The city of Paris – and all the magnificent cultural baggage that goes along with it – has always been a hot topic of debate across every artistic medium, so it’s no surprise that there have been so many thousands of pop and jazz songs written about the French capital.
Which is all well and good, but very few such songs have managed to stick their heads above the crowd and capture the real essence of life in the city, nor what it actually is that makes it such a magnet for tourists. From wide-eyed foreign visitors to nostalgic, subversive and even angry locals, here are the twenty best Paris songs according to us.
‘Ménilmontant’ – Charles Trenet
If you’ve never dipped into Charles Trenet’s imposing back catalogue of nearly 1,000 songs, ‘Ménilmontant’ is one of the best places to start. Rare among his contemporaries for having written most of his own material, Trenet always drew great inspiration from Paris and this song is a poignant personal homage to the North Eastern neighbourhood. Beautifully structured, wittily delivered and packed with poetic detail, he sweetly recalls the beaux jours of his upbringing spent hopping on and off trains, at church, on the streets and enjoying live music. Arriving in 1938, a year before he was called up to serve in the French army, these nostalgic ruminations on his ‘souvenirs jamais perdus’ (‘memories never to be forgotten’) are infused with both fondness and a creeping sense of pathos.
‘1901’ – Phoenix
It can be difficult to interpret the lyrics of Versailles band Phoenix. ‘1901’ – a sleeper hit from 2009’s breakthrough fourth album ‘Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix’ – was the song that would introduce the band to a vast throng of new fans, and yet, frontman Thomas Mars’s accented sing-song English didn’t really make a whole deal of sense. Fortunately, the singer would eventually spill the beans about the song’s deeper meaning in a live session, stating that ‘1901’ was a ‘fantasy about Paris’ before and during the Belle Époque – which is when he reckons the city was at its cultural and artistic zenith. Previously unclear references to 1855 (the year of France’s first international exhibition) and a certain ‘material tower’ suddenly made much more sense. In any case, the song is an aptly bouncy tribute to the city and it would set the blueprint for Phoenix’s now-classic pop-rock sound: pristine production, tight arrangements and clean guitar lines that ring around your head for hours afterwards.
‘Paris’ – Little Dragon
Nobody does sad pop music quite like the Swedes, and this 2014 track from Gothenburg four-piece Little Dragon must surely be one of the saddest songs ever written – however tangentially – about the French capital. Taking the city as a hypothetical future rendezvous for a long-distance friendship that’s already been tragically cut short, lead singer Yukimi Nagano tells of how Paris was the marvellous location she and her departed friend had at last decided to meet. They never would, alas, and the song is really about feeling alone, while moving forward and leaving sadness behind: ‘It’s that time to transform / to come around, I’m changing’, sings Nagano. It was on this song that her smooth and adaptable voice would really come in its own, both in the RnB-inflected verses and the breathy, Jane Birkin-style French interlude, in which she marvels at the vivacity of the City of Light: ‘La Suède est où je vis / Mais c’est à Paris que je me sens en vie’ (‘I live in Sweden / but Paris is where I feel alive’).
‘Sous le Ciel de Paris’ – Edith Piaf
With music written by Hubert Giraud and lyrics from Jean Dréjac, ‘Sous le Ciel de Paris’ is the lead song from the little-known 1951 film of the same title. First performed by Jean Bretonnière but transformed into something altogether more powerful by Edith Piaf in 1954, the song once again pays homage to the enduring beauty and magical fairy-tale quality of the city. In this rendition, France’s famed national chanteuse applies her throaty Belleville twang to lines like ‘Sous le ciel de paris / coule un fleuve joyeux’ (‘under the sky of Paris / runs a joyous river’) with such emotion and charisma you can’t but help believe her when she claims that deep down, Parisians are ‘un peuple épris de sa vieille cité’ (‘a people enamoured with their old city’). Piaf often sang about the hilly northeastern alleys she grew up on, and this song – although written by someone else – overflows with similar such homey descriptions of street musicians and thoughtful flâneurs. It finishes brilliantly, with the image of a rainbow glimmering up above.
‘Paris 1919’ – John Cale
Back in 1973, following turns as a producer for the likes of the Stooges and Nico, a couple of iffy solo albums, and having just co-founded one of the world’s most important ever rock bands in the Velvet Underground, legendary avant-gardist John Cale put out possibly the most accessible album of his career. Met with shamefully little fanfare, ‘Paris 1919’ was the classically trained musician’s first and only foray into sweetly melodic baroque pop, packed full with luscious horns, strings and simple piano phrasings. In stark contrast to the upbeat feel of the arrangements, his playful, Dada-inspired lyrics were far from straightforward, with the whole album being described by many as a bizarre reimagining of the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. Kicking off side B, the astonishing title track is best read as merely impressionistic, Cale’s musings intended to evoke an atmosphere and not to be taken at face value.
