THR Web Features   /   June 25, 2024

Françoise Hardy and the Unanswered Question

Elegance is refusal.

Vincent Ercolano

( Françoise Hardy in London, 1968; Trinity Mirror/Mirrorpix/Alamy Stock Photo.)

Bonjour, tristesse. The beguiling ’60s chanteuse Françoise Hardy died June 11 at age 80 in her native France. In the year or two just before the Beatles-led transformation of popular music, Hardy, still a teenager, became one of Europe’s best-loved pop performers, composing and singing wistful songs of adolescent loneliness and ambivalence. Her first European hit, “Tous les Garçons et les Filles” (written with Roger Samyn), captivated listeners with a childlike melody in waltz time set against a cri de coeur straight from teenage wasteland:

Tous les garçons et les filles de mon âge
savent bien ce que c’est d’être heureux….

Oui mais moi, je vais seule par les rues, l’âme en peine,
Oui mais moi, je vais seule, car personne ne m’aime.

All the boys and girls of my age
know well what it is to be happy….
But for me, I go alone on the streets, the lost soul,
but for me, I go alone, because no one loves me.

Other than a few high school French teachers (and Bob Dylan, who wrote her love letters), Hardy had a meager following in the United States. In the fall of 1962, as “Tous les Garçons et les Filles” was breaking into the Top 5 not only in France but in Belgium, Italy, and the Netherlands, the most popular song in America (nudging aside the Halloween novelty “Monster Mash”) was “He’s a Rebel,” a girl-group oratorio produced by Phil Spector. With its street-swagger lyric (“If they don’t like him that way / they won’t like me, I’m sure, today”) and febrile, reverb-soaked solo by Wrecking Crew saxophonist Steven Douglas, it was much more to American tastes than the laconic confession of alienation and longing sung by the one-time convent-school girl from Paris’s Ninth Arrondissement, her voice “a breathy, deadpan alto that wafted like Gauloises smoke” (as later described by the music critic Will Hermes). The instrumental backing on “Tous les Garçons” was likewise spare—a simple lead on electric guitar, a bass line played on an acoustic guitar, a bit of drumming. Hardly “Wall of Sound” stuff. Plus, she sang in French, and though America would send a French-language song to number one in 1963, it was a chipper ditty called “Dominique” by a Belgian sister of the Dominican order billed as Soeur Sourire (“the smiling nun”). It was not until 1965 that a Françoise Hardy record would be released in the States—an LP on Four Corners of the World, an obscure, short-lived label purveying what would later be known as “world music.” 

Françoise Hardy was perhaps better known for her sense of style, one uniquely French in a time fixated on fashion. As they still do today, women everywhere emulated her eyeliner, blazers and bell bottoms, the futuristic Paco Rabanne mirror dress, go-go boots, leather jackets, and soft, newsboy caps. “If it weren’t for the way I dress, no one would notice me,” she told a reporter in 1969. She was an influencer avant la lettre: French designer Yves St. Laurent credited her as the muse for his legendary Le Smoking, a 1960s tuxedo suit that blended the androgynous look with crisp tailoring. Hardy’s unfussy chopped fringe and gamine girlishness—the very opposite of Brigitte Bardot’s sultry sexiness—added another dimension to the idea of the femme.

In recent years, Hardy’s oeuvre has finally drawn some long-overdue interest in the United States. Perhaps the biggest boost has come courtesy of the 2012 Wes Anderson film Moonrise Kingdom, a first-love comedy whose soundtrack includes her 1962 recording of “Le Temps de l’Amour.” YouTube has also played a role: Music fans who enjoy a Jonathan Richman or Belinda Carlisle interpretation of a classic chanson might find “Tous les Garçons,” “Le Temps de l’Amour,” or some other Hardy track easily fits in their playlists. 

Aside from exerting a considerable and enduring musical charm, “Tous les Garçons et les Filles” asks the intriguing question: What is it that has raised a wall between love and this âme en peine, this lost soul? Overweening pride? A hidden sorrow? The song spills no secrets. But as Coco Chanel, another Frenchwoman who left an emphatic mark on the age, famously observed, “Elegance is refusal.”

Adieu, Françoise.