In France, an extraordinary musical interview sparks a debate on ‘infotainment’

On Sunday night, Stromae—a Belgian-Rwandan singer and rapper who put his career on hiatus in 2015 but is now making a comeback that has long been anticipated across the French-speaking world—appeared on TF1, the most-watched network in France, for an interview. Stromae, whose real name is Paul Van Haver (his stage name is a slangy inversion of the word Maestro), sat in a suit and tie across a desk from the journalist Anne-Claire Coudray, who asked him about his forthcoming album, his global influences, and the process of losing and refinding his desire to make music. “I think I simply needed to live,” Stromae replied.

Then, four or so minutes in, Coudray asked Stromae about his struggles with his mental health, and the interview suddenly ceased to be an interview—music swelled, and Stromae started to sing his new song “L’Enfer” (meaning “Hell”). He initially looked at Coudray, as if responding conversationally to her question, but midway through the third line of the song—“If I counted all the people like me, there’d be a lot”—he turned to look into the camera, which started gently to pan around him as the studio lighting subtly changed. In the chorus, Stromae attested to having had suicidal thoughts, his gaze momentarily flickering away as he sang that he was not very proud of them; as he hit the title word—enfer—the music swelled with pulsing backing vocals. He ran through another couple of verses and choruses, still seated at the interview desk, his face at once still and perfectly expressive. As he finished, he turned to Coudray, who thanked him for “this beautiful gift,” and for his “sincerity.”

 

This was Stromae’s first public performance of “L’Enfer,” but it wasn’t the first time that he has subverted a traditional journalistic setting. In 2013, on a culture show on France 3, a public TV channel, he walked into the studio audience and almost confronted them with the lyrics to his song “Formidable.” The same year, on a news and talk show on Canal+, he sat across an interview desk from himself dressed as a woman; the two Stromaes quarreled, then broke into a duet of “Tous les mêmes” (first line: “You men are all the same”), before the male Stromae followed his female alter ego onto a studio stage and morphed into her. That segment reportedly required hours of filming and the use of cinematic editing techniques; his latest musical interview was aesthetically simple, but still entailed weeks of planning with producers at TF1. Both rocketed around social media, where Stromae has a knack for virality. (For the music video for “Formidable,” he pretended to be drunk in the streets of Brussels as passersby filmed him on their cellphones.) Seven million people watched his TF1 interview live, and the clip has since been viewed more than five million times online. As Kéliane Martenon, who writes a newsletter about online innovation, put it, Stromae always plans his stunts “from end to end, linking social networks and TV.”

Still, the TF1 interview felt particularly intimate in its melding of journalistic and artistic forms; a top editor at TF1 admitted afterward that it was precisely Stromae’s intention to “break the codes” of TV news. Some media critics felt that the episode set a troubling precedent, pushing factual journalism farther down the road to “infotainment.” In an article headlined, “Mesdames et messieurs, bonsoir le storytelling,” Olivier Lamm, a culture journalist at Libération, said that his paper had decided not to play along with Stromae’s efforts to promote his new work, and that TF1 had crossed a “red line” and allowed themselves to be used for commercial purposes. Writing for L’Obs, the magazine formerly known as Le Nouvel Observateur, Sophie Delassein and Arnaud Gonzague agreed that TF1 had obliterated the line between “the necessarily distanced perspective” of journalism and “the imperatives of show business,” and accused Coudray of vindicating those across the Western world who view the media as “rotten” and “complicit.” The suicide under discussion here, they added, is “journalistic.”

Many others strongly disagreed with such conclusions. Sonia Devillers, a media critic at the public radio station France Inter, said that rather than bolster distrust in the media, TF1’s interview was a radical expression of confidence in its viewers’ powers of discernment, while also arguing that it “accorded mental illness a level of dignity unprecedented in television history.” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organization, thanked Stromae for highlighting the topic of suicide, as did various French experts in suicide prevention, one of whom said Stromae’s frank testimony in front of such a big audience will “clearly save lives.” TF1, meanwhile, defended itself against its critics. “We went into Stromae’s universe while respecting our DNA,” Yoann Saillon, the artistic director of TF1, told 20 Minutes. “It’s the famous storytelling that Americans know so well.” Coudray, for her part, said that the interview was “a moment of truth,” and that those “very much have their place in TV news.”

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When I first saw the interview, I was deeply moved both by its presentational simplicity and the radicality of its genre-bending. It also made me feel somewhat uneasy: Stromae is a wealthy and powerful person—even if he was singing about vulnerability—and the interview very clearly was effective marketing. The more I thought about my contradictory feelings, however, the more I came to see that they can all be true at once. Artists using the media to sell a cultural product is hardly new: Stromae’s interview was choreographed in a literal sense; in a figurative sense, publicists choreograph interviews with famous people (or try to) all the time. Generally, this is bad, and TF1 stretching this dynamic to its extremes was not without risk. But nor was it without reward. In the US, as in France, the word “infotainment” has come to connote the pollution of truth with cheap artifice, with the rise of Donald Trump as the logical endpoint. But information is allowed to be entertaining; what matters is that it’s true and serves the public. Trump deceives to accumulate power. To the extent that Stromae deceives, it’s performance art; he holds up a funhouse mirror to the truth, and in doing so reveals it, often with painful clarity.

Journalistic complicity (in the non-conspiratorial sense of the term) with performance art—especially commercial performance art—is doubtless a gray area, and seems untenable as a general rule. But it’s hard to conclude that TF1 set a bad precedent here. The genius of the Stromae interview lay in its unrepeatability: it worked because it was subversive enough to shock. The world of journalism is a big place, and there’s room, sometimes, for otherwise traditional news operations to show you something that makes your jaw drop and encourages you to think in a fresh way about a serious truth—especially when so much journalism feels so rote. In a 2014 interview, Stromae said that his songs aim to “talk about our lives. We have so many common points, even politics couldn’t do that. Even journalists couldn’t do that.”

Below, more on Stromae:

  • A disgusting cover: In 2016, after terrorists bombed an airport and metro station in Brussels, Charlie Hebdo—the French satirical magazine that had itself been the subject of a deadly terrorist attack the year before—ran an appalling cover cartoon that depicted Stromae in front of a Belgian flag and made light of his father’s death in the Rwandan genocide in the nineteen-nineties. Critics on social media decried the cartoon, while people in Stromae’s entourage denounced it to Het Nieuwsblad, a Flemish newspaper, saying that Stromae’s family had been “shocked” by the cover.
  • “American solipsism”: In 2015, Stromae came to perform in New York, where Pitchfork filmed a music video that showed him playing “Papaoutai,” a song about his father, to a handful of apparently disinterested bystanders in Times Square, interspersed with footage from his huge concerts back home. “Stromae had expected that Americans would ignore him, and he delighted in it,” Rozina Ali wrote in The New Yorker afterward. “He was mocking American solipsism, our cluelessness about the man who is a musical sensation in Europe.” Not that the cluelessness was total; weeks later, he became the first Francophone singer to headline Madison Square Garden.
  • Then again: Stromae’s comeback has so far received scant attention in the American press, though some US outlets have picked up on the story, including Rolling Stone. In France, he’s seized on the momentum from his TF1 interview to continue rolling out his new album, releasing the music video for “L’Enfer” on Wednesday. (It already has more than four million views on YouTube.) Tickets for the first three concerts of his forthcoming tour, meanwhile, sold out in twenty minutes.


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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

TOP IMAGE: Street style, Stromae arriving at Louis Vuitton Spring Summer 2017 show held at Place Vendome, in Paris, France, on October 5, 2016. Photo by Marie-Paola Bertrand-Hillion/Sipa USA