When Serge Gainsbourg passed away on March 2, 1991, there was a national outpouring of emotion in France on a scale rarely seen for the loss of one of its most popular and iconic artists, known not only for his musical talent, but also for his provocative personality.
“He was the French singer who best combined poetry and music to create French pop”, said Alain Wodrascka, the author of two books on Gainbourg, including last month’s “Gainsbourg, Gainsbarre”.
Today, Gainsbourg, né Lucien Ginsburg, is arguably one of the last great artists to emerge from France who seriously challenged not just the country's musical scene but its social and cultural landscape.
The anniversary of his death has been commemorated with a deluge of books, musical compilations, TV specials, radio programmes and art all paying homage to the singer and composer. In his lifetime, Gainsbourg revelled in questioning, reacting and toying with French traditions, but it seems posthumously he has become something of a benchmark by which all other French artists judge themselves.
In the last five years alone, Gainsbourg has been the inspiration of museum exhibits, films, and numerous song adaptations. At least 115,000 people alone visited Paris’ Cité de la Musique for “Gainsbourg 2008”, a retrospective of the artist’s life, making it one of the museums most popular exhibits.
In 2010 the musician was the subject of the movie “Gainsbourg (vie héroique)”, which went on to be nominated for multiple Césars, the French equivalent of the Oscars, and won three, including best actor.
The temptation to keep looking back so many years after Gainsbourg’s death may be because no one has succeeded to push, prod or provoke French culture in the same way since.
Turning provocation into an art
In 1969 Gainsbourg stirred music fans into a frenzy with the orgasmic crescendo of his duet “Je t’aime…moi non plus” with long-time partner Jane Birkin. The song caused an outcry globally, with the BBC banning it and the Vatican denouncing it.
Gainsbourg’s musical daring sparked national ire with his reggae interpretation of France’s national anthem “La Marseillaise”. The lilting rhythm of the song riled patriots to the point that he received death threats, and spurred Le Figaro journalist Michel Droit to lash out, writing a critique of Gainsbourg where he accused him of “provoking anti-semitism”. Perhaps most shocking of all, however, was the duet with his daughter Charlotte on the track Lemon Incest. The song caused outrage, with the video for it showing a 12-year-old Charlotte semi-naked lying on a bed with her topless father, singing about "the love that we will never make together". Despite incest being the universal taboo, the ensuing scandal only served to further increase his album sales.
Shoes too big to fill
Gainsbourg’s talent for music and scandal made him an irresistible figure for the French media and the public at large. His antics disgusted and delighted in almost equal measure. His passing left a gaping hole in French society and culture, and no one has come close to filling the gap. Frédéric Sanchez, who curated “Gainsbourg 2008” in Paris, describes him as, “one of the most important artists of the 20th century”.
While Sanchez would argue that some of the controversy that surrounded the musician was manufactured to sell albums or purely reactionary, he still insists that Gainsbourg’s shoes are just too big to fill. Sanchez argues, “There is no equivalent”. Gainsbourg, to Sanchez, was a man who seamlessly mixed a penchant for media attention with extreme talent as an artist. The two combined produced an oeuvre of musical genius and a lifetime of compelling and contentious public appearances.
As Gainsbourg once said, “In modern life, there is an entire language to invent. A language that is just as musical as it is based on words. There’s an entire world to create, there is everything to do”. One could argue that no one has succeeded in recreating the world since, which may be why 20 years later, France still clings to Gainsbourg.