The History of French Pop Songs – La chanson française of 1960
Cover photo credit Robert Doisneau
Moving further away from the 40’s, the 60’s are possibly the most complex decade of the entire century. It would be very challenging to try and list all of the important events that marked the era ; the Vietnam war, specifically related to the colonial wars that France was implied in, the moon landing (and all the conspiracy theories it spunned), the 1968 student demonstrations, the rise of the Left in Western Europe (specifically France, most notably Paris), the sexual liberation, the advent of consumerism and so on and so on, the list seems endless and we surely left out something important. For France specifically, (one of) the most important phenomena seemed to be the student upheaval of the 68, the growing influence of the pop music (and pop culture) and closely linked to it a specific type of blend between a socialist welfare state and a capitalistic impulse shopping sprees and the culture of materialism. How did these notions found their reflections in the parisian pop, that is la chanson française dedicated to the city of Paris ? Did they find any, or have the French decided to continue as they did, ignoring the most important historic events and minding their own business ? Let’s find out.
France Gall – Laisse tomber les filles (Break girls’ hearts)
We start off with a bang and possibly our favorite of the decade – Laisse tomber les filles is a very catchy, edgy tune balancing perfectly between the hints of rock and the meticulously planned air of innocence of the pre-pubescent singer France Gall. Like some other songs you are going to see here, this is the work of the mastermind of 60’s music, pulling the strings behind the scenes – Serge Gainsbourg. He is responsible for the phenomenon of the “Yé-yé girls” (the French way or saying and writing Yeah, yeah), that was a throwback to the Beetle-mania and the general pop craze that was taking the world by storm. His rendition of pop however, embodied in the “Yé-yé” aesthetic, was quite specific and very different to that of the Beatles. Whereas The Beatles, at least in their initial years, were honestly innocent, straightforward and child-like, Serge, being a dirty old man that he was ( a state of mind rather than of actual age), drew his inspiration from Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial novel Lolita. Much in that line, all of the Yé-yé girls had an air of childish that was verging on the sexual – it was the very quality of innocence that was supposed to be sexy in the first place. If it sounds paedophilic, that’s because it is.
Anyhow, this song is filmed in Paris, (around the Gare du Nord and Gare de l’Est) and features young France Gall who sings a warning song about how you’re not supposed to treat girls poorly and break their hearts. If you do, you’ll end up the one that’s broken hearted and crying. The entire setup is that of a kid pretending to be an adult and sharing something that she feels is a valuable wisdom and a fact of life, with exaggerated explicatory movements, acting as a school teacher. Again, this is (somehow) supposed to be sexy. If you understand why, perhaps you should enlist yourself on a watchdog programme. Be that as it may, Serge was definitely onto something because France Gall along with the other Yé-Yé girls became massively popular, not only in France but abroad as well. To further confirm the given statement, her greatest popularity was in the time of her teens – as a grown-up, she wasn’t as successful. Have you heard Ladytron’s They only want you when you’re 17, when you’re 21, you’re no fun? That sort of summed up her carrier.
Françoise Hardy – Tous les garçons et le filles (All the Boys and Girls)
Another icon of the Yé-yé movement, Françoise Hardy didn’t play on the jail-bait sex-appeal as much as France Gall did, and was notably more classy and honest in her approach. This is partly due to the fact that she wrote some of the songs herself and thus kept them much more straightforward. While the first tune may be our favorite, and some others may be more interesting musically, this one is the quintessential French and Parisian song of the 60’s. We’ve mentioned that it was after the WWII that the welfare state sought to equalize the life standard of the country as much as possible and that it was the period of the “Golden Thirty Years” of prosperity. The late 40’s and the 50’s were too dark and traumatic for that to become a recognized and accepted fact; in the 60’s, the effects of the new found situation finally penetrated into the general consciousness.
Here, Françoise sings about being alone and lonely while all the other boys and girls of her age are together and romantically involved. It is innocent (she speaks of them holding hands and walking about) but plainly so, without the dirty Lolita-esque touch of Serge. Also, we can plainly see that la chanson française is moving away from the misery and the low-lives of Paris (being contrasted by the exceedingly wealthy) towards the more economically balanced middle class view of the world and its adequate class-related issues. This is a very petite (or moyene) bourgeoisie song, very much in line with the rest of the era. The video is taken in several different places in Paris, showing the fun the kids are having in the Luna parks and carnivals. Whereas we see some hints at pre-pubescent sexuality (girls’ skirts being lifted by a wind on a rocking boat) Françoise is taking the high road and is keeping it sober in her melancholic and honest delivery.
