Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien

Edith PiafWhen I think of songs that are about strength and self-reliance, I think of Frank Sinatra. Songs like “It Was A Very Good Year” and “My Way” and “New York, New York” (even though I too know it from Liza Minnelli singing it in the film). But when I want to pick myself up, it is not one of these songs I turn to. It is instead Edith Piaf’s “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien,” or in English, “No, I regret nothing”!

I always associate Piaf with strength, just as I do with her American counterpart Billie Holiday. And I find that really interesting because if you’ve listened to Frank Sinatra at all, you know that he is just a male ripoff of Holiday. Listen to his phrasing. And Sinatra wasn’t hiding it. He said, “It is Billie Holiday who was, and still remains, the greatest single musical influence on me.” But that is not what I want to talk about; it’s just an interesting aside.

As much as I love the work of Sinatra, there is something missing that really is there with Holiday and Piaf. Both women were extremely strong, but they were not afraid to bare their undersides. And that brings us back to “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien.” If I had an army and we were about to go into battle, I would play it for them.[1]

The lyrics in English are (very roughly):

No, nothing at all
No, I regret nothing
Neither the good that I’ve done
Nor evil, it’s all the same to me!

No, nothing at all
No, I regret nothing
It is paid, swept away, forgotten
I’m happy about the past!

And it continues on—unrepentant. Oh how I wish that I ever felt like that. Instead, I could sing, “Oui, je regrette tout!” (Yes, I regret everything!) Except. Not in the most fundamental way. I regret all the embarrassments of the past. I regret the stupidity of the past. I regret all the lessons that I had to learn. But I do not regret all the lessons that I have learned. And I do not regret the man that I am. So in that sense, “Non, je ne regrette rien!”

Of course, the song itself is a sucker punch. It is strong until the very end, when it is weak indeed. In the last line of the song, she explains why she regrets nothing:

No, nothing at all
No, I regret nothing
Because my life, because my joys
Today, it starts with you!

Oh! Yes, I see now. I really cannot imagine falling in love again. But a friend of mine at 60 was heart sick over a girl half his age. So who knows? But there is something about being in love that makes you feel that you are starting over—that the past does not matter. You are off one train and onto another. And everything on that last train, regardless the good and the bad, brought you to this new train—to this new life. Of course, I don’t need a lover to feel that way. I feel that way every day. Of course, the refrain is not “I regret nothing!” Instead, it is, “There is nothing else I can do.”

The end of the song shows emotional weakness. If Frank Sinatra had ever sung the song, I’m sure he would have had the last line changed. No manly man could ever admit that a woman would be the making of them. This is despite the fact that in my experience, this is exactly what most men think. Most men want their wives to be Lady Macbeth. Instead, most wives are far more practical, “Now why would you want to go an kill King Duncan? He’s given you a good job. You’re retirement is secure. So you become King of Scotland. Then what? Macduff comes in and kills you. Thane of Cawdor is a good job. I just don’t see why you’d want to risk that!”

But for a woman to admit that a man makes all the vicissitudes of the past worth while, is perfectly okay. And it was even more so back in 1960. But I still see the song as an anthem of acceptance and pride. Because I believe the woman who sang all those lyrics up to that final one doesn’t need that man. And if he brushes her off, she will still sing, “Non, je ne regrette rien!”

[1] I do love this but I would still go with Piaf!

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