Practicing Your French With Music: World-famous rockstar Johnny Hallyday

Some French singers are almost more famous abroad than in France. Like Edith Piaf, Céline Dion, or even Stromae.

And then, there’s Johnny Halliday:

  • 60 years of career
  • 79 albums
  • 1000 recorded songs
  • A hundred million records sold (!)
  • 3000 shows, for a total of more than 30 million tickets (!!)

He’s one of the best-selling artists in the world, a famous icon that started in the 1960’s and never faded. Every French person knows his songs. His funeral in 2017 gathered millions of mourners in the streets of Paris. He got a documentary series about him on Netflix this year. Yet you might have never heard of him!

His popularity didn’t make it far beyond the French-speaking world.
Today, let’s dive into Johnny’s career, song and cultural place in modern France – and use it to review some vocabulary too.

C’est parti !

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1) Johnny Hallyday: Origins

He was born in 1943 in Paris, from a French mother and a Belgian father.
His real name: Jean-Philippe Smet.

When his father left, young Jean-Philippe found a new father figure: his cousin-in-law, an American dancer with the stage name of Lee Halliday.

He taught Jean-Philippe about that new American music: rock’n’roll, and it came to define his whole life. As soon as he could, Jean-Philippe started his career as a rock singer.

His first stage name was his cousin’s : Johnny Halliday. But on his first record, the company made a typo and wrote it as: Johnny Hallyday. And he used that spelling for the rest of his career.

He got really popular among young French people thanks to his covers of American songs from that time. He became a big name of les yéyés. And even: “L’idole des jeunes” (= the idol of young people).

Many singers from that time faded into obscurity, but Johnny remained. He tried new things but always in his own style.

He was very famous for putting on the best shows, the most impressive spectacle, throughout the years up until the end. He hired the best songwriters, and most of all, he grew his loyal fanbase. He always returned to his favorite style: American blues et rock’n’roll aesthetic.

Les yéyés were a generation of young pop singers in 1960’s France. They recorded covers (in French) of American songs, and imported the style of pop, such as singing: “Yeah, Yeah.” Journalists started calling them: les “yéyés.”

2) Johnny Hallyday: Cultural impact

Johnny Hallyday (or simply “Johnny”) isn’t only famous for ses chansons (= his songs.) He’s not merely un chanteur célèbre (= a famous singer.) He’s a cultural icon. Why?

Well, some things didn’t hurt. His private life was tabloid fodder, and he got a lot of press out of it. He married five different women successively, including the singer Sylvie Vartan and the actress Nathalie Baye. Two of his children became famous as well: the actress Laura Smet and the singer David Hallyday.

Johnny also got involved in a lot of wildly different projects that kept him in the public eye. Such as movies, including Jean-Philippe (see below) or the hilarious Rock’n’Roll about real-life French actor Guillaume Canet (Marion Cotillard’s husband) trying to be relevant again.

And also ads, cross country rallying, and more. But that’s just part of it.

He was also a striking figure. He had an angular face, a special voice and his own mannerisms. He often made funny blunders. And all of that made him a good target for jokes and imitations. All in good fun, and with affection!

In the 1990s, sa marionnette, his puppet, often featured in the influential and satirical TV show Les Guignols de l’Info.

But really, his cultural impact lies in lower-class French people.

At the end of a cross-country rally, Johnny answers an interviewer’s question by: “Si on n’avait pas perdu une heure et quart, on serait arrivés il y a une heure et quart.” (= “If we hadn’t wasted an hour and fifteen minutes, we would have arrived an hour and fifteen minutes ago.”) It’s true, but obvious – feeding into his persona of down-to-earth, funny charm.

A really obvious but non-informative sentence can be called une tautologie (= a tautology), un truisme (from the English “true”) or, better, une lapalissade – named after an old song about the death of lord La Palice, with lyrics made out entirely of lapalissades, like: “If he hadn’t been killed, he would still be alive.”

3) Johnny Hallyday: Trendy?

Johnny wasn’t always fashionable, among the upper-class and the culturally influential. He was one of the few artists publicly supporting French center-right presidents. His history of tax evasion didn’t help him either. But mainly, it’s because he was too popular among non-fashionable people.
Here’s the part where I dive into speculation. I think it’s mainly true, but I don’t have the sociological study to back it up – so take it as “here’s the mental model of the situation, from one given French person.”

Johnny was more popular than prestigious. Yes, he did work with the best talents, and he did sell a lot of albums and concert tickets. His shows were impressive and grandiose.

But in the 1960’s, he was seen as a vapid singer for young people. In the 1970’s, he was more like “an apolitical pop artist on the cusp of irrelevance.”

