Close
Close

Mademoiselle Jukebox

Lucie Elven

The news that François Mitterrand had a ‘long romance’ with the pop singer Dalida, confirmed by her brother this week, didn’t come as a surprise – my hairdresser told me as much several years ago. By 1998, eleven years after her suicide, Dalida had eclipsed her lover: a public poll to identify the most influential French person of the last thirty years had her at number two, second only to Charles de Gaulle. But abroad her allure faded, perhaps because she inspired awful biographical materials. A curse seems to hover over those who try to replicate her on paper or celluloid.

The importance of Dalida, and her bond to a mass audience, reminds me of Princess Diana: beyond their similar looks, a lightning rod for emotion, a friendly face for queer people, a certain outsiderishness despite being an establishment figure. She was born Iolanda Gigliotti in Cairo to Italian parents in 1933. Her father was interned as a result of the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936. After an operation to correct a squint, she won the Miss Egypt title and in 1954 moved to Paris, hoping to be an actress.

Her first hit, ‘Bambino’, was a French version of a Neapolitan song, and there followed many more translations, adaptations and covers, from ‘Itsi Bitsi Petit Bikini’ and Consuelo Velázquez’s ‘Bésame Mucho’ to Serge Lama’s ‘Je Suis Malade’ and ‘Parle Plus Bas’, a version of the Godfather theme – earning her the nickname ‘Mademoiselle Jukebox’.

Sometimes there’s a dissociative feeling to cover versions, like the aftertaste of a feeling, but sometimes the artist takes over. It’s the difference between imitation and habitation. My favourite of Dalida’s covers is ‘Paroles, Paroles’, which she adapted from Italian with Alain Delon, one of her first neighbours when she moved to the Champs Elysées. It’s a Bossa Nova tune about hollow words, sung over a man making exaggerated declarations of love. Dalida shows, over and over, the artistic power of a performance when it goes from feeling fake to feeling real to feeling fake again. In one version, she duets with a younger woman, changing the dynamic of the song: the man’s lines are reported speech, and the interrupting singing voice is the older woman warning the younger to stay away. My least favourite are her takes on Frank Sinatra (‘À ma manière’) and Wham!’s ‘Last Christmas’ (‘Reviens-Moi’). And then there’s ‘Le Lambeth Walk’ from Me and My Girl.

Dalida was covered, too: Shirley Bassey rewrote the hypnotic disco hit ‘Mourir sur Scène’ as ‘Born to Sing’, cleansing it of its suicidal ideation. Does this constant repurposing account for my feeling that I’ve always known her? I have been reminded of her at holiday restaurant tables at night, at open windows near railway station bridges, even once seeing a man with a dancing ferret on a leash.

She sang in Arabic, French, Italian, English, toured extensively, taking relentless disco numbers like ‘Monday, Tuesday (Laissez moi Danser)’ to the United States. Despite Dalida’s contributions to the field of translation, she remained the people’s songstress, resolutely lowbrow and populist, and mentioning her name elicits either love or shame – nothing in between.


Comments

or to post a comment
  • 12 May 2022 at 9:43am
    Christopher Smith says:
    "A ma manière" was not an original Sinatra song, but was written by Claude François in French and only later translated as "My way". Dalida's version of the original text is at least as justified a cover version as Sinatra's ever was.
    By the way, her relationship with Mitterand has been common knowledge since the 1980s.