This page is a live resource, which I’ll be updating as I make my way through the Gainsbourg song catalogue.
“Explication de texte,” warts and all
As I explain in the main “About” page, the purpose of this site is to explain how Gainsbourg’s songs work, in their original French, to an English-speaking audience.
Inevitably, doing this will occasionally put me in an awkward position. With an artist as committed to provocation as Gainsbourg, there is a lot of inflammatory content to explain.
But if you want to know how these songs work, you need to know how this inflammatory content works. As I see it, my task is to explain it and contextualize it, warts and all.
Thus, this page, which exists to give English speakers an overview of just how offensive certain words would have been, both in their original historical context and today.
Although I give all words in their original French on this site, uncensored, there are some words (like the N-word) that I’m just not going to write out in my English translations. These are all clearly marked and discussed in my translations.
Gainsbourg and provocation
From his first recordings, people found Gainsbourg shocking.
Early reviews were generally shocked by his appearance. Here, it’s the reviewers who offend — they called him ugly, in patently antisemitic terms.
To cite just two examples, a 1958 review in France-Observateur called him
Un garçon blême, aux oreilles décollées, avec un nez qui dévore le visage et une bouche très rouge, toujours plus ou moins tordue en virgule
A pale boy with outspread ears, a nose that devours his face, and a very red mouth, always more or less pinched into a comma
Another the next year in Arts — titled “Gainsbourg : plus laid que Clay” (“Gainsbourg: Uglier than [Philip] Clay”) — described him thus:
Oreilles perpendiculaires à la tête, paupières énormes, bras misérables.
Ears perpendicular to his head, enormous eyelids, horrid arms.
But throughout his life, his critics were also taken aback by his cynicism, his cutting cruelty, his misanthropy, his irreverent attitude toward national myths.
Responding to these charges in an interview from 1959, shortly after the release of his début EP, Serge said,
Je suis content que de tels trucs les dérangent […] Pourquoi une chanson ne serait-elle pas effroyable ? Les surréalistes se sont bien permis de l’être en littérature… Et Goya ne l’était peut-être pas dans ses tableaux ?
I’m glad that these things piss off my critics. […] Why shouldn’t a song be shocking? The surrealists were certainly allowed to be… And maybe Goya too in his paintings?
From the start of the “Serge” persona, then, part of the idea was to shock — and Gainsbourg justified this by placing himself in a tradition of radical artists for whom shock was a central tactic. Goya in art, modernists and Surrealists in literature… himself in popular song.
Many critics have been persuaded by this line of thought — and it’s fair to say that any fan of Gainsbourg must on some level accept the idea that the role of art is to provoke.
Lucien Roux — the first critic to write a book about Gainsbourg — certainly bought in. In 1968, he wrote,
Provoquer, c’est se construire un répertoire inhabituel, grinçant, narquois, fait pour mettre l’auditeur mal à l’aise. C’est se bâtir un personnage en dehors, cynique, jouisseur, amoral, que l’opinion ne saurait tolérer. C’est offrir aux autres interprètes – les belles, les idoles et les fades – des chansons trop fortes pour eux et qu’ils seront obligés de chanter, sous peine de paraître stupides. C’est enfin ne rien faire pour gagner – aucun sourire au spectateur, aucune concession à l’auditeur – et gagner quand même.
To provoke is to build up a body of work that is unusual, grating, mocking, designed to make the listener uneasy. It’s creating a persona that’s out-of-bounds, cynical, pleasure-seeking, amoral, that public opinion can’t possibly accept. It’s offering to other performers — the beauties, the idols, the vapid — songs that are too good for them, but which they’ll be forced to sing, or else they’ll look like idiots. In the end, it’s doing nothing to win — no smiles to the audience, to concessions to the listener — and winning anyway.
It all feels a little too heroic to me. And I personally feel that the “Gainsbarre” persona of the later years becomes a parody of this pose, showing how fine a line separates meaningful provocation from embarrassing tediousness.
But that was the idea.
There’s no getting around this: the Gainsbourg songbook, from the earliest songs, is saturated with misogyny. Although this might not have shocked his contemporary audience, Gainsbourg’s misogyny definitely stuck out. It was a word that haunted Gainsbourg in his life, the was “misrerabilist” attaches itself to Morrissey.
Most of Gainsbourg’s earliest interpreters — the people who made Gainsbourg’s career, who stuck with him through the lean years — were, notably, women (most notably, Michèle Arnaud and Juliette Gréco). Gréco, for one, defended Gainsbourg: it wasn’t that he was a misogynist, she argued — it’s that he was unusually honest and perceptive, and some of the people he was perceptively honest about happened to be women. As she put it, recalling a Gainsbourg song she recorded in 1958,
J’aimais “Il était une oie”, sorte de portrait cruel mais vrai d’un certain type de fille. Ce n’est pas parce qu’il dit la vérité qu’il est misogyne. Il n’y a pas chez lui la moindre bassesse, mais une grande lucidité.
I liked “Il était une oie,” a kind of cruel but true portrait of a certain type of girl. Just because he told the truth doesn’t mean he’s a misogynist. There isn’t the least bit of meanness in him, just an incredible lucidity.
