If you’ve ever had the privilege of visiting Paris, I’d be willing to bet that you enjoyed a bite to eat — or at least stopped by — one of two quintessentially Parisian cafés: Les Deux Magots and Café de Flore. The two institutions are neighbors on a picturesque boulevard in the charming neighborhood of Saint Germain de Prés, a quartier I came to know well during my time spent studying in the city last spring.
The cafés sit nestled beneath green and gold awnings, an organized mess of cream-colored woven bistro chairs bustling with impeccably clad waiters. The two spots have ascended into tourist-trap stardom due to their reputation as frequent workplaces of Lost Generation artistic and literary giants including but not limited to Simone de Beauvoir, Hemingway, Picasso and Joyce, earning them the right to charge eight euro for a glass of orange juice.
Although a plethora of less pricey options dot the neighborhood, these two have transcended any semblance of the ordinary, instead upheld as artifacts of a time when writers and painters scratched their musings down on paper and took long drags from Galoises cigarettes and pondered the fate of a world reshaped by world war (the first one, that is). A somewhat paradoxical relationship thus arises, in which the two archetypal Parisian cafés also happen to be the ones that provide the most manufactured experience, tailored perfectly to the tourist agenda.
During my bucket-list visit to Café de Flore one day before class, I was quick to order the chocolat viennois, an incredibly rich, thick variation on hot chocolate served with a heaping side of whipped cream. It leans more towards a mug of melted chocolate than an easily sippable beverage, rendering it quite the luxurious indulgence. This order served as inspiration for — and became the title of — a playlist I would later curate in an effort to encapsulate the soundtrack of a café culture I had grown to deeply admire. I fell in love with the way it concretized the power of food in fostering connection while at the same time presenting itself as a vehicle for solitude, contemplation and introspection.
In the process of seeking out pieces of music that aligned with this feeling, I found that fantasies of this glorified 1920s expatriate artistic subculture very much still colored the way I conceptualized café culture. The collection became a haphazard collection of classics studded with stars like Joséphine Baker and Brigitte Bardot, interspersed here and there with the ballads of American chanteuses like Billie Holiday and Julie London and the occasional Italian love song. It was as if these longstanding institutions were time capsules in their own right, as if their existence would remain perpetually frozen in a period so drastically different from our own era.
It was for this reason that I experienced quite a start upon hearing the soothing refrains of Édith Piaf’s 1960 hit “Non, je ne regrette rien” float through the chilly October air from the window of my Collegetown apartment earlier this week. It felt like a total anachronism — a warping of worlds. The range of music I usually encounter from my bedroom window is limited to “Starships” by Nicki Minaj, anything off of Drake’s Scorpion album and the occasional pre-2012 Taylor Swift, so I was rather caught off guard when dreamy French melodies replaced this lineup for two consecutive nights.
What is it that renders this loose genre — this soundtrack behind le chocolat viennois — so undeniably timeless? What compels us to queue up music from a time we cannot relate to crafted by artists who have for the most part not been iconified in our vernacular?
The most salient quality of this genre may very well be its lightness, the way it comes across so effervescent, so weightless and buoyant. Delicate piano riffs are grounded by feathery percussive notes, all against a backdrop of playful, high-register vocals. This is also a genre largely dominated by women, providing them a platform during a time in which — in France, and in a vast group of other nations — women were denied several basic rights, with suffrage as a cornerstone among them.
Take Joséphine Baker’s 1932 classic “Si J’étais Blanche” — or the English, “If I Were White” — for example. She formulates and contemplates her own notion of race relations, using more trivial imagery to call attention to striking inequality in a manner that would appear non-threatening to her largely white audience. The song is punctuated, however, with unbelievably poignant admissions of her own dissatisfaction, the following verse serving as a keen example: “As a little girl I looked with ‘chagrin’ / At the blonde dolls in stores / With their pale skin / I’d have liked to look like them.” She is deliberate in her exposition, strategic in her explication. (As a side note, Baker went on to become a notable member of the French Resistance during the Second World War, and has since earned the honor of a burial in the Pantheon. She is only the fifth woman to be memorialized as such, and also the first performer.)
In this way, it becomes clear that the lightness that is so admirable about this French café music is not an indication of disposability. If we keep looking, we might find that powerful messages often disguise themselves inside easily digestible packages. We might even find that just like those two Parisian cafés, these messages are timeless, too.
Megan Pontin is a senior in the School of Industrial Labor Relations. She can be reached at [email protected] Rewind runs alternate Tuesdays.