This article marks the 15th anniversary of French pop impressario Serge Gainsbourg’s death. There’s no easy way to catagorize all of his accomplishments as a musician, arranger, songwriter, producer, bon vivant, lecher and social satirist, but this site has a nice set of links and photos. If you’ve never heard “Requiem pour un con” or “Melody Nelson,” you are in for a treat. Chances are you’ve heard them borrowed in some other musicians work.
After some uncessful jazz records, Gainsbourg wrote and produced Luxembourg’s 1965 Eurvision contest submission, “Poupee de cire, poupee de son” (“Doll of Wax, Doll of Sound” — not the first time women will be reduced to dolls in his work) — an uptempo blueprint for ye-ye (France’s answer to Beat music). Teenager France Gall performed it, winning the grand prize. This was more or less the beginning of Gainsbourg’s career as Svengali. He would write several hits for Gall, including the notorious “Les Sucettes”:
Annie aime les sucettes
Les sucettes l’anis
Les sucettes Ȉ l’anis
D’Annie Donnent ses baisers
Un goȞt ani- s lorsque le sucre d’orge
Coule dans la gorge d’Annie
Elle est au paradis
On the surface a song about a little girl who loves lollipops, it is also a transparent reference to giving blow jobs — “when the creamy sugar flavored with anise goes down Annie’s throat, She’s in paradise.” Gall purported to be shocked later on when she realized the double entendre, but it’s a bit to believe anyone is that sheltered. Then again, people still don’t realize the Village People are singing about gay cruising in “YMCA”. Anyway, Gainsbourg’s bubblegum twist to the double-entrendre strategy in pop music was later appropriated by Joey Levine, who is responsible for “Yummy, Yummy, Yummy” and “Chewy, Chewy”. (“Do it to me chewy, chew me out of my mind”).
At this point, Gainsbourg’s agenda of subversive sexuality was apparent. It seems inevitable in retrospect that he’d hook up with starlet Brigitte Bardot, whose singing career would certainly be forgotten if not for Gainsbourg’s involvement. (She has no range and a pretty limited emotional palette.) Their collaborations — including “Comic Strip”, “Bonnie and Clyde”, “Ford Mustang” feature bizarre, troubling yet alluring arrangements that seem to highlight just how frightening the experience of the consumer carnival can be. Pop songs, sex objects, consumer goods — Gainsbourg’s work with Bardot seems to suggest they are interchangable parts, alternatately redeeming and damning.
Gainsbourg’s most famous song — “Je t’aime moi non plus” — was originally recorded with Bardot, but even she thought it was too racy to be associated with, so he recut it with British actress/model Jane Birkin, who can be heard cooing orgasmically as the song “climaxes” after her whispery takes on the verses. Lyrically, the song doesn’t make much sense on the grammatical level, but one listen and you know exactly what it’s about: sexuality made shamelessly commmercial.
Here’s Gainsbourg’s explanation: “I love women as an object, the beautiful women, the mannequins, the models. This is the inner painter in me. I never tell them I love them. Je t’aime… moi non plus (I love you… me neither) expresses erotism overcoming sentimentalismȉ So many songs about romantic and sentimental love, encounters, discoveries, jealousy, illusions, desillusions, betrayals, remorses, hatred, etc… Then why not devote a song to a sort of love much more current these days: physical love? ‘Je t’aime’ isn’t an obscene song, it’s very reasonable to me, and fills this gap. Its explanation is that girls say ‘I love you’ during sex, and the man with their ridiculous virility doesn’t believe them. They think the girls only say it as a result of enjoyment, of pleasure. I guess I believe the girls, or maybe that’s a result of my fear. But that’s also an aesthetic step, a search of absoluteness.”
Gainsbourg was famously self-conscious about being ugly, and apparently, the company of the world’s most beautiful women did little to relieve this sense. At the heart of Gainsbourg’s legend is this mysterious fact of the ugly man surrounded by beautiful women whom he continually mocks, mainly for being with the likes of him. He somehow makes this unlikely seduction strategy seem irresistible. To see him with Birkin is sometimes so startling, it seems like it must have been an ongoing “detournement” — Guy Debord’s Mad -magazine- like strategy of subverting mass media with parodies and defacements and inversions and alterations. It seems so improbable that he, a short old ugly man, was stuck right there in the middle of the world of fashion and beauty and youth.
Anyway the article where I clipped the quote from sees his work and his bizarre public behavior as being haunted by sexual rejection (a la Michel Houellebecq, perhaps) and catalogs some of his many misogynistic lyrics. But it seems more than that — the way he binds up sexual rejection with commercial rejection (his failed jazz career). It can’t be an accident that he recruits beautiful women to sing his simple pop songs about physical sexuality with no sentimental component, about outlaws and hipster products and disposible artifacts of pop culture. His message with this song seems to me to be that there is no difference between pop and pornography; in terms of its shallow disposibility and its empty sexual titlillation, it’s all the same. “I love you” in such a culture means nothing, or it’s opposite, or “I love myself.”
Gainsbourg’s career would get even stranger in the 1970s, when he recorded uncompromising reggae albums in Jamaica with Sly and Robbie and Rita Marley, offending right-wingers in France with his reggae take on the French national anthem. By many accounts, he seemed to be drunk all the time, including numerous TV appearances, most memorably when he told Whitney Houston, “I want to fuck you.” He seems to have become a public fool for the last decade of his life, a drunk who could be counted on to stir up bogus scandal with his silly loutish behavior. Very sad. It was though he realized his attempts at outrage did nothing to stop culture’s transformation into permanent outrageousness, and so he was left no recourse but to surrender to it, a broken man.