French Music: A Melody of Light

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A poster from the exhibition "Paris en Chansons"

I’ve always been a sucker for a good mix CD. Music has the power to transport us to another time and place, of nostalgia or wanderlust, and to place us in the culture of the music chosen. The exhibition “Paris en Chansons,” on view through July 29 at La Galerie des Bibliothèques, is like diving into the world’s greatest music mix CD—an astoundingly comprehensive collection of French music represented by songs about Paris.

The exhibition "Paris en Chansons"

With famed chanteuse Juliette Gréco as its spokesperson, “Paris en Chansons” boasts 2,800 songs and videos of Parisian music. From Yves Montand to Serge Gainsbourg, Josephine Baker to Vanessa Paradis, Edith Piaf to Eartha Kitt, the history of Paris in song is offered with true passion and an incredible amount of research and organization. The music spans over 100 years and several genres, and each listening and viewing station is equipped with two sets of ear-encompassing headphones, so there’s no need to feel greedy or even solitary in the experience. You can listen to a mix about the Seine with a friend or watch a 1960s variety show performance while swaying along with another visitor enraptured by a singing, dancing, laughing Maurice Chevalier.

Visitors enraptured by French music at the exhibition "Paris en Chansons"

But it’s not only about the music—if it were, you could just stay home and get lost in the Internet, watching related videos on YouTube. No, the most stunning aspect of “Paris en Chansons” is that the curators (whom I envy and admire wholeheartedly) have taken great care to connect these Paris songs with the culture they represent, using photographs of the locations that inspired the songs; books; and vibrant, beautiful, well-preserved posters advertising performances, even costumes worn by chanteuses to illustrate the society that gave birth to the music as well as its evolution. Because, as we see, music not only reflects a culture but is an inherent part of it. Listening to hundreds of songs while looking at photos of not just music being played but everyday life happening—from street scenes and cafés to lovers by the Seine and even metro stations being built—we are placed directly in the Paris of history, submerged in a culture beloved and idealized by millions. We can see and hear, and truly experience, what so strongly helped to sculpt the idea of Paris in pop culture, from the clichés of berets and striped shirts to heartbreakingly sincere ballads of old.

Posters at the exhibition "Paris en Chansons"

Naturally you can get your fill of the swingy, swoony French music of the cinematic ideal—complete with accordions and the seductive vocals of such icons as Catherine Sauvage and Charles Aznavour. One can often hear the elegant dust noise of the records from which some of the very oldest songs were taken. But with an astonishing range of French music from 1880 through 2011, and with styles that span reggae, ’80s pop, bar sing-alongs and even grunge, one is blessedly not trapped in the Paris cliché—in fact, Parisian music is as varied yet distinctive as its creators.

In this exhibition it’s easy to get swept up in the beauty of French music—in fact, I spent two and a half hours there and didn’t even manage to hear all the songs. But there’s a kind of beauty to that—an afternoon at “Paris en Chansons” is sure to put you in the right frame of mind to slowly stroll around the nearby Marais neighborhood and marvel at the old city around you.

“Paris en Chansons” is a must for lovers of Parisian culture; lovers of French music, records or mix CDs; and lovers period. It will carry you to a magical Paris, one of life, love and song. Just be sure to bring a notebook for the inevitable download list!

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“Paris en Chansons”

Editor’s note: Have you recently had a special experience in Paris, want to share your favorite French music, or are you looking forward to a trip there? Tell us all about it on our Facebook page.

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