Sometimes we (self included) treat the public like we treat teenage girls. What they like can’t be worth much of our attention; if they like it, it must be too easy to consume. Images of mama birds chewing up food for their young, rivers with strong currents, sessions of hypnosis come to mind. Of course, the public can be wrong on many counts (and is), but when something manages to top the charts, to draw a crowd, to get really and truly popular, it may just be worth suspending our cynicism to experience it for ourselves.
So, pop music. It’s a broad designation that encompasses a status as well as a sound, with everything from Drake to John Mayer thrown in. It can feel like a passive decision or a passive taste, to listen to and like popular music. The song came on the radio and we didn’t turn it off. Soon, we’re hearing it wherever we go and it seems fine, maybe even enjoyable. More than surrender by frequent exposure, pop music does something to us that breaks down the defenses we may put up when experiencing art in other realms to let us feel, experience, and enjoy. The more skeptical, critical listener can relax a bit, while the casual listener can simply listen for fun, but both have the opportunity to dig deeper and find out why that hook is so catchy, what history the artist is referencing, and how the track fits into a broader social context if they wish.
If “popular” can feel like the opposite of “deep,” then it’s not a leap to say “dance” can feel like the opposite of “intellectual” or “reflective.” Popular music can act as an escape or distraction from the harsher things in life. It doesn’t have to stop there, though, and is also capable of saying much more than an “I love you” or “I hate you” anthem. It can veer into the territory of challenging culture, as so much good art does, first by commanding our attention and then by offering a deeper layer of meaning, ready for our examination. The artist of the week, Stromae, manages to merge these worlds of dance and depth and offer us a snapshot of the world itself. At a time when much of the pop music in Europe was falling into the more simplistic, escapist designation, Stromae was diving into greater complexity, both sonically and thematically, with his second album release Racine Carrée.
Someone once told me that they had listened to an artist who sang in a language other than English, “that French rapper,” and I knew the one she was referencing. There are a handful of names in world music more famous than the rest, and Stromae is one of them (strome-eye for non French speakers). He’s not actually French, but that is the language he records in. He’s Belgian-Rwandan, and he grew up in Belgium.
“Stromae” is a reversal of the syllables in “maestro,” and serves as the performance monicker of Paul Van Haver. Even more than the titles rapper/musician/songwriter, “performer” and “artist” fit him best. His music enters the rare space of overlap between extremely danceable and realistic melancholy, a word Stromae relates his musical ethos to. “Hip hop, pop, dance — the common point is melancholy. That’s international, and I like this word because it’s not only about sadness or happiness — it’s both at the same time. That’s human and that’s life.”
His music is an exposure of reality with a dose of social critique, peeling back the layer of feel good fun usually found in dance pop to reveal a broad range of difficult themes, from cancer to fatherhood. For him, there was no escaping the idea of musical or artistic realism: “It was obvious for me to talk about real life, even if it’s not the thing we want to hear.” It’s this willingness to dive into darkness and come up dancing that has allowed his music to face both time and critique, proving itself even years later, to be just as complex and worthy of our attention.
Rather than focusing on one issue, Stromae writes about many different themes over the course of Racine Carée, released in 2013, much of them dealing with human relationships: romantic, familial, and global. The lyrics, with dense wordplay and layered narratives, are complex, both melancholic and soul-searching.
Stromae made the choice to sing in French, his native language, telling Noisey “I’m proud to sing in French because it is the language [my mother] taught me to speak.” In a number of interviews, he discusses this choice as a deliberate one that most sincerely displays his identity, rooted in the country where he’s lived his whole life. He told Seattle Radio, “I used to say I was 40% African, 60% Belgian, even if genetically I am half and half. When you’re born and raised in Europe…[you] know Africa through the European prism.”
Stromae’s first album, Cheese, released three years before Racine Carée, features fewer lyrics in general. The songs follow the lines of EDM (electronic dance music) more closely, with short verses and looping central phrases that builds up over an intense beat to a climax in the chorus. Tracks like “Té Quiero,” and “Peace or Violence,” have repeating phrases in languages other than French, but the dance floor mood is consistent across the album. The most famous track from Cheese was undoubtedly “Alors on Danse,” (So We Dance) which reached #1 in 19 different countries, went triple platinum in Belgium (and platinum in four other countries), and warranted a handful of remixes, including one from Kanye West.
Contrary to the expectations of many, and those of Stromae himself, the original version of the song was more commercially successful than Kanye’s remix, in which he rapped a verse in English. “It was the first time we knew it was possible to have a French song in non-French speaking countries,” Stromae told Noisey. By 2015, the artist became the first French speaking performer to sell out Madison Square Garden, a venue in New York City with a capacity of over 20,000.
This was all part of the plan as Stromae, coming off the success of his first album, decided his next feat would be to “sing wherever there were humans,” and to make a larger statement about the value of the French language (link in French). That it “is not a sub-language or a language less suitable for music than others.” Bearing in mind that “Anglo-Saxon supremacy impacts other cultures,” the choice of French was also a statement against linguistic norms, particularly in America, where the market for a global artist “is different, because Americans can always understand the words [in their music].” His music places native speakers from English-dominant countries in the place he and nations at large have found themselves: able to listen and appreciate without understanding the words.
