Chanson Française owes its origins of course to the Chanson Réaliste moment of Aristide Bruant and Le Chat Noir around 1893 that brought young intellectuals together with the demi monde of artists, workers and prostitutes. ‘People spoke a lot about sexuality’, affirms Clark, ‘and it produced some strange and dark characters’. Hélène Hazera is even more succinct. ‘Chanson Réaliste is about prostitutes, prostitutes, prostitutes (laughs), sailors … and prostitutes’. Chanson Française is an endless commentary on a particular signifier of jouissance, then, as much as a song of love, whereas Anglo-American popular music offers a performance of jouissance regulated by rhyme, rhythm and melody. In fact, the English ‘yeah, yeah, yeahs’ that produced such amused disdain in the French in the 1960s were conveying their enjoyment of American music in such excited imitations that they sometimes exceeded the intensity of the originals. The Beatles in their cover versions of Barrett Strong’s ‘Money (That’s What I Want)’ and the Isley Brothers’ ‘Twist and Shout’ scream with the excitement of fans of African-American music – a jouissance at the jouissance of the Other – that rapidly spread like a wave to their own fans, the resulting ‘Beatlemania’ establishing the group as a cultural phenomenon.
In fact the distinction described by the French commentators between French and Anglo-American popular music divides attitudes in the African-American tradition. The reduction of black people to the jouissance of the body, of their being ‘slaves to the rhythm’, was fiercely contested by the exponents of modern jazz, for example, who went out of their way to produce un-danceable, cerebral music. Even in the pop tradition the new music of Motown, the inspiration of The Beatles, focused on narrative. George Clinton recalls the criticisms received by Godfather of Funk, James Brown, for his grunts and nonsensical noises. ‘Back then, in my Motown days, we used to criticize him … At Motown, we specialized in lyrics. Berry (Gordy, Motown’s president) made sure we got a story out of every song.’ Clinton was later to change his mind, however, when more African-American storytellers started to sample him. ‘Everyone thought James wasn’t saying anything’ [but] ‘hip hop came along and we realized James was saying more in one “unh” than all of our stories combined.’
One of Clinton’s most famous songs and statements is ‘Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow’ (1970), a kind of wo es war that neatly offers two opposing messages depending on the addressee. From a conventional ‘white’ perspective constrained by the ‘mind-forged manacles’ of Western rationality, it promises a liberation of the body. From the other perspective, it is precisely the mind that needs to be liberated from its servitude to bodily pleasures. This reversal is also conveyed musically in the song’s combination of funk with electronic avant-garde sounds, psychedelic effects, and Gospel, the importance of the latter being registered in the second line, ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is Within’, that always follows each repetition of the title.
If the jouissance of Chanson Française, in its classic realist phase, circulates around the figure of the prostitute as das ding, soul, gospel and funk at their most sublime find their reference in the acclamation of God in vocal performances that are drawn from the pure difference of lalangue that lies at the basis of both speech and song, language and music. In the signifiance and spirituality of the la la las (if not the yeah, yeah, yeahs) and even in the grunts and ‘ughs’ of James Brown, this sort of black music exemplifies ‘a form of jouissance that is not in the repetitive circuit of the drive but in what Lacan calls the en-corps, an “enjoying substance” which insists in the body beyond its sexual being (XX: 26/23). For Suzanne Bernard, it is in the traces of this form of jouissance of the ‘en-corps’ that we can discern something of the poesis – the something coming from nothing – that Lacan links to the contingency of being and, ultimately, to the path of love’.1
Free your ‘a’s and your mind will follow.
1 The full quotation is « Let whoever cannot meet at its horizon the subjectivity of his time give it up then. For how could he who knows nothing of the dialectic that engages him in a symbolic movement with so many lives possibly make his being the axis of those lives? Let him be well acquainted with the whorl into which his era draws him in the ongoing enterprise of Babel, and let him be aware of his function as an interpreter in the strife of languages. » It can be found in “The Function and Field of Speech and Langage in Psychoanalysis”, in Ecrits. Trans. Bruce Fink. Norton Press. p. 264.