Mona Lisa Style
An overnight sensation in France and Belgium, French-pop icon Lio reigned supreme as Europe’s answer to Madonna during the ‘80s. Presented as an inoffensive, innocuous pop darling, Lio’s music contained deeper, darker depths, realized only upon further and closer listens. If one wasn’t too careful, they might have missed the seedy references to oral sex couched in the sweet, effervescent ditties that pulsed with the giddy rhythms of post-disco. Her most pointed and obvious paean to fellatio was delivered in her first and most successful single, 1979’s “Banana Split”, a song whose title needs no explanation. The single reportedly sold over 700 000 copies (some sources say over one million).
While it might be overly obvious in mentioning that the song’s lyrical preoccupations were with sex, a common subject matter for many a pop star, it should be noted that Lio was only 16 at the time. It’s an uncomfortable and unsavoury dynamic to be sure, but one that has never seemed to confound much of her fanbase. In any case, the Portuguese-born Beligian-raised star had successfully cornered the pop market on sexual subversion long before the Material Girl had arrived on the scene.
Born to Portuguese parents, Lio (whose real full name is syllabic trainwreck: Wanda Maria Ribeiro Furtado Tavares de Vasconcelos) moved around as an army brat, leaving Portugal, where she was born, for Mozambique when her father was called up for service. Following her parent’s divorce, the singer then moved with her mother and sister to Belgium where she would spend her formative years and eventually find stardom upon a hookup with writing partner Jacques Duvall, a notable French pop songwriter.
Duvall, who had penned hits for artists like Jane Birkin and the Runaways, found a way to fuse Lio’s girlish innocence with a humour of often sordid (and undetectable) depths. In true Euro-pop fashion, this marriage of risqué innuendo and brightly-coloured pop resounded fashionably with the French, who took the singer into their hearts.
Lio’s 1980 self-titled debut (sometimes referred to as Premier Album) was the work of the singer herself and two of France’s most prized songwriters of the ‘80s, the aforementioned Duvall and singer-songwriter Jay Alanski. A spectacular fusion of the then-burgeoning new wave sound, post-disco, electro-pop and just the slightest touch of punk-rock, Lio was a sugar-rush of teenaged fantasies set to carefree grooves. A sound that could only be truly understood by the French, Lio’s debut introduced audiences to a precocious adolescent who didn’t mind playing the pop tart, so long as everyone was having a good time and on her wavelength.
“Banana Split”, already a huge hit the previous year, makes an appearance on the album, as well as an ironic pop cover of French punk band Stinky Toys’ “Amoureux Solitaires” (originally recorded as “Lonely Lovers”). Its accompanying video features the singer dressed in nothing but a waist-length nightie, dancing carelessly with dispassion on a strobe-lit stage. Meant to provoke as much as entice, the song became a hit with the French, who appreciated a dose of irony and salt with their pop sugar.
Filling out the rest of the album is a selection of indulgent guilty pleasures which mine a girlish and strident brand of funk; “Comix Discomix” explores the grooves of disco’s dying days amidst electronic bleeps. Elsewhere, humour runs high and giddy, such as on the tongue-in-cheek “Speedy Gonzalez”; it’s the sound of crazed mariachi bands and a thousand Nintendo machines possessed by an unruly and spiteful ghost. On “Amicalement Votre”, the affectations of ‘50s romantic pop find an agreeable counterpoint to the peppy new wave beats. Cute, twee and deceptively naive, Lio’s debut belies a depth obscuring darker emotions, ones which appeal to the demanding curiosities of teenagers in the midst of their formalizing desires.
Having taken France and other French-speaking countries by storm, Lio’s music piqued the interests of producers across the waters. Brothers Ron and Russell Mael (of glam-rock band Sparks), a famed production team responsible for many electro-pop hits in the early ‘80s, came on board to produce Lio’s sophomore album. Suite Sixteen (1982) reworked a number of songs that featured on Lio’s debut, giving the tracks a harder, glossier electro-pop makeover with many of the original French lyrics rewritten and sung in English.
The French-sung numbers on the album remained in heavy rotation on European radio, one of them being the smart and smarmy Euro-trasher “Sage Comme Une Image”, a satin-sheeted groove to sign off on Studio 54’s final days. Its slightly racy video features a red bloused Lio, clearly braless underneath, dancing and posing coyly for the camera. There’s the uncomfortable edge of manipulation in the video that feels fashionably European and dangerously un-American at once; yet somehow the singer, 20-years of age at the time, narrowly misses the hazard zone of exploitation with the song’s disarming sublimation of sex and empowerment: “Je suis sage comme une image, brillante à la page mais pas pour ton usage” (“I’m as good as gold, brilliant on the page but not for your use.”).
The cartoon-pop of “Mona Lisa” also cleverly disguises the adult emotions of love in a soda-sweet disco-lite groove. Backed by a dramatic string section and the glitzy chimes of new wave keyboards, “Mona Lisa” turns what would normally have been a four-minute pop ditty into cinematic tapestry. A successful single from Lio’s sophomore release, the video for “Mona Lisa” stylishly lavishes the artist with a look that refers to French cinema’s golden-age.
Inspired by the works of French filmmaker Jean Renoir, “Mona Lisa” offers its star an opulent costume drama framed against a majestic and mythical Parisian backdrop with painterly precision. The video not only helped to fortify the growing awareness of how much Lio’s look played into her body of work, but it also catapulted the singer into the unreachable stratosphere of an admired and untouchable star.
