The death of Johnny Hallyday has caused an outpouring of emotions in Geneva newspapers and across France. Pages have been dedicated to reliving his turbulent life. Beyond obvious comparisons to Elvis Presley, it is intriguing to observe such attachment to one person.
A community formed around Johnny, fan clubs flourished, a generation passed on their love of him and his music to their children. There is a Johnny Nation.
More than just a celebrity’s fan club, the Johnny Hallyday Nation is a community of people with an emotional attachment that goes beyond star gazing. He could be drunk, drugged or cancel concerts; people still loved him. He could commit unsavory actions in his personal life; people forgave him. He was beyond ordinary critique and usual standards of judgment.
(I will certainly not compare Johnny to President Donald Trump, but it is puzzling how Trump’s base of supporters has not budged despite revelations, especially in the post-Weinstein era. of his sexual abuses.)
There are people who are judged differently from others. Why and how they get this immunity remains a mystery. As Adam Gopnik writes in his tribute to Johnny in The New Yorker: He never lost the affection and the esteem, his place at the top of the French popular pyramid.” Gopnik, with his legendary literary precision, could only write that Johnny’s popularity was ”Because.” One word. He adds by saying that “Johnny was an unlevelled mountain.”
How do we understand the emotional attachment to Johnny? We know that states try to construct emotional attachments. Flags are designed, national anthems are written. (There is something of a Swiss nation despite the difficulty of writing an anthem in a country with three official languages.) National heroes are mythologized such as William Tell and Henry Dunant. Demythologizing those heroes never works since the foundational role of mythologizing is paramount in nation building. Do we really want to know if William Tell existed? Why Dunant was thrown out of the YMCA or Red Cross? States need emotional attachments, nations must be constructed and imagined.
But Johnny? Was his myth constructed? How did he come to be so popular? We know and have studies on how Elvis was constructed by "Colonel Tom" Parker, Elvis’ manager. Parker was one of the earliest masterminds of talent management, certainly one of if not the most successful. Johnny had managers, but none in the strategic sense of Parker.
Max Weber made a distinction between charismatic leaders who set out to be popular with definitive strategies and someone who is appealing and naturally followed by an audience. In both cases there must be talent, but in the Elvis case, we can see how Parker created the myth. In Johnny’s case, the story seems to be different, which makes it even more intriguing.
(Hillary Clinton had all the top strategists working for her, and she failed. Trump ran a chaotic campaign with much less preparation and won. There are lessons to be learned here.)
Johnny was more than just a singer and actor. He was also more than a performer. He was a charismatic mythical figure who positively satisfied a need in millions of people. Other charismatic mythical figures such as Hitler have satisfied this need destructively. We should admire Johnny for his ability to so capture an audience, to have a Johnny Nation created around him. And we will continue to wonder about why Johnny, and how it was done.