Mes Aïeux is a Québec folk-music troupewith a difference. Based in cosmopolitan Montreal, the group evokes strong memories of the history of French-speaking Québecois in a song entitled “Dégenerations.”
The song’s title is a play on words, evoking the decline and decay of Québecois society. It eventually became a sensation, but when it first came out its politically incorrect lyrics made it the object of an unoffical media ban. While the song lauds the festive impulse of dancing, it refers critically to abortion, spurns TV, gives unequivocal praise to their ancestors’ (les aïeux) high birthrates, and pours scorn on the new culture of empty nests.
Musicians and artists are often the first to see irony and tragedy in a social crisis. “Dégenerations” highlights a recent social shift in Québec, a reaction against the 1960s consensus. There is a new angst over the goals and assumptions that drove the province headlong into secular modernity, the so-called Quiet Revolution of the 1960s.
The Quiet Revolution was a disaster for the Churcha case study for adherents of secularization theory. Almost overnight, Québec emerged as a newly industrialized, twentieth-century society. Quebeckers have since ventured on a collective meander of self-discovery, a vaguely patriotic mission for progress, liberty, and social order that counsels the loosening of older inhibitions. Embracing modernity, Quebeckers have rejected the province’s previously self-imposed isolation. Many believe that a cabal of Catholic prelates, English (Canadian) businessmen, and conservative politicians kept Québec pious, rural, and poor. This narrative has predominated as Québec has become more secular, urban, and wealthy.
A quintessential expression of the social-liberal consensus can be found in the opinions of Rémy, a garrulous character in Denys Arcand’s 2003 film Barbarian Invasions. The film canvases a range of emotions and convictions borne of progressive individuality, set against dark forces of the past. In his better-known 1986 film, Jesus of Montréal, Arcand promoted a secular Christology, smiting the Church and the corporate ethos along the way for good measure.
But the wheels of culture seem to be turning. In “Dégenerations” by Mes Aïeux, the culture vs. Church worldview collapses. The enemy is not the Church, not the English, not a dark past (real or imagined). Instead, the enemy becomes contemporary attitudes and mores. Only yesterday, it seems, expelling the dark past was the great common goal. Now the modernizing consensus seems to be falling apart.
Evidence of change is not limited to folk songs. In 2007, in the context of public hearings on the place of immigrants in Québec, a columnist for Le Journal de Montréal remarked, “You'd think the years when the Catholic Church lorded over Quebec society were a golden age . . . [that] it wasn't the Grande Noirceur [Great Darkness], but the Great Enlightenment.”
The new nostalgia reflects a growing unease. In the face of pluralism, many Québecois feel that they have lost their roots, and this loss feels pervasive. The yearning for rootedness is manifest in the emphasis on the soil in the music video for “Dégenerations.” I’ve never thought of Québec nationalism as of the blood-and-soil type. With the exception of the FLQ (Front de Libération du Québec) terrorism in the 1960s and early 1970s, Québec nationalism has been a liberal, not a radical movement. These days, it’s even an ethnically inclusive movement.
Yet, in order to embolden the listener to the joy of the ancestral dancing at the song’s end, Mes Aïeux sings about a plot of land, of farming and of turning a small profit for a large family. The image is one of continuity: The soil gets passed on from one generation to the next. This stands in contrast to the contemporary descendant, who is cooped up with cabin fever (encabanée) in a cold city apartment. The song ends with an invitation. The disaffected, loveless, childless products of the Quiet Revolution are then invited to get out and dance the way their grandparents danced.
In the Québec of old, dance always had a whiff of defiance. To dance was to express cultural survival in the face of the long odds known as l’hiver, winter. Every March, it is customary to visit a cabane à sucre, or sugar shack, after four snowy, wintery months for some pea soup, ham, pancakes and maple syrup, and to celebrate the first fruits of spring in the trees’ flowing sap. Typically, after the meal is finished, much dancing takes place.
Traditional life in Québec was rooted in the land, its rhythms, the adversities and joys it brings. It was a culture of gratitude. Contrast this cultural landscape with the arid, secular joylessness to which Quebeckers find themselves accustomed, a culture of anxious retirement planning without descendants to care for their parents. (The song refers to the REER, the Canadian equivalent of the American 401k,) It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Take Gilles Vigneault, the Quebec nationalists’ singer-songwriter idol who wrote the now famous unofficial Quebec "national" anthem called Gens du pays, People of the country. The refrain runs: “Gens du pays, c'est votre tour / De vous laisser parler d'amour.” (“People of the country, this is your turn / To let yourselves speak of love.”) Is Vigneault’s call to love the same as the call to joyful dance in “Dégenerations”?
Well, no. Love was killed by the 1960s, precisely as “Dégenerations” narrates. Love is reduced to libertinismflight from an oppressive past straight into the oppression of a childless society. As for abortion, the members of the group reportedly felt obliged (under pressure, one wonders?) to foreswear any pro-life message in their lyrical lament. So, given the intolerance for any public, pro-life dissent, we are left to lament the inability of those singers to let their own lament be the dissent it really is. Confused? Apparently Mes Aïeux is too. Degeneration has that effect.
There are no religious references in the song. Maybe that can be chalked up to studied avoidance, given Québec’s Catholic roots. And, to this day, Québec’s Catholic roots are unmistakable, notably the imprint of Catholic social thought. For instance, the largest provincial banking institutionthe caisses populaires movementis a federation of formerly independent co-ops fostered by Catholic clergy a hundred years ago in order to provide savings and loan services for the French-speaking majority who could not access the English-dominated banks. It continues today as a modified form of distributismthat once famous Catholic “third way” between capitalism and socialism. Each spring, fittingly enough, as “caisse pop” members, we receive a nice little three-figure dividend, a “small profit”not unlike that gleaned from the fruits of the land. Cultural roots in Québec run deep, close to the land and with a strong collectivist sentiment. But what about Catholicism itself?
Every Canadian Thanksgiving, my family makes the trek out to Saint Benoit du Lac, a Benedictine monastery in the bucolic eastern townships of Québec. We go to Mass, buy some tax-free cheese, and pick apples in the monks’ organic orchard. Each year, we see new monks in the sanctuarygrey and white heads are no longer as ubiquitous around the altar. This year, a large busload of young adults affiliated with a new lay movement from the nearby town of Sherbrooke filled the pews. The Church was packed. Puzzling, I thoughtwhat is going on here?
Maybe the unexpected popularity of “Dégenerations” finds an echo in real life commitments. In small steps, some Quebeckers are returning to a Christian way of life. The return to the spiritual taproot: one person, one town at a time. One day, perhaps, like the airplay suddenly granted to Mes Aïeux’s song, a Christian re-emergence will be there for everyone to see. This will likely take a generation and much more regeneration.
While baby boomers are still in thrall to the script of the 1960s, there are new moral sensibilities taking hold right under our noses. It’s not a political protest. It’s not a religious revivalnot yet, at least. What we hear is a lament for culture, a dissent, a reflection on Québec’s roots, a felt desire for something solid, permanent, and life-giving.
Paul Allen is associate professor of theology at Concordia University, Montréal.
“Dégenerations” by Mes Aïeux