Serge Gainsbourg promoted incest and pedophilia. Now He is honored.
When Serge Gainsbourg, one of France’s most influential singer-songwriters, died at the age of 62 on March 2, 1991, then-president François Mitterrand described him as “our Baudelaire, our Apollinaire. He raised the song to the level of art.
Gainsbourg remains one of the country’s most popular musicians, inspiring everyone from Nick Cave to Daft Punk, Massive Attack and De La Soul. But in 2022 the themes of incest, misogyny and racism in his music make him an increasingly controversial figure. For some, its transgression is an integral part of French culture. For others, it is the symbol of toxic masculinity. On the 30th anniversary of his death last year, Les Inrockuptibles magazine asked if Gainsbourg had become problematic, and The Obs asked “can we still love him today?”
This spring, his daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg will open the doors of 5bis rue du Verneuil in Paris as Gainsbourg House, the first cultural institution dedicated to the artist. The songwriter’s tiny home, where he spent the last years of his life, has long served as a sanctuary covered in posters, photographs and graffiti tributes. After a long wait, it was due to open to the public to mark the 30th anniversary of Gainsbourg’s death but was postponed due to COVID-19. Tours of the house will be accompanied further down the street by a museum, a bookstore and a café that turns into a piano bar at night. In another event, a new metro station at the gates of Paris will be named after him next year in honor of his song “Le poinçonneur des Lilas”.
Best known for his 1969 hit “Je t’aime… moi non plus”, banned by BBC due to explicit content and denounced by the Vatican, Gainsbourg has always been a controversial figure. His penchant for provocation led him to record a reggae version of “la Marseillaise” [the French national anthem] and burning a 500-franc note live on TV to protest high taxes. “Provocation seemed to be part of his arsenal, the way he tried to make an impact, the character he built,” says David Platten, a professor at the University of Leeds who specializes in French popular culture. . “And France as a country likes to appropriate some of its more radical types of artists.”
But while Gainsbourg still enjoys the aura of a glamorous icon as the “bad boy” of French music, some of his albums make for chilling listening at a time when femicide is a growing problem in France. In the 1976 album The man with the cabbage head the narrator warns his lover Marilou to “be careful or I’ll beat you”, until he finally kills her in a fit of jealousy. The Scrapbook Melody Nelson’s Storywidely considered his masterpiece, has some equally disturbing parts.
In 1966, Gainsbourg convinced France Gall, then aged 18, to record her song “Lollipops” (Lollipops). She later said she didn’t realize the lyrics were about oral sex and said she was humbled by the experience. “It was horrible. It changed my relationship with the boys. It humbled me,” Gall Told The Parisian in 2015, calling Gainsbourg a “big pig”.
Belgian singer Lio is one of the few people to have publicly denounced it since the #MeToo movement. In September 2020, she described him as “the Weinstein of music” in an interview with Arte Radio. “He was a stalker, he was not at all cool with girls. I witnessed it,” she says. Yet no one has publicly accused Serge Gainsbourg of sexual assault or rape.
His behavior worsened in his later years as he increased his consumption of alcohol and cigarettes. In 1986, he appeared drunk on a TV show where he told Whitney Houston that “he wanted to fuck her.” The same year, he calls singer Catherine Ringer a “whore” because she appeared in a porn film. He blamed his bad manners on the character he created for himself Gainsbarrea fictional alter ego who represented his dark side.
Jane Birkin, who had been in a relationship with Gainsbourg for 13 years, defended her late lover and said he should not be judged by the standards of today’s #MeToo era. “You can’t judge things by other eras,” she said in an interview with The temperature. “You can’t measure them by this extraordinary state that MeToo has created.”
In her diaries published in 2018, Birkin describes scenes of violence during the time when she and Gainsbourg became France’s most iconic couple, such as a time when he slapped her “one, two, three times”. Bertrand Dicale, journalist and author of the book All Gainsbourg, says “the fact that Gainsbourg beats his girlfriends, we have always known. You had to be a complete idiot not to know that. Sure, Gainsbourg was a villain, but a lot of artists are.
Towards the end of his life, Gainsbourg had several relationships with much younger girls and, in at least one reported case, an underage schoolgirl.
Many have drawn the line with Gainsbourg to the song Lemon Incest, which he sings with his 12-year-old daughter Charlotte. The clip shows Serge lying shirtless on a bed with his daughter. “The love we will never make together is the most beautiful, the most violent, the purest,” she sings. Even back then, he was criticized for glorifying incest and pedophilia, but he still managed to spend 10 weeks in the French top 10.
Last year, the hashtag #metooincest fueled a judgment on child abuse in France, after French intellectual Olivier Duhamel was accused of abusing his stepson. A year earlier, victims had spoken out against the famous writer Gabriel Matzneff, who never hid the fact that he had sex with girls and boys. Following the wave of allegations, French lawmakers passed a bill setting the minimum age of sexual consent at 15, in line with most other Western countries.
Talk about Lemon Incest with The Guardian in 2019, Charlotte Gainsbourg admitted that it would not be acceptable today. “My dad would be doomed for every move he makes. Everything is so politically correct. So boring. So expected. And everyone is so scared of what will happen if they go too far.
Talk to France Inter on the 30th anniversary of her father’s death, Gainsbourg said she still loved the song. “To me, it’s very innocent. My father plays with the provocation, but he is extremely sincere and honest, ”she said. “We had a very innocent father-daughter relationship. That’s what they say in ‘Lemon Incest’: a very pure and very beautiful love.
“I would love to sing it again and at the same time…it’s such a shocking subject,” she said.
In the wake of #Metoo, an older generation of women in France have defended the “freedom to offendas essential to artistic freedom. For Florian Philippot, former right-hand man of Marine Le Pen and leader of the Les Patriotes party, Gainsbourg is the symbol of a “freer, more creative, more intelligent era than current obscurantism”, he said in a tweet. He represented “a France which had not given up on being itself, and which was loved for that in the world”.
As visitors step back in time at 5bis rue de Verneuil, where everything has remained intact (an ashtray still contains Gitane cigarette butts)—Gainsbourg’s legacy will again be up for debate.