Serge Gainsbourg (1981) | Photo: Claude Truong-Ngoc, via Wikipedia
Serge Gainsbourg (1981) | Photo: Claude Truong-Ngoc (Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, cropped, colorized)

The Continuing Cult of French Provocateur Serge Gainsbourg

As an apolitical, ironic, and internationally-minded songwriter and composer, Serge Gainsbourg certainly differed from many 20th-century French musicians.

Relax Baby Be Cool: The Artistry and Audacity of Serge Gainsbourg
Jeremy Allen
Jawbone
February 2021

Histoire de Melody Nelson (1971)

Aznavour once said: ‘I am popular because I am like everybody in France,’ but Gainsbourg never settled for comfortable popularity. Even as part of the Sexual Revolution, he tested the limits of acceptability by returning the idea of the Lolita–made bland by the Baby Doll craze popularised by Tennesse Williams and Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll (1956)–to its darker Nabokovian roots. Gainsbourg was a fan of Nabokov’s 1955 novel, Lolita, and Stanley Kubrik’s 1962 adaptation.

In his finest album, Histoire de Melody Nelson, Melody, interpreted by Jane Birkin, is a 14-year-old ingenue clutching a soft toy to her chest. Significantly, the album features multiple references to Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: one of the most important precursors to Lolita. Alice represents the beauty and intuitive intelligence of childhood as opposed to the hypocrisy and mindless conformism of conventional adult morality. Likewise, Melody embodies the friction between a new era of sexual liberation and a lingering culture of paternalism. 

In the context of a 1971 album, hot off the heels of May 68, the larger subtext is unmistakable. The Sexual Revolution promoted a radical break with the past. Still, the new permissiveness of the ’60s fused with the latent shame and guilt of a generation that remembered a different code of ethics. It’s also pertinent that, in France, Englishness is often viewed as antithetical to the moral puritanism and craven consumerism of American culture.

Indeed, it’s no coincidence that Melody Nelson is such an English album (Melody is from Sunderland). Not only was the album recorded in a London studio with British session musicians, but it also plays considerably on Gainsbourg’s fabled Rolls Royce Silver Ghost: a quintessentially British symbol. The bonnet ornament on the first Rolls Royce motorcars, partly resembling the figurehead of a ship’s prow, carries an intriguing cultural history. The Spirit of Ecstasy was modeled on Eleanor Velasco Thornton (aka Lady Silver), the secret lover of newspaper publisher John Walter, and sculpted by the artist Charles Robinson Sykes. In the opening song of Melody Nelson, Gainsbourg plays on this considerably by suggesting that Melody is the Spirit of Ecstasy made flesh. 

Melody is also considered an anglicized version of Jean-Claude Forest’s Barbarella, the French comic strip character later reworked into a Roger Vadim film with Jane Fonda. Therefore, Melody is a cross between Nabokov’s ingenue and Forest’s sexy space-adventurer. Moreover, Alice, Lolita, Barbarella, and Lady Silver are all examples of transgressive femininity. Alice disrupts the Victorian work ethic by daydreaming and questioning authority; Lady Silver is a mistress; and Lolita is prematurely sexualized. Barbarella, in her own way, transgresses the male-dominated space-age of the Cold War era. In all cases, Gainsbourg pushes the boundaries of conventionality.

This darker subtext is part of the reason why Melody Nelson was considered so far ahead of its time, and Gainsbourg’s finest album. Echoes of Melody Nelson include Portishead’s Dummy (1994), Massive Attack’s ‘Karma Coma’, Pulp’s ‘Babies’, and Air’s ‘Sexy Boy’. Although Beck probably comes closest to reproducing the sound and aesthetic of Melody Nelson through ‘The New Pollution’–also playing on the Rolls Royce Silver Ghost–and the aforementioned ‘Cargo Culte’.

L’Homme à la tête de choux (1976)

For L’Homme à la tête de choux, another masterpiece, Gainsbourg drew inspiration–for both the title and the narrative–from a bronze sculpture by Claude Lalanne depicting a man with the head of a Savoy cabbage. Here, Gainsbourg weaves an imaginative retelling of the Ovidian tale of Narcissus in which a man is transformed by his fixation on his own ugliness (not beauty). Like Melody, Marilou is also a teenage girl. Later, in a fit of jealousy, the narrator kills Marilou with a fire extinguisher and winds up in a psychiatric hospital (see ‘Marilou sous la Neige’).

