Serge Gainsbourg died 30 years ago this year, aged 62. Jane Birkin, his longtime muse and partner, recalls that, as with John. F. Kennedy, people remembered where they were when he died. In Paris, ‘everything stopped’, and the city was oddly quiet. Crowds gathered around his home, held a vigil, and sang ‘La Javanaise’. But things were different in the non-French speaking world: amid the ending of the Gulf War and the imminent collapse of the USSR, people had bigger things to think about.
People who thought of Gainsbourg, if at all, remembered him as the author of ‘Je t’aime… moi non plus’: a raunchy duet with Birkin, which sparked rumors of audio vérité, got banned from BBC airplay, and denounced by the Vatican. ‘Je t’aime’ was also the first foreign-language UK No. 1. Others were also familiar with Gainsbourg’s reputation as a rabble-rouser on French TV, notably as the drunken lothario who propositioned Whitney Houston. That said, for all this sensational exposure, his masterpieces, Histoire de Melody Nelson (1971) and L’Homme à la tête de choux (1976), remained largely unknown until the early noughties.
Gainsbourg garnered some attention when a new crop of British songwriters and musicians, including Portishead, Pulp, and Placebo, started mining his music for inspiration in the ’90s. Histoire de Melody Nelson (1971) was very influential to Pulp’s Different Class (1995), as was Gainsbourg to Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker–they were frequently compared to one another. In a 1993 issue of Melody Maker, journalist Pete Paphides affectionately described Cocker as ‘Serge Gainsbourg in the body of Mr. Bean.’ Indeed, Cocker has been very open about his artistic debt to Gainsbourg, as has Beck, the American singer-songwriter and producer. Beck reworked ‘Cargo Culte’ from Histoire de Melody Nelson as ‘Paper Tiger’ for his Sea Change (2002) album. And both artists are noted francophiles who have since worked with Gainsbourg’s daughter, Charlotte Gainsbourg.
By the early noughties, Gainsbourg went overground when Kylie Minogue used ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ and ‘Requiem pour un con’ in ‘Sensitized’ on X (2007), her internationally bestselling album. In 2012, Iggy Pop recorded an unlikely French version of ‘La Javanaise’ for Après, his 16th studio album. In the US, Danger Mouse, Tricky, Blond Redhead, and De La Soul have all cited Gainsbourg as an important influence.
Now, 30 years after his death, l’enfant terrible of French pop seems as big as ever. His house on Rue de Verneuil, Paris, is due to be opened as a museum. And a metro station, Le Métro Serge Gainsbourg, is anticipated in Lilas in 2023–a nod to his early hit, ‘Le Poinçonneur des Lilas’.
So why did his music take so long to reach a wider audience? In a newly published biography, Relax Baby Be Cool: The Artistry and Audacity of Serge Gainsbourg, music and culture journalist Jeremy Allen describes Britain’s somewhat condescending attitude toward French rock’ n’ roll as one possible explanation and linguistic insecurity as another. This is significant when so much of Gainsbourg’s genius hinges on verbal dexterity. A gifted wordsmith, his songs are replete with lyrical subtleties and not-so-subtle double entendres.
Mick Harvey has risen to some of the challenges of translation by producing no less than four solo cover albums: Intoxicated Man (1995), Pink Elephants (1997), Delirium Tremens (2016), and Intoxicated Women (2017), but many songs remain untranslated. For instance, Amour des feintes (1990), inspired by Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte, which is a complicated play on the love of feigning, the love of the dead, and infante défunte (dead infant).
Allen acknowledges that it’s a biographer’s cliché to label a subject a bundle of contradictions. In Gainsbourg’s case, however, this phrase seems more than apt to describe a man whose career straddled as many as ten different music genres and almost as many films (as both an actor and director). Some readers will be surprised to learn that the same man who penned an irreverent reggae version of France’s national anthem (‘Aux armes et cætera’) seldom voted and was friendly with the police. In this regard, Allen suggests that as someone who had worn the Star of David during the Occupation and whose parents had escaped the Russian pogroms, Gainsbourg may have developed an innate suspicion of political extremes. Unlike many Left Bank artists and intellectuals, he was neither a communist nor an anarchist.
A great admirer of novelist and critic Joris-Karl Huysmans and his book A Rebours (Against Nature), Gainsbourg extolled the virtues of apolitical aestheticism via the figure of the dandy and the notion of l’art pour l’art (art for art’s sake). Even after May 1968, when many performers tapped into a new climate of political activism–Léo Ferré and his album L’été 68 (1969) comes to mind–Gainsbourg retained his posture of skeptical detachment.
Other contradictions include his paradoxical relationship to the French language. Often considered an heir to the poète maudits tradition–François Mitterand called Gainsbourg ‘our Baudelaire, our Apollinaire’–many of his songs are sung in a mix of French and English. He sometimes pushed language boundaries altogether through sprechgesang (‘Manon’) or onomatopoeia (‘Comic Strip’). Arguably, as an apolitical, ironic, and internationally-minded songwriter and composer, he differs from many 20th-century French musicians. Indeed, he has since inspired a wholly new ‘geocultural’ domain in what Allen playfully describes as ‘Sergophilia’. Furthermore, while Allen and Chilly Gonzales agree that Gainsbourg responds to several Anglo-Saxon stereotypes, namely as the proverbial ‘dirty French man’, he was far less of a francophile than many of his peers.
In a 2018 article for The Paris Review, Franz Nicolas helpfully described Aznavour as a crowd-pleaser, Brel as an existential cynic, and Gainsbourg as an ironic provocateur. But unlike Aznavour and Brel, Gainsbourg’s enthusiasm for the poetics of French found their strongest expression when freed from a strictly European tradition of songwriting. Gainsbourg’s musical interests were wide-ranging; he enjoyed sampling various styles, including salsa, mambo, reggae, and hip-hop. While he shared some characteristics with Aznavour’s image as a gentleman performer (early Gainsbourg) or Brel’s vaudeville grotesque, he didn’t fit into either of these molds. He didn’t have the political edge of George Brassens or Léo Ferré. As an attention-hungry provocateur, he couldn’t be more different from Gérard Manset: a humble musician, painter, and photographer who always shunned publicity.