When Serge Gainsbourg, one in every of France’s most influential singer-songwriters, died aged 62 on March 2, 1991, then-president François Mitterrand described him as “our Baudelaire, our Apollinaire. He elevated the music to the extent of artwork.”
Gainsbourg stays one of many nation’s hottest musicians, who went on to encourage everybody from Nick Cave to Daft Punk, Huge Assault and De La Soul. However in 2022 the themes of incest, misogyny and racism in his music make him an more and more controversial determine. For some, his transgressiveness is a quintessential a part of French tradition. To others, he’s a logo of toxic masculinity. On the thirtieth anniversary of his loss of life final 12 months, Les Inrockuptibles journal requested if Gainsbourg had develop into problematic, and L’Obs questioned “can we nonetheless like him right now?”
This spring, his daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg will open the doorways of 5bis Rue du Verneuil in Paris as Maison Gainsbourg, the primary cultural establishment devoted to the artist. The songwriter’s small home, the place he spent the final years of his life, has lengthy served as a shrine lined with posters, pictures and graffiti tributes. After an extended wait, it was set to open to the general public to mark the thirtieth anniversary of Gainsbourg’s loss of life however was postponed because of COVID-19. Excursions of the home will likely be accompanied additional down the road by a museum, a bookshop and a café that turns right into a piano bar at evening. In a separate occasion, a brand new metro station on the sting of Paris will likely be named after him subsequent 12 months in honor of his music “Le poinçonneur des Lilas” (The ticket-puncher of Les Lilas).
Finest recognized for his 1969 hit “Je t’aime…moi non plus,” banned by the BBC due to its explicit content and denounced by the Vatican, Gainsbourg was all the time a controversial determine. His penchant for provocation led him to document a reggae model of “the Marseillaise” [the French national anthem] and burn a 500 franc be aware reside on TV to protest in opposition to excessive taxes. “Provocation appeared to be a part of his arsenal, of the way in which he tried to make an influence, of the character that he constructed,” says David Platten, a professor on the College of Leeds who makes a speciality of French standard tradition. “And France as a rustic likes to acceptable a few of its extra radical sorts of artists.”
However whereas Gainsbourg nonetheless enjoys the aura of a glamorous icon because the “unhealthy boy” of French music, a few of his albums make for a chilling hear at a time when femicide is a rising downside in France. Within the 1976 album L’homme a la tête de chou the narrator warns his lover Marilou to “be careful or I’ll beat you up,” till he lastly kills her in a match of jealousy. The album Histoire de Melody Nelson, broadly thought to be his masterpiece, has elements which might be equally disturbing.
In 1966, Gainsbourg persuaded France Gall, who was 18 years outdated on the time, to document his music “Les Sucettes” (Lollipops). She later stated she hadn’t understood that the lyrics had been about fellatio and stated she was left humiliated by the expertise. “It was horrible. It modified my relationship with boys. It humiliated me,” Gall told Le Parisien in 2015, calling Gainsbourg a “fats pig.”
Belgian singer Lio is likely one of the few individuals to have publicly known as him out for the reason that #MeToo motion. In September 2020, she described him as “the Weinstein of music” in an interview with Arte Radio. “He was a harasser, he was by no means cool with women. I witnessed it,” she stated. Nevertheless, no one has publicly accused Serge Gainsbourg of sexual assault or rape.
His conduct obtained worse in his later years, as he elevated his consumption of alcohol and cigarettes. In 1986, he appeared drunk on a TV program the place he advised Whitney Houston that “he needed to fuck her.” The identical 12 months he known as singer Catherine Ringer a “whore” as a result of she had appeared in a porn film. He put his unhealthy manners right down to the self-created character of Gainsbarre, a fictional alter ego that represented his darkish facet.
Jane Birkin, who was in a relationship with Gainsbourg for 13 years, defended her late lover and stated he shouldn’t be judged in opposition to the requirements of right now’s #MeToo period. “You possibly can’t decide issues by different epoques,” she stated in an interview with The Times. “You possibly can’t measure them by this extraordinary state that MeToo has made.”
In her diaries revealed in 2018, Birkin describes scenes of violence on the time when she and Gainsbourg grew to become France’s most iconic couple, similar to one event when he slapped her “one, two, three times.” Bertrand Dicale, a journalist and writer of the guide Tout Gainsbourg, says “the truth that Gainsbourg beat his girlfriends, we’ve all the time recognized that. You needed to be a whole fool to not know that. In fact Gainsbourg was a nasty man, however loads of artists are.”
In direction of the tip of his life, Gainsbourg had several relationships with much younger girls and—in at least one reported case—an underage schoolgirl.
Many drew the road with Gainsbourg on the music Lemon Incest, which he sang along with his daughter Charlotte, then 12 years outdated. The music video reveals Serge mendacity on a mattress shirtless along with his daughter. “The love we are going to by no means make collectively is essentially the most lovely, essentially the most violent, the purest,” she sings. Even on the time, it was criticized for glamorizing incest and pedophilia, but it surely nonetheless managed to spend 10 weeks within the French high 10.
Final 12 months, the hashtag #metooinceste fuelled a reckoning over abuse of kids in France, after distinguished French intellectual Olivier Duhamel was accused of abusing his stepson. A year earlier, victims had spoken out against famous writer Gabriel Matzneff, who by no means hid the truth that he engaged in intercourse with women and boys. Following the wave of allegations, French lawmakers handed a invoice setting the minimal age of sexual consent at 15, according to most different Western international locations.
Speaking about Lemon Incest with The Guardian in 2019, Charlotte Gainsbourg admitted that it could not be acceptable right now. “My father could be condemned in each transfer he made. Every thing is so politically right. So boring. So anticipated. And everyone seems to be so scared of what’s going to occur in the event that they go too far.”
Chatting with France Inter on the thirtieth anniversary of her father’s loss of life, Gainsbourg stated she nonetheless appreciated the music. “To me it’s very harmless. My father is taking part in with provocation, however he’s extraordinarily honest and trustworthy,” she stated. “We had a really harmless father-daughter relationship. It’s what we are saying in ‘Lemon Incest:’ a love that could be very pure and really lovely.”
“I wish to sing it once more and on the similar time… it’s such a surprising topic,” she stated.
Within the wake of #Metoo, an older era of ladies in France has defended the “freedom to offend” as important to creative freedom. For Florian Philippot, Marine Le Pen’s former right-hand man and chief of Les Patriotes celebration, Gainsbourg is a logo of a “freer, extra inventive, extra clever time than the present obscurantism,” he said in a tweet. He represented “a France which had not given up on being itself, and was cherished for that on the planet.”
As guests step again in time at 5bis Rue de Verneuil, the place all the pieces has been left intact (an ashtray still contains Gitane cigarette butts)—Gainsbourg’s legacy will as soon as once more be up for debate.