Tuesday, March 29, 2011

More Than a Pretty Face

As cliché as it sounds, being in the right place at the right time is all that's necessary to become the next big thing.

For French pop singer Alizée Jacotey, it granted her international fame as a teen sensation, but the road to relevancy with age has been a much harder note to hit.

Alizée (pronounced Ah-lee-zay) was initially born to dance. By age four, she was highly skilled as a dancer. When she was five, her parents enrolled her at a renowned dance school in her hometown of Ajaccio, Corsica – the capital of a French island in the Mediterranean Sea – where Alizée spent the next ten years of her life under its tutelage.

(During this time, Alizée won a drawing competition sponsored by Air Outre Mer at age 11. Her winning design was reproduced on one of their airplanes, and it was also re-christened in her name.)

In December 1999, at age 15, she decided to audition for the French TV talent show Graines de Star as a dancer. But when she got there, program rules dictated that the dancing category was exclusively for groups. So she tried her hand at singing. Alizée gave this performance in February 2000, covering "Ma Prière" ("My Prayer") by Axelle Red, and a star was born by the end of the show. After an encore two months later, she won the "Meilleure Graine" award for her effort, given to the most promising young singing star of the future. Not bad for a dancer at heart.

It was this accolade that led Alizée to be discovered by Mylène Farmer, who is well known as one of the most successful singer-songwriters in France. Farmer, along with fellow songwriter Laurent Boutonnat, was scouting for a fresh face to head their latest project in the world of pop music. Alizée's singing ability – as well as her vivacity and youthful beauty – won over the duo, and they asked her to record a studio album's worth of material after a subsequent casting call. She agreed, and what followed paved the way for her becoming the latest teen idol.

Her debut single, "Moi... Lolita" ("Me... Lolita"), was written to capitalize on her image as a lolita, a term used to describe a young adolescent female who receives and/or pursues sexual interest from older men. The song was released in July 2000, and it peaked at #2 on the French Syndicat national de l'édition phonographique (SNEP). It also set a new record for the most weeks (13) spent at #2 and tied a SNEP record for the most weeks spent inside the Top 10 (at 31). For the year-end chart, the song finished at #3.

Her follow-up single, "L'Alize" ("The Trade Wind"), was released in December 2000 and quickly rocketed up to #1 in France for two weeks. It was her first #1 hit, and the final #1 song in the country for the twentieth century. Despite its release near the end of the calendar year, the song managed to finish at #53 on the country's year-end chart.

These top-5 singles were the highlight of her debut album, Gourmandises (Delicacies), which was released in November 2000 in her native France, followed by an international release in March 2001. It was a critical and commercial success. Album reviews praised Alizée's rich vocals for her age, touting her as France's answer to the teen pop craze sweeping the United States at the time. The album went #1 on the French charts for one week in January 2001, and it achieved Double Platinum status later that year for certified sales of over 600,000 copies (with actual sales projected at 788,100 copies). Two other singles ("Parler Tout Bas" ["Speak Softly"] and the title track) were also released from the album in 2001, and they charted at #12 and #14 on the SNEP, respectively.

Alizée Then

Like other supervised acts at a young age, Alizée was highly protected in public. Though she was allowed to give a few personal interviews, they could last no longer than 20 minutes each. Third party photo shoots were off-limits. And in spite of her risqué persona on stage, she maintained a pure snow white virginal image off it, which only heightened the intrigue about her as a sheltered star.

Even with these restrictions, that didn't prevent Alizée from racking up honor after honor. In November 2000, just months after the release of "Moi... Lolita", she won the M6 award as the 'French Revelation of the Year'. When she received the award, she broke down on stage while the crowd gave her a standing ovation. She won a similar award two months later at the NRJ Music Awards. By the end of 2001, she was reported to have sold the most records by a French female singer in that calendar year. And in 2002, she became one of the youngest recipients of the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry's Platinum Europe Award, which is given to artists with certified album sales of 1,000,000 or more records in that continent.

As she enjoyed the fruits of her labor from late 2000 through 2002, Alizée spent the latter year with Farmer and Boutonnat recording her long-awaited sophomore album. In March 2003, Mes Courants Électriques (My Electric Currents) was released. The album peaked at #2 on the SNEP, and it was granted Double Gold status for certified sales of over 200,000 copies (though actual sales report 173,300 copies).

With the new album came a new look. Alizée went from a lolita figure to a girl next door. Live performances began featuring her in a sailor outfit with extremely cut shorts and high heel boots, among other designs. Her development from a teen girl to a young woman continued to raise eyebrows (in a good way) as she began to take her home country by storm once again.

Mes Courants Électriques spawned three singles. The first, "J'en Ai Marre" ("I'm Fed Up"), was released in February 2003, and it was her third Top-5 hit in France at #4. The second was "J'ai Pas Vingt Ans" ("I'm Not Twenty"), which was released in June 2003 and topped off at #17. The final single released was "À Contre-Courant" ("Against the Current") in October 2003, and its peak position was #22 on the French chart.

