Stromae: A Modern Pop Icon

When we hear the term ‘pop icon’, names that are likely to come into mind from the past few decades would be artists such as Michael Jackson, David Bowie and Whitney Houston.

These are names which are widely accepted as deserving of this title; time has proven that the contributions of these individuals to the world of popular music were unique and innovative enough to stand the test of time. Of course, when thinking about the music being released currently, it is much more challenging to decide who to deem a new modern icon. It is often a challenge to estimate whether an artist in the charts today is simply a one-hit-wonder, or whether his or her songs will still be known and appreciated by our children and grandchildren.

Despite not having the power of hindsight in my favour, I will nevertheless make a bold claim about one particular contemporary artist. Reaching number one across an impressive range of countries, nominated for the World’s Best Entertainer of the Year, establishing his own clothing brand and receiving praise from the likes of Madonna, Lorde and even Nicolas Sarkozy- Stromae’s unapologetically unconventional style has won over millions.

Stromae’s second studio album ‘Racine Carée’ alone testifies his artistic merit. It took a mere four months for the album to sell a million copies, beating considerably the success of albums such as Adele’s ‘21’, which took eleven months to achieve the same target. Why is this the case? Thirty seconds into virtually any song by Stromae, it becomes clear that a remarkably eclectic range of influences are at play. Indeed, perhaps even more remarkable is how the singer-songwriter incorporates these influences into his art and makes them his own. The chart-topping single “Tous les mêmes” is a fusion of pop and techno swing, with a brass section motif dominating the chorus. Meanwhile “Ave Cesaria”, a tribute to the late Cape Verdean Morna singer Cesaria Evora, has prominent influences of Morna harmony and Afro-Caribbean polyrhythms. From just two songs, we can see the breadth of Stromae’s musical inspiration and his refreshing curiosity for what can be done with music: his musical style rejects boundaries, producing impressively sophisticated and unique results.

Intimately intertwined with Stromae’s musical talent lies the characteristic frankness of his lyrics. Unlike many contemporary pop artists who turn to money, sex and clubbing as the staple themes of their lyrics, Stromae takes an extraordinarily different approach. Within the same album, the lyrics in his songs confront pressing issues such as the addiction to social media in “Carmen”, growing up as a fatherless child in “Papaoutai” and even the devastating effects of cancer in “Quand c’est”. Stromae’s vision of music does not serve as a distraction from the challenges and struggles of everyday life, portraying an unrealistic image of unstoppable success and virtually unlimited wealth. He is unafraid of staring at the often unpleasant reality square in the face and making out of it extraordinary pieces of art, even conveying pertinent messages about these issues in doing so. I would not be surprised if this is one of the main reasons for his widespread success: his songs bring issues that are taboo, though very widespread, into the limelight through the medium of pop music.

“From just two songs, we can see the breadth of Stromae’s musical inspiration and his refreshing curiosity for what can be done with music”

Of course, how can we talk about Stromae as an artist without mentioning his showmanship? A remarkably skilled dancer, Stromae incorporates complex, if not considerably quirky dance routines both into his music videos and live performances, making his art a multi-dimensional experience. The defining aspect of Stromae is his unpredictability, which always leaves you wondering what he will deliver next. In addition to the aforementioned choreography, the artist regularly experiments with and reinvents his own material, for instance by performing an acapella rendition of “Tous les mêmes” on live TV and even opting to cross-dress on half of his body for the song in order to simultaneously convey the characters of a man and woman in a relationship. 

Stromae’s eccentricity and creativity make him an unforgettable name in 21st-century popular music as he draws from an impressively wide range of influences to produce a style and creation that is unmistakably his own. In the last few years, the artist has stepped out of the limelight, supposedly from a fear or losing touch with himself and reality. For me, this grounded modesty is yet another one of the key features of Stromae’s refreshing uniqueness that he has brought to modern popular music; a trait which, at least in my eyes, makes him all the more deserving of being recognised as a modern pop icon.