I love music videos. They were such a big part of my musical education, and I can’t really imagine a world in which my teenage brain wasn’t crammed full of colorful 90’s pop-punk videos. So on a drinking night, I started going on a multi-hour binge of old video clips, which I’m here to share with you. And here it is — my nostalgia-fueled history of the French Canadian music video!
While Americans have vague memories of a Beavis and Butthead-style teenagehood spent watching MTV, the phenomenon was actually international. Up here in Canada, we had our own channel started in 1984 called MuchMusic. And a glorious thing it was, promoting lots of well bred canadian artists like Shania Twain and Men Without Hats. It was so popular that a French version was launched in 1986 to reach the mighty Quebec market and help it grow its own bloated, superficial music star system. Thus, Musique Plus was born, and oh, did it deliver.
Out were the old hippies, nationalists, socialists, and alcoholic folk-rock acts of the seventies like Harmonium, replaced by our very own version of Madonna. I present to you, Mitsou. She was our very own pop star, appearing on every talk show, constantly media-tized, and 100% manufactured by the industry. After years of political turmoil, a failed attempt at becoming our own country and every single artist having a strong political opinion, this was a revelation. We can be pop, we can be stupid, we can be…American! Mitsou was, in every sense of the word, hot, and boy, did everyone love her. Plus, the song is actually catchy.
Mitsou – Bye Bye Mon Cowboy
But the eighties were also the era of the extremely cheesy ballads, and this was were we shined our brightest. Minor chord progressions? Check. Piano arpeggios? Check. Bland power chords in lieu of an actual chorus? Check. Mullet and shoulder pads? YES! This is also the beginning of a long horrible tradition of French music videos shot in black and white.
Les BB – Tu Ne Sauras Jamais
Yet BB also made one of the greatest song of all time:
Les BB – Pourquoi T’es Dans la Lune
But the hippies managed to evolve too, discovering along with everyone else the magic of cocaine. Also, this brand new phenomenon taking over the streets: rap music! And whenever there’s a bandwagon coming to town, hacky horrible pop artists are going to jump straight into it. Here is one of the worst raps I have ever heard. Here is Lucien Francoeur’s excruciating attempt to be cool, Le rap à Billy.
Lucien Francoeur – Le Rap à Billy
One thing must be understood here: basically anyone with a camera and a cheap synthesizer could submit a video to Musique Plus. The industry was only just starting, and many weird, short-lived careers began and ended in the late eighties. It was a wonderful time of denim jackets, mustaches, and awkward white people dancing.
Marc Drouin – Vis Ta Vinaigrette
Meanwhile in France, the French were very confused about what music was, and European music already sounded just as campy as it does today. Here is Phillipe Lafontaine explaining his rape-y tendencies. I’m not kidding; the chorus goes, “I have but one desire/letting myself be tempted/the victim is so beautiful/the crime is so gay.”
Phillipe Lafontaine – Coeur de Loup
However, not everyone pushed through the music industry grinder managed to make it seamlessly. People were hurt, and one of them became our very own poetic genius. He was weird, spoke with a French-ish (Algerian) accent, clearly did lots of drugs, had an immense talent for melodies, and actually wrote really brilliant songs. He was bred by the industry , but he never really bought into it — he was far beyond it (most of the time to the detriment of his career and health). Yet he has managed to stay relevant for over thirty years. “Ladies and gentlemen, after one year, after two years, John the Wolf!” Here he is explaining how cool wars are going to be in the nineties over a killer bass line.
Jean Leloup – 1990
Jean Leloup. Man, that guy was the first person I ever heard actually make good rock music in French. It never clicked before him, and rarely did after. His videos were brillant, arrogant yet self conscious. The guitar was often poppy, almost Le Chic-level disco, yet the basslines were reggae, the percussions often afro-beat influenced, and his lyrics and attitude owed much more to punk and Godard movies than the American pop scene of the times. But he wasn’t alone. Another band managed to break the mold of Quebec-centric folk and American-ish pop: Les Colocs.
