PARIS, Dec 9 ― France bids farewell today to rock star Johnny Hallyday, in a huge ceremony for a cultural icon akin to a French Elvis Presley.
But if you asked people outside the French-speaking world who Hallyday was, most would greet you with a blank stare.
AFP explains the “Johnny” phenomenon, and why the singer’s death has sparked such an emotional outpouring in France.
Why did France love his music?
Hallyday is the man who brought American-style rock ‘n’ roll to conservative post-war France, releasing his first record in 1960 and going on to sell 110 million.
He acted as a French-American cultural translator, copying Presley’s quiff and leather trousers while belting out French versions of songs like House of the Rising Sun.
He also moved with the times ― veering over the years from rock to prog and blues ― and was almost a caricature of a rock star, complete with the drug problems and tumultuous love life.
Hallyday may be best loved by the baby-boomers who came of age with him, and his power ballads were sometimes mocked as outdated.
But even though he had long since gone from being a heartthrob to a grandfatherly figure, even the young can still sing along to his biggest hits.
Is it just about the songs?
No. For many of those mourning, it’s more about what he symbolised.
Like Elvis and the Beatles, Hallyday shot to fame in the 1960s as a symbol of youthful rebellion in a society that was shaking off the war and learning to loosen up.
And he was simply around for so long ― both on the stage and on the front covers of gossip magazines, having wed four women, one of them twice ― that for many it feels like the end of an era.
For others, Johnny provided markers in their lives from listening to his songs as children in the car on family holidays or attending his concerts as adults.
Much like France itself, he also had his ups and downs.
“If the artistic quality of his work remains a matter of debate, his ability to capture the contradictions of French society is obvious,” sociologist Jean-Luc Fabiani wrote in Le Monde.
“His songs capture vulnerability and indecision, strokes of bad luck, and a capacity for resilience.”
Is he really universally beloved?
It would be an exaggeration to say the entire nation is in mourning ― many young music fans in particular met his passing with indifference.
Hallyday also unleashed a political storm in 2006 for his decision to move into tax exile in Switzerland.
And he was often ridiculed by comedians as being rather stupid, though he insisted to AFP: “I’m not nearly as dumb as people think.”
How has France reacted to his death?
TV schedules were hastily cleared for tribute shows as news of his death at 74 broke, and his songs are set to blare out before this weekend’s football matches.
There were some calls for him to be granted a state funeral, but the presidency instead said he would be sent off with “people’s tribute” in Paris.
Hundreds of motorcyclists will accompany his coffin on its way down the Champs Elysees ― Johnny was a life-long biker who adored his Harley ― and President Emmanuel Macron will speak in church.
In the press, there has been a flood of pieces about his qualities as a unifying cultural figure, with Macron himself declaring: “There is something of Johnny in all of us.”
Why is he so unknown outside France?
This is something of a puzzle. His cult status was not dissimilar to that of stars like Edith Piaf or Serge Gainsbourg who are much better known abroad.
Some have suggested it’s because he was so insistent on trying to copy American stars rather than sticking to “being French”.
“There was something comical about his determination to copy ― and some would say murder ― every passing fashion in Anglo-Saxon popular music,” John Lichfield wrote in the Guardian.
Hallyday longed to make it big in the US and recorded his third album in English.
He moved his family to Los Angeles in 2010 ― saying he loved going incognito ― and remained cheerful about his failure to crack America.
“My international career? It’ll happen if it happens,” Hallyday once told AFP.
“But I don’t especially want to succeed elsewhere. It’s better to be king in one’s own country than a prince elsewhere.” ― AFP