Some musicians had a hardscrabble upbringing. They were basically nobody and had nothing to work with but their talent and perseverence, and maybe an early mentor or a pushy stage mother. Their story is about surviving the pressures of poverty and conformity, of staying true to their art despite the crushing despair and banality of their lives.
Carla Bruni is not one of those people.
Let’s start with the extraordinary life she led before even appearing in a professional music setting, which didn’t happen until she was 32. Born in Turin to a rich family whose patriarch created a tire manufacturing business now owned by Pirelli, she grew up in France after the family moved there ostensibly to escape the threat of kidnapping by communist Red Brigade terrorists. She attended boarding school in Switzerland and college in Paris, but dropped out at 19 to become a model.
Bruni quickly rose to the top of that profession, appearing in ads for all the major brands (Guess, Dior, Chanel, Versace, Yves Saint-Laurent) and dating rock stars (Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger, at the same time, no less). Bruni was so huge at this time that noted mysterious Donald Trump spokesman John Miller claimed Trump was dating her. Bruni has several times denied this.
Anyway, in 1997, after ten years of modeling, Bruni said, “C’est tout.” She decided to focus on her music.
Her first output was a handful of lyrics that she sent to veteran French chanseur Julien Clerc, who used them on his 2000 record Si j’étais elle. I’m having a hard time thinking of an English-language analogue for Clerc; Michael Bolton, but sappier. Andy Williams, almost. Anyway, this is a perfectly normal style of popular music in France, if a little old-fashioned by the time Bruni worked with him.
Her lyrics, based on Google Translate and my extremely rusty French, are minimalist at best, a theme that would continue throughout her musical career.
It was also around this time that Bruni began an affair with Raphaël Enthoven, a philosophy professor and TV/radio host (and yes, it is the most French thing ever that someone could be both of these things) who was married to writer Justine Lévy, the daughter of famed philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy. Bruni got pregnant with her first son, Enthoven divorced his wife, and Lévy wrote a roman à clef about the whole thing, which currently has 3.8 stars on Amazon in its English translation.
It was in the midst of this punishingly boring existence that Bruni got to work on her debut album, 2003’s Quelqu’un m’a dit (translation: Someone told me). It consists mainly of Bruni singing and playing acoustic guitar, with a handful of additional sounds, like a ticking clock. The title track is the first video embedded above; you may also have heard it in the films Le Divorce or (500) Days of Summer.
This record was, somehow, a smash hit. It opened at and spent three weeks as No. 1 on the French charts, and made it to the top ten in Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Portugal, and Chile. Something about its combination of musical simplicity, vulnerability, and melancholy (one song is titled “Chanson Triste,” literally “Sad Song”) must have felt fresh at a time when the charts in France were dominated by overproduced pop stars like Shakira and Celine Dion, and Star Academy (France’s American Idol) winners Jenifer and Nowlenn Leroy. It also foreshadowed the similar-sounding, Apple commercial-driven Feist/Ingrid Michaelson/Sara Bareilles/Yael Naim movement that began a few years later.
Musically, the record is folk-inspired, and while its lyrics won’t win any awards for poetry, they’re not terrible. “You are the couch and I’m the neurosis/You are the thorn and I am the rose,” she sings on “Le Toi Du Moi,” but also “You are the grave and I the epitath.” “Everyone has dreams left over/And devastated corners of life/Everyone looked for something one day/But not everyone has found it,” goes the refrain on “Tout Le Monde.” (All translations by Google.) If anything, the emotions are there. And that’s good, since Bruni isn’t much of a singer, keeping her breathy voice comfortably within its normal range and speaking volume; or a guitarist, strumming gently away.
After this record became a smash hit, Bruni continued her dull life by appearing on French Who Wants to be a Millionaire (celebrity edition) and participating in the 2006 Turin Olympics opening ceremony, cradling the Italian flag and wearing an Armani gown covered in diamonds. How she got through this difficult time is beyond me.
Bruni co-wrote some songs for another French artist in 2006, but her real passion was her next album. And what could be a more natural follow-up to a collection of sad, folky French acoustic guitar songs than a jaunty blues record whose lyrics consist of 19th and 20th Century English-language poems?!?
Musically, the songs on No Promises are okay, I guess. The words don’t really work. Turning Yeats and Auden stanzas into pop song lyrics strips out about 85 percent of their impact; there’s no time to savor the diction, consider an enjambed line, or linger over an image.
Not that the dismal response to this record put a damper on Bruni’s 2007. (Also, No Promises moved half a million units worldwide, so.) Bruni kept writing songs, even collaborating with French literary bad boy Michel Houellebecq. She split from Enthoven that Spring, which freed her up to pursue other relationships (please note, however, Bruni’s famous quote from an interview with Le Figaro that year: “Monogamy bores me terribly”).
But look, the point is, in November of that year, Bruni met French President Nicolas Sarkozy at a dinner party, and within three months she married him and became First Lady of France.
Then five months later, she released her third album!
This album is better than the last one, though similar to her initial output. The slightly wider orchestrations lend Comme si de rien n’était (translation: Like Nothing Happened) a more ethereal air than Bruni’s earlier work, as it’s easier to lose track of her voice among a mélange of instruments, whereas previously it stood out against a solo guitar.
This interpretation of Francesco Guccini’s antiwar Italian classic is instructive; Bruni took what was originally staged as a strident, Pete Seeger-style protest song and turned it into a breathy lullaby, separating the performative style from the content of the lyrics almost completely.
But it wasn’t all easy listening acoustic rock for Bruni. She also got to meet the Dalai Lama, found herself ranked the 35th most powerful woman in the world by Forbes, publicly criticized the pope, and had Iran’s state-run newspaper call her a prostitute when she opposed a death-by-stoning sentence against an Iranian woman accused of adultery. Plus she appeared in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris.
She also got back in her groove musically. Bruni released the appropriately titled Little French Songs in 2013. Just to be clear, some of these songs are in English or Italian.
After Bruni left her unofficial public office when her husband lost his re-election bid in 2012, she decided that ruining great English-language poetry had not been enough: now it was time to ruin some hard rock songs, like the Rolling Stone’s “Miss You,” or AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell.” The latter becomes a silly lounge vamp and the former a cutesy girl-with-a-guitar riff on 2017’s French Touch, Bruni’s latest studio album to date. Barf. However, I fully expect to hear her version of “Enjoy the Silence” in a Dior commercial some day.
In the end, Bruni is many things, but a stylistic pioneer is not one of them. Her musical career is marked more by the same kind of good fortune that guided her through the rest of her life than it is by hard work or skill or talent. We have lots of folks like that in the music world, who happened to be making the kind of music people started to like at the time they started to like it, who got signed to a record deal barely a year after starting a band, whose parents were plugged into the scene. Sorry Carla, your novelty has worn off. But we’ll always have Paris.