In a 1965 interview with Diane Glaser, Gainsbourg explained his misogyny as a defense mechanism:
Je n’ai jamais été misogyne, j’étais pudique, c’est tout. Pas très tendre. Qu’est-ce que vous voulez qu’avec ma gueule, je sois tendre […] Je suis dur. J’ai une gueule dure, je peux pas être tendre… J’suis tendre dans le privé mais pas devant les gens.
I was never a misogynist, I was just shy, that’s all. Not very tender. How could I be tender with a face like this? […] I’m tough. I have a tough face, I can’t be tender… I’m tender in private, but not in front of people.
In his biography of Gainsbourg, Gilles Verlant mostly agrees with this self-assessment, saying that the “frenzied misogyny” of the early albums was just an act (“il jouait au misogyne forcené à ses débuts“).
But sometimes the frenzied misogyny definitely wasn’t an act. Here he is talking to Paris-Jour in March 1968, right after getting dumped by Brigitte Bardot:
Je ne serai jamais tendre avec les femmes. Je les hais. Avec elles tout se termine mal. […] L’égalité des femmes n’existe pas. Elles sont des lapins à qui on aurait mis des patins à roulettes. Les patins roulent mais elles restent toujours des lapins.
I’ll never be tender with women. I hate them. With women things always end badly. […] The equality of women doesn’t exist. At best, they’ll be rabbits on roller skates. The rabbits roll but they’re still rabbits.
Maybe he was just shy. Maybe he was just having a bad moment. As with all things Gainsbourg, on this topic there are no easy answers or comfortable moral positions.
Any discussion of racism in his work should begin with the fact that he was himself the target of racism for his whole life: facing anti-semitism and anti-immigrant abuse as a child; wearing the yellow star in occupied France during the war (during which he lost many members of his extended family, and was constantly at risk of losing his own); and facing unabashed and virulent anti-semitism from his critics and audiences throughout his career (they were particularly vicious in attacking his physical appearance).
Anti-black racism becomes increasingly prominent in the Gainsbourg songbook from the time of Percussions (1964), in ways that is, for me (a Canadian in the 2020s) very uncomfortable. But (and this disturbs me, too) it’s not likely something that would have particularly offended Gainsbourg’s contemporary French audience.
Two words in particular deserve some commentary: “nègre” and “négro.”
“Nègre” strikes English-speaking ears as an equivalent of the N-word — but it’s not. In practice, it’s more like “colored” — something that we would find offensive today, something only an old person would say today, but not something that would have raised eyebrows in Serge’s context. Consider, for example, that there is a town in France called La Négresse and a popular pastry called a “tête de nègre” — and only in the last decade have there been concerted efforts to remove these from the French lexicon. Also, the French word for “ghostwriter” is “nègre” — the implication being that ghostwriters work like African slaves, receiving no recognition for their efforts. This is a word that Gainsbourg uses quite often. I will generally translate is something like “Black person,” when it seems warranted to give Gainsbourg credit that he’s using the term in a relatively neutral way.
“Négro,” however, is a deeply offensive term in France — in Gainsbourg’s time and today. The English equivalent “negro” was commonly used by Black people in the twentieth century as a preferred term of self-identification (consider, for example, Alain Locke’s New Negro anthology and Wallace Thurman’s Fire!!, subtitled Devoted to Younger Negro Artists). But in French, it is the equivalent of the n-word. Since I refuse to write out that English equivalent, I will translate this word (which Gainsbourg does use at least a couple of time) as “n-word.”
Gainsbourg’s anti-black racism isn’t limited to those terms — it’s all over, especially (or, most ambivalently) in the later albums, those most directly engaged with conspicuously Black forms like reggae and rap. And it isn’t limited to the lyrics. Gainsbourg, for instance, referred to Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespear — his collaborators on Aux armes etc. and Mauvaises nouvelles des étoiles — as “mes chimpanzés.” One can try to blunt the impact of a phrase like that — Sly and Robbie apparently didn’t mind the name, and they respected Gainsbourg… and Gainsbourg did famously surround his own portrait with the faces of simians on the cover of Vue de l’extérieur… But again: no comfortable conclusions to be found here.
Pedophilia. Gainsbourg encountered Nabokov’s Lolita shortly after its publication in 1955 and remained profoundly influenced by it for the rest of his life. (Lolita caused much shock and outage in its time; Serge’s love of the book shows us that he was not just a producer but also a consumer of shocking art.) The most obvious example of this, of course, is Melody Nelson, which which an older man has a presumably sexual affair with a 14-year old girl (see “Ballade de Melody Nelson”). Although this is considered one of the more shocking Gainsbourg albums today, it didn’t cause anywhere near the public uproar of songs like “Je t’aime … moi non plus” or “Aux armes etc.” Why not? Possibly because the album wasn’t as well-known (unlike the other two, Melody was a flop). Possibly because Gainsbourg made his character Melody two years older than Lolita, who was twelve — and thus much closer to the legal age of consent in France, which was (and is) 15. For a thoughtful English-language discussion of the moral dimension of Histoire de Melody Nelson — in its original context and ours — see Darran Anderson’s 33 1/3 book on the album.