Posted by: kaleidophonic | September 21, 2012

The problem with national music narratives: The case of Québec Yéyé Music

Hey there cats & kittens.

I’ve been writing lately, hammering away at the diss. I really want to finish this year, aiming to graduate in June, which might be ambitious, but at least its a goal. I’m tired of living like a student, and even more tired of paying the ridiculously high tuition rate at my Uni.

But, I digress. The point is, I’ve been writing. Right now I’m working on my third chapter, which is all about music, so I thought I’d share a few fun things I’ve discovered.

Part of my argument in this chapter revolves around the idea that the popular soundtracks which inform our historical narratives are always a matter of ideological choice. Some genres get highlighted and others neglected. In the case of Quebec, the soundtrack of the Quiet Revolution (i.e. the process of national discovery and rapid modernization of the period between 1960 and 1975) relies very heavily on a genre known as chanson.


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The music of chanson is essentially a folksy singer-songwriter style, and relies on traditional narratives about an idealized past of rural villages, salty fisher-folk, and the northern geography and climate of Quebec. Chanson was extremely important in helping the Québécois explore and discover their unique cultural identity, and holds a great deal of cultural value, especially in the poetic and literary quality of the lyrics.

I don’t have a problem with chanson in and of itself, but I DO have a problem with the fact that in official histories of the Quiet Revolution, chanson is given so much attention that it’s easy to forget there were other genres out there at the time, and that some of these genres were just as equally representative of the processes underway during this particularly vibrant period in the province’s history.

Here I’m talking specifically about yéyé music, which has been given short shrift in most musicological studies of Quebec. Because yéyé music started out with young people basically copying the rock ‘n roll songs of America and the UK, it has been seen as having little artistic value. Yéyé has a reputation for being nothing but a copycat genre, for being commercial, for furthering the invasion of American/English culture into Quebec, for being loud and noisy and essentially worthless.

Many of these arguments make sense, but I disagree that yéyé was worthless.


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In yéyé bands I see a whole generation of young Québécois who were eager to partake in a modern, international culture – something new and fresh when compared with the stale rural traditionalism of their chanson counterparts. I see people eager to use technology to express themselves, using feedback, amplification, noise and frantic rhythms as an appropriation of the loudness and the speed of a era obsessed with notions of ‘progress’. In yéyé music I see a fascinating process of translating ‘foreign’ songs into local languages and contexts, producing songs that were both specific to Quebec and to a globalizing cultural industry. And in the dance halls, independent labels, and television shows that grew up around the 100s of Quebec yéyé bands I see a whole local infrastructure taking root.

One of the biggest critiques of yéyé during the ’60s was that it was not political. The chansonniers played a large role in politicizing the people of Quebec, or at least of exploring themes of political nationalism, liberation, and national identity. Since most yéyé bands looks and sounded like foreigners (at least in their choice of genre if not the words), it was assumed that they weren’t interested in serious concerns such as nationalism.

But, here again, I disagree.

And here we get to the whole reason behind today’s post: I want to share a few yéyé songs that were blatantly political. First up is a group whose name plays off of the separatist politics of Quebec’s independence movement: Les Séparatwists. Although most (if not all?) of their songs were instrumentals, their name pretty much says it all. Check out this gem of a song, “Louiseville Twist”.


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Second, a great song by one of Quebec’s most successful groups, but who have sadly fallen into obscurity, at least where the official historical record is concerned: La Révolution Francaise.


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This group started off as one of the premier yéyé groups, Les Sinners, and in this first incarnation they were reported to have sold almost a quarter of a million discs. In the late 1960s they fell into a contract dispute with their record company, so they broke up — only to re-form a short time later as La Révolution Francaise. The track below, “Québécois” is a blatantly nationalistic (as well as Montréalaise) track. Listen for references to “le metro”, “Expo”, and Mayor Drapeau, as well as the refrain: “on deviendra tous solidaire, nous sommes plus minoritaire… Québécois! nous sommes Québécois!” (Trans.: “we will all have solidarity, we are no longer a minority… Québécois! We are Québécois!”)

All in a distinctly psychedelic idiom. Wait for the funky breakdown, right after the sirens, and then the marching snare drum, signaling the rise and revolution of the Quebec people.

“Québécois! Nous sommes Québécois!”

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Responses

  1. Awesome, yeah. (Yeah yeah…). Studies of Quebec are all about fiddle tunes and chanson, but pop music in Quebec is really interesting… I’m officially remembering to send you my paper…

  2. Hey! I came across this blog post while looking for useful links for my website popquebec.wordpress.com. You might find it interesting: I made an interactive Quebec music family tree (which I will soon be revamping) and a five-part English podcast for CKUT about the history of Quebecois popular music. I hope you like it!


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