Charles Aznavour – For Me… Formidable

Sometimes I’ve seen Aznavour called the French Morrissey, a comparison that would be an injustice to both of them. Aznavour’s first album came out in 1952 and the last one in 2015 when he was already 90 years old. A lot of his songs deal with love one way or another, and many of the more famous ones are about loss or recalling past happiness, which is probably the reason for the comparison in the first place.

For Me… Formidable, however, is an example of a humorous song in which the music is a part of the joke. It plays on the clichés of love songs but also on the similarities and differences between the French and English language. Both have adjectives formed with -able, though the meaning is often slightly different. As the song begins, we’re led to think that it’s in English, and then it turns out it’s only a few phrases, with -able words functioning as transitions. If you only understand the English lyrics, the song appears to be a tune listing the good qualities of the loved one, the chorus being an emphatic confession of love like the peak of excitement in cinematic musical numbers, the melody ascending from the verse to the chorus.

However, the French text is at the same time affirming and subverting the message. It is still a love song, but one that is poking fun at the English statements. Just before Aznavour sings “Darling I love you, love you, darling I want you,” he’s lamenting that he doesn’t have the eloquence or vocabulary of Shakespeare or Molière, but only has these kinds of words to offer. He only wants to be close to his lover, and as the chorus booms we’re led to think that surely the statement has to be sincere, since he’s sad that these simple words are the best he has. Yet, at the same time it’s the moment when the music is at its most bombastic, as if the whole confession has been turned into a show tune, revealing its artificiality. So according to the song the words in English are actually superficial and cannot do justice to the real feeling. It’s not obvious that French would be any better, but since the music sounds like an American show tune, the song seems to poke fun at the ease with which such words are uttered in American movies.

Moreover, at the end of the song, where the final peak is reached musically, he’s actually wondering why he loves her at all since she mocks him and everything else. The final line “How can I love you?” thus has two meanings: ignoring the French lyrics and just listening to the music, it sounds like it could mean the singer is looking for a way to love her properly. But in reality he’s questioning the love itself. A good example of how the context changes the meaning of a sentence completely. Perhaps if he was more eloquent things could be different, but being in love it seems all words are escaping him. So the ending is yet another reversal of meaning: first the singer has lamented how inadequate these English words are, so superficial, but in the end maybe his love itself is superficial, which would make the statements actually appropriate. It’s the instability of meaning that makes the song brilliant even more than the clever puns when switching between French and English.

Thus the song can have two very different effects. Just listening to the music, it’s fun to dance to it and be swept by the show tune qualities, ecstatic love confessions in which the most bombastic statements suddenly feel sincere because at the height of infatuation all the things that otherwise might sound ridiculous feel very real. But the song also makes me wonder about the relationship of language and the world, and whether we can ever truly express what we feel, and how the gap between words and meanings affects everything.