Les Colocs – Passe Moé la Puck
They were street kids, headed by quasi-messianic singer-songwriter André “Dédé” Fortin. They were a band made of a French AIDS-riddled guitarist, African percussionists, and now counter-culture icon bassist “Mononc” Serge Robert. They had something else, something dirty yet incredibly beautiful. I used the word messianic while referring to Dédé not only because he did eventually commit suicide, but mostly because he was in every sense of the word a “social justice warrior,” always siding with the poor, the weak, and the outcasts. In a music industry full of horrible people glorifying materialism and economic stability, he was a strange outcast, who always seemed uneasy in interviews, a bit repelled by the whole pop structure. Others however, managed to have quite popular careers while still releasing pretty good albums.
Daniel Boucher – La Désise
And boy, was the pop establishment big and powerful. While the 1995 referendum split the population 51% to 49% on the independence issue, media conglomerates were forming into multinational financial behemoths, each with their own roster of artists and talk shows and horrible commercial musak. The most horrible of these was Roch Voisine, our very own version of Michael Bolton, only with extra cheese. His best known video even had him singing in the forest with a mullet to end all mullets. It’s crammed full of everything that makes terrible music fun to listen to — as the Laser Time guys said — empty self-affirmation, acoustic guitars, and pseudo-mystic native Americans.
Roch Voisine – La Légende Oochigeas
Meanwhile, we were slowly developing our very own version of an alternative scene. From punk to metal, the spirit of hard rock and distorted guitars lived in the basement of hundreds of bungalows in the countryside, uniting in drug-fuelled frenzies at weird festivals in the middle of nowhere like Woodstock-en-Bauce, Polliwog, and the now flourishing Amnesia RockFest. With Primus-influenced weirdness, Groovy Aardvark was the band every fifteen year-old punk kid loved and was proud to tag on a wall, along with Pennywise, Rancid, and NoFX. They were weird, they talked about aliens, girls tended to stay away, but goddamn it, they were our own. Rock and roll was for outdoor people, the fucked up kids who grew up with fuck-all to do and a shitload of free time to play in the woods.
Groovy Aardvark – Boisson d’avril
Meanwhile in France, music sounded even more terrible. Actually, no, the French had a history of phenomenal punk bands in the 80’s and early 90’s. But since Berurier Noir and company were really into the whole socialist punk ethos, they never made music videos. So here is the next best thing. This shit was impossible to avoid; it was everywhere — White French dudes rapping about medieval fighting. Retrospectively, this is the nerdiest shit to ever come out of France, but that chorus is just too fun not to karaoke every time.
Manau – La Tribu de Dana
So…Dédé Fortin killed himself, we lost a second attempt to become a nation, Islamists bombed the World Trade Center, and Limp Bizkit became a thing. Shit got dark. While Jean Leloup was still there to write good music, he gave up almost entirely on the industry and stopped making music videos. At the dawn of rap-metal, proto-emo, and gangsta rap, there was only one ethnic group to save drugs and rock and roll: Anglo-Montreal hipsters!
Arcade Fire – Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)
Yes, these elusive, self-centered youth who had been hiding in the richest parts of Montreal had built, under our nose, one of the best places to be a pseudo-intellectual artist/hipster in the world: the Milles-End. In this quiet neighborhood on the English side of town, veterans of the post-punk scene Godspeed You!, Black Emperor, and a whole bunch of other artists, anarchists, and musicians started new labels, opened new venues, and helped push Montreal-bred Anglo bands like Arcade Fire and Wolf Parade to the forefront of international charts. Propelled by the internet and masturbatory music criticism, they not only had a new sound that no one else in the world had, but were actually great fucking bands. It was a really cool time to live in Montreal, and the French-English wall of St. Lawrence street broke apart, at least enough to let a couple of French bands through the labels. And they came with a bang, as Dare-to-Care records finally pushed their very first Francophone release: Malajube.
