Serge Gainsbourg promoted incest and pedophilia. He is now honored.

When Serge Gainsbourg, one of France’s most influential composers and singers, 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, his transgression is an essential part of French culture. For others, he is a symbol of toxic masculinity. 30 years after his death last year, The Inrockuptibles the magazine asked if Gainsbourg had become problematic and The Obs he wondered, “Can we still like him today?”

This spring, her daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg will open the gates of 5bis Rue du Verneuil in Paris as Maison Gainsbourg, the first cultural institution dedicated to the artist. The composer’s house, where he spent the last years of his life, has long served as an altar covered with graffiti posters, photographs and tributes. After a long wait, it was scheduled to open to the public to mark the 30th anniversary of Gainsbourg’s death, but was postponed due to COVID-19. The tours of the house will be accompanied below by a museum, a bookstore and a cafe that turns into a piano bar at night. In a separate event, a new metro station on the outskirts of Paris will be named after him next year 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”, banned by the BBC due to its explicit content and denounced by the Vatican, Gainsbourg has always been a controversial figure. His provocative inclination led him to record a reggae version of “Marseillaise” [the French national anthem] and burns a 500-franc banknote live on TV to protest the high taxes. “The challenge seemed to be part of his arsenal, of the way he tried to make an impact, of 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 embrace some of its most 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 are a scary listen at a time when feminicide is a growing problem in France. In the 1976 album The man with the cabbage head The narrator warns his girlfriend Marilou to “take care or beat you”, until he finally kills her in a fit of jealousy. album Melody Nelson’s storywidely regarded as his masterpiece, it has parts that are just as disturbing.

In 1966, Gainsbourg persuaded France Gall, who was 18 at the time, to record his song.Acadele “ (Acadele). She later said she did not understand that the lyrics were about fellatio and said she was humiliated by the experience. “It was horrible. It changed my relationship with the boys. It humiliated me,” Gall said The Parisian In 2015, he called Gainsbourg a “fat pig.”

France Gall and Serge Gainsbourg at a reception in a Parisian restaurant. The party was offered at the Eurovision Song Contest by Gall with Gainsbourg’s song

Keystone-France / Gamma-Keystone via Getty

Belgian singer Lio is one of the few people who has publicly called him since the #MeToo movement. In September 2020, she described him as “Weinstein of Music” in an interview with Radio Arts. “He was a bully, he wasn’t cool with girls at all. I witnessed that, “she said. However, no one has publicly accused Serge Gainsbourg of sexual assault or rape.

His behavior worsened in recent years as alcohol and cigarette consumption increased. In 1986, he appeared drunk on a TV show where he told Whitney Houston that he “wanted to fuck her.” In the same year, he called singer Catherine Ringer a “whore” because she appeared in a porn movie. He blamed Gainsbarre’s self-created character, a fictional alter ego that represented his dark side.

Jane Birkin, who has been in a relationship with Gainsbourg for 13 years, defended her late lover and said she should not be judged against the standards of today’s #MeToo era. “You can’t judge things by other times,” she said in an interview time. “You can’t measure them by this extraordinary condition that MeToo has made.”

Serge Gainsbourg and his partner Jane Birkin in the courtyard of the National College of Fine Arts in France, Paris, January 2, 1969

Jacques Haillot / Apis / Sygma / Sygma by Getty

In her 2018 journals, Birkin describes scenes of violence when she and Gainsbourg became France’s most iconic couple, such as an occasion when he slapped her “once, twice, three times.” Bertrand Dicale, journalist and author of the book All Gainsbourg, says “Gainsbourg beat his girlfriends, I always knew that. You had to be an idiot not to know that. Of course, Gainsbourg was an ugly guy, but there are a lot of artists. ”

Towards the end of his life, Gainsbourg had several relationships with much younger girls and, in at least one reported case, a minor school.

Many drew the line with Gainsbourg in song Lemon incest, which he sang with his daughter Charlotte, then 12 years old. The video shows Serge lying on a shirtless bed with his daughter. “The love we will never make together is the most beautiful, the most violent, the purest,” she sings. Even at that time, he was criticized for glamorizing incest and pedophilia, but he still managed to spend 10 weeks in the French top 10.

Last year, the hashtag #metooinceste fueled an account of child abuse in France after a prominent French intellectual, Olivier Duhamel, was accused of abusing his stepson. A year ago, the victims spoke out against the famous writer Gabriel Matzneff, who never hid the fact that he had sex with girls and boys. Following the wave of accusations, French parliamentarians have passed a bill that sets the minimum age for sexual consent at 15, according to most other Western countries.

Charlotte Gainsbourg with her father, Serge Gainsbourg.

Jean Pimentel / Kipa / Sygma by Getty

Talking about Lemon incest with the Guardian In 2019, Charlotte Gainsbourg acknowledged that it would not be acceptable today. “My father would have condemned me for every move he made. Everything is so politically correct. So boring. As expected. And everyone is so scared of what will happen if I go too far. ”

Speaking to France Inter on the 30th anniversary of her father’s death, Gainsbourg said she still liked the song. “It simply came to our notice then. My father plays with the challenge, but he is extremely sincere and honest, ”she said. “I had a very innocent father-daughter relationship. That’s what we 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.

Following #Metoo, an older generation of women in France defended “freedom to offend” as essential to artistic freedom. For Florian Philippot, Marine Le Pen’s former right-hand man and leader of Les Patriotes, Gainsbourg is a symbol of a “freer, more creative, smarter time than current obscurantism.” he said in a tweet. He represented “a France that had not given up being itself and was loved for it in the world.”

As visitors take a step back in time to 5bis Rue de Verneuil, where everything has been left intact (an ashtray still contains Gypsy cigarette butts) – Gainsbourg’s legacy will be in question again.

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