Growing into her early 20s, Lio refocused her approach to reflect a more mature image and subdued sound. The haunted, sweeping atmospheres on her third LP, 1983’s Amour Toujours, replaced much of the heavy new wave dance grooves featured on the first two releases with dreamier, romantic pop. More in line with the work of ‘60s chanson powerhouses like Françoise Hardy and Sylvie Vartan, Amour Toujours focused on gentler, soul-stirring ballads. Employing the talents of fellow musician Alan Chamfort (as co-producer and arranger) along with, once again, Duvall and Alanski, Lio positioned herself as a certifiable chanteuse, putting aside her pop tart status for a reflective moment.
While not exactly reaching the heights of Hardy or Vartan, the singer manages to establish a convincing and emotionally-developed work, one which finds timeless melodies in the moody orchestral arrangements that feature on much of the album. Shimmering reminisces like “Motus a la Muette”, an accordion-laced ballad, displays a clear sense of sophisticated romance; leaving behind the teenaged fantasies, the singer indulges in the complications of the adult love life. On the ghostly sweep of “Plus je t’embrasse”, a song made popular by Blossom Dearie, Lio articulates the blushing routines of a nightclub torch singer. Amour Toujours still manages to shoehorn a few pop tunes into the package and in “La Reine Des Pommes” the singer successfully administers the required dose of hooks needed to pull in a pop-thirsty audience, with its ice-slick drumbeats and fidgety guitar-lines.
Inimitable and charming, Lio’s stage presence would become highly desirable and her exploits in cinema were none too surprising. Tapped by Chantal Akerman, a filmmaker famed for her explorations of the female psychology in modern European societies, Lio signed on for Akerman’s 1986 pop musical Golden Eighties which also features Alain Resnais favourite Delphine Seyrig. A kitschy take on ‘50s musicals, Golden Eighties capitalized on the singer’s pop persona, styling much of the musical numbers like scenes in an MTV music video.
Much of the action and experience on set would precipitate Lio’s next album, Pop Model (1986), an overt and shameless indulgence in everything that ‘80s French pop represented at the time. Filled with brash and sparkling tunes, Pop Model supplanted the moodier textures on Amour Toujours with a complete sense of abandon. Garish and in-your-face numbers like “Pop Song” and “Je Casse Tout Ce Que Je Touche” restored Lio’s party-girl standing among the French Pop-arazzi, helping to push sales of the album, which would eventually place it as her second best-selling work following her debut.
Pop Model’s most surprising feature is Velvet Underground’s John Cale, who handled partial production duties. There isn’t a stitch of Cale’s impressionistic sound to be found on Pop Model, and yet there’s still a sense of rock ‘n’roll grandiose on the album that could only have come from a notable figure of rock music like Cale.
A more varied approach was brought to Lio’s fifth album, 1988’s Can Can, which pulls from rock, pop, country and even traditional Indian classical sounds. Opting for a work that explores the softer pastel colours of sound rather than Pop Model’s bold, garish hues, Can Can employs a lighter, more dancer-like touch.
On leading single “Seules Les Filles Pleurent”, a flowing melody curls around an insistent pop-rock rhythm; it’s a number coiled with the feel of magic, carried away by a string section and an Indian sitar riff. Its companion music video plays up the song’s inherent sense of drama, with a staged Greek play unfolding amidst a backstage soap opera. Influences of Indian classical music are further pronounced on “Cobra”, an almost-ballad that ploughs a soft percolating groove, the sensuous pulse of tablas beating out a rush of pure pop rhythms.
By the ‘90s, Lio’s popularity with the French public began to wane. With the incoming surge of new bands riding the crest of the grunge movement and the rising underground dance scenes in the US and UK respectively, radio found little room to embrace Lio’s forthright pop approach. Much of her 1991 release Des fleurs pour un caméléon was produced by singer-songwriter Etienne Daho, France’s esteemed king of rock.
Filled with summer-lush melodies and catchy pop grooves, the album is a slick and polished work; the result of impeccably good taste. Well noted for his highly atmospheric and provocative songwriting, Daho further augments those equally distinctive qualities inherent in Lio’s own work. Among the album’s numbers is a surprisingly fresh reworking of Antônio Carlos Jobim’s “The Girl From Ipanema”; over a luxuriant and shuffling groove rides the warm, heavenly airs of a tropical-inspired melody.
Des fleurs pour un caméléon ultimately failed to chart very well, unlike her previous works and, caught in the flux of a changing musical climate, Lio forged ahead with a deeper, more personal work which would surface on her album, Wandatta (recorded in 1993 and subsequently released in 1996). Eschewing the brighter tones and textures for the darker haunts of experimental rock, Wandatta explores an industrial groove in her normally flirtatious brand of pop. An ambiance of metal creaks and clangs (the noise of sea-ship boiler rooms) permeates the album, plunging the singer’s lovelorn sentiments into the depths of underwater darkness.
Even the album cover’s Pierre et Gilles-inspired artwork betrays the singer’s new shadowy and mysterious exploits. Accompanying music videos for the album also reveal Lio’s then-fascination with sea-faring sailor life. There’s the high gloss camp of Fassbinder’s Querelle evident in the video for single “Tristeza”, a slinky, moody vamp which plays up the kitschy pulp for laughs. Elsewhere on the album, Lio reframes her pop through a sort of nautical-goth aperture. The coldly grey and oceanic “Chesterfield” offers a coolly detached singer in the throes of high cultured ennui, stylishly slumming around to a sledgehammer groove.
After a long hiatus following Wandatta, Lio would eventually return to music. But an era that had epitomized the thrill and cleverness of pop music disposability had long gone. The album majestically closed the chapter in a life that had helped to expressly define ‘80s French pop music. On Wandatta, the singer presents an epitaph that at once cements and obliterates all that her music stood for during the ’80s: the excitement, the pains and the innocence of being young. It’s an album to finish all albums and presents a young woman brazenly ending a cycle of pop star adulation in the cruelest and sincerest of ways.
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