The Concert as a Theatrical Whole
Stromae at Oakland's Fox Theater

stromae

Driving home from Stromae’s concert Friday night, there was one important question discussed in the car: “Would Stromae be good in bed?”

Belgium-born Paul Van Haver, otherwise known as Stromae, comes across as a kind of weird dude—from his lanky, manic-yet-precisely-choreographed dancing, to his 1950’s/schoolboy chic clothing choices, to his sudden outbursts of odd facial expressions. But he’s as confident as he is weird, and his love for his craft is overwhelmingly charming.

While predictions about Stromae’s abilities between the sheets were mixed, opinions about the concert weren’t. At least half a dozen times during the set my roommate and I exchanged semi-incoherent and ecstatic outbursts, understood to translate into something along the lines of “THIS IS SO DOPE.” During the drive from Oakland back to Stanford, about every five minutes, one of us in the car would randomly exclaim, “OH MY GOD THAT CONCERT WAS SO GOOD.”

Even using the word “concert” to talk about Stromae live feels vastly inadequate. “Show” comes closer, but “experience” seems to fit best. Calling it the “Stromae experience” sounds indulgent and theatrical, but a Stromae concert is entirely indulgent and theatrical, in an entirely satisfying way. If it had been possible for us to attend the exact same concert all over again immediately following the end of the first one, we would have.

Visualize all of the positive connotations of those two words—“indulgent” and “theatrical”—with none of the negative, and you might start to get an idea of what this night was like. It’s as if Stromae made his music to be played in concert and only put it on an album as an afterthought. When performed live, the bass and drum beats are heavier and meatier (and of course, louder), adding an intensity to the show and balancing out persistent, high-pitched trumpet and electronic themes. Loud and live, the music simply feels right, clearly meant to be experienced not through headphones but with an almost overwhelming bassline pounding out a second heartbeat in your chest.

The lighting and visual effects were as important as the music itself. The show begins with an empty stage, and the giant screen backdropping the entire stage slowly lights up amid clanging mechanical sounds. On the screen, a bizarre futuristic animated world comes into view, in which a cartoon version of each of the band members is plucked from an assembly line by a giant claw, and navigates the strange world before “falling” or being “dropped” off the screen: at the moment the cartoon character falls from the animated world, there’s an explosion on screen and all the house lights go out. When they come on again, the band member has appeared on stage.  The mood of the night is established: intense, weird, fun, and distinctly narrative.

Stromae’s performance was more like a Vegas show than a stop on tour. Between songs he told stories and jokes, played around with his band, and tried to convince the audience to dance more, presumably to give him a chance to catch his breath between songs—Stromae doesn’t stop moving while he sings, jumping around and dancing in a manner a bit possessed and entirely infectious. While talking with the audience, complaining about our nomenclature for French fries (“Fries come from Belgium!” he exclaims, slapping his chest with national pride), Stromae set up for the next song, rearranging props or casually changing outfits. Stromae, oozing theatricality, acted out most of his songs to emphasize their stories and themes, often recreating his music videos on stage.

For example, during “Formidable,” a post-break up ballad sung by a drunk guy who’s pestering people on the street with his lamenting about the pointlessness of love, Stromae reappears on stage disheveled and stumbling. The song, which like all of Stromae’s music is sung in French, switches between singing and a somehow-still musical drunken slurring.  “Oh, excuse me miss, I’m not trying to flirt with you, I promise,” the song goes (according to my own attempts at translation). “I’m single since yesterday, fuck. I can’t have a kid, but it’s not—hey come back!”. After a few minutes of a convincingly drunk performance,  Stromae “passes out” on the ground and one of his band mates has to help him offstage while he keeps falling over, in a Stooge-like moment of superb physical comedy. He also acts out the music videos for “Tous les mêmes,” a song about a fighting couple fed up with each other (“You men are all the same”, it starts.) in which he plays both the male and female role, and “Papaoutai,” a song about a boy with an absentee-father that is deceivingly catchy for the seriousness of its content.

The most visually powerful song of the night was “Quand C’est”, a somber song about cancer, in which the chorus asks, “Cancer, cancer—tell me when is it coming?” The protagonist in the song tells how cancer came for his mother first, starting with her breasts, then with his father’s lungs, and then asks who the next will be. The screen starts out white, then as the song progresses, black spidery tendrils start crawling onto the screen, receding when Stromae turns to look at them as if hiding from his view. By the end of the song, the tendrils take over the entire screen and Stromae and his band are huddled in a corner of the stage. It is not only beautifully choreographed and perfectly executed; this performance is emblematic of the effect of Stromae’s live show. He interacts with his songs and emphasizes themes that are relevant and relatable, all while delivering compulsively danceable beats. The mix of these two elements—fun and seriousness—could be incoherent but isn’t, because it feels so honest and personal, a direct tap into the artist’s thoughts and feelings. Authenticity, flawless production value, and Stromae’s giddy charisma infuse bizarre Stromae-land.

The final song, “Merci”, a beat-heavy, intense techno number, is an anomaly on the album, as it doesn’t have any lyrics except the occasional “merci”. I always liked it but found it a bit odd, because the lyrical and storytelling aspect of Stromae’s songs are so powerful and important. His songs have themes, tapping into the generation’s fears and anxieties without succumbing to them, a generation emotionally ill-equipped to deal with the responsibilities given to it—Stromae’s first international hit “Alors on danse,” epitomizes this: school, work, debt, family, divorce, all in the face of a global financial crisis, what can we do? “So we dance,” the chorus says, we dance for relief, we dance to escape. So “Merci,” with no lyrics, caught me off-guard, accustomed to searching Stromae’s songs for meaning and double-entendre. But in concert it suddenly made sense. Stromae uses it to close the night, accompanied by the screen showing a surreal journey over various computerized landscapes, after thanking all of his band and crew members by name and thanking the audience for coming. (I think I audibly said, “Oohhhh, that’s why it’s called ‘Merci'”). Whether or not that was the actual intention, it solidified the extremely satisfying coherence of the concert, and reaffirmed the feeling that I was experiencing this music the way it was meant to be experienced.

Usually, when I see an artist live, I find myself wishing I had known them when they were just starting out so I could have seen them play in some grungy, intimate bar somewhere. I never thought that about Stromae. Every element of the performance was necessary to create the theatrical whole: the lights and animation, seamless costume changes that allowed Stromae to inhabit so many characters throughout the night, and an experienced professionalism that allowed the band to make it feel spontaneous and off-the-cuff even though it clearly wasn’t.

The very last performance of the night was an a cappella version of “Tous les mêmes” that Stromae performed with his four band mates, which was simply delightful. It was Stromae at his weirdest, at his most honest and exuberant, at the apex of his charming self. It was almost a shame when he left the stage, because it felt as if we’d barely warmed up.

And if this on-stage persona is any indication—and if we’re being totally honest, here—then, yeah: Stromae is probably pretty damn good in bed.

 

 

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