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Serge Gainsbourg : 20 years after his death

By Matthieu Boisseau

Twenty years ago, Serge Gainsbourg, one of the only artists to emerge from France who substantially challenged artistic, social and cultural norms, died of a heart attack. Praised for his musical brilliance as well as for his delightful non-conformism, Serge Gainsbourg is still considered as the best enfant terrible France has ever known. In all fields from his poetic and eclectic spoken voice music to his highly provocative escapades, Gainsbourg perfectly embodied the concept of genius. His passing left a gaping hole in French society and culture, and no one has come close to filling the gap.

Gainsbourg : A genius

When the war ended in 1945, Lucien Ginsburg began an unsuccessful career as a painter, but quickly became a singer in piano bars. Although his musical career didn't take off before 1965, Gainsboug made his name through the yéyé style by composing the 1965 Eurovision-winning song "Poupée de cire, poupée de son" for France Gall. Then stepping out alone, Gainsbourg’s talent for music made him an irresistible figure for the French media and the public at large.
Gainsbourg’s genius incorporated a wide range of music styles, from jazz, pop, reggae – how could we forget the reggae-inspired album “Aux Armes Et Cetera” (1979) with Rita Marley and Sly & Robbie - psychedelic disco, and rock. These multiple influences helped him to continually re-invent himself over the decades, and become a pioneer of artistic trends : in 1971 with the concept album “Historie de Melody Nelson”, in 1975 the noir album “Rock Around the Bunker”, and the electro-groove of 1987′s “You’re Under Arrest.”

Gainsbarre : A life crammed with excesses

From his sexually explicit lyrics for songs with France Gall ('Les Sucettes'), both Jane Birkin and Brigitte Bardot ('Je t’aime moi non plus') and the stormy duet with his young daughter Charlotte – now one of the most famous French singer-actresses - ('Lemon Incest'), Serge Gainsbourg's compositions, songs, and music have constantly stirred up controversies.
But his uncontrollable personality and his depraved attitude have also both shocked as well as utterly captivated the public. Protesting against heavy taxation, he set a 500 franc note alight on French TV, and in 1986 while being completely drunk on Michel Drucker popular evening TV show, he declared to American singer Whitney Houston : “I want to fuck you”.

Whitney Houston Serge Gainsbourg


Serge and his muses

Gainsbourg has always used media attention to serve his extreme talent as an artist. But he also became a legend through his love affairs with some of the 1960's and 1980's  biggest sex symbols : Juliette Gréco, Brigitte Bardot and Jane Birkin. Each of these romances produced memorable songs : 'La Javanaise', 'Bonnie and Clyde', and of course'Je t'aime moi non plus'. But he also gave songs to most of the iconic French women : from Isabelle Adjani to Catherine Deneuve,  Françoise Hardy. A true poet, and a serial dator. "La grande classe", as the French would say.
Although leaving a legacy of scandal, drama and controversy – more or less honourable - Gainsbourg is now much more remembered for his artistic ability, music and charisma. L'homme à la tête de chou (the man with the cabbage head) is still a stiflingly discussed, yet widely adored idol. And for the 20th anniversary of his death, we can only pay tribute to this legend who left his mark on French society.


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