Paul Van Haver is a musician for his time, with the charts, headlines and YouTube clicks to prove it — a gravel-voiced, mixed-race performer whose melancholic French-language dance pop has channeled, to popular acclaim, the gray that currently hangs over Europe.
Still Mr. Van Haver has no desire to be a “salesman of the crisis,” he said in an interview here, and his music is by no means intended to intensify European pessimism, although he has at least once called his genre “suicide dance.”
“It’s just a desire to be realist,” the soft-spoken Mr. Van Haver said. “And it’s not about saying that everything’s going badly, because that’s not what I say in my songs. But it’s not about saying everything’s fine, either. It’s life.”
The music is often playful but almost always cut through with a darker strain, a reflection of the disillusionment and restlessness that have supplanted the self-assurance of an earlier generation in Europe. In one of his most popular songs of the moment, “Formidable,” an angry account of a breakup, he rakes his “r’s” from the back of his throat to the tip of his tongue in the style of Jacques Brel, to whom he is often compared. “Papaoutai,” another hit, is ostensibly a child’s plea to understand his father’s absence and in “Avf” he sings sarcastically: “Rich and unhappy, but thankfully we’ve got the euro.”
He is one of the few contemporary musicians to so directly evoke Europe’s ambient moroseness, and he does so with an eclecticism that has earned him critical praise.
“Stromae is an antenna,” the French paper Le Monde suggested in August. “He pulls in signals — the crisis, AIDS, the environment, misogyny, Twitter, false richness — from his Brussels control tower.” His music draws on percussive 1990s electronica, rap and hip-hop, Congolese rumba, salsa and the chanson française genre. The name Stromae is itself a rearranging of “maestro” in verlan, the French slang.
“Stromae fits this era made of intermixings and the Internet,” Le Nouvel Observateur, a French news magazine, said this summer.
Mr. Van Haver is a somewhat ambiguous mix of identities and influences. His mother, a Flemish Belgian, raised him in French in a poor suburb outside Brussels; she placed limits on time in front of the television, and sent him to a Jesuit school after he failed out of the public system at 16. She insisted that he play an instrument; he chose the drums.
His father, a Rwandan architect, who was absent throughout his childhood, was killed in the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Mr. Van Haver said he met him only a dozen times.
“I was raised in Brussels as a Belgian,” he said, “but at the same time feeling that I wasn’t necessarily from here.”
With beige skin and gray-green eyes he could be Arab, or Tuareg, or any number of mixes. He has the unimposing physique of a high jumper, with hunched shoulders and a marionette’s jumbly long limbs. He is vaguely androgynous and appears as half-man-half-woman in one recent music video.
His image is part of his intrigue and appeal, and he and a small team of stylists manage it painstakingly. On stage, in music videos and on the myriad magazine covers to which he has lent his image, he appears as a fluorescent dandy, in bowties and color-burst polo shirts and high socks that blend the sartorial sensibilities of an English country gentleman with those of the electronic underground and the African bush. (There are plans for a Made in Europe boutique clothing line, Mr. Van Haver said; the fabrics will be designed and printed in Belgium, the shirts sewn in Portugal and socks produced in France.)
In the video for “Formidable” — in which Mr. Van Haver stumbles about a Brussels tram stop, as if heavily intoxicated after a rough night, while hidden cameras film the reactions of onlookers — his physicality seems to match the cultural moment here as well, said Jean-Daniel Beauvallet, the London-based music editor of Les Inrockuptibles, a French culture magazine.
“He carries in him this sort of weight, this sort of dissatisfaction,” Mr. Beauvallet said. The official “Formidable” video has been watched on YouTube more than 32 million times. The song has also been No. 1 on the music charts in Flemish and French Belgium and in France, and “Papaoutai” has topped charts in Belgium, France, Germany, Israel, the Netherlands and Switzerland. His most recent album, “Racine Carrée” (Square Root), has sold nearly 400,000 copies in France since its release in late August, and has been the highest-selling album there for several weeks.
Mothers, daughters, teenagers, grandparents and business executives stop him on the street in Belgium. He smiles a bit shyly and signs autographs; he worries he will lose his humility, he said. He is touched by the success, but does not always know what to make of it. He vacillates, he said, between conviction, cynicism and existential ambivalence.
Stromae, his persona, is a project that’s “useless,” he said, “but into which we’re putting an enormous amount of energy, an enormous amount of money, an enormous amount of time. That’s the truth. And we have the good fortune to be able to make a living out of it.”
Most of the pop music that has come out of Europe in the past five years has been escapist and “unreal,” Mr. Beauvallet said, “music for forgetting.” That is not the case for Stromae, he said, whose dance music is “much more complex than people think.”
The contradictions in Mr. Van Haver’s image and sound produce an ambiguity that resonates in Europe, Mr. Beauvallet added. “One never knows which foot to dance on with Stromae,” he said.