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Stromae’s “L’enfer”: Roxanne Panchasi talks mental health and celebrity

February 24, 2023

Andrew Yuan
TELEDIVISION: Professor of History at Simon Fraser University Roxanne Panchasi speaks in Gibson Hall on Wednesday. She talked about the polarizing effect of the famous broadcast of Stromae’s song “L’enfer” on French television. Panchasi also spoke on Stromae’s history of addressing mental health issues.

On January 9, 2022, French television broadcast a live news interview with renowned Belgian singer Paul van Haver, better known as Stromae. During the last few minutes of the broadcast, Stromae answered the final question of the interview, which was directed towards his struggles with depression, by singing his latest song “L’enfer.” A year later and 3,398 miles away in Brunswick, Associate Professor of History and Associate Dean of Graduate Studies at Simon Fraser University Roxanne Panchasi hosted a talk at the College discussing the significance of the moment.

Panchasi is a scholar of contemporary French culture and a historian of France from the colonial period to the 21st century. She was invited from Vancouver to share her thoughts on Stromae’s broadcast that garnered controversy in and outside France.

She maintained that Stromae’s performance was significant in television history because it goes against the norms of French broadcast journalism.

“The eight o’clock news is an institution, and TF1’s broadcast has been going on for decades. It is the longest running news broadcast in the country,” Panchasi said. “Its habits and traditions haven’t changed in the ways they have in the North American context.”

Following Stromae’s 2022 interview, there was an outburst of both positive and negative reactions.

“Critics insisted that the performance crossed a line and that Stromae had used the cover of a news program to promote his new album, and that [the broadcast] had abandoned any semblance of journalistic integrity,” Panchasi said. “There was something specifically troubling to those who took issue with his performance, about this confusion between speech and song that Stromae enacted. A song somehow seemed less real, that it was necessarily promotional and contrived.”

This moment is also significant because Stromae addressed suicide and mental health in a new setting.

“Stromae’s music is a distinct mix of joy and distress. Just one example … is how accompanying super happy music is a verse that talks about decapitating oneself,” Panchasi said. “Stromae blurred the lines between mental illness and health, between death and survival, between his own life and the experiences of the millions of viewers who he looked straight in the eye.”

While it is not new for Stromae to talk about mental health in his songs, it is new for him to talk about these struggles in this setting.

“There was something about [‘L’enfer’] that dealt with Paul’s own struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts,” Panchasi said. “It was the fact that it was performed in that way, in that space on a news program, that really stunned people.”

Panchasi also framed this moment in the wider context of the mental health crisis in France during the pandemic. Minutes after the debut of “L’enfer” on live television, Panchasi said that crisis calls in France skyrocketed and have continued to increase since.

“Public health professionals and multiple academic journals refer to this as the Stromae effect. That his disclosure on television encouraged people to call these hotlines, so Stromae’s song has marked a positive impact on public health according to public health officials,” Panchasi said.

Aurélie Nishimwe ’26 grew up listening to Stromae in Rwanda and said it was significant for her to listen to Stromae’s music about suicide, mental health and trauma.

“Growing up I felt like I should listen to him because he is a fabulous artist who is part-Rwandan,” Nishimwe said. “It’s interesting to see how he incorporates mental health [into] music.”

This was the first talk that Nishimwe attended at Bowdoin, but now she is interested in attending more.

“I’m obsessed with Stromae. He was my top artist on Spotify last year, so when I saw this event I was so excited to come,” Nishimwe said.

Aurélie Nishimwe is a member of the Bowdoin Orient


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