My Troubles on Her Heart

Édith Piaf’s voice consoled me in hard times. Recreating her singular trembling timbre with artificial intelligence desecrates her artistry and humanity.

Author: Liz Hynes ’17

Dead of winter, 2018. I’ve just moved into my first apartment: two roommates, one bathroom, and a bedroom barely big enough for a twin bed. If I stretch my arms to full wingspan, I can almost brush each wall with my fingertips. A hole in one wall barely fits the legal definition of a closet, let alone a wardrobe’s worth of clothes — plus it has no door, so it exists in a state of perpetual eruption. I pay $1,100 a month for my room and am dizzy in love with it.

All its drawbacks are erased because my room is the one with the fire escape. When it’s warm outside — which seems to be unnervingly often for February — I crawl out onto it and play my guitar; sometimes, if I’m feeling brave, I’ll even sing. Three floors down I see a few outdoor tables of a restaurant I’ll never be able to afford, but they’ve yet to tell me to shut up. Sometimes the neighbor’s cat slinks out on the neighboring fire escape. I always worry it will jump, but it only lounges, its tail flicking lazily to my clumsy strumming.

These benefits disappear when the cold returns. New York is so expensive that you might as well hand someone $20 just to step outside. That’s especially true on those days and nights when it’s too cold to wander, when warmth becomes a commodity for paying customers only.

Whenever the fire escape is frozen to the touch, I lie instead across my bed on my back, my feet touching the opposite wall, and rest my head against the windowsill. Upside down, the snow floats in reverse, like bubbles. I listen to Édith Piaf. Her voice buoys the snowflakes up toward the sky.

An illustration with a book and headphones on a bed against a window with snow falling outside.
Illustrations by João Fazenda

In the weeks after we signed our lease — that renter’s limbo where you have no money but can’t actually move in to the place you’ve spent it all on — I killed time and kept warm between shifts by riding the subway. Usually the E train, back and forth, the entire length of the line from Queens to Lower Manhattan. My room is much nicer than the train. It feels like a snow globe and is comparable in size.

It’s still a very lonely time. My friends and I are all overworked, underpaid, undersocialized. I wish I could stay in love, but I’m too busy. Sometimes I think I’m not even meant for love but only to yearn and toil and passively observe the life stretching before me. But when I hear Édith’s voice blossom into my ears as I cool my forehead against the frosty window of a late-night bus, I imagine I could be wrong. Her music makes the mundane magical.

I can’t remember not knowing that voice. Her ubiquity is part of her legacy: This 20th century French icon transcends time and space, providing the perfect score to any life. Even if you, like me, can barely understand a word she sings, her melodies lull you into the universal language of the heart.

I moved into this apartment because my internship — a dream job on a late-night talk show — kept getting extended; first for two weeks, then another week, and another, until I was certain they would invent a full-time position for me. I sank the few thousand dollars I’d scraped together into my share of the deposit and the next day was told my job had run out of things for me to do. Overnight, my income shrank by half, and my part-time job at a bar on weekends became my sole source of income. Now, every penny goes toward rent.

The bar job is one of the best I’ll ever have, but it’s not easy. I’m the only hostess at a lively double-decker bar — “DJ upstairs, piano downstairs,” I repeat dozens of times to increasingly tipsy patrons every evening. The place is tiny and fills up quickly. It’s my job to ensure it doesn’t become lethally crowded. My position is by the door, which in winter means I am constantly ill. There are regulars I come to love, regulars I come to tolerate, tourists who walk in starry-eyed, tourists who leave vomiting.

The money is decent, and I get paid in cash, but the main reason I stay so long is my co-workers. They’re unbelievably talented behind the bar and behind the mic — besides me, everyone is a professional singer and performs during their shifts. They seem to have more life than I’ll ever live. They tell me stories about New York during the 1980s, the ’90s, after 9/11, during the 2003 blackout. I hang on every word. The first time they include me in a round of shots during a particularly hectic night — a “staff meeting,” we call it — I am filled with a sense of belonging I’ve been chasing my entire life.

With no other work, and most of my friends working daytime hours, the bar becomes my primary source of income, and of community, too. I happily stay long after my shift ends, running out to the taco truck with everyone’s orders (like a good intern), drinking on the house, sharing stories as the night dwindles into dawn.

Because it’s fun, and because I can’t hang out during normal hours anyway, friends start to visit me at work. It becomes the stage for my life milestones. I fall in love — and quickly out again. I turn 22. I kiss a beautiful stranger. I am rejected by another. I mourn a friend’s death. Occasionally I work up enough nerve and earn enough street cred to get up and sing, even though I’m not very good.

