In the 1990s, French president Jacques Chirac announced that la chanson française was part of the nation’s patrimony and needed to be protected. At the time, many popular radio stations were almost exclusively broadcasting English-language music. Chirac required all stations to broadcast 40 percent of songs in French, which made French audiences start listening to more French-language music. The nineties are thus known as the renaissance of the French song. With our playlist, you’ll be able to discover a variety of musical genres that became popular during this decade! We’ve included boy bands, rock, rap, reggae, raï and zouk! Unsure what the last two genres are? Read (or play) on!
By Sophia Millman
“Désenchantée” – Mylène Farmer (1991)
With 18 number one hits, Mylène Farmer holds the record for the most hits ever in the French charts. She’s one of the most successful French musicians of all-time and this is her signature song. At ten minutes long, the music video for “Désenchantée is famous for its length. It’s also a bit depressing so if you prefer to listen to a shorter version of the song, here’s a link to one. Farmer isn’t just famous for her own singles; she has also written songs for a variety of other successful artists, including Corsican singer Alizée. Farmer discovered Alizée and composed the lyrics to her first hit, “Moi… Lolita.”
“Sensualité” – Axelle Red (1993)
Along with Zazie, and Ophélie Winter, Belgian singer-songwriter Axelle Red became one of the defining female artists of the nineties. The pop song “Sensualité” is her biggest hit. Originally, it was supposed to be called “Sexualité,” and, if you listen to the lyrics, you’ll notice that they’re very much about the physicality of love. “Sensualité” was one of the best-selling singles of 1993, but it never reached number 1 due to the success of “Je danse le Mia” (see below!).
“Foule Sentimentale” – Alain Souchon (1993)
Souchon’s career began in the 1970s, when he released a few hit singles and even composed the theme song for one of Francois Truffaut’s films. In the ‘90s he became a huge success when he released the single “Foule Sentimentale” (“Sentimental Crowd”), whose lyrics criticize society’s superficiality. Many other famous artists have since covered the song, including Francis Cabrel, Maxime Le Forestier (who features on our ‘70s playlist!), and Zazie. Alain Souchon frequently collaborates with Laurent Voulzy and the two musicians have their very own Youtube channel!
“Je danse le Mia” – IAM (1993)
Thankfully, you don’t have to pronounce IAM in a fancy French way, but just like “I am”! IAM is one of France’s best known hip-hop groups. Its Marseillais members have collaborated with many American groups like the Wu-Tang Clan. “Je danse le Mia” is certified gold and made the top charts not only in 1993, but also in 2001, and 2004. In 1997, IAM released L’École du micro d’argent, which is the best-selling French hip hop album of all time. If you’re interested in the history of French rap, you should definitely listen to L’École du micro d’argent since it has influenced pretty much every French rapper. Some other essential French hip hop artists you might want to check out are MC Solaar, Suprême NTM, Ménélik, Passi, Stomy Bugsy and IAM’s fellow Marseillais rappers La Fonky Family.
“Tombé pour elle” – Pascal Obispo (1994)
Pascal Obispo is an anagram of Pablo Picasso, and Obispo often references famous French artists and writers in his songs. He’s well known for his humanitarian work, and especially for being an outspoken supporter of people with AIDS. Obispo has teamed up with many French artists, notably Florent Pagny, as well as actor-musician Patrick Bruel. “Tombé pour elle” (“Falling for Her”) was one of Obispo’s first singles, and we love it, even though its lyrics are admittedly a little cheesy. Yes, he calls the person he’s in love with “Ma maison, ma tour Eiffel” (“My house, my Eiffel tower”), but hey, it was the nineties.
“Pour que tu m’aimes encore” – Céline Dion (1995)
Celine Dion is the most internationally successful French-language artist and the second best-selling female artist of all time in the US. “Pour que tu m’aimes encore” (the English version is called “If that’s what it takes”) features on her album D’eux, the best-selling French-language album of all time. Jean Jacques Goldman, who appears on our Top Songs of the Eighties playlist, wrote the song for Dion.
“Aicha” – Khaled (1996)
Whether or not you’re a Jean Jacques Goldman fan, you have to admit that he’s a songwriting genius. Not only did he write Celine Dion’s best-selling singles, but he also composed “Aicha” for raï artist Khaled. Raï is a genre of Algerian folk music that became popular in France during the 1990s. If you want to listen to more raï music, try the live album 1, 2, 3 Soleils, performed by Khaled, Rachid Taha and Faudel, the three most popular male raï musicians.
“Around the World” – Daft Punk (1997)
Way before they released their best-selling song “Get Lucky,” French duo Daft Punk became an international sensation with their debut album Homework. “Around the World” was a major club hit and Michel Gondry, director of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, shot its music video. Ever wondered what the members of Daft Punk look like without their helmets? Here are some photos!
“L’Homme Pressé” – Noir Désir (1997)
“L’Homme Pressé” (“The Man in a Hurry”) won the Victoire de la Musique (the French equivalent of the Grammys) for best song of the year. Its lyrics are about the evils of globalization and capitalism. In the song’s music video, the four members of Noir Désir parody typical boy-band dance moves. The name Noir Désir (Dark Desire) is particularly disturbing considering that the lead singer of the band, Bertrand Cantat, beat his girlfriend to death in 2003 after accusing her of being unfaithful. It provoked a giant media scandal in France. Another group you should listen to if you like French ‘90s rock is Louise Attaque.
“Je ne t’aime plus” – Manu Chao (1998)
Manu Chao sings in seven languages and his music is a blend of many genres: punk, rock, salsa, reggae, ska, and raï. Chao, along with the French reggae group Tryo, has a large left-wing following in Europe and the US. He supports many causes, including anti-globalization, indigenous peoples’ rights, women’s rights, and environmental justice movements. “Je ne t’aime plus” features on Chao’s album Clandestino, which had a major impact on the Latin music of the 2000s. Chao recorded the album for himself and did not expect it to sell well, but it went on to become highly successful in France, Spain, Italy and South America.
“Angela” – Saïan Supa Crew (1999)
Saïan Supa Crew was a French hip hop collective composed of three groups: Explicit Samouraï, OFX and Simple Spirit. They formed in 1997 and separated in 2007. Their music is an eclectic blend of soul, reggae and Caribbean zouk genres, and they also helped popularize beatboxing in France. If you’d like to listen to more zouk music, give Zouk Machine or Francky Vincent a try. “Angela” was a huge hit in France and sold over 600,000 singles. You may have a hard time understanding the lyrics since they’re in multiple languages, but you can use this great site to read them in French and English! (Warning: the lyrics are pretty graphic!)
Boys Band Bonus:
“Partir un jour” – 2Be3 (1997)
There was a craze for boy bands in France during the ‘90s just like in the US. At some point, the French jumped on the boy band wagon (sorry, a bad pun!) but they messed up the term slightly. They say “un boys band” instead of “un boy band.” 2Be3 is a pun on “to be free” and “to be three” since the band had three members (yep, another pretty terrible pun). In 1997, the group started its own TV show that ran for an unbelievable 40 episodes. Although 2Be3 was extremely popular in France, American and British listeners never became fans. You’ve probably never heard of Alliage or G Squad either, but they were also huge!