Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg
Jane Birkin: Best of (1998) | Serge Gainsbourg: Complete Studio Recordings (2015)

The Cult of Mediocrity: Jane Birkin, Serge Gainsbourg, and the Medio-cultural

On the set of Slogan, Jane Birkin met Serge Gainsbourg, the Gitanes-smoking, mumbling songster who would engineer her Pygmalion transformation.

Jane Birkin
4 April 2006 (US)
Monsieur Gainsbourg Revisited
Various Artists
Virgin (UK) | Verve (US)
2006 (US)

There is something fundamentally odd about the musical success of Jane Birkin. Not in a quirky eccentric way, but in a way that makes it incomprehensible that she ever sold more than a few copies of a novelty single. Could something sinister be lurking in the murky underwaters of France’s commercial music scene? After all, she went from being a minor British actress to a major player in the French pop world; from a short naked appearance as ‘the blonde’ in Antonioni’s Blow-Up in 1966 to holding fort on Taratata, France’s flagship popular music programme.

If you have ever listened to a Birkin record, perhaps you will understand the irony in the fact that she made her first entrance into show business by appearing on stage as a deaf-mute in Graham Greene’s Carving a Statue at age 17. She would not stay mute for long. Two years later, in 1965, she bagged her first singing part after being prompted by John ‘007’ Barry to audition for his musical version of Passion Flower Hotel, the story of sexual awakening in a girl’s boarding school. Barry and Birkin were married later that year.

Though Barry was the first to give Birkin her singing break, he did not turn her into a singing sensation. Her marriage to Barry did not last long and Birkin moved to France, where Pierre Grimblat was casting for his new film Slogan. It was on the set of Slogan that Birkin met Serge Gainsbourg, the Gitanes-smoking, mumbling songster who would engineer Birkin’s Pygmalion transformation.

One could argue that Birkin was only following in her mother’s footsteps. Judy Campbell was an acclaimed actress of her generation and muse to the older Noel Coward. Though Birkin ended up marrying Gainsbourg, needless to say her mother did not marry Coward. One could, therefore, think the similarities stop there, but Coward did state upon hearing Campbell sing, “It takes talent to put over a song when you haven’t got a voice.” So singing is not a family forté.

Coward had a fine sense of damning irony, however, and after his back-handed compliment to Campbell, he added “One day we’ll act together” [my italics]. But it was not the end of her singing career. Indeed, she even starred in concerts alongside Coward whilst entertaining the troops during World War II. But back then our boys definitely needed the laugh.

There was nothing intentionally comical, however, as Birkin warbled her way through a version of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ last April. Cohen’s lyrics tell of David composing a song in praise of God, he describes the euphony that ‘hallelujah’ forms in his prayer, “the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift”. Birkin on the other hand went through more keys than a locksmith.

The reason for her appearance on French television was down to the release of her new album, Fictions, the title of which says more about her label as a singer than the narratives of the songs. It may seem surprising, but for the first time Birkin’s latest work carries a majority of songs in English. Till now songs in English have only made rare appearances on her recordings and rather tellingly on her 2004 Best of only two songs out of the 23 are sung in her mother tongue.

There is no doubt that English is the official language of the global pop industry. This may well be a bad thing for cultural diversity, but one cannot deny that artists who sing in English have a greater chance at international recognition. How many bands from Sweden can you name? Abba, the Cardigans, the Soundtrack of Our Lives, the Hives, Europe. Now, how many can you name that sing in Swedish? Whether or not artists should feel obliged to sing in a language that is not their own is a question that cannot be answered here. But we can take a closer look at those who have the chance to sing in English but decide not to.

Canadian artists who choose to sing in French have a ready made audience in France. Singers such as Robert Charlebois and Roch Voisine have chosen to do this. But surely there is a sense, here, of big fish in a little pond. Only Celine Dion has managed the linguistic crossover with great success. She is Canada’s greatest selling singer of all time and this sort of proves that whether or not you like the genre, she has real talent.

But what about those who stick to French? Would they have had a captive audience had they chosen to forge their careers through the English language? This brings us back to Birkin.

