In the summer of 2015, I was excited to learn that the Belgian pop star, Stromae, was coming to Detroit. There are very few French performers that bother to stop in Michigan and I hoped to attend his concert, not only to support a francophone artist but also because I’d been impressed with several of his songs. Sadly, I wasn’t able to attend that show. It was a bitterly missed opportunity but I hoped that someday, I might find a way to see him in concert. Two months later, the French headlines were buzzing with bad news. Stromae, whose real name is Paul Van Haver, was dropping out of the music scene for good. After two years of touring, he was suffering from burnout and disillusionment. By all accounts, Stromae’s music career was over.
A Genius Disappears
Stromae’s fans were heartbroken and worried about the health of the young musician. Rumor had it that Stromae had collapsed from exhaustion and prescription drug abuse after two relentless years of touring, during which the artist performed at 200 venues around the world. Unlike most pop stars, Stromae used his talent to do more than simply write catchy dance tunes. His songs were bursting with critical social commentary. His disappearance was worrisome because Stromae seemed to be one of those exceptional geniuses that approaches art with care and sensitivity but ultimately reveals his personal struggles with pain and injustice.
Below are a few of the mega hits that made Stromae an international super star. All include English subtitles.
It’s hard to choose a favorite, but if forced to do so, I’d select Papaoutai. The title is a phonetic reproduction of the phrase Papa où tu es? (Papa where are you?) Stromae and his 4 siblings were largely raised in a single-parent household in Belgium. His father, a prominent architect, was killed during the Rwandan genocide while visiting his family. Stromae was just 9-years old at the time. The song was inspired by the absence of Stromae’s father, who had few interactions with his children even before his death. It also exposes Stromae’s personal fear of becoming an inadequate parent, having grown up without a father to model.
The first video that turned me onto Stromae’s work was Carmen. The song is an adaptation of Georges Bizet’s aria, L’amour est un oiseau rebelle (Love is a rebellious bird), from the opera Carmen. The song is a searing attack on social networks in general and Twitter in particular. As a mom of 3 teens at the time, I was thrilled by the fact that a pop icon was going full-throttle with his condemnation of such platforms.
Alors on danse
Stromae’s biggest hit to date is Alors on danse (So we dance), which sold over 1 million copies in its first 4 months. Listening to the song today, the viewer may recognize an early foreshadowing of Stromae’s eventual breakdown. This number one European hit from 2009 blasts societal pressure to prioritize money-making before all else. The ultimate consequence of an all-work-no-play lifestyle is a retreat into drink, drugs, and discos to numb the resulting emptiness.
A New Single Rises from the Ashes
After abruptly retiring, the young maestro (which spells stromae when the syllables are reversed) resurfaced less than a handful of times. Near the end of 2020, however, fans had renewed hope after Stromae mentioned on Instagram that he was working on new music. Finally, in October 2021, he released a new single and promised that a full album is on the way.
Below is the accompanying music video for Stromae’s latest hit, Santé (a French toast meaning “here’s to your good health”). True to Stromae’s humanitarian impulses, the song pays tribute to those workers that manned the frontlines during the COVID-19 pandemic, including employees of catering and cleaning businesses, telemarketers, caregivers, fishermen, chauffeurs, and flight attendants.
A tour of Europe is currently scheduled for the summer of 2022. There are no plans for North America but I’m happy to live with that. Better to live with Stromae streaming than no Stromae at all.