Not many people ask this formally in the press, but are we, the residents of the United States, an insular culture? We live in a country that boasts a melting pot of accumulated traditions and styles, yet ask most people about what they think of mainstream culture and you’re likely to hear that they find it bland and without artistic merit.
Even those that are huge fans of it would most likely confess to just craving some form of saccharine, gratuitous pleasure. Yes, the “pop” in popular culture means our mainstream is a homogenized one. One where the elements have been stripped of substance and style, even if the end result is simply to spark enthusiasm. It’s tough to accuse the US of becoming culturally insular, but seeing acclaimed French pop singer Vanessa Paradis perform at the Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles brings the point into stark relief. With a few rare exceptions, our pop music seems locked in a turgid fight for supreme sameness.
The sometimes actress/sometimes model/sometimes singer Vanessa Paradis has an accomplished resume all her own. She became a star in France at the age of 14 on the strength of her early single “Joe le taxi.” A few short years later, none other than Serge Gainsbourg helped write the lyrics for her follow-up album Variations sur le meme t’aime. After that, her third self-titled album was co-written and produced by then boyfriend Lenny Kravitz. Bliss came many years later in 2000 and featured two songs co-written by Paradis’ long-term boyfriend and baby daddy Johnny Depp. Add to that performances in almost a dozen movies and a successful modeling career and you start to see how diverse her interests and talents are.
After a short and understated set by singer songwriter Hugh Coltman, the curtain rose to reveal a wisely constructed setup. A lone bar stool sat on top of a red carpet flanked on either side by places for a keyboardist/guitarist and bassist/percussionist respectively. Behind that on a riser, three violinists and a cellist struck the opening strings for “Pourtant.” Paradis came out and spent the first few songs draped casually on the barstool, effortlessly singing each line. She proclaimed sweetly, “We want to welcome you to our little French world,” hinting at the subtle differences in musical style without drawing divisive lines. The arrangements on “Que fait la vie?,” “Le Scarabee” and “Dans Mon Café” were of stellar quality; percussion was used colorfully and each instrument stood firm in the mix without overpowering her vocals. She playfully suggested before performing Mathieu Chedid’s “Chet Baker” that “One night in the rain you should listen to Chet Baker in a Studebaker” as the song’s chorus romantically describes.
Next came the two aforementioned songs co-written with Johnny Depp, “Bliss” and “St. Germain,” both about their family and daughter Lily-Rose Melody Depp. Each few songs or so, Paradis varied her stage demeanor, dancing sexily around the carpet, swinging a floodlight by her percussionist and even performing seated alone staring downwards at an acoustic guitar. Compared to the lion’s share of Western performers, Paradis’s stage presence is a graceful and masterful look at a true larger-than-life performer. Not by way of grandstanding, just that her position and approach was exciting enough just to watch her make the stage her home for two hours.
Two covers showed two brilliant sides of her style. One, a heartbreaking rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” (done in a style reminiscent of Jeff Buckley’s version) and a peppy, almost youthful take on Sam Cooke’s “Wonderful World.” The band switched instruments every few songs and various members dropped in intriguing elements (tuning forks, records, crash percussion) to punctuate tracks without veering into dissonance.
She performed two encores, invariably bringing the packed house to its feet. Two moments in particular produced eye-opening results. For “La Vague a lames” Paradis was joined by her keyboardist, who placed a roll-out plastic electronic keyboard on top of a guitar case. The two sat on opposite sides and melodically played off each other and then took turns playing the same song from their respective side. And for the second encore, hit single “Tandem” had the crowd singing and clapping joyfully while Paradis’ string section set their violins aside to join in on the chorus.
This was one of those moments music journalists hunt for relentlessly. Writing this piece allows a writer to pose a serious question: “How is it that no one is talking about this artist?” She is literally nowhere on the American music press’ radar. Beyond the obvious language barrier (that certainly does shy some casual music listeners away), it’s almost confusing that Charlotte Gainsbourg was so revered and somehow nobody is talking about the classy, graceful quality that Vanessa Paradis is capable of. For those that love pop music where you don’t have to lower your intellectual standards or soulful enjoyment, this is what you should be listening to.