Underappreciated Music File: Serge Gainsbourg
Despite his broad and continuing influence on rock and indie music, Serge Gainsbourg probably isn't an artist most people would name alongside greats like The Beatles. Gainsbourg's facebook page has more than 50,000 fans, but considering that a briny cucumber wanting to best Nickelback has 1.5 million fans, the measurement is somewhat broken. The bulk of his fans are French, not surprising given that he is French and also directly responsible for bands like Air, and indie-darling Phoenix. But, is his lack of wider appeal due to the language barrier? Does a lack of complete understanding of the music make it any less valuable to a certain observer? The answers to me, after having listened for the last few months to Historie de Melody Nelson and Jane Birkin/Serge Gainsbourg come out as yes, no (with a but).
Gainsbourg is known for the sexual, playful and quintessentially lustful nature of his music. He has numerous ballads that are more or less musical pick up lines so dripping in suave confidence that they're undeniable. But, he's not just a simple lounge singer either. And while there are elements of Sinatra/Martin-esque "cool-guy-in-a-tux" going on, Gainsbourg takes things further by forgoing the usual over-romanticism. Mix in amazing strings, brass, and funky '70s guitar riffs and suddenly there is a whole new sound spurting from your speakers. It's passionate, vibrant and physical music. And despite feeling completely grounded in the corporeal the music is very certainly intellectual. And it's all in French. I'll admit. I don't speak French fluently. I've always wanted to, but never got around to learning. It's a beautiful language, with a unique flow, like a river of molasses. Gainsbourg takes full advantage of that linguistic trait, whispering many lyrics and using his not entirely great singing voice to effect sexuality.
Jane Birkin, Gainsbourg's wife and mother of Charlotte Gainsbourg, contributed heavily to that sexuality. On Jane Birkin/Serge Gainsbourg, track one is a song most of us have heard at one point or another "Je t'aime... moi non plus" in which Birkin and Gainsbourg trade whispers of love and lust, which turn to moans and ultimately culminate in Birkin mimicking orgasm. Historie de Melody Nelson, released in 1971, tells a Nabokovian tale about an older man falling for a young girl, running away with her. Both of these albums are undeniably amazing, combining pop, jazz, big band, funk, rock, choral and art. Gainsbourg succeeds in creating quick, catchy, playful pop music, and shows an even greater aptitude with long, droning, acid-rock. "Cargo Culte" from Melody Nelson uses heavy bass lines and a choir to create a dreamy, infinite quality culminating the entire album's story perfectly. Gainsbourg has more than 20 LPs and some live albums, but still he is not tightly seated with other greats from his various eras (late '50s to '80s).
And mostly it's because he's French. The majority of Americans don't enjoy listening to things they don't understand. Even a classic rock station wouldn't add Gainsbourg to the playlist because the music wasn't played enough when it was new to have a large following, so instead his work becomes valuable to the music archivist/historian. The trick for me is that most of the time I don't understand all the lyrics to a song in English the first few times through, and yet I am capable of enjoying it. It's not because I know I can understand it fully, but just that it's incredible music. And that seems to be an important lesson about art, and everything else for that matter. We don't need to understand something completely to enjoy it and appreciate it (I'm looking at you Lost fans). So often greatness is in brief successes, that one riff that tugged at your heart, or the drum line that motivated you to get out of bed. Understanding is overrated, but, unfortunately Serge Gainsbourg is underrated. Seek him out. Listen. And just absorb.
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