Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Sound Advice: on “Je Suis Malade”

Just in time for Valentine’s Day, I’ve decided to post not the usual songs of love and devotion, but about exquisite romantic misery that can only be borne out of all-consuming love. It’s the kind that’s not healthy for you.

The classic French pop song “Je Suis Malade” was first written and recorded in 1973 by French singer Serge Lama. An overwhelming popular and critical success for Lama, the single brought him his first gold record in France and became known as one of his signature songs. Covered by a whole host of European artists, perhaps the most famous rendition in the modern era remains Lara Fabian’s 1994 version, which became an immense success and a signature song for her, as well.

It is not just a song where the speaker misses someone. The song is a catalogue of all the manifestations in which romantic love creates illness and deprivation. It is not enough for the singer to merely talk about the moon, June and spoon in rhyming couplets. “Je Suis Malade” shows how the singer, translated from the original French to English, no longer dreams or smokes, feels dirty and ugly without the lover, feels abandoned like a child in an orphanage. The romance, for the singer, has no pleasure or joy. There is only despair from an all-consuming love that at once feeds and feeds at the speaker, slowly ebbing joy away, leaving only exhaustion, resignation and a final cri de coeur that commands the lover to listen, and make a definitive declaration of anguish.

For some, it may be overwrought, but this goes beyond the usual romantic sentiments one may find in adult contemporary radio. “Je Suis Malade” is not a romantic journey, nor can it be considered a mere love song. It is the soul’s cry to all the winds, the four directions, the depths of the earth to the limitless outer spaces, that there is nothing more than incurable despair. Love is the devil, love is an all-consuming disease that loves one completely sick. Literally, the word “malade” could be interpreted not just as an illness, but also as a state of fact that the singer is completely heartsick. If you have any compassion at all, you would listen to the rendition by Lara Fabian and beg her to stop or to have someone put her out of her misery but you can’t, for her performance of the single is so singularly emotionally and sonically majestic that you can’t help but listen and wait for the final glory note. 

A popular song across Europe, the single has unfortunately been butchered mercilessly by reality show contestants hoping to become the next (insert country name here) Idol or X-Factor victor. This does nothing to take away from the original song’s potency, nor that of the remarkable cover by Lara Fabian. While it’s certainly not healthy to live the kind of love, it is certainly an antidote to declarations of love by positive affirmation. What other love song would drive one to such despair and yet still announces to the audience, “Listen, this person is in love, no matter how much it hurts them”?

In addition to the version by Fabian, the piece works well as an interpretive dance. Have a look at the free dance for this season for Canadian ice dancers Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje. Looking at this dance, one cannot help but be swept up in the body language between the two, the anguish and the final pose where she is on the ice, begging him to love her. Weaver’s tears are real and, while you may joke about figure skating, one must not forget that it is itself also an art form and another type of theatre.

With that in mind, consider the next song of love you hear, and wonder if any will compare in its depiction of all-consuming love will compare to “Je Suis Malade”.