The artists who have collaborated on her new album perhaps prove me wrong (Neil Hannon and Johnny Marr amongst others), added to the fact that it is becoming more and more difficult to disassociate the name ‘Jane Birkin’ with the status of ’60s icon’. But then again, the postmodern age allows everything to be classified as iconic. Even Yoko Ono. And postmodernism also seems to excuse the inexcusable through the notion of irony (so you can still carry on listening to your old Smiths records).

However, one cannot help thinking that if she had attempted a career as an English recording artist, she would have stayed a minor actress. If fished out of her small pond and dropped into the music ocean, then Birkin would surely be engulfed by the plankton of mediocrity. And if she has been granted access to the ranks of the iconic, it is more because of our interest in the intriguing liaison she had with the maverick Gainsbourg.

He was the puppeteer behind the promulgation of this ‘veule aesthetic’, this aesthetic of weak plaintive croaking (plenty of 30 second examples of this are available at Amazon). But he was perhaps the first French singer who knew that manipulating the media would lead to manipulating record sales.

Gainsbourg once had a job punching holes into métro tickets on the Paris’ underground before this poinçonneur de lilas went on to almost single-handedly drag France’s chanson tradition into the postmodern age. He sat in the opposite corner to the chanson Musketeers: Leo Ferré, Georges Brassens, and Jacques Brel. But no matter how popular and successful he became, Gainsbourg was no D’Artagnan. Neither his reggae version of La Marseillese, France’s national anthem, with its chorus reduced to an ambiguous “Aux armes et cætera”, nor his immolation of a 500 franc note live on television in protest against taxation reflect a faithful devotion to the State.

Gainsbourg is known in France for having cast himself in twin roles: Gainsbourg the musician and Gainsbarre the provocateur. But there is also a definite divide in his musical production with a pre-1971 period that has a foot in chanson with driving melodies and Boris Vian narratives and the other foot in the fledgling pop tradition, and a post-1971 period that was driven more and more by dodgy electronic drumbeats, tiresome perpetual punning, and repetitive allusions to la femme enfant and Lolita-esque love. (His last partner, Bambou, was 30 years his junior.) It remains difficult, therefore, to see how anyone with an ear for melody could think that much of Gainbourg’s non-chanson output is melodiously pleasing. Much of his production seems so excruciatingly the work of an ageing pervert with little personal hygiene.

This may well come across as quite shocking. After all, both Birkin and Gainsbourg are institutions in France. You’ll be hard pushed to find a bad word against them. And now this is spreading beyond the Channel. This April saw the release of an album of English-language covers to mark the 15th commemoration of Gainsbourg’s death. Most of the acts are those looking for the limelight again–Jarvis Cocker, Portishead, Placebo, Tricky–and those who can’t quite remember what the limelight was–Marianne Faithful, Marc Almond, and others. There is one act that is really of the moment: Franz Ferdinand’s.

But when was the last time Alex Kapranos and chums ever did anything that wasn’t ironic? After all, guitarist Nick McCarthy has a tendency to wear Hawaiian-style shirts one size too small. As much as many of the acts are themselves talented, participating in this album smacks of an attempt to be what we could call ‘alt.French’: art college indy-trendies trying to get in on ‘retro continental chic’.

The little I have heard from the album suggests that though many of the puns are lost in translation (they are by definition formed around homophonic associations) and therefore Gainsbourg’s famous way with words (and possibly only redeeming factor) disappears, the covers are essentially better than the originals. But then they couldn’t do much worse. But because of the hype it becomes very difficult to say anything critical for fear of being told that you just have not understood Gainsbourg’s genius. (Surely Jarvis Cocker can’t be wrong).

But in reality, there is very little to understand. He gave up trying to sing early on and quickly became the one-trick pony described above: a suggestive lyric about a questionable relationship here, a pun on every other word as an excuse for poetics there, slurred together with the voice of a sneering old man. The man stood out, broke away from troubadour-like folklore, but ultimately was extremely mediocre.

Since perhaps the Ad-man Warhol gave us all the choice between ’15 minutes of fame’ or later on his life ‘fame in 15 minutes‘, the United States and the United Kingdom have often been accused of promulgating the cult of celebrity because of their post-industrialist neo-liberal take on the world that sees culture as a commodity. If this is the case then perhaps, in an attempt to take the opposite stance, France is guilty of pandering to the cult of mediocrity.

