From oddball outcast to record-breaking superstar, Jean Michel Jarre helped usher in the synth-heavy sound of the 1980s. Now the French electro pioneer is looking to change the world once again through his work with the United Nations
While preparing to interview Jean Michel Jarre, I stumbled across a top-rated YouTube comment lauding the musician’s brand of pioneering electronica, while blasting his modern-day counterparts.
“It’s a disgrace that people like Skrillex and David Guetta go on stage and literally push a play button when people like JMJ are doing this,” said commenter Jordannadroj20, garnering 36 upvotes in agreement.
The video in question – a live performance of Oxygène II in Poland which has more than seven million hits – captures Jean Michel’s manic stage presence, as the Frenchman leaps through a jungle of synthesisers to perform the otherworldly instrumental.
But as he sits across the table from me in an Emirates Towers conference room, the relaxed 64-year-old dismisses the suggestion that technology is replacing raw talent in a music world saturated by synthetic sounds.
“From generation to generation, technology has inspired the same ‘pushing a button’ phrase,” says Jean Michel. “When the organ was invented in the 16th century, people were burnt for playing an instrument that came from Satan. At that time, people were saying it wasn’t a real instrument and that it was just pushing a button.
“When I started, it was the same thing with oscillators on keyboards,” he continues. “People said, ‘They’re not instruments’ because culturally they were used to something different.”
The talkative Lyon native has remained on the pulse of what’s currently happening in the assorted fields of electronic music. Undeniably influential on a swathe of artists in the past 35-plus years, Jarre says the pendulum also swings the other way.
“Some of the younger acts are also now a big influence for me – from Justice and Daft Punk to Chemical Brothers, Moby or the dubstep scene. There are so many interesting genres of music under the electronic umbrella these days. It’s all very rich and exciting.”
And he is unashamedly utilitarian in his musical outlook, insisting the ends can always justify the means.
“By principle, I would defend all those new ways of making music,” says Jean Michel. “It’s not about pushing a button – at the end of the day, it’s only the result that counts. Who cares if it’s done with a keyboard or a virtual instrument?
“The emotion doesn’t come from the instrument, it comes from the person wielding it. But you’ll always be someone’s devil.”
This fierce defence of today’s new breed dates back to his own time as an envelope-pusher – although in the mid-1970s, Jean Michel appeared to be fighting a losing battle in the era of glam rock and disco.
Born into a creative family in 1948, Jean Michel’s youth was divided between his mother and her own parents. He immersed himself in piano studies and painting, and developed an interest in jazz during his teenage years, before continuing his studies at the Conservatoire de Paris.
But perhaps the singlemost influential figure in Jean Michel’s transition to electronica was Pierre Schaeffer – inventor of the avant garde ‘musique concrète’ genre which mixed the late composer’s love of science and music.
“Pierre taught me this idea that music isn’t made of notes and harmonies, but sounds,” Jean Michel tells us. “Music is like cooking – it’s a tactile way of dealing with these sounds and frequencies.”
After a couple of failed attempts at launching a meaningful solo career, Jean Michel released the home-recorded Oxygène in late 1976. With its experimental sound, complete lack of vocals and an average song length of six-and-a-half minutes, he once more struggled initially to capture anyone’s attention.
“All the record companies refused my album,” he recalls, “eventually it was just a small independent label that released Oxygène. Plus there were lots of people sending their LP back to the store, saying there was a problem with the music, because it started with some white noise.”
Despite its inauspicious roots, the album became both an international phenomenon and a seminal recording of its day – helping usher in the synth-drenched era to come.
He followed this up in 1978 with concept album Équinoxe, and performed in Paris for a record-breaking crowd of one million people the following year to celebrate France’s Bastille Day on July 14.
(Jean Michel would go on to top his Guinness World Record for performing to an outdoor crowd three times – by playing to 1.5 million people in Texas in 1986, 2.5 million people in Paris in 1990 and 3.5 million people in Moscow in 1997).
As well as selling an estimated 80 million albums in his lengthy career and gaining a reputation for his absurdly ostentatious stage shows, Jean Michel has also worked for UNESCO (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) as a Goodwill Ambassador since 1993.
And it’s in this capacity that he came to the UAE last week, to mark the 25th anniversary of the nation’s Higher Colleges of Technology institution, as well as to contribute to local think tanks and meet leading educational figures.
“I like the link made in Dubai between education, technology and environment. It’s an interesting triangle,” says Jean Michel.
“At the end of the 20th century, I think we lost our vision and our hopes for the future. It’s time to recreate that vision, and cities like Dubai are providing that sort of heroic fantasy.”
But the musician also remains eager to ensure he’s helping to provide a more robust and optimistic future for the planet and its inhabitants.
“When I started with Oxygène, not many people were involved in ecology,” says Jean Michel. “No political parties were interested in this neo-hippy dream. Now more or less everyone on the planet today is aware of the importance of the environment.
“It should work that way for education. More than one billion people are illiterate – it’s only through education that we’ll be able to understand anything from extremism to financial crises to global warming. That message shouldn’t be addressed to governments only, but also to people in the street.
“It’s through education that you can balance pragmatism with a vision for the future.”