Tearjerkers in translation

It is said that the 1967 song Comme d’habitude, the French precursor to My Way, was

…a bleak reflection on the breakup of his [Claude François’s] affair with [France] Gall.

François co-wrote the lyrics with Gilles Thibaut; Jacques Revaux composed the music. According to France Gall, however (the translation is mine):

Claude told me this song was meant for me… perhaps to touch me, for I don’t see the connection between the text and our breakup. Because the monster the song depicts isn’t me.

It’s a subdued orgy of self-pity, the lyrics. In the Guardian piece linked above, Maev Kennedy sums it up charitably:

…the about-to-be-forsaken lover returns to an empty house, “as usual”, and retires “all alone … in this big, empty bed”.

It starts in the morning, with the couple still in bed: the man caresses the woman’s hair but she turns away from him. “As usual,” he remarks. He leaves house on a habitually gray morning, gets to work late – as usual, again – and comes back to find the house empty. He falls asleep alone but his partner does comes back, if very late – the listener is left to wonder how well she spent those hours. As usual, the couple kiss and make love. The morning after, presumably, is bleak again, for the man at least.

To the cynical listener from 2020, it may sound like a cuckold’s sorry tale. To his audience in the 1960s – especially to viewers rather than listeners – there must have been little doubt it was all the woman’s fault. Women subconsciously dreamed of taking their place next to Cloclo. Men thought, even this rich, macho guy can’t keep his girl – life’s a bitch to all of us. No, nobody knows what the viewers and listeners thought and felt, but Cloclo’s marketing team probably imagined their response along those lines. The faithless female was supposed to be a monster; the singer’s real-life girlfriend had good reason to be offended.

In reality, François was a relentless and insatiable womanizer. That’s unsurprising in a straight male celebrity of his time. More surprising is his enduring success: he kept making best-selling records from his first big hit in 1963 until his death in 1978. A lot of his songs were adaptations of Anglo-American originals – Wikipedia lists 22 singles that fit in this group. His songs were also covered and remade in the Anglosphere and elsewhere. Elvis Presley, for one, sung My Boy with lyrics pretty close to the French original (in contrast to My Way). They were great tearjerkers but, I’m afraid, barely listenable today.

This said, the practice of refashioning songs for different countries is still fascinating. Not that it yields masterpieces often but look at the transformations! Seen from this angle, France Gall’s songs are more interesting to me than Cloclo’s.

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