Gainsbourg plays on the image of a cabbage-head man to suggest the idea of a man who’s ‘lost his head.’ Like Melody Nelson, this is a claustrophobic tale of eroticism and violence consciously playing on contemporary sexual mores and ancient Greco-Roman mythology. Novelist Franck Maubert, as quoted by Allen, stated that L’Homme à la tête de choux is ‘worthy of all the novels that [Gainsbourg] didn’t write, all the paintings that he didn’t paint.’ In both Melody Nelson and L’homme à la tête de choux, the glamour of aestheticism–as covetous material objects or physical beauty–is recast as a morbid psycho-sexual drama. 

Bambou’s Made in China (1989) and Vue de L’Extérieur (1973)

While Histoire de Melody Nelson and L’Homme à la tête de choux continue to inspire new generations of musicians, some parts of the Gainsbourg songbook can be more perplexing than inspiring: Made in China (1989) is one example. Dedicated to his last partner Bambou, this album is widely considered a commercial and artistic failure. The narrator variously compares Bambou to an ‘Asian Hooker’ and ‘China Doll’ and makes erratic references to King Kong, Sony walkmans, malaria, napalm, sake, and Kowloon. It also didn’t help that the album’s release coincided with the massacre in Tiananmen Square.

Other ‘failures’ include ‘Orang-outan’, described by Allen as ‘one of the most irritating songs in the Gainsbourg songbook’, and pretty much everything on Vue de L’Exterieur (1973).  Although exceptions are made for the much-loved ‘Je suis venu te dire que je m’en vais, and the melodious ‘Sensuelle et sans suite’. Chilly Gonzales refers to this backlog of puerile, scatological songs as ‘goo-goo-goo ga-ga Gainsbourg’. While some artists, including Guido Minski from Acid Arab, appreciate the arrangements on Vue de L’extérieur, Allen states his view that Gainsbourg’s facetiousness on this album is a dirty protest for the underwhelming reception of Melody Nelson.

(Anti-) Consumerism

Gainsbourg once said: ‘Je pratique un art mineur destiné aux mineurs’ (I practice a minor art for minors), leading Allen to conclude that, raised on a diet of Chopin, Stravinsky, and Debussy, Gainsbourg’s ambivalence about pop music reflected, above all, his embarrassment with the genre. Gainsbourg’s father had been something of a tyrant, forcing him to learn the piano only to chastise him for not being the virtuoso he expected him to be. This perpetual sense of inadequacy left an indelible scar. His ambivalence towards pop music–he once described it as being ‘as pointless and decorative as jewellery’–is also apparent in the prevalence of classical composers in his musical arrangements.

Gainsbourg’s attraction to the subversions of American pop art also shaped his attitudes to nascent music genres. He was particularly fond of Roy Lichtenstein’s art. Just as Lichtenstein repurposed adverts to extol the vacuity of modern consumerism, Gainsbourg inflected seemingly vapid songs with an undercurrent of irony and sexual deviancy. As author Darran Anderson points out, when ‘commissioned to write ‘sweet nothings,’ he did precisely that with a studied emphasis on the nothing element.’ 

‘Les Sucettes’, a song he wrote for France Gall is possibly the most egregious example of this. Gall, a teenager at the time, was unaware that the song—which is ostensibly about lollipops—is in fact about felatio. Gall was mortified when she discovered the double-meaning and, for his part, Gainsbourg was variously portrayed as a provocateur extraordinaire and a dirty letch.

At the same time, Gainsbourg’s derision towards pop music and consumerism seem paradoxical when he spent so much of his career working as an ad man. He wrote many jingles and directed several adverts for the likes of Martini, Babyliss, Lancôme, Danone, and Palmolive. Many of these jingles have since been collected on a couple of bootleg LPs: ‘Sell Out’ and ‘Gainsbourg for Sale’. However, as Chilly Gonzales tells Allen–having lived and worked in Paris for eight years”–in France, especially, the whole you’ve sold out mentality never really flew […] to them, Téléphone is a punk band.’

Addictions

In his last years, Gainsbourg became highly self-destructive, and although Allen does not skimp on this material, he also writes about it with a largesse. Allen’s approach makes a change from the haughty opprobrium, or voyeurism, of so much writing about Gainsbourg’s less impressive moments. In a sense, this biography is a helpful corrective to Joann Sfar’s 2010 biopic Gainsbourg: (Vie héroïque). Unlike Sfar, Allen does not pander to the mythology that artists are tortured geniuses sacrificing themselves on the altar of creativity. Further, as a recovering alcoholic, Allen does not glamorize the illness (although Gainsbourg’s alcoholism often was in France).

