How did it happen that I came to write about Johnny Hallyday? The “French rocker” – born Jean‑Philippe Smet in Paris on June 15, 1943, son of a Belgian father and French mother – had won the hearts of millions of French people since 1960, a devotion that never waned throughout his long career.
As a social anthopologist, I must confess the idea writing about his work had not really crossed my mind until an editor from The Conversation contacted me when the 74-year-old singer, battling a cancer since last March, was known to be gravely ill.
I did not have solid ethnographic evidence, so was a bit reluctant. Yet I was curious about Hallyday’s story and his impact on French culture. At a December 5 conference, where I was presenting research on legitimacy of artistic hierarchies, I decided to bring up the topic. I argued that one can enjoy a classic work of art while also appreciating Hallyday and his music. I suggested that if cultural practices are understood as a collective process that is based on aesthetic experiences, then we can indeed compare the experiences of listening to Hallyday and Mozart – what matters is the impact of music on the public and the kinds of emotions it sparks.
Despite the sociological elements presented, the speech was met with half-smiles, condescending looks and even a measure of contempt. But then Johnny died on December 6, 2017.
The following day the French media were, as usual, hysterical. But their reaction revealed something else: a genuine acknowledgement of popular culture. And that’s why, despite all the odds against him, Johnny Hallyday won.
Some cultural practices and tastes in France crave for legitimacy, struggling because of a certain French “arrogance” or pedantic claims of “intellectual superiority”. Culture is deeply linked to social class. As a consequence, in most academic, journalistic and intellectual circles, Hallyday and his music were at best amusing. I never heard anyone I know seriously claiming to appreciate his work.
In such circles, appreciating rock’n’roll is fine, but not just any kind. What about Hallyday? When asked, some will eventually admit that they find his character likeable. But more often than not, citing him or his music in a discussion is actually a way of dismissing the genre, and through it, his fans – implicitly “white trash” and “working class”.
Such fans are often represented by the elites in the worst way, as those who like to spend their summer holidays in caravans or on package tours, drinking cheap beer. They love showing off their ‘80s tattoos of eagles, wolves and Johnny’s face, and the big purchase for all their hard-earned savings would be a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, dripping with chrome. They live in mortgaged houses with tiny backyards on the outskirts of insignificant towns, the names of which don’t even register with many Parisians.
But these same Parisians would rather forget that they too often come from such invisible towns and that perhaps a member of their own family loves Johnny Hallyday’s music. Some even said of such relatives: “How can they listen to that seriously?”
Everyone loves Johnny
Yet today – in France at least – everyone loves Johnny. The same way most working-class families claim to know about artists such as Picasso, Proust or Mozart, it will now be hard to find someone, whatever their social class, who would publicly say that he or she dislikes Johnny Hallyday.
Does it mean that cultural and aesthetic hierarchies are evolving? Actually not. But all the ongoing tributes show that the singer – ostensibly a minor artist despite his massive impact, with 3,257 concerts and 110 million discs sold over a 57-year-long career – is now fully acknowledged.
This is of course an acknowledgement of the “idol” rather than his work, but it marks a change in mentalities, as social conditions of cultural domination are often led by invisibility in mainstream media. That is why I think that Hallyday has won. He got to us in the long run and for that he deserves respect.
In preparing this article, I reread the work of philosopher and sociologist Edgar Morin, who in 1965 wrote an important paper on the “yéyé” movement. Inspired by the Beatles and American artists, the genre covered a wide range of artists who were immensely popular at the time. They included Hallyday – his shows even sparked riots in 1963 – as well as [Françoise Hardy], known for hits such as “Tous les garcons et les filles” and France Gall, whose bubble-gum pop classic “Poupée de cire, poupée de son”, written by Serge Gainsbourg, won the 1965 Eurovision song contest. Gall’s appeal lives on as well, as Quentin Tarantino featured a cover version of her song “Laisse tomber les filles” in his 2007 film Death Proof.
Before the cultural, social and political upheavals of 1968, yéyé music was huge among France’s teenagers. But was it supposed to survive adolescence? The success of Hallyday and others such as Eddy Mitchell and Sylvie Vartan, actually helped create the notion of “teenagerhood” so peculiar to European societies. It gave them artefacts and cultural objects they could reappropriate and that would distinguish them from the world of the adults.
Before Hallyday, the closest thing to “French rock” was embodied by artists such as author and composer Boris Vian and the Franco-Caribbean actor and singer Henri Salvador, whose style was closer to jazz and bossa nova, and he often dressed in an all-white tuxedo.
But Johnny was different. He sang, he yelled, he grooved.
A youth idol was born. And as Hallyday grew in stature as an artist, so did his followers and fan base. In the 1970s, rock’n’roll evolved in France, splitting into different genres and subdivisions, some of which were re-appropriated or formed by more privileged classes. Despite his growing success and new followers, Hallyday chose to stick with his working-class base.
Once a youth idol, in the 1970s Hallyday became a cultural symbol for those hit hard by the oil crisis and recession that followed. For many, he was the French embodiment of a very different cultural touchstone, the United States. Through him, many in France were somehow able to have a brush with this modernity, to claim it as their own and feel that they too belonged.
A cultural practice always reveals a process of self-identification. And a generational practice soon became one of an entire social class.
That’s how Hallyday came to embody a new norm of aesthetics in a social class where, in particular, masculinity and femininity were emphasised through assigned roles. He relied on such registers, playing with the notion of virility – sporting a cigarette while singing, showing off an attitude in public, flashing a boyish smile under deep blue eyes. But he was also charismatic and sensual, making sure to win everyone’s heart.
And, on the top of that, Johnny spoke and sang in French. Ridiculous for some, but understandable for all those in France.
This form of rock’n’roll, perfectly adjusted to resonate with French audiences, included songs that echoed traditional forms and themes – stories of love and daily life – that grew in stature thanks to the singer’s gravelly voice and dazzling shows.
Because of Johnny Hallyday’s songs and what he represented for the French, he gradually came to incarnate France itself for his fans. Once a mere singer, he evolved into an institution for those who felt they were ignored. His charisma, his stature embodied something they could hold on to, something impervious to both time and to the dismissal of the cultural elites. And, just because of that, Johnny has won.