I love learning and experiencing languages, and I’ve taken French since sixth grade; I’m passably fluent in most situations, but I can’t always keep up with the pace and accent of native Francophone speech. Nonetheless, I love watching French films and listening to French music, mostly because the language has a certain poetry about it that makes it beautiful to listen to; it always manages to succinctly capture nuances of the human emotional and philosophical experience that evade simplicity in English.
Despite the fact that I actively pursue literature and media experiences in French, I stumbled across Claude François’ “Comme d’habitude” mostly by accident. I went through a serious Frank Sinatra phase during eighth and ninth grade; at one point, I was particularly enjoying “My Way” and, curious, went to Wikipedia to learn a bit more about its background. Imagine my surprise when I found out that Sinatra was something of a fraud: the music to “My Way” was ripped directly from a French song, “Comme d’habitude,” with a completely different meaning and lyrical content.
Because I’m an obnoxious hipster about my music, I obviously liked the original considerably more than the cheap American version. Most of that is because “Comme d’habitude” actually explores the issue of being disconnected from someone you care about; next to it, “My Way” looks like a narcissistic manifesto.
The first section of the song describes an early-morning interaction between the narrator and his lover. The narrator attempts to wake the sleeping lover, who doesn’t respond, “comme d’habitude” (in English: “as usual”); the narrator then resorts to simply putting the blanket back over the lover, musing “j’ai peur que tu aies froid” (English: I fear you may be cold). This is a line where the French language captures the essence of the narrator’s thoughts so much more effectively. First of all, he uses the subjunctive mood, which we don’t really have in English, to express doubt; in this case, it augments our understanding of how the narrator wants to know what his lover is thinking, but can never get through to her. His hand caresses her hair “Presque malgré moi” (almost in spite of me), and yet the lover turns her back on him.
The song’s chorus describes the narrator’s behavior “comme d’habitude,” which both contrasts and draws parallels with his interactions with his lover. He vows to smile, to “laugh all the same […] in the end, I will live/as usual.” He is alienated from his love as well as from the world around him; in hiding his first alienation, he creates his second. And yet, he goes through the motions of living in society and of being in love.
I love “Comme d’habitude” because it manages to surround in a catchy melody a subtly woven story of the human struggle to empathize and understand: no matter how much we may “faire semblant” (“play pretend”), we fall prey to the walls we build between ourselves and those we love. It is both a cautionary tale and a lovely example of the elegance of the French language. Perhaps within that elegance we can find some of the answers to Claude François’ questions.