When Cliff Richard introduced his version of Elvis to the UK in the late 50’s it stirred things up a bit, but not to the extent that Johnny Hallyday did in France. Back then the French government had very strict controls on the use of Americanisms in language, French culture and everyday life.
Before Hallyday there was no ‘weekend’, ‘burger’ or ‘rock n roll’ in the French language. But of course now these Americanisms have been absorbed into the French language and culture.
I remember back in the 80’s how the French Government fought McDonalds’ attempts to set up outlets in Paris, saying they were not French enough. Several years later they finally allowed a French burger chain to open, but it was still many years before McDonalds were finally allowed in.
Had Hallyday been an American living in France, he would not have become a rock and roll legend and none of these changes would have happened, but as he offered a very French interpretation of America at a time when the youth of the sixties were demanding change after the war, he became the voice of the young.
Serge Gainsbourg was similar, in a way, in what he represented, but on an intellectual level – he challenged the system with words and cigarettes. Hallyday didn’t ever go over the heads of the kids on the street – because he rocked, and he rocked for everyone.
Looking at the mourners on the streets of Paris yesterday, I have a feeling that the real person they are mourning is not Hallyday, but themselves – the loss of a rebellious part of their own identity.
The seeds of change that were sown back in the 60’s when Hallyday introduced his interpretation of America to France, have finally blossomed and become part of French culture as we know it today. Almost everyone from politicians to road sweepers owned a Johnny Hallyday record, and as the world looks on, wondering what all the fuss is about, and wondering who this man was, France mourns, and I do too. Because he made a difference, and that means something.