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Édith Piaf is alive and well and living . . . just about everywhere

Édith Piaf is France’s most celebrated and mythified singing star. Professor David Looseley takes a look at Edith’s past and shares how she continues to be a global icon today.

Piaf Then

2023 was a good year for the late Édith Piaf. And for me. My 33 1/3 (Europe) book, Édith Piaf’s Récital 1961, came out, telling the story of the live recording of her comeback concert at the Paris Olympia on 29 December 1960, where the centrepiece of a remarkable set of new songs was ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’. Until I started writing about her some years ago, my work on French popular music had mainly focused on the present day. So, given that Piaf had died in 1963, I assumed that the 33 1/3 project would mean going back in popular-music history to a time that was colourful, influential but very clearly over. As it turned out, I was wrong. Because in 2023 Piaf came back to life.

Throughout that year, there were discreet but persistent reminders that today this very French singer with an arguably old-fashioned, pre-rock aesthetic is in fact an imperishable global icon. 2023 saw the 60th anniversary of her death, reverently marked in France but also in other locations around the world, as her anniversaries usually are. This reflex of remembrance doesn’t only focus on her extraordinary voice or on her universal songs of love and pain and triumph over tragedy. A lot of the attention she gets today goes to Piaf the woman. Her life story is retold as if it were a modern myth, a sacred, gendered symbol for our times. She’s become a kind of transnational cultural currency.

Piaf Now

Through 2023 and into 2024, London’s Victoria and Albert Museum has been running a major exhibition entitled ‘Diva’, showcasing those cultural icons it calls ‘the courageous, the visionary, the fabulous’. Amid all the extravagant, sexually playful flamboyance of stars like Madonna, Rihanna, Lady Gaga and Elton John, Édith, tiny in her chaste and slightly faded black dress, stands out by virtue of her visual humility. In real life, of course, she was anything but humble. She’s in fact a rare example in the music industry as it then was of a powerful, assertive woman fully in control of her art and her image and dominating the men who figured in her professional and private lives. This probably explains why a significant number of today’s female performers reference her in some way, as an influence or inspiration. Lady Gaga is one, Martha Wainwright another. Kylie Minogue’s smash hit last summer, ‘Padam Padam’, takes its title (though not its style or content) from a Piaf song and there was some media speculation about this allusive back story. Countless Piaf numbers have been recorded by famous artists and there are always tribute acts and musicals about her circulating around the world. Then there’s the regularly revived Pam Gems’s play Piaf, like the prestigious Gate Theatre’s 2022/3 production in Dublin starring the singer-actor Camille O’Sullivan.

Piaf in the Future

Three biopics have also been made over the years, the most successful being 2007’s award-winning La Vie en rose, which did much to put her back in the public eye. So it was a little surprising to discover in 2023 that Warner Music are currently planning yet another movie of her life, though this time with a very contemporary twist. Her voice is to be synthesized via AI, so she will apparently narrate her own story. More bizarre, and a tad mystifying, was the use of her real voice on ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’ in the credits for the UK’s TV coverage of the 2023 Rugby World Cup. And, so far, 2024 seems to be continuing the focus on her. This spring, there was some venomous discussion over whether the Malian-French global singing star Aya Nakamura might be invited to perform a Piaf song at the opening of the Paris Olympics.

108 years after her birth and six decades after her death, the apparently unstoppable urge to revere, rediscover or recreate Édith Piaf needs some unpicking. In my writing about her so far, I’ve made a start, by looking at gender, authenticity, and the universal appeal of tragic stardom. But 2023 has made me realize there’s more to be done. I might be digging out the drawing board again.

David Looseley

is Emeritus Professor of Contemporary French Culture at the University of Leeds. He writes on the popular music, culture and cultural policy of France, including Édith Piaf: A Cultural History (2015), joint winner of the Franco-British Society Literary Prize, and Popular Music in Contemporary France: Authenticity, Politics, Debate (2003). He was contributing editor (with Diana Holmes) of Imagining the Popular in Contemporary French Culture (2013). He is Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Palmes Académiques.

Édith Piaf’s Récital 1961 is available to buy in bookshops and online, including at Bloomsbury.com.

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