. Guns! Violence! A kid with a machine gun! Grimy make-up! Gruel! Bugs! Bugs in the gruel! And – oh yes – a whopper of a miserable ending. Farmer leads the inmates in a rebellion. Chaos ensues, and a band of inmates overpower the guards and force their way out of the prison camp, and run over the crest of a hill outside the camp walls… to discover that they’re in the middle of a remote plain, with no civilisation in sight, miles from anywhere, in the snow, and that they’ll probably die of starvation or exposure before they reach safety. Farmer stops for a moment, then starts to walk, and the prisoners follow.
There’s often something a bit ridiculous about pop stars trying to make Big Statements (see, for example, Bono’s entire career). That’s certainly, elsewhere, a criticism you can level at Mylène Farmer herself (she’s sort of the French Madonna, prone to lyrical and visual imagery that generate shock more or less for the sake of it). But this, more than anything else she’s done, works. It seems to sum up a sense of political malaise that had been creeping across much of western Europe since at least the late 1970s (and which is, I think, even more pronounced today, on both sides of the Channel), it’s weary rather than angry, and it manages to deliver a relatively bitter pill in the form of an irresistably catchy throwaway pop song – which, in itself, could be taken as a comment on the culture that produced it. It’s a very, very easy song to over-analyse (and I’ll stop in a minute), because it’s an essentially contradictory piece of writing. It says something depressing, and it’s fun. More than that – it’s disposable pop, but it’s lasted. I first heard this in France in 1991. 19 years later, I’m still listening to it.