Yé-Yé Girls of '60s French Pop

In spite of its light-as-a-bubble appearance, pop music can tell us more than many a sociological essay.

Excerpted from Yé-Yé Girls of '60s French Pop. Copyright © 2013 Jean-Emmanuel Deluxe. All rights reserved. Published by Feral House

In spite of its light-as-a-bubble appearance, pop music can tell us more than many a sociological essay. Take, for instance, one of the songs Serge Gainsbourg penned for France Gall, “Baby Pop” (1966):

Sur l’amour tu te fais des idées
(You get ideas about love)
Un jour ou l’autre c’est obligé
(One of these days you’ll end up)
Tu seras une pauvre gosse
(As one poor kid)
Seule et abandonnée
(Alone and forsaken)
Tu finiras par te marier
(You’ll have to get married)
Peut-être même contre ton gré
(Maybe even against your will)
À la nuit de tes noces
(On your wedding night)
Il sera trop tard pour

(It’ll be too late) Le regretter
(For you to regret)
Chante, danse Baby pop
(Sing and dance, Baby pop)
Comme si demain Baby pop
(As if tomorrow, Baby pop)
Ne devais jamais Baby pop
(Would never, Baby pop)
Jamais revenir
(Never have to come back)
Chante, danse Baby pop
(Sing and dance, Baby pop)
Comme si demain Baby pop
(As if tomorrow, Baby pop)
Au petit matin Baby pop
(In the early morning)
Tu devais mourir
(You just had to die)

The disastrous fate of thousands of carefree teenyboppers was never better exposed than it is here, on the A-side of a successful single. The lyrics provide a cruel inside view of the ephemerality of youth: many youngsters of that time would very soon embrace the sadness of adult life and leave the lights of the Bus Palladium (the club in the mid-sixties) behind for good. We’re talking pre-May ’68 here, and despite the steps (albeit small) women had achieved toward equality, most female teenagers knew what they were expected to do: conform, as their own mothers did, to the views of a (still) very patriarchal society indeed.

The evolution of the status of youth, its subcultures, and its rites of passage are all reflected in the music industry. The condition of women has evolved, decade after decade, as clothes and music have evolved. More to the point: the latter can be seen as structures that allow us to analyze the evolution of morals and the place of women in society. Let’s take two examples: first, in 1965, the infamous “Sucettes (À L’Anis),” a hymn to oral sex in the guise of innocent praise for lollipops:

Annie aime les sucettes
(Annie loves lollipops)
Les sucettes à l’anis
(Anise-flavored lollipops)
Les sucettes à l’anis
(Annie’s anise lollipops)
D’Annie
Donnent à ses baisers
(Give her kisses)
Un goût ani-
(A real taste of Ani-)
sé lorsque le sucre d’orge
(-se as the barley sugar)
Parfumé à l’anis
(Anise-flavored)
Coule dans la gorge d’Annie
(Pours into Annie’s throat)
Elle est au paradis
(She’s in heaven)

Fifteen years later, Lio sang more or less the same thing on “Banana Split,” with music by Jay Alanski and lyrics by Jacques Duvall:

Baisers givrés sur les
(Frozen kisses on)
Montagnes blanches
(Snowy mountains)
Na na na
On dirait que les choses
(Seems things)
Se déclenchent
(Are going to start)
Na na na
La chantilly s’écroule
(Whipped cream is falling down)
En avalanche
(In an avalanche)
Na na na

And in between these two huge hits by two icons of French pop music? May '68, the first oil crisis, the women’s lib movement, the abortion laws, coming of age at eighteen, gay and lesbian activists (the FAHR, the Gazolines). Glam, punk, new wave. The end of the Vietnam war, the Six-Day War, General de Gaulle’s and Pompidou’s deaths, the second TV channel (in color!), then the third. Scorsese and Coppola’s New Hollywood, then a return to the serials of yesteryear, such as Star Wars.

Jean-Emmanuel Deluxe's book, Yé-Yé Girls of '60s French Pop is available from Amazon.

If I’ve gone through such a long list, it’s to insist on the fact that the two smash hits I’m mentioning serve as a good introduction to the zeitgeist of the periods in which they were written. Both tried, odd as it may seem, to match the mood and preoccupations at the time. One has to have intuition (or be completely unconscious of the consequences, which is often the same thing) to write a song that will help define its time and become a standard. And of course, one needs a singer who corresponds to an archetype of the era itself. France Gall in 1965 and Lio in 1980 were indeed miles apart: Gall gentle and naïve, and Lio a Girl Power pop-feminist singer.

Studying what the girls in pop music have achieved since the 1960s, it’s shocking to discover how the ways women express themselves have changed. However, it’d be a huge misunderstanding to think that the female pop singers of fifty years ago were mere puppets, prompt to follow the orders they were given without questioning. Jacqueline Taïeb was a true songwriter, as was Françoise Hardy — and Stella’s humor was as sharp as Jacques Dutronc’s. Contrary to popular belief, girl bands didn’t start with Les Calamités in the mid-eighties. In the 1960s, groups such as OP4, Les Fizz, Les Gam’s, or Les Milady’s had no reason to envy their male counterparts.