The night my best friends get engaged, I send them a video of me singing Édith’s signature single, “La Vie en Rose.” It would become my friends’ wedding song, and I sing it in nonsensical, improvised French, missing all the high notes while another friend flawlessly accompanies me on the piano. Mine’s not the most respectful tribute to one of the most romantic songs of all time, but it is a fitting one. A packed, candlelit bar, laughing and singing in celebration of an engagement between people who aren’t even there; a love both real and imagined — a revisiting of the kind of scenes Édith must have performed in herself.

My daytime life is much less exciting. Everything I do is just biding time until my shift starts at 7 p.m. Sometimes I’ll get a gig working as an assistant on set for a day, or driving a van full of equipment, or helping someone organize old scripts. These tasks never pay very well, but it’s something, except when it’s nothing. (“You’re getting paid in experience!” — a currency my landlord strangely refuses to accept.) Yet here, too, my proximity to other people’s creativity sustains me, even though I have no time or energy to make anything of my own.

In my attempts to save money, I fall into the habit of popping melatonin the moment I wake up, so I sleep through the day and don’t need to eat until it’s time to head to work. I brag about this as if it’s a shrewd and savvy life hack, even though I am growing far too thin and rarely see sunlight. It will take the luxury of hindsight to realize what everyone else already sees: I am lethally depressed. Any time off is devoted to sleep. Some days, Édith Piaf’s haunting, holy voice is the only one I hear.

I allow myself two indulgences, because they are free and warm: going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and going to the movies. This lowest point of my life blessedly coincides with the last few months of universal free admission to the Met — a time-honored tradition that will end in March 2018 — as well as the golden age of MoviePass: for $10 a month, I can see unlimited movies at almost any theater. It’s an insanely good deal. I don’t need a Mendoza degree to tell you it’s also wholly unprofitable, but it’ll be a while before it falls apart.

I love few things more than going to the movies. I gravitate toward theaters the way others do toward churches. In college, my friends and I took a class that likened cinemas to cathedrals: both are places of communal gathering, both draw the eye upward, both celebrate spectacle, both command a reverent quiet peppered with prescribed moments of group participation.

I always linger after a film to watch the credits roll, a habit ingrained in me by my father, who moonlighted in the industry before I was born. Have you ever watched a film’s credits in their entirety? A lot of people haven’t, but everyone should. The sheer number of people it takes to make a film is astounding. Every movie is a miracle — even the ones you don’t like.

Whenever I’ve caught up with all the new releases in theaters, I go to the Met. I wander in warmth and beauty for hours, and nobody makes me buy anything. There’s no wrong way to enjoy a museum. Nobody knows if you get it or not. We’re all just looking.

This reprieve from judgment is convenient, because I don’t know how to think or talk intelligently about art. My relationship to art is like the one I enjoy with food and wine: I am an unlearned but passionate consumer. I don’t know how this pasta gets that texture, why this cabernet singes my tongue, how this painting of a shipwreck moves me to tears. That’s not my business. Some things I am here to create, others to appreciate. This time in my life feels so transactional: I trade my time for money and my money for food and a roof over my head. When I’m not actively making money, I’m drugging myself to sleep. But being around art makes me feel like a participant in human life, instead of some thing that existence is just happening to.

My circumstances gradually improve. I get a new job, then a better one, then an even better one. I keep subbing at the bar long after it’s financially necessary. Some days I host till 4 a.m., help close till 5, then walk two blocks to pick up a production van at 6 and drive it around for an 18-hour production day. Being awake for over 24 hours becomes routine — a far cry from my melatonin days. If this time in my life has any lasting health impacts, they haven’t surfaced yet.

The bar shifts are growing fewer and further between, which is probably for the best. Eventually, once most of my friends have quit or moved away or died, I’ll realize I’m probably never going back — though some version of me will always haunt that dimly lit doorway on Christopher Street.


An illustration with a pixelated image of Edith Piaf against a background of wires to represent the use of artificial intelligence to recreate her voice.

Last December, five winters after the one that brought me to New York, a major entertainment label announced its development of a new Édith Piaf biopic. The news did not delight me, and not just because I think Marion Cotillard already paid the best possible homage 17 years ago in La Vie en Rose. What I dislike about this project is that Édith’s voice and image will be recreated by artificial intelligence.

“Dislike” is the most polite distillation of my perspective on this. I have zero interest in artificially generated content. I have contempt for it. The late celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain is one of my favorite people who ever lived, and I still refuse to watch the most recent film about his life because they used AI — without permission! — to incorporate incredibly personal, private messages in his “voice.” The offense is compounded because it’s hard to imagine anyone who would have hated this intrusion more than Bourdain himself.

