In the soft, subterranean half-light of a recording studio in Montreal’s east end,
Quebec’s hottest young recording star stood at the control room door, cheerily greeting critics, pop journalists and industry observers. Diane Tell, 24 years old, decked out in mauve leather pants and a jean jacket with padded shoulders, was taking care of business—the launching of her fourth and latest album, Chimères. A decade ago, the free buffet might have featured continental quiches and petit fours. At the frugal reception last month, the assembled paparazzi munched on peanuts, popcorn, chips and dip—a blunt reminder of recessionary times and Quebec’s changing tastes.
A more startling change in Québécois taste was relayed in Tell’s music as it spilled across the room. Clean and silky, the sounds on Chimères are as glamorous as anything produced in the canyons of Manhattan or the hills above Hollywood. Tell’s pliable voice dances across waves of studio-perfect music, polished yet soulful. Lionel Richie and Diana Ross would feel right at home on these tracks. Edith Piaf and Jacques Brel would recognize the language but little else.
The chansonnier tradition that nourished Quebec’s musical heroes of the ’60s—Félix Leclerc, Gilles Vigneault and Pauline Julien— has given way to the funky vitality of American-style pop music. Tiny, with an innocently erotic beauty and a guileless manner, Diane Tell is totally at home with the new music. Although some critics dismiss Tell’s lyrics as naïve and sentimental, no one denies her flair for catchy jazz and Latin-flavored melodies. Her departure from tradition has not gone unrecognized: last year, Tell won four Félix awards (Quebec’s equivalent of the Junos) for best female vocalist, best songwriter, best album and best song of 1981.
Tell is not alone in turning her back on the European roots of Quebec music. Daniel Lavoie writes songs that owe more to the pop eclecticism of The Beatles and Joni Mitchell than the sober classicism of Jean-Pierre Ferland and Claude Léveillé. Born and raised in Manitoba, Lavoie has been nominated for six Félixes in the past two years, winning the best male vocalist award in 1980 and 1981. Toulouse, a trio featuring Judi Richards, wife of indépendantiste comedian Yvon Deschamps, won fame laying their vocals over disco rhythm tracks recorded in Muscle Shoals, Ala. The band Offenbach has so thoroughly mastered the tricky marriage of the
rhythms of rock and those of the French language that a visitor from Texas didn’t realize the band was “boogeying” in jouai until halfway through the concert. And Diane Dufresne, just another chanteuse until she discovered rock, honed the edge on her keening soprano voice and developed a flair for costumes so outrageous they make Cher look preppy.
While the drift to a more American style of music has accelerated in the past half-decade, it is not exactly new. Charlebois started it in the late ’60s, scattering Quebec’s traditional chansonnier images of lumberjacks and Saturday night square dances. To replace them, he snatched such images from 20th-century North American urban life as jet planes and street-corner rock’n’roll. By the ’70s, the new kids on the block had taken Quebec music even farther down the American road. The impact of Charlebois and bands such as Beau Dommage and Harmonium is remembered vividly by Tell. “It was like ‘Wow! Somebody’s finally doing it!’ He spoke our language but he sang it like Joe Cocker.”
Such nationalistic fervor is not as strident as it was. Many Québécois singers and songwriters were instrumental in bringing the Parti Québécois to power. But in helping to establish the party’s popular base, they were undermining their own appeal. Anthems went out of fashion: there’s no need for songs of struggle when the government is singing along. Once the passionara of the independence movement, Pauline Julien now performs Brecht and Weill or song cycles about love and the women’s movement. Gilles Vigneault has retreated to the country to write stories and songs for children. Moving into middle age and the middle class takes its toll as well. Says Bob Beauchamp, program director of CKOI-FM, Montreal’s most popular rock station: “People don’t feel the need to go out
and prove they’re Québécois by buying a certain album.”
Quebeckers are much less prickly, too, about being sung to in the language of les autres. At one time, international artists with a following in both solitudes kept a careful eye on the FrenchEnglish balance of concerts in Quebec. Nowadays, Ginette Reno brings Las Vegas standards to the stage of Montreal’s Place des Arts and yanks her audience to its feet with songs in either language. Daniel Lavoie has recorded an album entirely in English and sprinkles these songs liberally throughout his stage shows to positive response.
Despite, and perhaps because of, the Americanization of Quebec’s pop music, anglophone recordings dominate record sales in the province. At CBS Records, with such popular artists as Plume, Offenbach and André Gagnon on the roster, francophone music constitutes no more than five per cent of sales. The figure floats between five and 15 per cent at retail record stores. Beauchamp says 80 per cent of the 20 to 30 requests taken each hour on CKOI are for anglophone material. In following his listeners’ lead, Beauchamp and CKOI have put themselves into hot water. Competitors, furious that CKOI was ig-
noring the CRTC’s ruling that Frenchlanguage radio stations in Quebec fill at least 65 per cent of their musical programming with francophone material, brought a barrage of complaints before the commission. CKOI countered by formally asking that their quota be lowered to 55 per cent. “There simply is not enough good francophone material available,” Beauchamp insists. “Especially Québécois material.”
But while the current generation is assured of its place in the sun, some
observers worry about the future. The U.S.-based record companies that dominate the market have reacted to the worldwide slump in record sales by slashing budgets and showing apathy about new talent. A CKOI-sponsored talent contest capped six months of auditions with a gala final competition held at the Olympic Velodrome. Invitations went out to 140 producers, promoters, record -company executives and media types. “Two showed up,” says Beauchamp wryly. “And one of them was my brother.”
Even if the music industry is reeling in a slumping economy, the stars of Québécois music are holding their own. Tell’s record company expects Chimères to hit gold status (50,000 copies sold) this week, barely a month after release. Daniel Lavoie has graduated from clubs to concert stages with a 25-city tour of the province. And the doyenne of Quebec’s recording stars, Ginette Reno, remains impossibly popular; her last album, Je ne suis qu'une chanson, sold 300,000 copies in Quebec. If politics and passion are missing in the work of Quebec’s new stars, the commerical success shows that the sensibilities of Quebeckers are still being reached, in a language they understand.
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