Critic and musician Nick Kent broached this issue in ‘What a Drag’, a 2006 article for The Guardian, in which he recalls meeting the ‘louche, turtle-eyed genius of la chanson Française’ at a film festival in France in 1988. By then, Gainsbourg had become a hopelessly destructive alcoholic, and yet to Kent’s dismay, his entourage didn’t seem to care. Allen corroborates Kent’s view that surrounded by a coterie of admirers, Gainsbourg degenerated faster and more publically than is usually permitted. As his biographer, striking a balance between admiration and reprobation must have been one of Allen’s more demanding tasks.

Gainsbarre

Gainsbourg once said ‘my aggressivity hides my shyness,’ and arguably, Gainsbarre–his chain-smoking, wine-spitting alter-ego–is the most potent manifestation of this self-defensive strategy. Interestingly, Allen entertains a comparison between Gainsbarre and David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, stating that both personas pushed their creators to the edge of madness. However, he also includes Vannier’s more skeptical proposition that ‘the Gainsbourg/Gainsbarre thing’ was just a marketing ploy.

Moreover, Allen suggests that, if anything, this drunken doppelgänger allows admirers to distance Gainsbourg from some of his more unfortunate material: a tempting proposition when there’s so much of it. It’s true that it’s hard to think of ‘La Poupée qui fait’ and ‘Fuir le bonheur de peur qu’il ne se sauve’ as songs by the same artist. The former is an embarrassing song about bodily functions, whereas the latter is, in Allen’s words, as ‘elegant’, ‘celestial’, and ‘respectable as Gainsbourg ever got.’ 

Muses

Allen’s chapter on muses is similarly nuanced. While he acknowledges that artists and their muses can be a boring cliché hinging on male assertiveness and female passivity, he also includes Charlotte’s view that her parents had a more symbiotic relationship than is frequently supposed. A quote from Germaine Greer describing artists and muses as a balancing act between two opposing but dependent energies, or yin and yang, lends weight to the argument. In Serge and Jane’s case, this may well be true–they were both as iconic as each other–but other anecdotes about Gainsbourg and women do not inspire a vision of creative symbiosis so much as naked opportunism. After all, Gainsbourg came to prominence in a newly hypervisual culture where women were often only as valuable as their looks. 

Indeed, Gainsbourg’s visuality is a running theme throughout Relax Baby Be Cool. As someone who had attended les beaux-arts and wanted to be a painter, many of his values betrayed a bias for two-dimensional aesthetics. However, as Allen explains, Gainsbourg’s concerns with surface impressions are not always as shallow as they seem. He suggests that like Oscar Wilde–whom Gainsbourg greatly admired–it can be easier to be truthful when one wears a mask.

Here, one might also think of Stendhal–the most pseudonymous writer of all time–whose hero Julien Sorel in Le rouge et le noir (The Red and the Black), partly inspired one of Gainsbourg’s early stage names, Julien Gris. Arguably, Gainsbourg’s multiple personas are less about obfuscation than, in Allen’s words, a means to ‘see him from every angle, like a work of living cubist ingenuity.’ 

Appropriation 

In his biography, On cherche jeune homme aimant la musique (1994), Jacques Canetti, the celebrated music producer, described his sense that ‘behind [Gainsbourg’s] aggressiveness, his desire to shock, his quest for originality at all cost, [there] was a great hidden modesty.’ But while this portrait of a sensitive artist riddled with insecurity is convincing, it does not excuse Gainsbourg’s failure to credit other musicians. Gainsbourg Percussion (1964) is a complete ripoff of Babatunde Olatunji’s Drums of Passion (1960), and most of the musicians on Histoire de Melody Nelson didn’t get credited on the sleeve. Even Jean-Claude Vannier–the preeminent composer and arranger–didn’t get his proper dues until decades later.

That said, Allen couches these questions about Gainsbourg–and the tension between innovation and appropriation, integrity and fame–within a broader debate on music as intellectual property. In this regard, Allen is adept at explaining why Gainsbourg mattered without, for all that, isolating him from the broader cultural moment or, in Brian Eno’s phrase, the scenius–defined as ‘the communal form of the concept of the genius.’ 

