Serge Gainsbourg

By: Lucy Sante
April 2, 2010

SERGE GAINSBOURG (Lucien Ginsburg, 1928-91) advanced the international conception of Frenchness by a degree unmatched by anyone since Maurice Chevalier or, arguably, J.-P. Sartre. He accomplished this by being dissolute, unshaven, a short and unprepossessing man who attracted spectacularly beautiful women, and a Jewish intellectual who wore his learning like a dirty T-shirt. The fact that he was also one of the greatest songwriters of the century can sometimes seem like an incidental detail. Nevertheless, he was a uniquely exportable commodity in the famously hermetic world of Gallic pop. He could write in any idiom and make the results not sound like pastiches. He could combine deep feeling and cleverness both high- and low-concept (his untranslatable wordplay never fails to dazzle) to the detriment of neither. He could tailor his songs to his pulchritudinous mouthpieces (Greco, Gall, Bardot, Karina, Birkin…) like a couturier who dabbled in psychoanalysis. As himself, he talk-sang like Everyman with a hangover and a large dose of rue. In France he was an institution, for more than twenty years incarnating the twin roles of public poet and public outrage like a Villon or Baudelaire in the age of showbiz. They’ll drag him into the Panthéon, kicking and screaming, in about fifty years.


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