At this point I’m convinced that everyone who took French in high school knows the lyrics to a Stromae song by heart. Maybe I’m way off the mark, but my anecdotal evidence suggests that “Papaoutai” and “Tous Les Mêmes” are universally known and beloved. Whether or not that’s true, Belgian artist Stromae’s 2013 album Racine Carrée (Square Root) is a great choice for budding Francophones.
Stromae had already broken through the world of Francophone music and even internationally by the time Racine Carrée was released. His 2009 song “Alors on Danse,” (“So We Dance”), a nihilistic dance anthem (that was way ahead of its time in terms of subject matter) reached the top of several European charts and was eventually remixed by Kanye West.
Racine Carrée contains more of the formula that made “Alors on Danse” so powerful. It’s filled with disillusionment and disappointment with family, relationships and technology. It’s fundamentally cynical. Yet the musical influences that Stromae channels and combines are playful and sugary as (name your European continental pop group here).
“Papaoutai,” the album’s biggest hit, is an emotional plea to his father, who died in the Rwandan Genocide early in his son’s life. The track starts out with a tone of resignation before transitioning to one of frenetic, desperate anger. Stromae snarls, “Tout le monde sait comment on fait les bébés/ Mais personne sait comment on fait des papas” (“Everyone knows how to make babies/ but no one knows how to make papas”). The track is built on a layer of piano rolls you would expect to hear in a house track in a Brussels nightclub and rhythms influenced by the African music that Stromae mentions he grew up on.
In an interview with The Guardian, Stromae states, “Hip hop, pop, dance – the common point is melancholy. That’s international, and I like this word because it’s not only about sadness or happiness – it’s both at the same time. And that’s human and that’s life.” Stromae’s best work on Racine Carrée embodies this to a T. I’m reminded of one of the biggest hits of the century so far: “Hey Ya” by Outkast, in which André 3000 chides his audience, “Y’all don’t want to hear me, you just want to dance.” “Hey Ya” is also fundamentally a song about disillusionment and relationships. It just also happens to be one of the catchiest songs ever made.
However, I don’t think that Stromae wants to chide us for enjoying his work at all. The experiences he details are extremely personal and might not apply to everyone, but the emotions themselves are universal. In the music video for “Formidable” (“Wonderful”), he stumbles drunkenly around the streets of Brussels, airing out his regrets and heartbreak over a recently ended relationship. The autotune on his voice makes him end up resembling the voice and spirit of his countryman Jacques Brel in the tear-jerking “Ne Me Quitte Pas” (“Do not leave me”) with all its throaty, rolled “r”s. Everyone’s been there before. What’s a better way to become closer than to sing and dance about it.