People Who Make NY Special

France Rocks’s Michele Amar Will Make a Francophile Out of You

Meet the continent-hopping Parisian–New Yorker whose très bon taste is changing the way Americans listen to French music.

Photo by Rick Gilbert/Courtesy of Michele Amar

Though the needle appears to be moving as of late in a new direction, it has proven immensely difficult historically for pop artists to overcome a language barrier in America; if it’s not in sing-along English, it’s unlikely to make the cut at your local bar. The exceptions to this rule at the moment have been in the newly burgeoning fields of Latin and K-pop, each supported by a vast and practiced native market, but that leaves nearly 2 million French-speaking Americans out of luck if they want to find a song on U.S. pop radio that caters to their interests. Michele Amar aims to change that.

A native Parisian but longtime New York resident, Amar is the founder and president of France Rocks, an arts not-for-profit specializing in the promotion and export of French music to the United States with the explicit intent of popularizing it overseas. Her biggest annual project to that end is winding down this week with her final run of shows as part of the France Rocks Summerfest season, but she took a moment to speak with WSWD about her upcoming concerts, her hopes for the future of French music in America, and how France progressively nurtures its artists.

Photo courtesy of Michele Amar

WSWD: It has been more than 20 years since a French-language song cracked the U.S. Billboard Top 10 and, even then, as more of as a new age novelty than anything else. Do you really think a pop song performed in French stands a chance of breaking into the contemporary U.S. pop charts?
Amar: In this market, certainly! Even taken on its own, I think we can reasonably say that the explosion of Latin music in the U.S. shows that this country is ready for pop sung in different languages and influenced with a variety of sounds and traditions. I am confident that many French artists will soon be at the center of the American mainstream market. Over the past five years, America has proven to be very open to French musicians, especially DJs. French artists like David Guetta and DJ Snake are able to consistently sell out shows in U.S. stadiums every year. Other artists such as Charlotte Gainsbourg, Christine and the Queens, and CloZee have found critical success here and gone on to build a sizable following. It’s likely just a matter of time until the right song comes along.

I am confident that many French artists will soon be at the center of the American mainstream market.

WSWD: The largest impediment to that happening is people not stepping outside of their comfort zone or attempting to diversify their musical taste. What’s your argument for a U.S. pop fan to do just that?
Amar: People say travel broadens the mind, and listening to music from different countries is the best way to open your horizons and explore different cultures and traditions from the comfort of your morning commute. Today’s Paris is a wonderful cultural hub, and the various people blending together in the French capital are creating music that’s never been heard before. It’s an exciting time for anyone with a little bit of curiosity; listening to artists from across the globe can help you better understand the complexity and the beauty of the world that we live in.

Photo by Rick Gilbert/Courtesy of Michele Amar

WSWD: For our more adventurous readers, where would you suggest they start?
Amar: By coming and seeing any of the remaining shows in the France Rocks Summerfest lineup! On June 30, at Central Park SummerStage, Blick Bassy’s mesmerizing voice and melodies will take you on a trip to Cameroon to explore the rich history of his country and its conflicted relationship with imperialist France. Our final show, on July 1 at Le Poisson Rouge, features singer Lou Doillon, daughter of French director Jacques Doillon and British actress and singer Jane Birkin. She will perform in her unique style of chanson française, showcasing strong lyrics and melodies infused in electronic and folk sounds. These two concerts together are an excellent representation of the many varieties of musical influences that France Rocks works to champion.

WSWD: France Rocks was struck by tragedy this month with the sudden and unexpected death of producer and musician Philippe “Zdar” Cerboneschi. I know the organization worked closely with him; what does his loss mean for the French community?
Amar:  It’s a tragedy, not just for France but for all of music. We had planned to welcome Philippe at Central Park for a show to premiere his new album with Cassius, and his death came as a terrible shock. He was one of the masterminds of French Touch and collaborated as a producer and engineer with so many wonderful artists in so many different fields: Phoenix, the Beastie Boys, Cat Power, Pharrell Williams. His sound and production have had an impact way beyond the records he released. He was a pioneer and a genius, and he’ll be forever missed.

France Rocks
Photo by Rick Gilbert/Courtesy of Michele Amar

WSWD: You came to New York in the ’90s after studying at the Sorbonne and getting your M.B.A. in economics. Which city do you prefer these days: Paris or New York?
Amar: France and America are very different in that they each have their own character, charm, and flair. I wouldn’t want to change one or the other; I love them just the way they are and try to visit both regularly.

WSWD: Outside of the many shows you’re responsible for, what are the New York cultural institutions and experiences that you most enjoy?
Amar: NYC is a powerful source of inspiration; every day there’s something new and exciting to explore. There is such a vibrant dynamism and culture in New York, whether it’s at SummerStage in Central Park, the newly constructed Shed, BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn, the River to River Festival, Films on the Green, House of Yes, Brooklyn’s generally formidable electronic scene, and so many endless other spaces to hear great music. There’s no other place like it.

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