When in France over the summer I met up with my festival-junky friend who regaled his family and I with tales of the Eurockéennes. "Did you get to see Stromae?", his parents asked. I wondered whether he was some local celebrity, complete with accordion and beer belly. They were flabbergasted by my ignorance. Stromae is a European megastar. And I'm not talking alternative big, I mean BIG big.
Born in Brussels to a Belgian mother and a Rwandan father, Paul van Haver/Stromae first wowed everyone back in 2010 with his world-wide hit 'Alors on Danse' ('And So We Dance'). He released his second album, Racine Carrée (Square Root), last year.
The man is a legend in the making. What non-francophones miss out on wordplay-wise he more than makes up for with his addictive blend of house, dance music and hip-hop and undertones of chanson française. Stromae has also completely revolutionised the art of the music video. Sometimes endowed with a gritty realism, other times stylishly tongue-in-cheek, vacuous dance music this is not.
Whilst most young people in the UK would recognise 'Alors on Danse' that's as far as it goes in terms of widespread popularity. In contrast, Racine Carée has been a commercial success across Western Europe, topping the charts in Switzerland, the Netherlands and Italy amongst others. So, why is it he's not a mainstream sensation in the UK? Well, you might point out, he sings in French, doesn't he? Well, I might contest, French isn't the native tongue of the Netherlands or Italy either.
Stromae's relative anonymity is, I believe, symptomatic of a foreignness that goes far deeper than language. It takes us back to the eternal question of what it means to be European. Stromae's sound, his vibe, his je ne sais quoi isn't Belgian. It's European.
On paper we Britons are European. In the majority of our minds, however, being European translates as pain-in-the-neck regulations, foreigners taking our jobs and sacrifice of what it means to be British. As a nation we don't really buy into a 'European dream'. In contrast, Stromae's persona, sound and popularity channels a different kind of Europe. It channels a Europe that is screwed up but not tantamount to destroying national identity. It channels a culture that co-exists with the national, one that is boundary-less, a tapestry of language, coded references and rhythms.
For all the Eurosceptics out there, please allow yourselves a moment's respite. Drop your distaste for the Euro and horse meat for 3 minutes and 33 seconds to listen to this song. You'll be mouthing the French and exclaiming "Formidable!" in no time.