Vive La Pop: UMass Amherst Professor Explores French Love of Pop Culture

AMHERST, Mass. - How can those lovers of wine, painting, and haute couture we know as the French be the same people whose government honors Jerry Lewis and Sylvester Stallone?

That’s one of the provocative questions University of Massachusetts history professor Charles Rearick answers in his new book, "The French in Love and War: Popular Culture in the Era of the World Wars" (Yale University Press).

A specialist in French social and intellectual history, Rearick focuses on the period between 1914 and 1945 to fill in a long-neglected chapter of France’s past. As with his last book, "Pleasures of the Belle Epoque: Festivals and Entertainments of Turn-of-the-Century France," Rearick is concerned here not with weighty-seeming topics such as politics or economics. Rather, he’s examining entertainments, in this case, the French appetite for pop music and movies. By looking at these, Rearick believes we can learn something about the formation of French identity, and how that relates to the loves and hatreds of the French today.

"From the bloodbaths of the First World War through the military defeat and Nazi occupation of the Second World War, the people of France struggled with the pain and anxieties of a nation in crisis," Rearick says. "In my book, I explore how the French people discovered ways to cope, and found movies, and images of ordinary people that they took to heart."

Among the people who filled this role, says Rearick, were expatriate frican-American dancer Josephine Baker and melancholy songstress Edith Piaf. Yet, perhaps no figure was as important a symbol during the period as Maurice Chevalier, a music hall performer who went on to achieve world-wide fame as a film star. "Chevalier embodied something that the French seemed to need at the time," Rearick says. "He was both an unassuming, amiable man of the people, yet a sophisticate who always appeared onstage dressed in a tux."

More importantly, Chevalier projected a sense of "savoir faire" and enjoyment, Rearick says. In a period fraught with uncertainty and danger, he was a reassuring and calming presence.

Through Chevalier in particular, Rearick looks at the changing attitudes of the French during the wars and shows how these helped create the French character of today. At once common yet noble, romantic yet coarse, Chevalier expressed many contradictory attitudes that still exist in France.

"Where else but France would you see the government honoring the stars of summer blockbusters, yet decrying the debasement of the language brought about by slang Americanisms in those same movies?" Rearick asks. "The French are a very complicated people, and perhaps nowhere as complicated as in their love/hate relationship with popular culture."