If you’re a fan of the American show Mad Men, surely you’ve seen Jessica Paré’s coquettish, crowd-rousing rendition of “Zou Bisou Bisou,” the classic Gillian Hills song. But did you know this piece of French pop is a morsel of a grander genre of French music? The 1960s saw an explosion of bubblegum pop called yé-yé (so named for ecstatic shouts during the songs’ performances), which put a French twist on the British mod movement and American go-go dancers of the time, propelled mostly by the lyrics of one Serge Gainsbourg.
Late 1959 saw the premiere of Salut les Copains, a French radio show that played all the newest hits emerging in the pop scene of France. Each week the program would present a sweetheart of the week, which was almost always a fresh-faced (often teenage), sweetly crooning female singer. To be a chouchou de la semaine was a surefire ticket to success, as many of these rising stars skyrocketed to fame after being featured on the show.
The typical Yé-Yé girl fit into a particular mold: she had to be sweet and innocent with a coy flash of sexuality. From sweater-and-skirt girl Sheila and her signature hair bows to the brooding, lanky grace of Françoise Hardy and her mod miniskirts, the allure of the Yé-Yé girl was all in the hint of her budding sexuality. Many songs from this genre of French music (often written by older men) lament the desire to discover love or the sadness of growing up, both of which banked on the young-woman juxtaposition and perpetuated it. The video for Audrey Arno’s “Un Collège Anglais” features a slew of young ladies in schoolgirl outfits prancing around on a Paris bridge, shot from a low angle that narrowly avoids a complete upskirt.
Serge Gainsbourg, fast becoming a musical powerhouse during this time, wrote lyrics for many of the Yé-Yé girls and collaborated extensively with France Gall, taking advantage of her naïveté with suggestive songs, the double meanings of which Gall did not grasp at the time. He caused a scandal when he wrote “Les Sucettes” (see video link at end), a tune laden with double entendres, in which Gall sang about how much she loved sucking on lollipops. A television performance of the song shows Gall meandering around a set full of 7-foot-tall phallic lollipops, intercut with flashes of teenage girls, ahem, enjoying their candy. Gall was crushed and embarrassed when she discovered what the song was really about, refusing to leave her house for days, and eventually ending her successful collaboration with Gainsbourg because of it. (Though that didn’t seem to dissuade Serge from continuing in his dirty old man ways!)
Though the Yé-Yé style of French music spread like wildfire around the world, from Western Europe to the far reaches of Japan and Quebec, like most bubblegum pop it was killed with war—the social unrest of the late 1960s made the lighthearted style seem irrelevant and insensitive. But Yé-Yé has seen a few comebacks. Early electro-pop duo Elli et Jacno took the adorability factor of Yé-Yé and threw in some electronic instruments to modernize, adopting the miniskirt look and punching up the sexiness with pleather instead of tartan-printed wool, and a tight T-shirt instead of a demure sweater.
These days, Mad Men has stirred up the Yé-Yé pot once again with “Zou Bisou Bisou,” and Wes Anderson continues to mix it into pop culture with the use of Françoise Hardy’s “Le Temps de l’Amour” in his recent hit Moonrise Kingdom. And, of course, as anyone who begrudgingly lived through the late 1990s Mandy Moore/Britney Spears phase could agree, the popularity of promoting seemingly innocent teenage girls with hints of sensuality has never quite left the cultural landscape.
“Les Sucettes,” by France Gall
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