September 29, 2005

French Sex

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The French may be innovative leaders in the domains of fashion and cheese, but when it comes to pop and rock music, they are nothing but poseurs. Look no further than the recently released French pop compilations Pop a Paris: Rock n’ Roll and Mini Skirts, Vol. 1 & 2, to witness just how much French pop classics are derived from American and British music. When the singers on the collections aren’t directly covering Nancy Sinatra, the Who, Little Richie or the Rolling Stones, they are creating pseudo-standards that borrow so much from what was coming out in our country during the ’60s and ’70s that one can’t help but feel patriotic.

This is not to say that the albums don’t have their moments. In fact, banality aside, tracks like Claude Francois’s “Eloise” hint at what we missed out on by looking no further than Britain for rock music during that era. But one artist sticks out more than any other on these discs for his unique sound and arrangements – Serge Gainsbourg.

Serge Gainsbourg is one of the most influential and controversial figures in rock history after having made a rich and prolific career out of singing about the smuttier side of sex. However, before he created songs about incest or Lake Titicaca, he was writing jazz and cabaret songs that were failing to make it into any chart.

He began to build a name for himself when his productions turned more pop-oriented, but it wasn’t until he became acquainted with Brigitte Bardot in the later ’60s that he finally found his muse. Inspired by the French sex symbol, Gainsbourg’s writing began to take a notorious, sexually explicit turn, while still maintaining his unparalleled (at least in France) songwriting prowess. At this point, Gainsbourg was becoming more album-oriented in his music and in 1971, he created what would be his masterpiece.

Histoire de Melody Nelson was Gainsbourg’s concept album, a song cycle about his adoration of teenage girls. On “Ballade de Melody Nelson,” he sings, “Une adorable garconne/ Et si delicieuse enfant/ Que je n’ai con.” While I don’t know how to translate French, there’s no doubt in my mind he’s talking about something moist. But it’s the lush orchestration he has playing off of the gentle rock beat that shows what Gainsbourg really should be remembered for: his musical genius.

Archived article by Jared Wolfe
Sun Staff Writer