This is an excellent, innovative, detailed, sensitive, and well-informed study of one of the most significant French cultural icons of the twentieth century and of the present. As David Looseley makes clear, from the outset Édith Piaf was — always — much more than just a singer, and from the very start of her career was perceived to be something different, ‘culturally singular’ (p. 15), and went on to be become not simply a singer of chansons and France’s favourite female vocalist, but a global icon and a symbol of suffering, resilience, and class. Given her status, Piaf has naturally been the subject of many biographies and other studies, but with arguably few exceptions — Keith Reader springs to mind — their authors have failed to do justice to the subtleties and complexities of her cultural meaning. The great merit and innovation of Looseley’s method is to approach the phenomenon of Piaf’s life, career, and afterlife in the popular imagination worldwide, as a ‘cultural history’ of the range of ‘imagined Piafs’ who together represent how she should best be fully understood. Furthermore, the investigation is enriched by Looseley’s sensitive awareness of his own status as a ‘professional interculturalist’ (p. 23) whose work as a cultural intermediary can elucidate Piaf’s national and transnational meanings as — the author notes — a kind of ‘passeur’ herself. The book is beautifully written in complex but always clear language, and is simply but elegantly structured into three main sections. The three chapters of Part One address the early period in which Piaf invented herself and her public in the decade from 1935 to the end of the Second World War. The three chapters of Part Two investigate the period of her greatest success and celebrity, from the Liberation to the decline of her career in the late 1950s. The three chapters of Part Three discuss her death and the ways in which she has subsequently been remembered and celebrated in performance and commemoration. Everywhere, Looseley’s analysis is sensitive, enlightening, and well balanced with factual detail, engagement with existing literature, and intriguing comment. The ample and fertile bibliography is both testament to the range of reference of the analysis and a precious resource for other scholars interested either in Piaf herself, or in the possibilities of similar ‘cultural histories’ of other towering figures of French and global popular culture. Looseley’s best-known previous work has perhaps been on the cultural, political, and social significance of popular music in France, and through it Looseley has pioneered research and teaching of popular culture within French studies in the UK and US. This current study of Piaf is a brilliant further instalment in his sensitive and painstaking elucidation of the meanings and significance of popular cultural figures, forms, and practices. All in all, this outstanding study is unmissable for anyone interested in Piaf, France, French culture in the globalized world, and — more generally — the importance of properly understanding popular culture. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for French Studies. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
French Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 1, 2018
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