He’s been called “the most famous pop star you’ve never heard of,” but if last week’s back-to-back sold-out shows at the Fox Theater are any indication, that description may no longer be completely true. Belgian singer-songwriter Paul Van Haver, aka Stromae — from a French slang version of “maestro”— has already found commercial success and critical acclaim in Europe with his sophomore album, Racine Carree (Square Root), topping the charts in several states. Breaking into the American market is a nearly insurmountable hurdle for any Francophone artist, yet with a signature style drawing on everything from 1990s dance music to Afro-Caribbean sounds (plus an aesthetic built upon stylish videos and his own clothing brand), Stromae’s success doesn’t appear to be threatened by the language barrier.
On the contrary, music fans at the show seemed eager for Francophone music. A French teacher at San Benito High School, Michelle Lassaga, even drove 12 members of the school’s French club all the way from Hollister, California, to see the concert. Fortunately, Stromae delivered a performance well worth the two-hour drive.
The singer is a fascinating presence onstage. Not afraid to play upon the physical presence afforded to him by his half-Flemish, half-Rwandan heritage, lanky frame and somewhat androgynous facial structure, Stromae offers a live show that is more like musical theater than a standard pop concert. He performed as the personalities from his videos, such as the stumbling drunk in “Formidable,” the acrimonious lovers in “Tous les Memes” and the rigidly doll-like father in “Papaoutai.”
For “Carmen,” Stromae sang, “L’amour est comme l’oiseau de Twitter” (“Love is like a Twitter bird”), while leading faceless, animated militants projected onto the screen behind him in dance. The effect was a fresh articulation of the music video’s critique of all-consuming social media culture. The show’s use of graphics throughout thoughtfully illustrated themes reflective of the double meanings of most of his songs, which otherwise could have been lost on the non-French speaking attendees.
In between songs, Stromae addressed the crowd in accented English. Leading into “Moules Frites,” he teasingly reclaimed Belgium wine, fries and croissants from the French, growling “Don’t be so proud!” to any self-proclaimed Francais. After an encore of “Papaoutai,” he introduced and thanked everyone on his team by building their names and origins into an improvised song.
To close the show, Stromae brought his four band members to the front of the stage to perform an unexpected and delightful a cappella version of “Tous Les Memes,” a tour de force to round out the Belgian singer’s already impressive repertoire.
Grace Lovio is a senior staff writer. Contact her at [email protected]