Jacqueline Taieb – Qu’Est-ce Qu’On se Marre à La Fac de Lettres (Are We Bored of Literature Studies or What)
Not as popular as the first two singers, and a bit of an odd-ball in her own right, Jacqueline Taieb can be seen as a Yé-yé girl, but not exclusively. This song is very interesting, not only because the video is set in the heart of the Latin Quarter (The Luxembourg Garden and around La Sorbonne) but also because it’s announcing the great student demonstrations of the 68′ that will shake Paris to the core and have a huge impact on the students all over Europe and indeed the world. What will later become known as a failed revolution and the most hypocritical initiative probably ever, with most of the prominent leaders of the ‘revolution’ becoming big names of the establishment they were (supposedly) trying to dismantle, the 68′ was very hopeful and idealistic. The hypocrisy and the deception were yet to come.
Be that as it may, the song is channeling the very adolescent malaise with the university and its values. The students are bored out of their minds on the university classes (they’re yawning all the time), they are frustrated by all the useless and encyclopedic facts that serve no purpose, and are fed-up by their poor state and mistreatment (ham sandwiches with no ham involved). The song is announcing that the lyrical subject is fed up with her studies of literature (fac de lettres), a sentiment that some of us with extensive studies in the field understand all to well. But more importantly, it’s announcing the great demonstrations that are to ensue; also, it’s announcing the theoretical school of deconstruction and poststructuralism, the latest and still disputed great contribution of French humanistic science to the world. The students were fed up, and they were about to let the world discover their discontent.
Serge Gainsbourg & Jane Birkin – Je t’aime… moi non plus (I love you… Me neither)
Back to Serge related topics, here we see the mastermind of the 60’s French pop in person, singing an excessively famous make-out/lovemaking song that has defined the era as well as irrevocably ruined the French music as such. Ever since Serge put forth his signature style of over-sexualizing everything, be it adolescent pop of the Yé-yé girls or a more mature (but still young) “rebellious” songs about copulation related to the sexual revolution of the 60’s, the French music never seemed to have gotten over panting, sighing and faking orgasms in songs ever since. Thanks, Serge. As far as this one goes, we can compare it to Eagles’ Hotel California or the Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven, in a one very precise quality – we’ve heard it so many times, that if we never ever hear it again, we’re perfectly fine with that. Some of us would rather welcome the deal. Tirelessly played in the last fifty years, every generation seems to discover Serge and how cool he was – but much like the rest of the things that came out in the 60’s, eventually you also discover the fakeness, the cynicism and blatant hypocrisy underlying it all.
Anyhow, the song is much about how sexy not only Serge and Jane are, but the entire city of Paris as well. Filming a video in front of the world’s most famous phallic symbol is one of the dead giveaways. Jane is singing, panting and moaning how she loves him; his (supposed to be cool) response is “Me neither”, which again, is supposed to be witty, vague and multi-faceted. Jane seems to be lost in her passion for the cold and stoic Serge who to her near-orgasmic exclamations of love responds with how it’s all opaque, unresolved and ephemeral, forever cementing the archetypical image of a pretentious French pseudo-intellectual who always have a ready snide response, even in the most inopportune situations, like this one. She says that he is coming and going, coming and going, between her kidneys; he responds that he is, in fact, coming and going between her kidneys (we’re not making this up – ‘entre tes reins’ means exactly that, between your kidneys), and he holds as long as he can. Get it kids? They are talking about sodomy.
Never quite handling the grasp of subtlety in these matters, Serge and Jane lay it out in the open pretty blatantly. Well, you can’t expect more (or less) from a song that is all made of panting and is filmed in front of the Eiffel tower. Still, it does seem that in a city such is Paris and in a culture such is French and Parisian, that are so much centered on the notions of subtlety and finesse, this comes off as uncannily crude. At any rate, as coarse as this may be, we still find it more relatable than the jail-bate(esque) sex-appeal of France Gall and the rest of the Yé-yé clique.
Gilbert Bécaud – Nathalie
Back to the more traditional chansons, here we have a beautiful piece of propaganda, a jewel of the sorts, also a very popular hit of its time. You may wonder why we’re placing the Nathalie here, when it’s obviously a song about Moscow ? Well, because it isn’t. It’s about Paris. And it’s about showing the cultural supremacy of Paris to Moscow, France to the USSR, a comparison set in the context of the cold war, an integral part of the 60’s. Also, it’s a song about tour guides, so it’s only natural that we’re ever so slightly biased :).