‘Niggas in Paris’ – Jay-Z & Kanye West
Not only did it bring the phrase ‘that shit cray’ into popular ironic parlance, it was also the tune that cemented Kanye’s reputation as ever-so-slightly ridiculous hip-hop great. Inspired by his luxurious travels in Paris (where he was trying to make his name on the fashion scene), ‘Niggas in Paris’ was recorded by West with equally massive rap pal Mr Shawn Carter at the five-star Hôtel Meurice, opposite the Tuileries gardens. Over a slow, clattering drumbeat, booming sub-bass and an icy synth line, the two rappers acknowledge the long line of African-American artists who have sought cultural acceptance in Paris (from Josephine Baker to Nina Simone), all the while looking back at childhood friends who haven’t escaped poverty. Bellows Jay-Z: ‘If you escaped what I’ve escaped / You’d be in Paris getting fucked up too / Let’s get faded, Le Meurice for like five days’. It was a strange moment when a song so bombastic – and completely unrelated to French politics – was later used in a viral video as part of François Hollande’s 2012 election bid – but it clearly worked.
‘Le Poinçonneur des Lilas’ – Serge Gainsbourg
Before the days of ugly grey machines and electromagnetic tickets, every Parisian Métro train had a ticket inspector (a ‘poinçonneur’), whose lonely and repetitive job it was to stamp holes in passengers’ tickets, stuck in a dull and lightless underground limbo. In 1958, getting his career off to a typically morbid and subversive start, Serge Gainsbourg would compose and release debut single ‘Le Poinçonneur des Lilas’, which minutely describes the dark inner workings of the job. Describing the Métro as a ‘drôle de croisière’ (a ‘funny kind of cruise’) and a ‘cloaque’ (‘cesspit’), Gainsbourg’s poinçonneur explains how his daily activities are so dreary and demoralising that he even considers punching a hole in his own head. The provocative musician would later have a crack at yé-yé, funk, rock and reggae, but this song is firmly rooted in the chanson tradition, with the silly, echoing chorus of ‘J’fais des trous, des p’tits trous, encore des p’tits trous’ (‘I make holes, little holes, more little holes’) totally at odds with the bleak yet consolatory message that surrounds it. In 2010, in tribute to this brilliant, career-launching song, the ultra-modern Jardin Serge-Gainsbourg was inaugurated near the Porte des Lilas, and in 2020 a new station on the line 11 will also bear Gainsbourg’s name.
‘April in Paris’ – Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong
1930s jazz standard ‘April in Paris’ first became a hit thanks to a debut 1934 rendition by Freddy Martin, but it wasn’t until its timely revival in 1952 as the title hit for a Doris Day musical film that the song was properly welcomed into the jazz canon. During this period, the likes of Count Basie, Frank Sinatra, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk and Shirley Bassey would all give it a whirl, but nothing compares to this tear-jerking joint interpretation by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, which appears on influential 1956 album ‘Ella & Louis’. Accompanied by the reliable Oscar Peterson trio and Buddy Rich on drums, the pair flaunt perfectly complementary voices, Fitzgerald’s buttery vocal a flawless match for Armstrong’s gruff delivery and mellifluous trumpeting. Given its subject matter and how romantically the pair appear to perform it, it’s no surprise the song is now a staple of the Parisian jazz café.
‘I’ve Seen That Face Before (Libertango)’ – Grace Jones
Describing one of the more sinister aspects of Parisian nightlife (namely, the fact that the same creepy man seemingly lurks on every shady street corner), Graces Jones’s signature hit ‘I’ve Seen That Face Before (Libertango)’ is a chilling account of the musician’s time spent partying in the city. Taken from her fantastic 1981 album ‘Nightclubbing’, the song is a pulsing reggae twist on Astor Piazzola’s Argentine tango classic ‘Libertango’, with added lyrics written by Jones and Barry Reynolds, along with wobbly Jamaican riddims from the legendary Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare. Jones’s immaculate recording is most haunting when the singer addresses this dodgy mystery man with a series of direct French questions: ‘Tu cherches quoi? À rencontrer la mort? Tu te prends pour qui? Toi aussi tu détestes la vie…’ (What are you looking for? Death? Who do you think you are? You hate life, as well…’). Now just as famous for its iconic music video and artwork by French designer Jean-Paul Goude, the song captures the ambiguous feel of Paris’s ’70s clubbing scene with a great deal of originality and flair.
‘L’Accordéoniste’ – Edith Piaf
The Little Sparrow strikes again. This song – recorded a good fifteen years before ‘Sous le Ciel de Paris’, above – was composed and proposed to Piaf in 1940 by composer Michel Emer, just as he was about to go and serve in the French army. Immediately struck by the song’s potent evocation of life in the city and Emer’s clear intention to say au revoir to all that he loves, Piaf would go onto perform the song at legendary Bobino concert hall a few days later and make it one of her first big smashes. Telling the tale of a roaming prostitute, her waltz-playing accordionist boyfriend and their apparently hopeless dreams of reuniting after the war, the song veers from happy to sad at lightning pace: at one moment Piaf declares ‘que la vie sera belle’ (‘how beautiful life will be’) on his return, at another she states fatalistically: ‘Adieux tous les beaux rêves / sa vie elle est foutue’ (‘Adieu to all the good dreams / her life is fucked’). In the end, all the poor woman can do is sing and dance and forget all that’s been said before. Looking back at footage like the below, the way Piaf would perform so capricious a song so effortlessly – as though a natural stream of consciousness – is really quite magical.
Report by TimeOut