24 September 2009


Bogosse nec plus ultra,
le dauphin de tous les minets

If brevity is indeed the soul of wit, then the life and career of Filip Nikolic constitute a work of genius. The former standout of 2Be3, France’s most successful boy band, was barely 35 years old when he died 16 September of a heart attack, definitively answering the question, “Where Are They Now?”

It turns out he’d been acting on a TV police drama, in plain view for several years, and preparing a solo comeback in music. Yet he’d nevertheless slipped into such obscurity that the newspaper Libération purposely misspelled his name as “Philippe” throughout his obituary. The point, I guess, was to signify the dim recollection most readers would have of a man who was once — for about 15 minutes — one of the country’s biggest pop stars. Très amusant, non? (And I’ll bet his family loved reading it.)

How fleeting is fame! And beauty! And life.

You may not have been aware of the international arms race in boy bands, but it’s a matter of historical record: in the 1990s, 2Be3 was France’s leading answer to the dominant American and British groups.* French producers sought to surge ahead of the competition by casting adults (all three “boys” were in their 20s), instead of assembling young teens and building them up over time, according to the standard practice. In a sense, this put a time limit on the experiment: if 2Be3 didn’t catch on fast, the boys band would be old men.

Yet success was almost instantaneous. Within a year of the band’s launching, in 1996, their likenesses were enshrined in the Grevin wax museum, a certain indicator of French celebrity. 2Be3’s first and second albums sold so well that the boys took a long hiatus in the United States, to perfect their English and to cultivate their ultimate ambition: to work with Madonna. However, few people, least of all Madge, noticed the results (“Excuse My French”), and the group broke up. French women and gay men may now remember 2Be3 only mistily and with slight embarrassment, as early crushes, the stuff of adolescent dreams, before taste and experience were acquired.

Filip and his bandmates, Adel Kachermi and Frank Delay, had known each other since junior-high school (unlike most boy bands, who meet first in a producer’s casting call). Apart from that friendship, however, they could hardly have seemed more artificial: ethnically mixed as if to the specifications of a marketing survey**, chiseled and buffed to improbable radiance.

There was absolutely nothing homoerotic about 2Be3.
I have no idea why you would think a thing like that.

It was difficult to discern their actual talents. Their voices were so synthesized and homogenized that they could have come from anywhere. If 2Be3 never endured nasty rumors or a Milli Vanilli scandal, that may be due only to the fact that the group disbanded in 2001, just as the French really latched onto the Internet.

They surely were no actors, as they demonstrated on their weekly sitcom, which made Saved by the Bell look like the Comédie Française, and which consisted primarily of excuses for the boys to parade shirtless or in their underwear while complaining about their girlfriends. The continual, contrived exposure of exquisite flesh led to a substantial gay following. When amateur photos of Filip naked in a backstage shower popped up in a magazine, and teenyboppers’ parents expressed shock and disappointment***, his gay fans only wondered what had taken so damned long. We’d been waiting.

As dancers, 2Be3 did display some genuine skill, and Filip’s training as a gymnast graced the act with impressive backflips and handstands. Yet this proficiency in choreography only led to further doubts about vocal ability. Since there was no way they could dance that way while singing, it stood to reason that they performed to pre-recorded tracks — and who could be sure who’d done the pre-recording? After all, singing acts with more distinctive voices usually hire other people to do the acrobatic dancing.

These things might have mattered more if the stakes had been higher. But the songs were dancy piffle, sugar-free bubblegum that won’t stick to your braces. (That said, their biggest hit, “Partir un jour,” has thumped through my head for days.) Nobody took 2Be3 very seriously, and when their flash-in-the-pan popularity began to fade, they discreetly (for the most part) stepped out of the spotlight and went to look for other work.

Filip himself always struck me as an amiable, unpretentious fellow, perhaps not the sharpest cheese in the larder but conscientious in his attempts to make the most of his limited assets. That his life has proved as brief as his success is sad indeed. And as this phase of my life in France draws to a close, his death reminds me that nothing lasts.

*NOTE: The name 2Be3 is weak wordplay, presumably signaling a desire for success in Britain and America: with a French accent, “to be three” sounds like “to be free.” “Pour être libre” became the group’s rallying cry and title of their sitcom, but non-fans derided them as “deux-beuh-trois.”

**NOTE: While all the boys were born in France, Filip’s family is of Serbian ancestry.

***NOTE: Apparently, other French pop stars shower fully clothed. Now you know.

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