Phoenix's style of rock music is like a pair of designer jeans — an elegant, meticulously constructed version of a genre of music that is broadly mythologized as scrappy, raw, and wild. If there is anything distinctly French about them, this is it — they can otherwise pass as American or British, but their commitment to gloss, glamour, and formalism is a clear connection to the small handful of other French acts — Daft Punk, Air, M83, Justice — who have also broken into the American mainstream over the past decade and a half.
Prior to the mid-'90s, French music was mainly a novelty in American culture. Serge Gainsbourg crossed over somewhat in the late '60s, but there's almost no trace of French influence in American pop through the '80s and most of the '90s, much less any acts who can play arenas or headline a major festival, as Phoenix and Daft Punk do today. Stereolab, a British band fronted by the French singer Laetitia Sadier, opened up some interest in music with French vocals in the college radio market, but only ever attained a modest cult audience. They played a key role in opening up interest in French music among late '90s indie fans, and so when Daft Punk and Air emerged in 1997 and 1998, respectively, there was a ready niche for them in American culture.
Daft Punk and Air presented very different but complementary versions of French-ness in their music. Air were more obviously and unapologetically Gallic, and made ultra-romantic, overtly sexy lounge music in the tradition of Gainsbourg.
Daft Punk intentionally obscured their nationality — they've always appeared as dapper robots in public and only include English lyrics on their albums — but their music exemplifies a very French aesthetic for hedonism.
Aside from romanticism, style, and glamour, the key connection between Air and Daft Punk — and really, pretty much every other pop act France has ever been known for — is a total absence of rock 'n' roll. And that's where Phoenix come in.
Phoenix aren't the first French rock band, but they're the only one who have made a significant impact outside of France. This took a while. Their debut album, United, came out in 2000, and spawned two minor hits — the groovy disco number "If I Ever Feel Better" and the moody rocker "Too Young" — but they didn't begin to fully cross over until their 2006 album It's Never Been Like That.
That record was a clear turning point — the lyrics went from fairly straightforward to almost entirely cryptic, they ditched a lot of the cold, antiseptic keyboard tones that marked their first two albums, and fully embraced a style that roughly resembled The Strokes' rigid, highly formal approach to garage rock. They've come full circle on their new album, Bankrupt!, grafting prominent keyboard parts to what has become their signature up-tempo mode.
Around the same time Phoenix recorded It's Never Been Like That, Daft Punk made an album, Human After All, that similarly put rock riffs in musical air quotes; M83 developed a keyboard-centric version of shoe-gazer rock; and Justice's early singles and remixes filtered a hard rock aesthetic through synths and big beats. It's hard to say exactly what made all of these French musicians embrace rock in the mid-'00s; maybe something was just in the air following the international success of stylish rock revivalists like The Strokes and The White Stripes, but in the context of French pop culture, it was a statement. France's lack of contributions to rock culture probably has something to do with a generation or two of French musicians putting a distance between their national identity and the influence of American and British cultural imperialism. This would explain why it took so long for rock aesthetics to filter through French music and then come back around to the English-speaking world, and also why all of the artists who did put some ironic distance between their music and any notion of rock authenticity.
This isn't to say that Phoenix are smirking their way through their songs. Quite the contrary, actually — their songs have always been very straightforward and earnest in their emotion, even when the lyrics have been obscure and ambiguous. (Singer Thomas Mars tends to balance out lines like "watch them built up a meteor tower" with heart-melting hooks like "I'll be anything you ask and more, hey hey hey hey hey!") But listening to the Phoenix's albums, there's a sense that rock music and English are both second languages for them. Some of their best musical moments seem like the result of getting the syntax of rock just slightly wrong, like in the jarringly odd dynamic structure of "S.O.S. in Bel Air," or using a familiar idiom, like hyper-nostalgic John Hughes movie rock on "Lisztomania," in fascinatingly offbeat way.
Phoenix's reluctance to embody rock clichés while clearly wanting to create big, dramatic, emotionally engaging rock music is precisely what has made them go over so well over in America over the past few years, particularly among indie fans and NPR listeners. If any one thing has characterized that section of the rock audience over the past decade, it's a strange tension between being vaguely embarrassed by aggressive, extroverted rock and craving stylish, dreamy, melodic rock. So, in other words, a lot of Americans have come around to having a roughly similar perspective on rock music as the French — a bit cynical about the tradition and rituals of rock, but completely in love with the youthful, idealistic drama and emotional punch it can deliver.