We need to talk about Sébastien Tellier (and in the process France and her Culture)

Let’s not kid ourselves, we all know the pointed reason why I have chosen Tellier this week. Bluntly, he is one of my favourite French musicians and I worry that I’d lose you if went into a multi-chapter dissertation on the early life of Claude Debussy (and his libido). We all deal with things differently; most of us are content with small additions to the mass outpouring of raw emotion, a kind of digital recoil from the horror and re-affirmation of our common community. This is perfectly ok, though to not act in such an immediate manner is also ok. Sometimes you need time to find the right outlet for your emotion so you can make sense and move forward. For me that outlet was Sébastien Tellier and specifically his 2006 compilation album Universe, an acoustic re-imagining of his popular songs mixed with excepts from his film score to the film Narco. Falling heavily into it’s Gallic subtlety, I let it take my grief and manoeuvre it somewhere practical.

Culture. When you think of France you can’t help but think of Culture. This is, weirdly, probably felt most keenly by the British and is at the root of our familial rivalry. For Britain’s Culture is young, chaotic and teething in comparison to that of France; an adolescent that purposefully diverges from the norm to spite a brother. Each successive cultural win being far more by accident than by design. But despite this upstart laying claim to the world imagination with every Downton Abbey, Bond and One Direction; France is forever seen as where real culture lives and breathes. A refined, purposeful culture. One that thinks differently from us, solving the same problems in classier ways. Yet we are wedded to each other by dint of history and sheer proximity; making us far, far closer than either side likes to admit. It came as no surprise to find that Universe was specially packaged for the British market, a collection designed to tug at that familial thread and, frankly, it was very much what I needed at the time. Now compare this with my, and I’m sure many others, first introduction to Tellier.

It’s pretty different from the slow jams I’ve been hitherto talking about. You probably remember it as being that bonkers song which broke the unwritten rule that the French entry should always be sung in French, qu’elle horreur! Naturally this caused controversy with certain people, causing Tellier to increase the amount of French sung in the final product. To the dissenters the French language, being tied so fundamentally to France’s culture, should not be substituted for anything lesser. You can see their point, identity is important. Yet what Tellier had done was tap into that greatest strength Culture possesses; that of evolution. It is pointless to try and contain something so fluid along national borders and equally pointless to ignore what is happening beyond them. With the current rise of right-wing politics in Europe, Culture still maintains free passage and right of residence whether you like it or not. All Tellier did was acknowledge it.

There’s an interesting interview with the chanteuse Camille floating about somewhere (which I can’t quite find right now) where she explains why she decided to record Music Hole in English. Far from being a middle finger to the establishment or a conceited attempt to get the Anglophone market share; it was actually fairly prosaic. English was simply a more capable language for the long syllables she wanted to use whereas French was better purposed for rhythmic poetry. Much like how you’d use an acoustic guitar over an electric to get a certain sound. Far from being a weakness on her part for shedding her identity, it’s actually the album’s great strength as she rips English apart to makes it suit each song on her own terms. This is the unspoken truth about our National Identities; they are irrefutable and strong regardless of whether we protect them or not. They are our varied, multi-coloured accumulation of the past. They can’t simply be swept away no matter how hard people may try; just look at Cornwall. So any attack on our ways of life and our manner of thinking will fail simply because these are concepts so ingrained that to part with them would be to part with our selves. There is no threat to France from the Anglosphere because France is France; a nation tied to history, passion, ideas and love. There is no threat that can shake it. Our castle is secure. Universe is a beautiful gem that wears it’s polyglot origin on it’s sleeves like bunting. It has been a balm.


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