Cancel Culture

Allen also invites the reader to consider how Gainsbourg fits into today’s cultural landscape. In September 2020, the Belgian-Portuguese singer, Lio, caused a stir when she told Arte Radio that Gainsbourg was ‘the [Harvey] Weinstein of songs.’ Lio, who collaborated with Gainsbourg when she was younger, claimed that Gainsbourg was not so much a charmer as a predator. These allegations have opened up a host of questions about Gainsbourg’s legacy and the reaches of artistic license.

Allen ponders whether Lemon Incest (1984)–a risqué father-daughter duet loaded with references to incest and pedophilia–could succeed in today’s cancel culture. Or in the hands of what Nick Cave has described as ‘a perpetually pissed off coterie of pearl-clutchers’. Could a 12-year-old in a shirt and knickers lie on a bed with her shirtless father and sing ‘the love we will never make is the most beautiful’? At the time, Lemon Incest sparked a massive controversy in France, but not without reaching No. 2 in the charts. Today, this seems like an unlikely contradiction.

Sexual Politics in France 

France has a long history of tacitly accepted pedophilia and hebephilia. The oft-repeated phrase, Il est interdit d’interdire (it is forbidden to forbid), is the now-classic slogan of May 68. In 1977, public intellectuals including Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthe, Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, and several high-profile doctors and psychologists, signed a petition addressed to the French parliament against age of consent laws. These issues are still hot topics in France, where the MeToo movement is only beginning to enact systemic change.

Vanessa Springora’s 2020 memoir, Le Consentement (Consent), about Gabriel Matzneff–a high-profile pedophile and hebephile–continues to send shockwaves. As recently as March 2021, French MPs backed laws setting the age of sexual consent at 15 following decades of pressure from child protection agencies. All of this in a country where the current President, Emmanuel Macron, and his wife Brigitte, started their sexual relationship when she was a 40-year-old married mother of three, and he was her 15-year-old student. Allen refers to some of these facts to highlight the complexities of the issue.

Reputations

On a different but related note, members of Acid Arab told Allen that for people of their generation who grew up in France in the ’80s, Gainsbourg’s artistic standing had all but collapsed under his bigger reputation as a dirty drunk. It wasn’t until his earlier music became available to a broader audience in the early ’90s that people began to appreciate his genius. The bigger point here is that reputations like social mores oscillate considerably in our current climate, and Allen takes care to consider these multiple perspectives to avoid an entrenchment of Gainsbourg’s legacy. The result is a refreshingly smart, open-minded examination of an artist and public figure who was both highly visible and elusive. 

Relax Baby Be Cool is the most comprehensive English-language biography of Serge Gainsbourg. Even people who are well-versed in his life and music are likely to chance upon something unexpected. Allen provides a compelling and thought-provoking account of one of the most innovative talents of the last century: looking at audacity and artistry as coextensive is possibly the fairest way to analyze Gainsbourg’s fascinating, if confusing, legacy. One suspects that this daunting project must have taken some audacity on Allen’s part and, judging by its success, not a little artistry. Relax Baby is a thoroughly enjoyable and well-written biography.

Additional Works Cited

Anderson, Darran. Serge Gainsbourg’s Histoire de Melody Nelson. Bloomsbury. 2013.

Cave, Nick. The Red Right Hand Files. March 2020.

Erlewine, Stephen Thomas. ‘25 Modern Songs Inspired by Serge Gainsbourg‘. Pitchfork. 2 March 2016.

French lawmakers back bill to set age of sexual consent at 15‘. France24.com. 16 March 2021.

French petition against age of consent laws‘. Zims.en

Govenar, Alan. Myth of a Colorblind France: To Be Black in Paris. 2020

Kent, Nick. ‘What a Drag‘. The Guardian. 15 April 2006.

Paumgarten, Nick. ‘Never ApologizeNew Yorker. 30 June 2014. 

Pound, Cath. ‘The Erotic Songs Lost in Translation‘. BBC.com. 24 July 2020

Simmons, Sylvie. Serge Gainsbourg: A Fistfull of Gitanes. Helter Skelter. 2001.

Solomons, Jason. ‘Time to Purge Serge?’ The New European.co.uk. 8 April 2021

Tinker, Chris. ‘Serge Gainsbourg and Le Défi américain’. Modern & Contemporary France, Vol. 10 (2002).

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