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In the video for "Ce Jeu," a recent song by the French trio Yelle, singer Julie Budet shifts through hyper-color wardrobe changes like a snake shedding skin. One minute she's wearing Nerf sculpture sunglasses; the next, grinding in a bold-stripe duo-chromatic body suit. Minimalism this ain't. But it is keenly directed toward the voracious visual appetite created by the current French pop scene, and Yelle's stylish electro-pop is catching on in the States via the Internet.
Budet, however, grew up in the small village of Plaine-Haute, in France's Brittany region. It was a satisfying, simple life, and she had little aspiration for the big city, let alone stardom. But years later she would become entrenched in the local street culture. She and her friends went dancing, listened to hip-hop, and skateboarded at local parks. "I had a balanced youth with a nice family," she says. "My father is a singer, so I was born into the music culture. I had several bands when I was a teen — nothing really serious. When I met [producer] GrandMarnier, Yelle was born."
But her career jumped off that flat playing field of mere hobby when the new group decided to post a song, "Short Dick Cuizi," on its MySpace page. It was a diss track aimed at Cuizinier, a rapper in the Parisian hip-hop group TTC, and between the minor scandal caused by the track's biting tone, and Budet's own neon-lit sex appeal, the group became an Internet phenomenon.
The process itself isn't so fascinating; viral marketing, music blogs, and YouTube have made Internet fame a methodical business model. But Yelle's songs demand an extra bit of attention from listeners — all the lyrics are in French. But the band's bright aesthetic, along with Budet's penchant for flirty, knowing looks in the group's growing library of online photos, speaks directly to the act's would-be audience what the lyrics cannot. As already discovered by the Brazilian group Bonde do Rôle, which sings in Portuguese, dirty talk bridges the language gap nicely. One might not know the specific meaning, but it suffices to know the songs are about sex.
About this, Budet responds coyly. "Everybody loves sex, so it's normal that we sing about it," she exuberantly replies in her somewhat wobbly English. ("My English is so ... French," she says.) "But if you listen to the album, songs about sex are not a majority, so why don't you ask me questions about the other subjects? Because you like sex too!"
Yelle's songs are nothing if not efficient: a limber backbone of a bumpy beat pulled from hip-hop or trebly synthesizer loops, a skeleton of bass, and Budet's recognizable voice. On their slower songs, she doesn't sing so much as gingerly rap the lyrics, allowing her to skip along with the pace instead of remaining camped in the staccato delivery of commercial hip-hop's braggadocio. When the pace picks up, GrandMarnier and keyboard player Tepr spit out an array of blips and splashy handclaps, cranking up to enough beats per minute to be provocative on the dance floor. The band appears to be having a good time, and with its harmless party music at the fore, Yelle seems an easy draw for hipsters and dance club dwellers alike.
In fact "A Cause des Garçons" — a single from the group's debut album, Pop-Up — comes remixed by Tepr as the last track. It's a flurry of big beats, in a style not unlike that of the über-popular French duo Justice. This style also aligns Yelle with the burgeoning tecktonik dance scene, a version of hip-hop and club dancing invented in France. Do a YouTube search for Yelle, and alongside the band's official videos, you'll find myriad response videos of dancers moving in twitchy gyrations to the group's songs.
Despite the huge online push and major-label domestic support for Pop-Up, Budet says it's a pretty lo-fi setup when the three come up with their songs. "We work in a home studio configuration — you know, just a laptop, a few synths, and a microphone," she says. "It's not a real 'studio' feeling, more something like a room to work. GrandMarnier produces; Tepr helps him sometimes. We co-write the lyrics, GrandMarnier and me. And then it's like a ping-pong between the lyrics and the music, until it's a song we love."
The world, it seems, is loving those songs too. On the way to the States, Yelle traversed South America and recently appeared on the BBC show Lily Allen and Friends. But back in France, the small-town girl in Budet enjoys nights in Paris but prefers her current town, Saint-Brieuc, for its simple pleasures. "I love cooking, I love to do house things — you know, taking a bath, then cooking a cake, then doing nothing, relaxing and doing some 'mum' stuff," she says with a laugh. "Even if I am not a mum."
But that girl is still having a good time on the road with her saucy songs. "Music is fun," she says, "but we do it very seriously."