The O.G. hipster was French
Or why, on the 20th anniversary of his death, pop music still needs icon Serge Gainsbourg
A dozen or so years ago, I spent most of my days tearing tickets at the entrance to an art-house movie theater in Southern California. Ripping paper all day. A pretty bummer job. There was a French girl who worked at the theater, and she would mock me by singing the chorus from “Le Poinçonneur des Lilas,” a 1958 Serge Gainsbourg song about a ticket puncher at Paris’ Métro who daydreams of his own death.
Not that I could appreciate her wily humor back then; I didn’t speak beacoup and only just now discovered what the song was about on Wikipedia. But when she sang, and later when I first heard the original Gainsbourg recording, I was drawn to his cadence, the way he sang “des p’tits trous / des p’tits trous / toujours des p’tits trous”—meaning “punching holes, punching holes, always punching holes.” He rhymed quickly over a flurry of clarinet and drums and, for a song nearly half a century old, it had cool, modern style. (And the whole French-girl thing was probably kind of appealing, too, I’ll confess.)
Anyway, if Gainsbourg didn’t have a heart attack in 1991, he would have been 82 this year. And, surely, he’d still be singing, boozing, provoking and innovating. People throw around the term “iconoclast” to describe the French musician, singer, songwriter, filmmaker and actor. And it’s a fitting expression—but primarily because there aren’t any iconoclastic stars in the music world today.
The authentic, nonconformist pop star, the original hipster—au revoir. So maybe this is why the music industry, and even Sacramento, will commemorate Gainsbourg and his music in 2011 like they would Elvis or the Beatles.
This Saturday, for instance, Roger Carpio’s Record Club and the Sacramento French Film Festival will throw their own Gainsbourg fête, the second annual Serge Gainsbourg Party, in addition to an SFFF screening in June of Gainsbourg: Vie Héroïque, last year’s award-winning, French-made biopic.
Then this summer at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, such nominal indie heroes as Beck, Grizzly Bear, Beach House and Mike Patton will cover Gainsbourg songs as part of a tribute to the smoky, boozy baritone, a man so equally talented and brazen he once told Hollywood royalty Whitney Houston he wanted to have sex with her on live TV.
It’s true: Back in 1986, then 23-year-old Houston’s debut release was the No. 1 album in America. While touring Europe, she guest-appeared on a French talk show with Gainsbourg, who was drunk and increasingly belligerent. He kissed her hand and whispered in French that he wanted to sleep with her. The show’s host refused to translate, however, so Gainsbourg, slurring and stuttering, announced to Houston and the audience in English:
“I said I want to fuck her.”
Perhaps only Kanye West comes close to touching Gainsbourg’s industry stature, tinsel-taunting rebellion and penchant for live-TV crudity. But even provocateurs of Kanye’s ilk are so quickly commoditized by the modern music biz—often willingly so—and Gainsbourg would soon be caught dead at the hand of Taylor Swift’s dad before selling out or collaborating with the likes of Drake. (Plus, Gainsbourg would never retreat to Twitter and apologize.)
Best known among hipsterati for kitsch collaborations with Jane Birkin and Brigitte Bardot—consisting of songs “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Je T’aime … Moi Non Plus,” the latter a lounge-inspired sex ballad set to the backbeat of a woman’s orgasm—Gainsbourg’s most inspired work stems from less prurient muses. Such as songs stirred by his affection for U.S. jazz or African beats, including “Joanna” and other tracks featuring African choruses and singular harmonies that would go on to inspire the likes of Paul Simon and even Animal Collective’s Noah Lennox. Gainsbourg homage by the modern-day indie darling also includes renditions by Arcade Fire, Beirut, Franz Ferdinand and Cat Power.
More lasting Gainsbourg fare are the soft ballads with dark linings, such as the aforementioned “Poinçonneur,” or “Elisa” (perhaps his most covered track) and “Les Sucettes” (a double-entendre-laden ditty about oral sex he wrote for Franc Gall, called “Lollipops”). Or his reggae cover of the French national anthem and ’70s-inspired ballads like “Je Suis Venu Te Dire Que Je M’en Vais” (or “I’m Here to Tell You That I’m Leaving”).
Even Gainsbourg’s early ’80s alter ego, the nihilistic “Gainsbarre,” transcended the faux pas of image-obsessed pop stars conjuring doppelgangers (read: Garth Brooks). And his electronic-inspired synth rockers of Ronald Reagan’s era are fun, refreshing, hair-metal-free jams that withstand the test of time and bad taste.
And that’s what music needs now more than ever: a talented, schooled-in-composition, multigenre artist whose influence spans generations despite the pop’s flavor-of-the-month trappings. Someone who rejects fame’s conventions and doesn’t give a damn.
A tall order, for sure—which is why Gainsbourg is the man.