What is going on ? Our lyrical subject is in Moscow, where he’s being shown this and that by his lovely guide Nathalie. While she’s droning on about Lenin, the October revolution and everything else that he finds boring, in his thoughts he’s already projecting their continuation of the evening where they won’t talk about communism. So, the evening comes and they find themselves in a student room, surrounded by young people who want to know everything about Paris and are listening with their mouths open. See how this cultural propaganda works ? They are in Moscow, the capital of the most powerful country in the world of the given moment (or, the second most powerful), a city well known for its immense culture, great architecture and museums, but they wish to know about Paris and the Champs Elysées, that they confuse somehow to the fields of Ukraine. Off course, Gilbert obliges and tells them all about the mythical city of Paris, and they continue the evening by drinking the French champagne (off course), dancing etc. Our lyrical subject then stays alone with his lovely guide ; they no long wish to speak about Lenin, the October revolution etc., but find better things to do. After it’s all over, he finds himself missing his lovely Nathalie but is sure that he will one day serve her as a guide, where else, but in Paris. After all, it was all about Paris, really. Have some currently active Parisian guides had something similar happen to them ? We won’t tell.
While you can find a better quality version of this video here, the most important part of it has been edited out for some reason (you can even hear the cut). Therefore we opted for the lower quality, but more complete version. Just in case, here is this one as well.
Jacques Dutronc – Il est cinq heures Paris s’eveille (It’s five in the morning Paris wakes up)
Going back to the working class roots of the chanson française and parisenne, we come to this little jewel of a song. A sign of its time and for a long time the unofficial hymn of the city, the lyrics are spot-on of what every French pop song of the genre is supposed to be – merry and cheerful in tone but deeply cynical and depressing in everything else. Thought you might think we’d be used to it by now, it always comes as a bit of a surprise.
Our lyrical subject starts off by giving us another round of the geography of the city, mentioning the famous landmarks and monuments. Some of them are hung over and have a very bad appearance, like Place Blanche (in Montmartre). From this point on, the song kicks it into the fifth gear. The transvestites are shaving, the strippers are putting their clothes back on, the pillows are crushed and the lovers are tired. Wow. Jacques, you can certainly paint a picture. He doesn’t stop there – this is only the beginning of this über depressing depiction of Paris. The coffees are being served, and the waiters are mopping up the broken glass (why ?); the station of Montparnasse is nothing more than a corpse (again, why ?). Paris wakes up (this is the refrain).
Then it gets really bleak. All the people living in suburbia are taking the public transportation to come to the city ; lard is being cut on the outskirts of Paris, at La Villette (seriously? Is it still the 19th century or the 60’s of the 20th?), the city is being overtaken by cars at night and the bakers are making their bastard children. Wait, what ? Yes, exactly as you heard. Now this may be a play on words (bâtard is also a form of a bread) but given the context and overall tone of the song, we’re more keen on taking the term at face value. To finish the gradient of this progressively onsetting depression, the lyrical subject mentions another three famous landmarks, before giving the song it’s overdue coup de grace – the daily newspapers are printed, the workers are depressed; people are waking up broken, and as for our lyrical subject, he’s going to bed, though he’s sleepless. Again, just wow. Somehow translating this song alone is enough of a commentary. We can but imagine Jacques Dutronc dropping a mic and leaving the stage.
Charles Aznavour – La Boheme (The Gypsy woman)
Going further back in the same direction, here is a very nostalgic chanson dedicated to Montmartre. La Bohème (the gypsy woman) is to signify both the love interest of our lyrical subject as well as Montmartre itself ; it was very well known as a bohemian (get it?) place after all. Now you can see a clear difference between the songs about Montmartre of before the WWII and this one – while there Montmartre is celebrated as a very jovial place of restless fun, here it’s being lamented as a tourist attraction completely deprived of anything authentic; in this case its artists and models.
Much like the previous, this song is keeping it real and staying true to the cultural roots of la chanson française. Meaning, the context is well rooted in the working class and the lumpenproletariat – the struggling starving artists (him) and models who pose naked (her). They met as he was crying of hunger and she was posing nude. No matter; they loved each other and were happy to eat every other day. The great dreams of success kept them going, and they could spend restless nights working on a single drawing just so that they could get a certain detail right. The white lilac flowers were the decor of Montmartre as well as their only bed (poetically said).
That was all in the past however; nowadays, Montmartre is but a shadow of itself, as there are no more artists, artistic studios, and the famous stairs look desolate and empty. The lilacs are all dead and the very term ‘bohemian’ in regards to Montmartre, as well as the gypsy woman (la bohème) doesn’t mean a thing anymore. Charles Aznavour, one of the greatest names of the genre, is therefore making an early homage to the process of gentrification, that is yet to storm the cities of the world and/or be recognized as such. Strangely, though, he seems to be sorry of the days when he was starving, much like his love interest and all of his friends. Though life was miserable back then, it was authentic, and that is exactly what it’s missing today. This song is not only heavily dealing with nostalgia, it’s also being very meta about it – therefore very Parisian. Strangeness abounds when we think about the simple fact that this song is set in the 60’s, and in the opening lines he mentions the idyllic times that the people younger than the age of twenty can’t know, that therefore took place twenty years ago, meaning in the beautiful and bygone era of the 40’s. Wait, what ? Yes, exactly. Best stop here before this becomes really uncomfortable.
