French rock star played on American persona

For three generations of French people, rock 'n' roll star Johnny Hallyday was a window on America and a chance to dream. A million people attended his funeral cortege in Paris this weekend.

Michel Euler/ AP
The words "Thank you Johnny" is displayed on the Eiffel Tower, referring to late French rock star Johnny Hallyday, in Paris, France, Friday, Dec. 8, 2017. French President Emmanuel Macron and hundreds of thousands of fans paid tribute to Mr. Hallyday on Saturday as his funeral procession wove through Paris.

Until last week, most Americans had no idea who Johnny Hallyday was and probably could not have cared less – but the feelings were anything but mutual. “Johnny,” as his fans called him, was France’s version of Elvis; his life-long love affair with America not only shaped his musical style but was key to explaining how the French came to idolize him.

Mr. Hallyday was buried Monday on the French Caribbean island of Saint Barthélemy after an epic televised send-off over the weekend of the kind usually reserved for heads of state or royalty.

One million fans gathered on the Champs-Élysées to bid adieu to their national hero, his coffin flanked by an escort of 500 full-throated Harley-Davidsons. Tears fell freely. “Johnny belonged to you, to the public, to France,” President Emmanuel Macron – who, at 39, is well below the average age of most Hallyday fans – told the crowd.

Born Jean-Philippe Smet, the teenage Hallyday adopted his American-sounding stage name pseudonym after finding inspiration in Elvis Presley. He became a star when he was barely out of his teens, introducing the French public to an American rock ’n’ roll sound. Over the course of a nearly 60-year career he constantly reinvented himself, dabbling in blues, pop, country, and even opera.

Some of his greatest hits were French cover versions of songs in English – straightforward rip-offs, an American pop fan might say. But French fans had never heard the originals and they did not care. One of Hallyday’s most popular singles, “Noir, C’est Noir,” was a French take on the English language sensation “Black is Black,” popularized by Los Bravos; his version of “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” launched France’s “yé-yé” bubblegum pop era.

A French window on America

Whether America knew it or not, Hallyday was an important bridge between France and the United States. His American persona was central to his appeal to a large swath of French people who would never see the other side of the Atlantic. For many who dreamed of riding off into the sunset on Route 66 or hiking the grandiose depths of the Grand Canyon, Hallyday was as close to America as they would get.

“Johnny Hallyday contributed to the popularity of American music and American pop culture,” says Gabriel Segré, a socio-anthropology professor at University of Paris at Nanterre who has written several books on Elvis Presley and fan culture. “[French] youth imitated him, identified with him and used him as a model, while he helped promote the artists, language, images, and popular myths of American culture.”

Hallyday’s music was only part of his American image. His life story as a self-made man – a blue-collar rocker who worked hard and partied harder – epitomized the American dream for many French people. His slicked-back, Elvis-style coif, jeans, and tattooed muscles were a homage to America’s rockabilly scene. In the 60’s, he appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, partied with Jimi Hendrix, and socialized with the likes of Bob Dylan and Keith Richards.

Yet, ironically, Hallyday failed to crack the American market. Often referred to as “the biggest star you’ve never heard of” in the English-speaking press, that didn’t stop Hallyday from moving to Los Angeles in the mid-2000’s with his fifth wife, Laetitia, and raising their two children there, often taking his beloved Harley for runs in the California desert for fun.

While his American vibe may have launched Hallyday’s career, it was only part of why the French adored him, some going so far as tattooing his face on their chests. His fame and nearly royal status in French culture was due to something more intangible and profound.

'Staying Alive'

Hallyday became Everyman, embodying ordinary French citizens’ dreams of freedom, rebellion, and success. The husky resonance of hits such as “Que je t’aime” (How I Love You) or “Allumer le feu” (Light the Fire) exposed all of his love, pain, rage, and struggles.

Regardless of how ugly life got – a suicide attempt, colon cancer, a medically-induced coma – Hallyday bared all to his fans. Able to appeal to twenty-something hipsters, middle-aged factory workers, and even some intellectual members of the Parisian bourgeoisie, he united them all in their love and admiration for a French hero.

“Hallyday offered an identification model from the youngest to the oldest in French society,” says Dr. Segré. “He was a symbol of youth rebellion against authority, with his wild and sensual rock ’n’ roll style, and at the same time represented the success of an artist who’d reached the highest echelons of society, frequenting big bosses as well as presidents.”

Instead of becoming a “has been” – the fate of many aging rockers – Hallyday kept going; his fans admired his exceptional longevity. After each personal trial and health struggle he always bounced back – his “Staying Alive” (“Rester Vivant”) tour filled concert halls across the country in 2016 when he was 73 and he was still rocking at a concert last July, several months after he had been diagnosed with lung cancer.

And it was above all Hallyday’s spectacular stage shows that raised him to cult status. When he wasn’t covered in fake blood in a makeshift boxing ring at the Palais des Sports, he was jumping out of a helicopter above the Stade de France or singing eerily alongside dancers wreathed in flames.

Last Saturday night the Eiffel Tower was illuminated with a special message, “Merci Johnny,” – one national monument paying its respects to another – and Paris’s Duroc subway station was temporarily renamed “DuRock Johnny.”

A number of former presidents paid homage, and the current incumbent of the presidential palace, Mr. Macron, addressed the crowd outside the church where Hallyday’s funeral was held.

The French now felt a little more alone without their hero, Macron said. It was ironic; their hero had felt alone without them. “I often feel lonely,” the rocker said once, “but never while I’m on stage.”

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