Encyclopedia of Contemporary French Culture

By Alex Hughes; Keith Reader | Go to book overview

G

Gainsbourg, Serge

b. 1928, Paris;

d. 1991, Paris

Singer-songwriter, real name Lucien Ginzburg

If any French singer was guaranteed to cause controversy, it would surely be Gainsbourg. Although he was mainly known for his music, his other great passion was painting, which was his father's profession. After studying fine art in Paris and a spell as bar pianist, he sang in the Left Bank cabarets and Théâtre des Trois Baudets, achieving initial success in 1958 with Le Poinçonneur des lilas (The Ticket-Puncher on the Tube).

What is particularly fascinating is the split personality Gainsbourg developed: on the one hand, the naive, sensitive artist figure who carefully created words and music; and on the other, his alter ego, whom he named Gainsbarre, an anti-conformist provocateur. Gainsbourg cultivated an unshaven, unkempt look; he led a hedonistic, self-destructive lifestyle, drinking and smoking to excess and, as the years wore on, his nervous twitch and verbal incoherence became steadily more pronounced. A figure who sought infamy, Gainsbourg caused a storm of protest from the military with his 1979 reggae version of the French national anthem, La Marseillaise, Aux armes et cetaera (To Arms, etc.). In 1984 he burned a 500 franc note on television. Equally provocative was the duet, Lemon Incest, which he recorded in 1985 with his daughter, Charlotte.

One of Gainsbourg's more notable obsessions was the opposite sex. From an early stage in his career, female singers such as France Gall, Juliette Gréco and Régine recorded his songs. He was often accused of manipulating, eroticizing and objectifying women in his life and work, and he became particularly fascinated with the sex-kitten image of Brigitte Bardot whom he met in 1967. Together they recorded Bonnie and Clyde and Gainsbourg paid tribute to her in Initials BB. In Je t'aime moi non plus (I Love You Me Neither), which was censored by the BBC in 1969, Gainsbourg celebrated overtly the addictive nature of sex while undermining traditional notions of romantic love. His subsequent marriage to the English actress and singer, Jane Birkin, created one of the most famous celebrity couples in France. Although he appeared at times to be savage and something of a misogynist, he was nevertheless a romantic who regarded himself as physically unattractive.

Between 1965 and 1979, a relatively unproductive time in terms of songs, Gainsbourg gave up concert tours. He did, however, direct, appear in and write music for several films, and earned his living by making television commercials.

Musically eclectic and innovative, Gainsbourg created new musical styles out of established and current trends, such as jazz (Black Trombone). He developed his literary

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