To support this album in France, Alizée went on a country-wide tour in the second half of 2003. It also included one stop each in neighboring Belgium and Switzerland. A live album and DVD of her concert was recorded and commercially released in October 2004. After the tour, she went on a hiatus and stayed out of the public eye for nearly four years. During this time, she got married to fellow French singer Jérémy Chatelain on November 5, 2003, and they welcomed a daughter together on April 29, 2005. Also in 2005, Alizée decided to cut ties with Farmer and Boutonnat, in order to pursue greater creative freedom for future recording projects. The split was amicable.

Finally, in December 2007, Alizée released her third studio album, Psychédélices. Despite a modest debut of #16 and a Gold rating for certified sales of 75,000 copies, it was considered a commercial flop. Actual sales are reported at a mere 29,900 copies, and the album spent 16 weeks on the SNEP. By comparison, her first two offerings logged a combined 133 weeks on the French album chart.

Psychédélices saw the official release of two singles. The first was "Mademoiselle Juliette" ("Miss Juliet") in September 2007. The song achieved its peak position at #22 in it's first week on the SNEP. The second was "Fifty-Sixty", which was released in February 2008; it was the first single by Alizée that failed to chart in France. Two additional singles were also released sans promotion. The first was "Lilly Town" in March 2008, the planned second international single before it was scrapped in favor of "Fifty-Sixty". The other was a cover of Madonna's "La Isla Bonita" ("The Beautiful Island") in August 2008, and it was chosen to market the album in Mexico, where she performed a mini tour earlier in the summer. (For the record, her cover of this song was what sold me on her.)

Alizée has since changed her appearance to usher in yet another new look for her fourth studio album, which was released in March 2010. She's grown her hair out down past her shoulders, dyed it a darker shade of brown, has bangs completely covering her forehead, gone heavy on the eye liner, and sports ruby red lipstick instead of her trademark pink gloss. Granted, some physical change is inevitable with age, but she's almost unrecognizable from her dance hall days as a Dolores Hays figure.

Alizée Now

The aforementioned album, Une Enfant du Siècle (A Child of the Century), spent a mere six weeks on the SNEP. Its debut chart position of #24 was the worst opening in her career, and just 20,000 copies are reported to have been sold worldwide. The album saw the release of only one single, "Les Collines (Never Leave You)". However, the song peaked at #10 in France, and it became her first Top-10 single there in seven years.

So far, she's had a respectable music career in her home country, to say the least. But is this the beginning of the end?

At first glance, Alizée is eerily similar to other French "lolita" acts of the past whose musical efforts have been gradually snubbed after growing up into adulthood. Prime among others is Vanessa Paradis, who had a worldwide hit in "Joe le Taxi" at the tender age of 14 in 1987-1988. In France, the song was #1 for an unprecedented 11 consecutive weeks. After a few moderate hits in the late '80s to early '90s, including the Top-5 English track "Be My Baby", her music career has taken a back seat, though she continues to record and four of her first five studio albums have achieved Platinum status in France, three of which went to #1. Paradis is now equally famous, if not more so, for having been in a relationship with American actor Johnny Depp since 1998, which is practically forever by Hollywood's standards.

In the same way, Alizée is at a crossroad in her own career. For her to recapture the adulation she attained this time one decade ago, she must bridge the gap between teenybopper and sophisticated singer. Some before her have had success, while plenty others have crashed and burned out. It's an uncomfortable transition, as she has found out with dwindling album sales and outings on the singles chart. To make matters worse, she can only redefine herself for so long at this pace before the French music industry and critics begin to write her off as a washed up talent whose greatest accomplishments were manufactured at the hands of her mentors, Farmer and Boutonnat. But she's still got time. As of this post, she's only 26. All she needs is a good hook.

For this American male who knows little French (and not even enough to understand what she's singing 95% of the time), I root for her career to take hold in the 2010s and beyond. This time last month, I had zero idea who she was. Now, I can't get enough of her. Why? The way I see it, the most amazing thing about her is the way she's professionally handled herself throughout her career. She has tightroped the line between sexy and provocative, but she's done so with fashion and class. She doesn't carry a sense of entitlement about herself. She's fascinating to listen and watch. She's got a beautiful voice, no matter what language she sings. She makes me glad I'm a heterosexual. And I certainly don't want this beat to end on a flat note any time soon.

Bonne chance, Alizée.

Photos courtesy of Pop Musicology and Life

1 comment:

  1. Hi. I also love this girl a lot and i think shes soo pretty and i fell in love with her right away, i am straight female by the way. I also didnt kno who Alize was until few months ago i saw her video "L'Alize or Jen ai marre and i fell in love with her voice and the song. it made me wnat to learn french and i think i have learned a little bit of french after couple of lessons just so i can understand her songs. i didnt know how popular she was. shes soo beautiful, she has great personality and very talented. she has a lot of class too, unlike some american celebrities that misbehave in a way just to stay relevant in the media. I dont wanna mention names but Mily Cyrus will come to mind :D hehe.