I came across a thread on the Internet in which one young contributor asked if Edith Piaf was her era's equivalent of Britney Spears or Madonna. Answer: no.
I saw the film La Vie en Rose in a packed theater in Los Angeles. As large as the crowd was, it seemed as if the only members of the audience who didn't have gray hair were those who were bald. So I understand the challenge of trying to explain Edith Piaf to younger generations who have no one today with whom she can be compared.
Like Britney Spears and Madonna, Piaf was a singer who engaged in self-destructive behavior. But that's where the similarity ends. Britney Spears and Madonna are entertainers who sing. Edith Piaf used singing to express the real-life pain and passion of her own life ... like Judy Garland or Janis Joplin. I had the honor of seeing Janis Joplin perform three times at the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco. Once I was able to squeeze my way up to the front of the crowd. It was hard watching Janis Joplin from that close because when she sang, she appeared to draw forth a lifetime of humiliation and disappointment. She exposed her personal pain so clearly that I felt I was invading her privacy just watching her perform. That was Edith Piaf, as well.
There is a scene in La Vie en Rose in which, after a performance in New York, Piaf is approached by Marlene Dietrich, who tells the singer that she is "the soul of Paris." That Piaf's music represents the soul of Paris is still true today. Yet Piaf reached well beyond the soul of Parisians. My father-in-law, a Mexican-American with Navajo blood, was a tough guy who fought in New Guinea and the Philippines during World War II, and spent most of his working career as a spot painter at a General Motors factory. One day he told me that he liked the sound of the French language and he wondered if the French had any music worth listening to. The next time I visited him, I gave him an Edith Piaf CD. Despite the fact that my father-in-law did not understand a word of French, he was moved almost to tears by Piaf's singing. "She knows," he told me, "how hard life can be." No, Edith Piaf was not the Britney Spears or Madonna of her era.
P.S.: For those who have already seen La Vie en Rose and wondered about Marion Cotillard, the actress who does such an extraordinary job of portraying Piaf, here is a photo that shows what she looks like when she is not channeling Edith Piaf. And, oh yes, here is the real Edith Piaf.