Listen to this article
Written in a pavement café on the Champs Elysées in 1945, “La Vie en rose” was a song whose giddy romance swept the French national spirit from the ashes of the second world war and sent it soaring around the world. The sole author of this phoenix song was France’s “little sparrow”: Edith Piaf.
Born Edith Gassion in 1915 and discovered singing on the streets of Paris’s red light district in 1935, Piaf was a singer whose career had taken flight during the second world war. Though not a conventional beauty, the 4ft 10in diva was a volcano of drama, whose murky tales of murder, abandonment and prostitution were given an added frisson by her guttural vibrato. Although it’s often assumed that most of her songs were written for her by men, she wrote more than 100 of them herself and (unusually for the time) wrote many with other women.
Piaf sang through the war as through the tragedies in her personal life, which included the death of her two-year-old daughter from meningitis in 1935 and that of her great love, the boxer Marcel Cerdan, who was killed in a plane crash in 1949.
Performing for the occupying Germans as well as her fellow countrymen, Piaf was briefly branded a collaborator. But rumours of Nazi-pleasing were firmly quashed in 1945 when resistance leaders revealed that Piaf had smuggled maps and compasses to French POWs during her prison camp tours. She also posed for photographs with inmates; the photographs were used to create fake identity documents and enabled many prisoners to escape.
After the war, as France sucked up Marshall Plan money and morale-boosting jazz records from the US, Piaf went for a drink with her friend Marianne Michel. The younger singer complained that nobody was writing her any new songs, so Piaf grabbed a piece of paper and dashed off “La Vie en rose” for her.
The song’s central metaphor — of seeing the world afresh, through rose-tinted glasses — was something Piaf knew all about, having been blind for several years in her childhood and claiming to have been cured, aged seven, after the prostitutes working in her grandmother’s brothel pooled their earnings to send her on a Catholic pilgrimage.
Michel recorded the song first — a sweet, xylophone-frosted version — with Piaf laying down her own, definitive version two years later. As a hymn to a love affair so beautiful that it allows the singer to forget all “les ennuis, les chagrins” (weariness and grief), it saw the tragedienne, like her nation, transcend pain.
Piaf’s melody whisks you up in its arms and takes you for a slow, dreamy twirl, briefly breaking hold for a few spoken sections before resuming the dance. Her version sold more than 1m copies and made her name across the Atlantic, where Americans were startled to behold such a tiny woman in a simple black frock, exuding none of the Hollywood glamour to which they were accustomed.
In 1950, Louis Armstrong gave the song a sumptuous treatment with a sleepy trumpet solo that starts out on a bed of solo piano glissandos and blooms against a big band finale.
Singing with one nipple slipping from her metallic négligée in the video, Jamaican supermodel Grace Jones sexed up the tune (with an insouciant guitar strum) for the disco generation in 1977. Fellow disco diva Donna Summer recorded a rather bland version in 1993. Punk growler Iggy Pop added a big slouchy beat to the Armstrong arrangement for the moody version that appeared on his 2012 album, Après.
But it was Pascal of Bollywood who gave the best modern account of the song in 2003. Pascal, a French actor and singer (born Pascal Heni) known for reinterpreting Indian cinema songs, duetted with Bollywood star Shreya Ghoshal against a glorious, sari-pirouetting mix of Parisian pavement accordion, sitar, tabla and bansari (Indian bamboo flute). Pascal’s version conjures a luminous vision of a blissfully multicultural new France. A small beacon of hope for our dark times.