What I’m Listening To: Serge Gainsbourg’s ‘L’étonnant Serge Gainsbourg’
He may not have been terrifying, but his rap sheet is. His music inspires chills, but of a different kind — more soul-penetrating than spine-tingling. His eccentricity, while alarming, lends itself to good, old-fashioned rebellion and artistic chaos.
The Vatican banned one of his songs. He had an affair with Brigitte Bardot — the literal personification of the French Republic’s La Libérte, Marianne (Bardot was the model for the bust of Marianne c. 1969). He once burned a 500-franc note on television to make a statement to his immense wealth. He talked endlessly to cab-drivers and the “common people” who were brushed aside in the day-to-day.
His name was Serge Gainsbourg, a man of immense talent for music, show-biz flair and pearl-clutching shock value. One of the most prolific French artists of his time, Gainsbourg’s legacy continues to live on well after his passing in 1991. And now, I hope to contribute to the cultivation of Gainsbourg’s memory by introducing our readership to the man himself.
But first: The song banned by the Vatican? “Je t’aime moi non plus.” Listen at your own peril. The Vatican, somewhat dramatically, banned the song for a reason. Keep your headphones plugged in for this one.
Second: If you’re new to this worldwide worship of Gainsbourg, start with “La chanson de Prévert,” “Les femmes c’est du chinois,” “L’anamour” and “Couleur café,” to name a few.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: “If one of his songs was so far out there that it got banned by the Vatican, how could I possibly know what I’m listening to? I don’t speak French! It’s too risky.”
Well my friends, have you heard of Google Translate?
All jokes aside, part of the thrill of listening to music in another language is the mystery of the lyrics. Sure, you could always find a translation. But before that, you have the opportunity to experience the song in an incredibly pure form. One can appreciate the music, its composition, its instrumentation and the artist’s vocal inflection without the intrusion of lyrics.
As for myself, I didn’t understand any of Gainsbourg's songs initially — I fell in love with his voice before I discovered anything else about him.
When pressed to name a specific album (and prove my musical street cred), Gainsbourg’s L’étonnant Serge Gainsbourg (1961) is a personal favorite. The album features a softer side to Gainsbourg’s notoriously “adventurous” reputation. Deep, buttery (I know how that sounds) vocals backed by beautiful orchestration are breathtaking. Featuring a mix of traditional French, jazz (“Les femmes c’est du chinois”), and classic 60’s “bops” (“Le sonnet d’Arvers”), L’étonnant Serge Gainsbourg has it all. Gainsbourg’s music also contains subtle touches of African and Latin stylistic flairs. It’s a good, fleshed out introduction to a musician whose career spanned decades, a man who walks the line between myth and legend.
Hours, days, weeks (maybe years?) could be dedicated to writing about, to and for Gainsbourg. Unfortunately, I’ll be too busy listening to his music to write the epic he deserves. So for now, this will have to suffice.
Take a listen to Serge Gainsbourg this week and fall in love (like I have) with a man whose life was just as exhilarating as his music is. It’s worth getting to know the man, not just his lyrics.