Nonetheless, female artistic directors, sound engineers, and arrangers are pretty scarce in music companies, even today. Although the number of female songwriters has become more and more important as the years go by, it’s still risky for a woman to be fully independent in the pop music business. This has been confirmed to me by all the artists I talked with for Yé-Yé Girls of '60s French Pop, whatever their age, whatever period their career was at its peak. Starting with cute little songs for teenage daydreams, you can arrive at the same conclusion as essayists and philosophers: it is definitely, as Pierre Bourdieu (and James Brown) said, said, “a man’s, man’s world!”

Yé-Yé Girls of '60s French Pop does not aim to be an exhaustive treatment of women in French pop music. It is mainly intended to provide insight into what Gallic artists have to offer the genre, especially as such artists are fairly unknown outside French territory, with the noticeable exception of the usual suspects: Brigitte Bardot, France Gall, Françoise Hardy, Jane Birkin, or, some years later, Vanessa Paradis. However, taking a walk on the less-trodden paths and discovering the likes of Stella, Lio, Jil Caplan, Helena Noguerra, or Fifi Chachnil can be just as gratifying.

April March, whose “Chick Habit,” a cover of Gall’s “Laisse Tomber Les Filles” gained her a wider audience through its inclusion in Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, Laetitia Sadier (Stereolab), Françoise Cactus (ex-Lolitas and Stereo Total), Fabienne Delsol, Yasuharu Konishi, and Maki Nomiya of Pizzicato Five: for fifteen years or so, from New York to London, Tokyo to Berlin, punk, indie rock, and electro artists have been rediscovering this Francophile heritage and adapting it to the tastes of the day.

Already in the 1960s, Petula Clark, Sandie Shaw, and Marianne Faithful released songs especially for the French market. Françoise Hardy was known in Britain and the States as “the yé-yé girl from Paris,” got her picture taken with Mick Jagger, and had Bob Dylan totally smitten with her. Zouzou from Montmartre was dating Brian Jones and hanging out in trendy clubs with the Beatles or the Byrds. Nancy Sinatra (and many others) adapted Gilbert Bécaud’s “Je T’Appartiens (Let It Be Me)” and had hits. Our filles de la pop were clearly more exportable than male French rockers such as Johnny Hallyday.

In the 1980s, Lio was very close to working with the Human League, and recorded Suite Sixteen with Sparks. Her “Banana Split” was adapted into English and became the irresistibly kitsch “Marie-Antoinette”:

It’s the economy, it’s really bad, na na na.
What do they want of me?
I’m really mad, na na na.

Let them eat pizza, let them eat cake. Na na na na na na na na na…

A French woman in exile in New York’s no-wave 1980s, Lizzy Mercier Descloux, created new wave world music before the term was even coined (she’s the songwriter on “Mais Où Sont Passées Les Gazelles?”, recorded in Soweto). In 1987, a fourteen-year- old Lolita, Vanessa Paradis, had a worldwide number-one hit single with “Joe Le Taxi” (even the Reid brothers from Jesus & Mary Chain, seemingly light years away from this kind of music, proclaimed their love for the song). Paradis went on to release a Motown-influenced record sun entirely in English in 1992, then married Johnny Depp, and appeared on the front pages of cheap newspapers and gossip magazines throughout the world. Let’s not forget Elli and Jacno’s Stinky Toys, the first French punk band who played the 100 Club in London in 1976, and ended up on the cover of Melody Maker. The duet eventually moved on to minimalist but classy electropop in the early ’80s, composing the soundtrack for Eric Rohmer’s best-known film, Les Nuits De La Pleine Lune (Full Moon In Paris).

This is all to show the subterranean influence of French filles de la pop on some of the strongest currents of international pop music. According to April March, such flavor is due to its unique blend of Anglo-Saxon rhythms and continental sensitivity. The subjects French women dared to sing about in the 1960s were much more adventurous than those chosen by their English or American counterparts: the pleasures of fellatio, stories of bad LSD trips (Gall’s “Teeny Weeny Boppy”), or more generally speaking, sheer enjoyment of the most sullen moments of existence (nearly all of Hardy’s stuff).

Today, because of the changes in production and distribution, female French singers tend to think more globally: Helena Noguerra (who’s half French and half Belgian) is probably going to sing exclusively in English on her next album, while the American Francophile April March is currently working with French band Aquaserge. The differences are being blurred, identity is becoming multiple, and the choices are much wider after more than forty years of struggle in a sexist business.

But let’s not be unfair: there were (and still are) men who mentor and encourage female artists. To name but a few: Jacques Dutronc, Étienne Daho, Jacno, Jacques Duvall, Jay Alanski, Bertrand Burgalat, Olivier Libaux, and Marc Collin. And, of course, Serge Gainsbourg.

And now I’ll leave you to explore this panorama of Gallic girly pop. I hope that through this book you’ll come to share my passion for these extraordinary women!

Feral House Deluxe Yé Yé Mix Deux by Feral House on Mixcloud

Published 2:19 pm Wed, Dec 4, 2013

About the Author

Jean-Emmanuel Deluxe is a pop culture specialist writing for French, American, English and Australian publications.

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