In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week, we’re talking about great songs not sung in English.
Dressed in a funereal black dress, small and frail as though she were constantly under God’s thumb, and boasting a backstory that Dickens would deem melodramatically overwrought, Edith Piaf was the very picture of romantic tragedy—which made her spectacular voice all the more triumphant. Piaf was dubbed “The Little Sparrow” as a nod to her nervousness and delicate size, but it could have just as easily referred to how that caged bird sang. Among the many purveyors of chanson, she was the one who really seemed to have lived it. Piaf grew up as an abandoned waif raised by prostitutes in a brothel, suffered childhood blindness, became a teenaged mother whose daughter was taken away from her and died a toddler, and she spent much of her early life busking and begging on the streets. Her tale is one of prolonged existential suffering and unfulfilled yearning. It’s no wonder France went crazy for her.
But even if you don’t speak French—or you haven’t seen Marion Cotillard in La Vie En Rose—everything you need to know about Piaf’s struggle is right there in her voice. On her most famous songs, like “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” (recently given new cultural life as the “kick” in Inception), Piaf sings with a steady, thunderous resilience that makes simply surviving and living without regret sound like an Olympian victory. You don’t need to know the words to know that this woman has been through some shit. And her refusal to be bowed stirs an echo of her passionate resolve in the listener, no matter what language they speak.
That’s true even when Piaf is singing complete nonsense: The refrain of “Padam, Padam” is a bit of meaningless onomatopoeia; it’s safe to assume she’s not referring to a poisonous snake, an indigenous tribe in India, or a variation of Carnatic music when she sings of it following her around, its incessant rhythm shadowing her with its painful memories. Translated into English, the lyrics find Piaf lamenting, “One day this tune will drive me mad,” that “padam” beat she keeps hearing a constant, nagging reminder of lost love, as well as evoking the inexorable procession of life—the band that keeps playing while the ship is slowly sinking.
But you don’t need to read the lyrics. It’s all in Piaf’s tremulous throat as she cows the brass that’s trying to drown her out, as her own voice becoming the haunting, eternal melody she—and we—can’t escape.