Dalida & Serge Gainsbourg – Rues de mon Paris (Streets of my Paris)
Here we have a pretty standard issue of a chanson française dedicated to Paris, rather unusual for Serge really (to do something as standard as this). The standard recipe of naming the streets and famous landmarks of Paris is being respected to the letter – the song even features a very stereotypical accordeon. So why mention it here ? Well, several reasons. First, it’s to show just what immense importance Serge had on this era (but also the following ones). Second, it features Egyptian/French singer Dalida, a huge star of its time and in many ways a French version of Marilyn Monroe (more on that in a specific post dedicated to the subject). Any story on the French pop music would be incomplete without her. Third of all, but also a stereotype, Paris with its many landmarks is being connected to art, literature, philosophy, poetry etc., thus further cementing its prestige as a cultural capital of the world. Voltaire is still walking the streets of Paris, as well as Prévert, Rimbaud and Apollinaire. Yes, off course they are. Nothing but culture in Paris, much like in the previous two songs.
Insert conclusion here. What did we learn about Paris in the 60’s ? Still a city where most people feel miserable (some things never change), Paris is slowly looking away from the tired and depressed working class and towards the melancholic and moody middle class. While doing that, it’s all about sex sex sex; again, in a different way than it was thirty or forty years ago. Back than, the lyrics of the songs were much racier, but there was humour and subtlety to it ; what was hinted at was much more debauched and libertin, but said in a roundabout manner. Now, thanks to the alliance made between the consumerist culture and its cultural formulation through pop music, godfather by the corrupt yet insightful (also deeply fake blazé) mind of Serge Gainsbourg, what is being said is rather ordinary (having sex, nothing new there really) but in a very provocative manner ; panting, moaning etc. The sexual liberation was in full swing ; the students were revolting and asking more liberty and equality ; the world was shaking, but, as we now know, it resulted in nothing of consequence really. You disagree ? Book one of our tours and tell us all about it in person. What would happen with the rebellion that was started with so much enthusiasm ? How will it continue ? What will the 70’s hold for Parisian pop ? Stay tuned to find out.
bonus track : France Gall – Les Sucettes (The Lollipops)
So remember when at the beginning of the text we went on about how Serge Gainsbourg was the perverse mastermind behind the Yé-Yé girl’s popularity driven by their pre-pubescent sexuality, instrumentalizing their naiveté and contextualizing it as erotic ? Did you think that we were reading in our own twisted phantasies into a perfectly innocent song ? Well, take a look at this one. France Gall is singing about Annie, a girl that has a thing for anise flavored lollipops. When ever she is sucking at one of those, the sugary juice trickles down her throat and she is in heaven. In the case you were wandering, yes, it’s about felatio, and yes, it’s being sung by a nineteen year old girl behaving as if she was twelve. Just to make it extra blatant and racy, for those who still find the image evoked to only relate to the perfectly innocent girly love for lollipops, the video features a group of dancing penises and images of girls suggestively swallowing lollipops as they are looking directly into the camera. Bravo Serge, bravo. Funny thing is that France Gall always stated that on her end, she was never really aware that the song is (obviously) about felatio – to her, it was always about lollipops. Some of us think that, given what we know and think about France Gall, this might actually be true.
If you want an extra creepy version of this song, check out the rendition done with a participation of Serge, its author.
extra bonus : Brigitte Bardot – Contact !
We couldn’t write an article about the sixties in Paris without somehow mentioning Brigitte Bardot, one of the greatest (if not the greatest) sex symbols of its time. The famous BB, an archetypical image of a sensual woman (perfectly contrasted by the equally blond, but incredibly icy Catherine Deneuve) is here being musically arranged by whom other than Serge Gainsbourg (again). Yes, this entire decade is obviously in his hands. However, what goes on here is the piece of unassuming hilarity that makes its way backwards into the history of French pop music. But all the better, right ? What would any music genre be without sprinkles of campy and trashy bits of ridicule like this one. With an ambition of evoking the science fiction imagery and atmosphere, Bardot is completely out of her zone as she is not using any of her famous sex-appeal. Serge is a strange beast indeed. He’s trying to frame teenage girls as erotic and sensual, but when he gets a hold of a mature (in this case, meaning legal), sensual woman like Bardot, he makes pig’s breakfast out of the entire affaire. All the better for us as spectators we guess; if you wish to witness Bardot at the top of her game, check out Roger Vadim’s famous film Et Dieu… créa la femme. If you wish to laugh at a piece of unintentional hilarity much in line with I Lost My Heart to a Starship Trooper, take a look at this video, you won’t regret it.