The new album of Belgian singer Stromae, Racine Carrée, has just been released. Stromae was born Paul Van Haver on March 12, 1985. Stromae is an inversion of the syllables in the word “maestro,” a type of slang known as verlan that’s been around in France for decades. Three years ago, his first album, Cheese, became a huge success on the strength of “Alors on danse” which enjoyed a long run as the number one song across much of Europe. (For the French teachers out there, it’s great to teach the conjugation of “er” verbs and the use of the impersonal pronoun ‘on.’ I used another song from the album, “Bienvenue chez moi,” to teach that expression to my eighth graders and it went over really well.)
This summer, two of his songs became huge hits when he released them as singles. “Papaoutai” has already had nearly 30 million hits on YouTube and “Formidable” has had almost 18 million. This music video for this song is brilliant. It was entirely filmed with hidden cameras and shows an apparently drunk and raving Stromae staggering around Brussels. Some people tried to help him as he appeared to be in danger near a tram line, while others snapped pictures that went viral on the social media. Even the police questioned the “drunk” celebrity. The video of the single, released a couple of days later unraveled the mystery, and it concludes with a saucy wink from Stromae. The lyrics are a clever play on words – formidable (for-me-dab-luh), or wonderful, is juxtaposed against fort minable (for me-nab-luh), or really awful.
The comparisons to another huge name in Belgian music, Jacques Brel, are inevitable. The phraseology, the gestures, but most of all, the themes of the two singers are so much the same. Betrayed love. Hatred and frustration. The common theme in Stromae’s songs may be disillusionment and disappointment, but the rhythms are straight from dance music. It’s only when you really listen to the lyrics that you realize these aren’t happy songs. For example, “Papaoutai” stands for “Papa, où es-tu?” which gets transformed into “Papa, où t’es?” in spoken French, which means “Dad, where are you?” Stromae was raised by his Belgian mother, but he only met his Rwandan father a few times. That lack clearly left its mark on the life of a talented musician.
Stromae was working as an intern at a radio station in Brussels when his boss heard “Alors on danse” and decided to give it some air time. He was signed by a major label shortly thereafter. He recorded a remix of his big hit with Kanye West and did a live rendition with The Black Eyed Peas combining “Alors on Danse” with one of their hits, “Don’t Stop the Party.”
Racine carrée (rasseen careay) means square root. Racine is also the word that refers to own’s personal origins or roots. Clearly, his roots are a source of some pretty significant pain. I’m no mathematician and the last time I calculated the square root of anything was in about 1983, but I am a major fan of this thoroughly modern musician who strolls around town with a keyboard in his backpack so he can compose anywhere, any time. Formidable, indeed.