When Serge Gainsbourg, one of France’s most influential singer-songwriters, died on March 2, 1991 at the age of 62, then-President François Mitterrand described him as “our Baudelaire, our Apollinaire. He elevated the song to the level of art.”
Gainsbourg remains one of the country’s most popular musicians, going on to inspire 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, crossing borders is an integral part of French culture. For others, he is a symbol of toxic masculinity. On the 30th anniversary of his death last year Les Inrockuptibles Magazine asked if Gainsbourg had become problematic, and L’Obs wondered, “Can we still like him today?”
This spring, his daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg will open the doors at 5bis Rue du Verneuil in Paris as Maison Gainsbourg, the first cultural institution dedicated to the artist. The songwriter’s tiny house, where he spent the final years of his life, has long served as a shrine 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. Accompanied by tours of the house, further down the street are a museum, a bookshop, and a café that turns into a piano bar at night. In a separate event next year, a new metro station on the outskirts of Paris will be named after him in honor of his song “Le poinçonneur des Lilas” (The ticket puncher of Les Lilas).
Best known for his 1969 hit “Je t’aime…moi non plus,” which was banned by the BBC for its explicit content and denounced by the Vatican, Gainsbourg was always a controversial figure. His penchant for provocation led him to record a reggae version of the “Marseillaise”. [the French national anthem] and burn a 500-franc note live on TV to protest against high taxes. “Provocation seemed to be part of his arsenal, the way he tried to impress, the character he constructed,” says David Platten, a professor at the University of Leeds who specializes in French popular culture. “And France as a country is happy to appropriate some of its more radical types of artists.”
But while Gainsbourg still enjoys the aura of a glamorous icon as French music’s “bad boy,” some of his albums make for a chilling listen at a time when femicide is a growing problem in France. On the 1976 album L’homme a la tete de chou The narrator warns his lover Marilou, “Be careful or I’ll beat you up,” until he finally kills her out of jealousy. The album Story by Melody Nelsonwidely regarded as his masterpiece, has parts that are equally disturbing.
In 1966, Gainsbourg persuaded France Gall, then 18, to write his song “Les Sucettes” (Lollipop). She later said she did not understand that the lyrics were about fellatio and said she was humbled by the experience. “It was awful. It changed my relationship with guys. It humbled me,” Gall said Le Parisien In 2015 he called Gainsbourg a “fat pig”.
Belgian singer Lio is one of the few who has publicly challenged him since the #MeToo movement. In September 2020, she described him as “the Weinstein of music” in an interview with Arte Radio. “He was a harasser, he wasn’t cool with girls at all. I witnessed it,” she said. However, no one has publicly accused Serge Gainsbourg of sexual assault or rape.
His behavior deteriorated in his later years as he increased his alcohol and cigarette consumption. In 1986, he appeared drunk on a TV show telling Whitney Houston that “he wanted to fuck her.” That same year, he called singer Catherine Ringer a “whore” for appearing in a pornographic film. He attributed his bad manners to the self-created character Gainsbarre, a fictional alter ego who represented his dark side.
Jane Birkin, who was in a relationship with Gainsbourg for 13 years, defended her late lover and said he shouldn’t 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 times. “You can’t measure them by this extraordinary condition that MeToo has created.”
In her diaries, published in 2018, Birkin describes scenes of violence at the time she and Gainsbourg became France’s most famous couple, such as an occasion when he hit her “one, two, three times”. Bertrand Dicale, journalist and author of the book Tout GainsbourgHe says: “We always knew that Gainsbourg would hit his girlfriends. You had to be a complete idiot not to know that. Of course Gainsbourg was a mean guy, 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 drew the line with Gainsbourg at the song Lemon Incest, which he sang with his then 12-year-old daughter Charlotte. The music video shows Serge lying shirtless on a bed with his daughter. “The love we’ll never make together is the most beautiful, the most violent, the purest,” she sings. Even then, it was criticized for glorifying incest and pedophilia, but still managed to stay in the French top 10 for 10 weeks.
Last year, the hashtag #metooinceste fueled a reckoning on child abuse in France after prominent French intellectual Olivier Duhamel was accused of molesting his stepson. A year earlier, victims had spoken out against the famous writer Gabriel Matzneff, who never concealed that he had sex with girls and boys. Following the spate of allegations, French lawmakers passed legislation that set the minimum age for sexual consent at 15, in line with most other western countries.
Talk about Lemon Incest With The guard In 2019 Charlotte Gainsbourg admitted that this would no longer be acceptable today. “My father was judged in every move he made. Everything is so politically correct. So boring. So expected. And everyone is so afraid of what will happen if they go too far.”
Speaking to France Inter on the 30th anniversary of her father’s death, Gainsbourg said she still loves the song. “To me it’s very innocent. My father plays with provocation, but he is extremely sincere and honest,” she said. “We had a very innocent father-daughter relationship. That’s what we’re saying in Lemon Incest: a love that’s very pure and very beautiful.”
“I’d love to sing it again and at the same time … it’s such a shocking subject,” she said.
After #Metoo, an older generation of women in France defended the “freedom to offend” as essential to artistic freedom. For Florian Philippot, former right-hand man of Marine Le Pen and leader of the Les Patriotes party, Gainsbourg is a symbol of a “freer, more creative, more intelligent time than the current obscurantism”. said in a tweet. He represented “a France that had not given up being herself and was loved for it in the world”.
As visitors travel back in time at 5bis rue de Verneuil, where everything remains intact (an ashtray still contains Gitane cigarette butts), Gainsbourg’s legacy will once again be up for debate.