Saturday, November 25, 2006

Microhistory of Indie Paris via Sing Sing and Eloise

At first glance, Paris can be offputting to the self-conscious outsider, the stranger, the detached critic of globalized consumer society and lover of the exception. Indeed, it has a Disney quality, the celebrated literary Left Bank but an anthill teeming with tourists, boutique owners, culturally sanitized museums and un-cafes. It appears designed for the lotus-eating local and globals who reduce life and its manifold pleasures to a robotics of buying and selling, and feel-good guidebook culture . But the heart of an older Paris still beats strongly beneath the anthills and their armies seeking officially administered culture.

Those with a sense of history, look simultaneously teary-eyed on this spectacle and wistfully janus-eyed back on the heyday of Bohemian Paris at the dawn of the 20th century. What was that Paris, so oft-romanticized by contemporary self-declared bohemians and envious wannabes?

In his comparison of bohemian Paris and Beatnik, then punk New York, Jessamin Swearingen writes:
"The term 'bohemian; stems from a region in Czechoslovakia--Bohemia--where the gypsies lived. The French bohemians found themselves mirroring gypsy life."Swearingen refers to a popular book on the Paris Bohemians by Jarrod Siegel, who observes, "The bohemians located themselves in a twilight zone between ingenuity and criminality." The Bohemians eschewed the cultural mainstream, even while they depended on it for patronage.

As Swearingen notes, this phenomenon is not limited to Paris of the belle epoque. It's an ongoing process of conflict and absorption between mainstream and contestatory culture in most market societies.

The bohemians received a fair amount of criticism from the established middle class. Because most participants in the bohemian culture during the late 1800s were artists and writers, the conflict surrounding their lifestyle arose out of the need for artistic output versus the need for societal support. Siegel argues that the conflict of French bohemian identity emerged out of this conflict. He asked, "At what point did personal cultivation cease to be beneficial or acceptable to the society that sponsored it?" (p.11). This aspect of bohemian culture and practice is repeated throughout history.
Indeed, it does. Indie folk, rock, pop, electro, hip hop and their connections to poetry 'zines, indymedia, intellectual life, activism and so forth are the legacy of such subcultures like the Paris bohemians. Indie-bohemian subcultures have been constantly commodified throughout the 20th century by corporate coolhunters, while their spaces of cultural production have been increasingly gentrified, making indie cultures into "civilizers" of ethnic and/or poor areas attractive to part-time bobos. Yet as I said, Indie Paris still kicks if one is willing to stick out one's derriere and ask for it.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending one of the indiest of indie music performances—an invite-only show in an apartment in the 20th (is my indie paris cred surging or what?). Lucky for the neighbors it was pretty low-fi, and pretty…pretty.

The performers were the dynamic duet Eloïse Decaze and Sing Sing. Sing Sing is a burly bohemian teddy bear with a penchant for choppy Nick Drake-like acoustic licks, pop melodies and vocal harmonies. Eloïse is a lovely and slight young Genevan in Paris who has a voice like a theremin. They both have a penchant for humming, a low but beautiful form of musical expression on par with the pun in poetry. Together, they also produce some of the sweetest and haunting indie folk I’ve ever heard.

As I said, Eloïse has a voice like a theremin, that weird musical instrument that produces the ghoulish sounds in haunted house scenes and Scooby Doo episodes. Her powerful voice jumps around the scale or moves slowly and strangely as a slide whistle. She is at her best singing old sea shanties and Hungarian folk songs, or giving new life and interpretation to medieval peasant ballads.

Watching Eloïse perform is about as entertaining as listening to her. While she sings she seems near possessed, staring blankly off into the corner of the ceiling, her body threatening to levitate with each climbing note. The total experience gave me my first ever goose bumps at a musical performance.

It will be exciting to see what becomes of this duo (though the attention they deserve demonstrates the very tension at the heart of indie culture in market societies where cultural producers offer products in a market that transforms those contestatory products to compete with toasters and vaccuums). They are living proof that indie creativity still thrives in Paris. I first saw Sing Sing and Eloïse-the-walking-theremin at Le Limonaire “bistrot a vins et a chansons” in Paris, a cheerfully cramped little remnant of a Paris gone by. It does a laudable job of providing space for the folky, cabaret, and nouvelle chanson artists in Paris and the area. Indie Parisians and global wayfarers can look for them there and elsewhere, including the priceless random apartment gig, if they dare lend their ears to the street.

No comments: