The movie La Môme gave me an impression that Édith Piaf was a bold and venturesome woman who threw her life in an extravaganza of cigarettes and wine, of love and pain. She’s more of a person who acts than a person who thinks, and it’s very unlikely that she’s a nostalgic woman. I mean, she doesn’t think much about the past. How she uses her life is an epitome of ‘living for the moment’. She sang and laughed and cried and drank and smoked, without regrets.
Isn’t it why when she listened to Charles Dumont perform the song Non, je ne regrette rien for the first time, she immediately exclaimed “Formidable!” and wanted to have it in the concert at L’Olympia.
If we are to summarize Édith Piaf’s life in one word, it must be “love”. Many men had been through her life, among them, Yves Montand and Marcel Cerdan were the two most remembered lovers, but perhaps for each of them she always gave strong and honest feelings.
Édith Piaf was an insatiable woman who consumed too much of everything life has to offer; no wonder why she ended up suffering from different health issues in her early middle age. This reminds me of “the voice” Whitney Houston who also reportedly messed with drugs and alcohol even to the point that she lost her voice later. Édith, on the other hand, was still able to maintain a healthy voice even before her death. Both of them, however, shared the same fate: ending their life at the age of forty-something.
For the most part, the song Non, je ne regrette rien makes us feel that it’s about a person facing their own mortality with a care-free attitude, like that of the protagonist in Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody.
Now I suddenly think of the last words of another legendary music artist who had also anticipated his death: David Bowie. Bowie’s Blackstar was perhaps what he’d been through psychologically and spiritually during his last months, and it doesn’t show that Bowie has nihilistic tendencies, although he’s pretty much of an intellectual.
Now, if Édith’s trademark song were about facing death without regrets, it would be very philosophical. However, the song ends with something like “the past doesn’t matter because today I start over my life with you”. That ending, to me personally, turns the song into an ordinary love song and lowers the overall standard. But thinking twice, especially when knowing that Piaf, though having a strong artistic intuition, was never philosophical (perhaps no singer, no matter how great they are, should be philosophical), I believe the song suits Piaf’s life and thoughts perfectly.
Now we can revise our answer to the question ‘what makes a singer great’. I have tried to figure it out by enumerating all the possible criteria I could think of in assessing a singer’s career, and came to the conclusion that it’s the audience’s feelings for the artist that matter, not the technical factors of the artist themselves. But if we yielded our evaluation to personal preference and interpretation, there would be no common grounds and no critical evaluation can be reached.
For now, my hypothesis is that it’s the singer’s rendition that matters most. A great singer renders the song in their own way, exerting their influence into it. And by doing so, through the song, they carry the breath of their time. Take Kim Chung and Kim Xuân singing Nguyễn Văn Tý’s Dư âm for example. Such a performance is completely different from that of today’s singers. Also, by adding a personal touch to the song, the singer can renew it and revive it in the new era. That’s why Hà Lê was a great singer in my opinion.
Apart from that, what is called “artistic intuition” is also important, and it’s reflected in the way the artist chooses what to sing and what not. That scene in La Môme portraying Édith’s reaction to Dumont’s Non Je ne regrette rien showed how sharp her intuition was.