My fierce resistance to AI isn’t just a reductive Luddite attitude; it’s a legitimate intellectual and labor argument. It was a cornerstone of the writers’ strike my friends and I participated in for half of the past year. And so far, the United States Copyright Office has refused to register AI-generated artwork, on the — correct — objection that the technology is fundamentally built on plagiarism. Already, we’re seeing the founders of AI companies complain that restricting their free access to other people’s intellectual property — which they use to train their algorithms — will affect their bottom line. Their arrogance and entitlement are astounding. Imagine starting a business on the presumption you won’t have to pay for raw materials. “Charging me for flour and sugar will severely impact the bottom line of my cupcake business.” No kidding!

In the crucible of a strike, you quickly adapt to arguing within the parameters of capital, profit, labor and value, so this line of thinking tends to frame my anti-AI diatribes. It’s easy, effective and accurate to argue that AI’s insulting mimicry of “art” is a gimmick made possible only by theft. Unregulated AI would annihilate the entertainment industry, automating thousands of jobs that are currently performed by unionized human hands, and often creating an inferior product. (Ever wonder why movies are getting darker? Automation is already rampant in the visual effects industry, which is, woefully, nonunionized.) But innumerable studies warn us of the dangers it poses to the wider workforce, too; especially in the U.S., where we struggle with underfunded unemployment services, offer no universal basic income and tie health care to employment.

But here is another point, one I dismissed as saccharine and ineffectual during our strike but consider more legitimate in its wake: the intangible cultural value of real, human art.

Art — whether it’s music, painting, prose, sculpture, film, whatever — is not interesting merely because it exists. It is a fundamental part of the human experience to create it, to contemplate it, to appreciate it. To ask: Who made this? Why? Where did the artist come from? Who did this person love? How did she suffer? What powerful emotions compelled such outward expression? And all that comes before we even consider the value a work of art has for its audience. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say art — Édith Piaf’s music, specificallykept me alive during my first lonely winter in New York City.

Art, as the German artist Paul Klee said about a century ago, is the invisible made visible. What benefit does “art” have if it can be generated by the push of a button? Done this way, the creative process remains invisible; worse, it’s rendered inhuman. Yet, when walking through one of the bleakest valleys of my life, I sought comfort in art as a lifeline to other people. These artists held me, reassured me: You are not alone. People have always felt this way. Your pain will not last forever. This is part of the privilege of being human. That will not last forever, either.

An algorithm can mimic everything — except all the things that matter. It can know neither hunger nor exhaustion nor heartbreak. It has never been touched, never tasted coffee, never trembled from the cold, never heard the sound of soil hitting a friend’s coffin, never felt that first warm breeze after a punishing winter. Why would we outsource art to a thing that cannot feel?

An executive responsible for this monstrosity teased Édith’s biopic with the quote: “When creating the film, we kept asking ourselves, ‘If Édith were still with us, what messages would she want to convey to the younger generations?’”

The question insults audiences everywhere. Are we supposed to believe that whatever studio-executive- and focus-group-approved shadow of Édith Piaf ends up on screen could convey any message that Édith would want to send? Why would we even need to pretend she’d be on board with any of this? The woman was born during World War I. She died in 1963. I’m not convinced she could last 10 seconds on TikTok without having a stroke. Her last words were, “Every damn thing you do in this life, you have to pay for.” She has paid her dues; she has earned her rest. If we want to know what “messages” she would “convey,” great news: She recorded hundreds of songs you can still listen to. We already have the technology.

When I imagine this shade of Édith entombed in a soulless computer server in some dark editing bay, I shudder. I want to delete her, to free her. It does not impress me that technology can recreate a convincing visual puppet, a simulacrum of the singular, trembling timbre of her voice. Of course it can. Technology can go to the moon and defuse bombs and help cure illnesses. We need it to do these things. It can also destroy worlds. We don’t need it to do that.

The source of my frustration may be my fundamental belief that we shouldn’t “bring people back.” This particular use of AI seems to be born out of a desperation to conquer death, which gives so much meaning to life. Why must we demand artificial life beyond death, when art already outlives us?

Without any of these eerie recreations, before this abomination of a film project, Édith’s life, her gift, her voice, sustains. Sixty years after her death, it rings through the rooms of people she’ll never know. Like a broke, exhausted girl, for instance. The songs make her days a little warmer, make her feel a little more human, as Édith’s voice floats through a frozen windowpane, into snowflakes falling up toward the sky.

Liz Hynes is an Emmy award-winning writer and a councilmember of the Writers Guild of America East. She lives in New York City.