And afterwards, in the 1980’s and the 1990’s, he was mainly an idol of (stereotypically) “lower-class French people from la province (= France outside Paris).” Or la France périphérique (= peripheral France) – small towns and rural countryside. What could be called “flyover France” if French people traveled by plane.

Johnny’s persona resonated with their fondness for the American Dream and the American “country” culture. But for hip people and educated upper-class, being really into “country” or really into Johnny was seen as tacky – or even beauf (see the vocabulary review).

Click here to read more: American Stereotypes? What French People Actually Think About American Culture

In the 2000s though, he became kind of cool again! Probably with the help of the movie Jean-Philippe (2006). Or maybe half-ironically.

Sadly, ten years later, in 2017, Hallyday revealed that he had cancer. He kept singing, touring and recording until the very end, before passing away on december 5th.
And it was giant news. All French people mourned him at least a little, and more than a million people came to his funeral in Paris.

His career didn’t even stop: his label is still releasing his last recordings in a series of posthumous albums.

Jean-Philippe is a 2006 movie with popular French comedian Fabrice Luchini. It’s a similar concept to Yesterday (2019). A Johnny mega-fan is transported to a world where Johnny never became famous. The fan tries to find him and make him sing again. The whole movie is basically a love letter to the singer and his fans. Johnny plays his own role in that alternate reality.

4) Johnny Hallyday: Famous songs

So today, what remains of Johnny Hallyday?
Well, most of all, his songs!

Many French covers of English and American songs, for instance:

  • Le Pénitencier (“The Prison / Penitenciary,” a 1964 cover of “House of the Rising Sun”)
  • Gabrielle (1976 cover of “The King is Dead.”)

Original songs by French songwriters:

That last song Allumer le feu (= Lighting the fire) is really emblematic, talking about:

  • Le tonnerre = the thunder
  • L’orage = the storm
  • La foule en délire = The crowd going wild
  • Le lion dans l’arène = The lion in the arena

And all this wild, powerful and hyper-masculine imagery to fit his persona.

5) Johnny Hallyday: Vocabulary Review

In today’s video lesson, we’ve seen:

Une célébrité = a celebrity
Célèbre = famous
Célébrer, Une célébration = to celebrate, a celebration (often religious)
Fêter = to celebrate (festive), to party
Commémorer = to commemorate
(To be faire, “célébrer” and “une célébration” are increasingly used with the more festive English meaning, thanks to creeping Anglicisms.)

Une chanson = a song
Un chanteur / Une chanteuse = a singer
Chanter = to sing

** Le truc en plus **
Don’t mistake “la chanson” for “le chantage” !
Le chantage = blackmail,
Faire chanter = to blackmail,
Un maître-chanteur = a blackmailer

It’s close to Un corbeau (= a crow), a poetic name for “someone writing anonymous letters of threats or insults.”
*** *** ***

Les Guignols de l’Info = “Puppets from the News”
Videos on YouTube
A satirical show from the 90’s and 2000’s, using puppets. Like the British “Spitting Image.” There’s been a recent American adaptation on FOX called “Let’s be real.

Beauf = colloquial, short for “le beau-frère,” brother-in-law.
Un beauf is also a stereotype for an uneducated, narrow-minded person, with vulgar hobbies and manners. The term was coined by Cabu from Charlie Hebdo.

See also: Le français moyen (“average French person”), Les Bidochon (comic book series)

La gueule = mouth of an animal, or (colloquial, mildly aggressive swear word) : someone’s mouth or someone’s face
Quoi ma gueule ? Qu’est-ce qu’elle a ma gueule ?” = What do you have against my face?
Ta gueule !” (= “Shut up,” aggressive)
L’envie = the desire, wanting (it only rarely means “envy”)
Avoir envie = to want, to desire
J’ai envie de (quelque chose) = I want (something)

Être envieux / envieuse = to feel envy
La jalousie, être jaloux / jalouse = Jealousy, being jealous

Je te promets = I promise you
Une promesse. “C’est promis !” = A promise. “That’s promised! / I swear!”

Au revoir = Goodbye, see you another day
Un adieu, des adieux = Goodbyes forever

Click on the links to learn more about French culture and everyday spoken French:

À tout de suite.
I’ll see you in the next video!

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Join the conversation!

  • Je n’aimais pas beaucoup sa musique mais iI y a a peu pres 10 ans que j’ai vu Johnny a Paris dans la piece du theatre “Le Paradis sur Terre” de Tennessee Williams. Il jouait avec Audrey Dana. C’etait un homme en colere et il jouait son role a la perfection. Que j’ai eu de la chance!

  • I think Laura is probably his best song, although the cliché I have of expatriate Frenchmen is their favourite Johnny song is “L’Envie” which has the most hard rock part of a song he has done. Like most serious rock artists their ballads are sublime on the few occasions they sing them.
    By the way, great video and many thanks for the background on the man himself.

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