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Johnny Hallyday Saga Continues to Dominate French Headlines; America Continues to Ignore the French

January 8, 2010

As we all know, 2009 was a huge year for celebrity medical dramas. Among others, Michael Jackson, Farrah Fawcett, Patrick Swayze, and Brittany Murphy left us too soon. May they rest in peace.

In early December, one of the biggest stars in the Western world nearly joined them. Of course, I’m talking about Johnny Hallyday.

Our European readers (all three of them) are now solemnly nodding their heads in recognition. Most of our American readers are now picking potato chip crumbs off their shirts, having lost interest in reading about someone they’ve never heard of. Me, I’m solemnly nodding my head AND picking chip crumbs (Grippo’s BBQ all the way, my fellow Americans).

Honestly, I’d also never heard of Johnny Hallyday until I heard an NPR story on his saga in mid-December. I’ll leave it to last month’s news coverage to tell the full story, but the quick version is that Hallyday is France’s biggest pop music star—we’re talking as much notoriety as Elvis, the Boss, 2Pac, Weird Al, and Scott Stapp combined. After back surgery in Paris in November, Hallyday developed a serious infection and had to be admitted to Cedars-Sinai Hospital after returning to his recently adopted home of Los Angeles. His condition was serious for several days, and his American doctors even placed him in a medically induced coma as part of his treatment.

During this tense episode, the French media were literally camped out in front of the LA hospital, much like the American media do when somebody famous, powerful, beautiful, and/or rich does something weird. Or like the paparazzi do when Lindsey Lohan drinks, shops, walks, and/or breathes.

Hallyday survived the episode, but his ardent fans were recently saddened to learn that his planned Route 66 Tour (named after both the iconic American highway and Hallyday’s age) had to be scrapped. Legal wrangling over the financial aftershocks of the cancellation has kept Hallyday’s name in the European news since his recovery, and just this week, the story took an unfortunate turn when Hallyday’s daughter, actress Laura Smet, apparently attempted suicide. Turns out her boyfriend is the brother of the much-maligned French doctor who botched the surgery in the first place!

This is clearly a megadose of fascinating celebrity news, and I find it especially captivating to think that I would have never known about any of it had Johnny Hallyday not been treated in an American hospital. Had Hallyday passed away, it really would have been a cultural event in France and much of Western Europe on the level of Michael Jackson’s or Elvis’s death. His hospital stay brought French reporters to southern California, for crying out loud. You know they weren’t allowed to smoke cigarettes anywhere out there—now that’s sacrificing it all for the story.

Also interesting is how that French media coverage became a primary part of the story when the American media did pick it up in mid-December. In articles I’ve seen, there’s a tone of, “Look how cute the French are, covering the near death of some singer nobody not named Jean-Claude or Dominique even cares about!!!” In response, I must point out that the American media are never so reflective on journalistic practices when covering their own sensational stories. No TV crew covering the immediate aftermath of the Tiger Woods debacle turned their cameras on their media neighbors and said, “Look at all of us invasive, gossip-hound, pseudo-journalists perched like vultures outside the Woods home!”

Something about the quizzical American response to French media coverage of the Hallyday medical drama reminds me of the famous anthropological article about the Nacirema, where the beauty rituals of the average American (Nacirema backwards) are made to sound so exotic as to boggle the mind. That old article and this Hallyday spectacle both remind us that any cultural rituals or practices can seem bizarre—or in some cases, indefensible—when you’re able to view them as belonging to “them” instead of “us.” “Normal behavior” is, of course, all relative. Of course, when it comes to media losing their minds over a celebrity death or scandal, nothing is quite normal.

That said, I think there’s one area where the French have us beat, at least in the instance of the Hallyday story. They covered the near death of Johnny Hallyday because basically the entire country LOVES the guy. I may be missing something since I’m only getting transatlantic, English-language coverage, but I detect little of the morbid curiosity for curiosity’s sake that colors most American media coverage of celebrity “news.” The French media came to LA not to “scoop” salacious details or bring down a cultural icon, but because that hospital almost became the scene at which an era of the nation’s history was, in very real terms, ending.

Can we say anything even remotely similar about the American media’s coverage of any of the big celebrity events of 2009? Perhaps Michael Jackson, in some ways, but I have to return to the nature of most of the media coverage MJ received during the second half of his 50-year life. Talk about curiosity for the morbid and the salacious!

This long article will likely do nothing to spur Americans to follow Johnny Hallyday’s life or career (though Quentin Tarantino might be the one to change that). I do wish, though, that the American media would somehow acquire the ability to examine their own practices with even a small degree of the scrutiny they applied to the French media. But I won’t be betting on that either.

One Comment
  1. Jay St. Orts permalink
    January 10, 2010 9:40 am

    Speaking of:

    I have a whole chicken thawing in the fridge and a whole canister of Grippo’s Bar-B-Q seasoning at the ready.

    The plan: beer-can chicken, Gripp’s-style. You in?

    Perceptive article, too. I’m holding my breath. At least, that’s what I’d like you to believe I’m holding.

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