When he was Prime Minister of France, Jean-Pierre Raffarin positioned himself as the defender of la France d’en bas, the France of below. There was violent reaction against this as it was taken for condescension. After all, it does not have quite the same ring to it as la France populaire, grassroots France. But he recognised France’s desire to be governed by the common man rather than a presidential monarch and professed the need for decentralisation, for added value in localism and regionalism. At a cultural level, this idea of micro-politics has been around for a long time in France in the form of cultural associations that afford practically anyone who wants to give it a go economic viability. No matter how good or poor you are in your cultural endeavour, setting yourself up as an association allows you to deal out your artistic manifestations. Of course, you are not allowed to make a profit but you can pay yourself a salary.

Interestingly enough, it seems that normal market forces are not applicable when it comes to these associations. It may have something to do with the fact that they are exempt from a lot of the legislation that governs other commercial activities. (Remember these are non-profit, but when you can pay yourself a salary from money made, say, through ticket sales, it becomes difficult to say that they are non-commercial). But it is also seems that in France’s vast provinces, far from Paris and la France d’en haut, people are far more tolerant and ready to reward anyone for their efforts; from the faceless nameless soprano confusing the words ‘baroque’ with ‘banshee’ (oui, mais c’était très beau) to a fire-eater tramping around the old town (oui, mais c’était très intéressant).

One must understand that this is not the expression of a regional culture, neither is it the division between high and low art. This is medio-culture–not so much 15 minutes of fame, but rather 15 minutes of being known about locally. We must not confuse medio-culture with the middle-brow. The latter is a mix of high and low culture, a midway point between the dumbing down of high art and a smartening up of low art, and all of this is fed by the ‘democratising’ power of television. Medio-culture, however, has nothing to do with an averaging out (it is definitely below average), but is a way of giving mediocre wannabe proponents of the arts a cultural status through a certain vindication offered by the support of isolated local groups who have limited access to anything else.

There are an enormous number of associations that offer a real community service, such as those that are bartering mediators allowing the less fortunate or simply those interested in preserving a sense of local solidarity to, say, exchange the skills of a plumber against language lessons. (See Mirers.org) These bartering networks are now even taking on a global dimension. But there are those that are starting to call for greater regulation so as to avoid what they see as the current abuse of art and genuine artistic expression.

Back in 2000, the Conseil d’Etat was already calling for greater transparency with regards to the activities of these associations. Nodula, a newsletter aimed at offering legal advice on the arts, condemns the majority of France’s cultural associations as illegal receivers of State grants and therefore offering unfair competition. The difficulty lies in judging where the exploitations of the system lie without suffocating true artistic expression. Or, put more clearly, sorting the wheat from the chaff.

Spotting medio-culture, however, is not as difficult.

The biggest medio-cultural event in France is the Fête de la musique. In fact, it is anything but a celebration of music. The brainchild of the former Socialist Minister for Culture, Jack Lang, and Maurice Fleuret, the then Director of Music and Dance, the idea was for there to be “la musique partout et le concert nulle part”, music everywhere and concerts nowhere. No matter how eloquently the concept expressed, the reality is that on the 21st June of each year, towns and villages across the country turn into an aural swamp of cacophonic nightmares. All and sundry are given the opportunity to express their creative bent through musical expression.

The bands are packed like sardines along city streets and on village squares offering rarely anything more than the din of interfering guitar riffs and feedback. People in the flats above have suddenly developed the gift of DJing and open their windows, blast their stereos so as to share their newly discovered talent. And from nowhere the local dog-on-a-string brigade have found themselves some bongos and are busy trying to redefine the notion of syncopated rhythms. And this for the past 23 years. Why it had to be held on the longest day of the year remains a mystery.

It would appear, then, that like many products of our neo-liberal age, most notably the service industry, medio-culture feeds upon itself. These cultural associations have been around for over 100 years, now. Their status was defined by a law passed in 1901 giving a stage to the untalented that then become their own critics that ultimately reward their own kind.

The Victoires de la Musique, France’s national music awards, is also a cultural association which in 1992 named Jane Birkin the best female singer of the year. As I listened to Birkin whimper her way through the track “Home”, I remembered how Queen Elizabeth II had described 1992 as her annus horribilis. Now I know what she meant.

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