A band of anonymous twentysomething Paris office workers is becoming an artistic symbol of discontent in a country mired in a bad economy.
Fauve – French for "wild animal" – sheds a light on problems facing young people in France with lo-fi spoken-word songs and homemade videos that are attracting hundreds of thousands of hits on YouTube.
"There is a real human bleakness in Paris and in France generally," the band's vocalist told The Globe and Mail on the same afternoon an unemployed 43-year-old man died after setting himself on fire outside a job centre in the city of Nantes. "Either you let it get the best of you, or you try to overcome it."
Fauve's approach is connecting with French youth. The band, whose first EP comes out later this spring, has uploaded four videos to YouTube over the past year and a half, the most popular of which has more than half a million hits. Fans wait hours outside concert halls for the chance to see Fauve live. Some scribble song lyrics on the inside of subways or on public trash cans. The band's emblem, a stylized "F" morphed into the "not equal to" sign, has been scratched on to windows, sprayed onto walls and tattooed onto skin.
"The financial crisis is accompanied by an identity crisis," explains Abigail Aïnouz, a music journalist with the French cultural magazine Les Inrockuptibles. "Fauve perfectly symbolizes this fracture."
Yet Fauve shuns the spotlight. Its five members refuse to give out their names in interviews and ask videographers not to film their faces. At photo shoots, they either partly conceal themselves behind a projected image or turn their back to the camera altogether. Onstage, they wear white T-shirts, to better disappear behind a forest of dancing video projections.
"Our generation feels lost and melancholic," 26-year-old fan Célia Nicolas said before the band played a sold-out Valentine's Day show in Paris's 11th arrondissement. "We're facing the crisis head-on and though we have high ideals, we don't know how to reach them. I haven't seen a band channel this uneasiness through music in a very long time."
Fauve's visceral flow of lyrics takes its cue from spoken elements of songs by the Pixies, Lou Reed, Sonic Youth and French poet and singer Léo Ferré. Unlike the sunny music and lyrics popular in today's French indie scene – through retro-revival bands such as La Femme, Granville, BB Brunes, Pendentif or Aline – Fauve tackles themes such as social alienation, depression, confused sexuality and the rat race the French refer to as métro, boulot, dodo ("commute, work, sleep"). The song Sainte-Anne takes its name from a famous psychiatric hospital in Paris; the City of Light itself is described as a decaying "necropolis."
A key visual metaphor to which Fauve often returns is that of a "blizzard" being vanquished. "It's a really important word," the vocalist said. "The blizzard is this ambient gloominess or melancholy. But it's galvanizing to stare this thing down."
"There is no equivalent on today's French music scene," 35-year-old fan Franck Marvine said. "No one speaks to the young generation as forcefully as Fauve does."
Most of the band's members have 9-to-5 office jobs. The vocalist pens lyrics on the subway on his way to work and at his desk once he has arrived, sometimes throughout the day. "It's pretty outrageous," he said. "I'm a total imposter."
The band takes its name from the 1992 French film Les nuits fauves (Savage Nights), which depicted the tortured romantic life of a hard-partying, bisexual, HIV-positive film director. "We were kids when that movie came out, and weren't allowed to watch it," the vocalist recalls. "But we always associated the word fauve with something primal and urgent, sad and beautiful. In painting also, Fauvism puts emotion over precision. That's us."