Although there are translated and annotated versions of nearly every song released by Stromae, it is worth diving into the intended exclusion of non-French speakers to ask: can we feel it? Can we grasp the emotion and complexity, without the lyrics?
I’ll choose four tracks and discuss their complexity, how they complement each other, and how they’re best experienced as Stromae intended, in the context of their visual performances. Whether on stage or playing from the back of a van in San Francisco, the lyrical narrative comes through in his physical performance of the song. In addition to directing music videos, Stromae has performed a number of tracks en plein air, as part of a series of “lessons.” He layers and mixes a track live and then performs it, in a more theatrical than ‘live music’ sense, using a character or narrative for each song.
The track, which Stromae performs as a mannequin, begins with the mournful, longing keys of a piano, then quickly replaced by keys of a different style, in descending stair steps and plateaus under rapid, angry vocals. Desperation and anxiousness build as the drums thunder in, the song speeds up, and the vocals ease out of rap.
A pre-choral section, loses most of the instruments while Stromae repeats the central question from the title of the song with more disappointment than the anger found in the rap sections. The chorus then locks onto the central phrase, repeating it rapidly as everything is removed except an intense, thumping beat and high-pitched, erratic keys that spike like a heartbeat under stress. This structure recurs until the song’s end, when the synthesizer, drums, and echoing question all abruptly fall off.
The track is full in sound, layering a deep drum, variations of strings, and a choral backing that carry the listener into a space of call and response, both literal and emotional. There is back and forth between the chorus and Stromae, between the depth of the beat and the height of the strings, between the digital synthesizer and the physical snaps and claps. “Ave Cesaria” is a break from the norm of the album, with a tempo of neither a ballad nor a heavy dance track. The song is an homage to Cesaria Evora, a famous singer Stromae grew up listening to, and uses both instrumental and lyrical elements, including a few lines in Portuguese, to reference her work. The video as well is strikingly different, but it’s one of my favorites. Stromae doesn’t appear; instead, the video is shot on an old camcorder at a family style gathering reminiscent of somewhere like Cabo Verde (an island country off the western coast of Africa), where Cesaria Evora is from.
“Formidable” is one of the tracks on the album where emotion comes through the most, in part due to the pace. It is decidedly not a dance track, and the misery experienced by the protagonist is not hidden by a strong dance beat. Both Stromae’s voice and the piano communicate the longing and sadness over a rolling drum. The instrumental backing here contributes to the overall drunken feeling, of being lulled into a melancholic state, of walking forward but being out of control. The vocals become increasingly desperate and raw as the track goes on, as Stromae cries out in desperation.
Halfway through, there is a break in the song’s pattern, as he speaks, rather than sings, a verse. He is spitting out the words, becoming louder, more upset, and less able to form complete words, until the track fades out with a final sob. The video for “Formidable” shows a man (Stromae) who has recently separated from his romantic partner drunkenly walking the streets and yelling at people, mourning his lost relationship. He contrasts his feelings yesterday with those of today, after the relationship has ended, as the chorus repeats the phrases, “you were wonderful” and “I was pathetic” that sound similar in French.
Tous les Mêmes
We can interpret the voice of the verses and the voice of the chorus as opposing forces. These sections contrast musically, with the chorus featuring a heavy drum, horns, and harsh, quick lyrics, while the verses contain slower vocals and more instrumental variation. The title, meaning “You’re all the same,” is the insult spewed by the opposing forces in the fight. The two follow caricatured stereotypes of a couple whose relationship has soured.
When we take the lyrics alongside the video, we could extend the classic gender roles in the argument to the sonic opposition between the chorus, the more masculine side, and the verses, the more feminine side. In the video, Stromae portrays this visually, dressed as one half a man and half a woman, turning sideways to take the part of each character.
Stromae as a person and an artist is interesting to examine. He is self-deprecating and regularly calls attention to the absurdities of a life in the spotlight, going so far as to remove himself from it for years to regain his focus. Following a globally successful album and tour, Stromae chose to leave music for a while and pursue art direction.
He released a clothing line that pulls from the patterns and colors of African wax prints and a style of male dress that brings Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins to mind. The only music he has released since Racine Carrée was an instrumental single promoting the line, which released its fifth capsule collection this month. The music video for “IDGAF” by Dua Lipa, which Stromae worked on in the conception and direction phases, bears a resemblance to the video for “Tous les mêmes” by Stromae. He also produced the music video for “Run Up” by Major Lazer, featuring PARTYNEXTDOOR and Nicki Minaj, which exaggerates and parodizes technology’s effects on human relationships, also seen in his own video for “Carmen.”
While much time could be spent describing Stromae’s personality and life, I think it’s best to take a cue from him and focus on his work. One of the ways he leans into his desired position of simplicity is to frequently mention his musical influences and how their work and successes have made his own possible. Below, you’ll find an 11 track playlist of the artists he claims to draw from.
Originally published at www.theintersection.co.