My first encounter with the music of Serge Gainsbourg happened about a year ago while sitting in a bourgie little café in one of the more chic neighborhoods of Santiago, Chile. This café had a tendency of playing the same loop of easy listening music on repeat — given how often and for how long I would find myself frequenting the establishment to catch up on homework or writing, I grew accustomed to drowning out the seemingly bland playlist with my own music. One day, however, before I could put on my headphones, my ears perked up at the sound of a jaunty organ opening and a breathy falsetto declaring "je t'aime, je t'aime" over and over again. Now I only know enough French to earn a few bemused looks from a native speaker at best, but from the first few verses I already knew this song was something else. The lead male singer was practically growling into the mic, whispering half-spoken, half-sung little nothings that only could have meant one thing for his female counterpart. And then, much like the patrons at the Parisian café that received the distinct honor of being the first audience to hear "Je t'aime...moi non plus" (I love you...me neither), I put down my coffee cup in astonishment at the sound of what can only be described as a woman having a very convincing orgasm (real or fake, the world will never know).
What in God's name had I just heard? I quickly discovered the song was one of the most well-known French language songs by perhaps the greatest French musician to date: Serge Gainsbourg. It turns out that, similar to other non-French speakers, I discovered Gainsbourg through the shock of the new of "Je t'aime" and went from there. I was immediately struck by just how prolific of a musician, artist, and creator this self-proclaimed ugly, misanthropic lothario turned out to be. This wasn't your grandmother's French chanson heartthrob: this guy was making lyrical innuendos, wooing one "it girl" after the other, self-medicating heart attacks with a steady diet of cigarettes and alcohol, and generally making an ass of himself left and right until the day he died.
Despite being one of the most polemic figures in French culture, no one can deny that Gainsbourg was anything less than a genius when it came to creating new and unexpected musical endeavors. Be it jazzy chanson (French pop) songs about suicidal train station ticket attendants, scandalous Eurovision entries about "lollipops,” seductive duets with his bombshell muses, a rock and roll album about the Nazis, or even a reggae version of the French national anthem, Gainsbourg was a seemingly endless well of creative energy; he wrote over 550 songs over the span of his career. While you don’t need to know French to appreciate his genius, any francophile will tell you that one of the most enduring and impressive aspects of Gainsbourg’s music is his clever yet almost subversive wordplay. His mastery of puns, innuendo, rhyme, and wit only adds to the charm of the already innovative instrumentals. Much like Picasso or Stravinsky, just as he created a new trend, he was already off cooking up another shock-wave. As Howard Gardner describes, artists like these consistently create innovation after innovation while always alluding (albeit in an original and distinct way) to earlier artistic milestones of previous generations (10).
But for me (as well as many music critics), Gainsbourg's magnum opus is the 1971 concept album Histoire de Melody Nelson. At only 28 minutes, the story focuses on the narrator (Gainsbourg) falling in love with a young English teenager named Melody Nelson (Jane Birkin, Gainsbourg’s most famous lover) after accidentally hitting her with his Rolls Royce. Their Nabakov-style romance ends, however, when Melody dies in a freak plane crash brought on by a mysterious cult. The music is ahead of its time in its fusion of funk, gorgeous orchestration and choral arrangements by Jean-Claude Vannier, and a formidable, near spoken-word performance by Gainsbourg. The accompanying music video is the perfect example of early 1970s France: psychedelic, artistic, perverse, groovy, and inexplicably cool all at once. The legacy of the album lives on — the first sign of its influence is heard in the bassline of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” and other musicians picked up bits and pieces of its style as time went on.
The only way I can describe listening/watching the album unfold is by comparing it to the first time I saw the original Nijinsky choreography to Stravinsky's ballet The Rite of Spring. There was something so inherently weird, if not outright sick, about the whole ordeal, yet something about it was so intriguing that I couldn't help but grow to love it with each subsequent listen (nota bene: do not watch either work right before bed — you will probably have some very trippy, if not downright alarming, dreams).
When Gainsbourg died in 1991, then French President François Mitterrand declared, “he was our Baudelaire, our Apollinaire… He elevated the song to a level of art.” Despite the tendency for some to write him off as a dirty old drunken cynic, I think it’s safe to say that his true legacy as a champion of “the shock of the new” will live on every time some unsuspecting listener has to put down their coffee cup in disturbed fascination. As he put it, “ugliness is in a way superior to beauty because it lasts.”
Gardner, Howard. "Chance Encounters in Wartime Zurich. Creating Minds: An Anatomy of Creativity Seen through the Lives of Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Graham, and Gandhi. New York: Basic, 1993. 10. Print.