Malajube – Pate Filo
Those guys were not just good — they were great. They had the manic energy that only years of drugs and mental illness can bring, a very strong identity and sound, criptic lyrics in service of the music, and they pushed out at least five solid music videos. Suddenly, there was hope; this could be more than Montreal for the French speakers. They played South-by-Southwest, their albums were critiqued in Pitchfork (oh Lord!), and they toured both France and the United States. A second band were named Holy Rockers of the French Hipster, but with much less international success: Karkwa.
Karkwa – Échapper au Sort
Of course, it did not work. The American hipsters loved them as a novelty act, but didn’t really give a shit after two years. Musicians quickly learned to either restrict the French to only one or two song per album like We Are Wolves or stay within Quebec. However, Malajube managed to prove one thing: they could do it! They could not only make music that sounded better than everything else, but also made it for cheap without a huge label. The French scene exploded, mixing the Montreal punk-based ethos with the countryside rock attitude, and we got great bands in every genre.
But one band transcended all barriers. With a shitty singer, really simple song construction, and absurdist lyrics, Les Trois Accords made some of the best shit to sing in a karaoke bar, a series of instant classic anthems of joy and fun. I seriously don’t know which clip to put here, so I went for the most absurdist one, but it is very well worth checking out their music video playlist. Just know this song is about an Ontario farmer whose wife left him for a Saskatchewan farmer.
Les Trois Accords – Saskatchewan
SASKATCHEWAAAAAAAAN! God I love that song so much.
Anyway, I couldn’t talk about the Montreal scene without mentioning hip-hop, both the best and the worst. And here is the thing: strangely, the best shit came from outside the big cities where people were either trying to imitate gangsta rap or French overly-serious stuff. Enter Radio Radio, one of the weirdest and best phenomena to happen this side of the ocean. Originally three dudes from New Brunswick, these guys made fun hip hop in a French dialect we had not heard since Kevin Parent (another 90’s thing worth checking out for shits and giggles): chiac. In the eastern parts of Canada, there lived a very large French colonist population which was basically deported to the southern United States (ever wonder why some people speak french in New Orleans?) to be assimilated. However, some of them managed to evade the deportation and stayed up there, developing their own dialect of mixed French and English which is basically undecipherable to people of both Quebec and France. So these three guys with great beats, solid flow, and a winner “absurd chic” attitude basically rocked everyone’s world. They made the northern Atlantic look and sound like Monaco.
Radio Radio – Cargué Dans Ma Chaise
On the LGBT side of things, one very mannered dude called Pierre Lapointe sang in falsetto and managed to make a record everyone at least kinda liked, with lush harmonies and a very good sense of pop. This was the most French-sounding thing the Quebec public could accept, and we all agreed to never really speak of it again. But this is a really good song that came before he went full camp.
Pierre Lapointe – Deux par Deux Rassemblés
Elsewhere, the punk and heavy metal scenes also exploded, with the success of old school acts like Voivod and The Sainte Catherines came a new wave of screaming dudes with tattoos, at the helm of which stood a peculiar figure, “Mononc” Serge: ex-Colocs bassist, now professional satirist. He teamed up with Quebec metal veterans Anonymus to produce two albums of pure comedic bliss. For the first time in decades, metal had a sense of humour, and it was a very scathing one. From politics to potatoes, nothing escapes Mononc’s ire, and now he’s got musicianship to weigh in the comedic effect. I have no idea if this video makes any sense to you, but it’s sure as hell entertaining. For one summer working in a camp in the middle of nowhere, this was our anthem, the song we’d play in the kitchen every morning we had to open.
Mononc Serge et Anonymus – Les Patates
Meanwhile in France…I seriously don’t know, but this is the most Parisian thing I’ve ever seen, and it’s much less insufferable than Katerine or M. I like it a lot.
Teki Latex et Milo – Les Mâtins de Paris
Oh, and we can’t really leave you-know-who out of this, can we? Take us out, Celine!
Celine Dion – Je Danse Dans Ma Tête
Article by contributor Charles-Andre Lavallee.
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