Although the Eurovision Song Contest officially started in 1956, Eurovision really started in 1965, when France Gall won for Luxembourg singing a Serge Gainsbourg-penned “yé-yé” (the genre name for French pop inspired by British beat music) song.
She’s off key. But that doesn’t matter. The super-‘60s yé-yé style only sorrrta works with the orchestral arrangement. But who cares? When you watch this performance, you’re swear-to-God watching the birth of Eurovision.
Before Gall’s 1965 win, here’s what Eurovision sounded like (below)…
Every single Eurovision winner up until “Poupée de cire, poupée de son“ was a slow, traditional pop ballad. Some of the judges in ’65 — including the judges from Luxembourg!— were flatly scandalized by Gall and Gainsbourg’s attempt to bring then-contemporary pop music into the contest. Even members of the orchestra were openly skeptical about what they were playing. But after Gall’s win, the serene slow ballad style was gone, replaced with upbeat pop madness.
Including this hideous thing out of England in 1967 (below), which inaugurated the proud Eurovision tradition of shamelessly ripping off past winners.
One thing about “Poupée de cire, poupée de son” that separates it from its imitators is that Gainsbourg’s (brilliant) lyrics feature elaborate and not entirely translatable puns. For example, the title of the song could mean “wax doll, rag doll” — but much like contemporary English-speaking vinyl collectors sometimes call records “wax,” “cire” could be used to refer to records. And though “poupée de son” typically means “rag doll,” it can also be translated as “sound doll.”
So what we see in “Poupée de cire, poupée de son” is France Gall standing in front of a backdrop that surrounds her head with sunlike rays, singing a song about how, under the shining sun of her own blonde hair, she’s just a helpless unknowing pop-puppet giving voice to words written by others, putting out wax records full of songs she doesn’t understand, her music a broken mirror in which everyone can see her but she can’t see herself.
The combination of Gainsbourg’s lyrics and Gall’s performance are a brilliant indictment of what the pop system does to pop stars — but also an instance of it, much like Quentin Tarantino’s output simultaneously condemns and recapitulates sadistic Hollywood ultraviolence.
After “Poupée de cire, poupée de son”, Gainsbourg devoted himself to discovering exactly how far he could go before Gall picked up on the double entendres in his lyrics. Below is the last big hit that Gall recorded for Gainsbourg:
Although it’s hard to believe, Gall apparently had no idea what “Les sucettes” (Or “The Lollipops”) was really about when she sang it. See, most of her non-Gainsbourg songs up to this point were thematically simple and disarmingly childlike, including some actual children’s songs. And so, oblivious to Gainsbourg’s… Gainsbourgosity… she honestly thought that “Les sucettes” was just another simple sweet kid’s song about loving lollipops.
Here’s a bit of an 1966 interview with Gainsbourg and Gall wherein he asks her to explain “Les sucettes”, and fails to correct her naïve interpretation.
Note: You will feel dirty after watching this. And not in a good way.
While on tour shortly after “Les sucettes” was released, some fans explained to Gall what she was actually singing. After finding out, she locked herself indoors for months.
Because of her new reputation her record sales, especially for her children’s albums, suffered for years afterward. She stopped playing “Poupée de cire, poupée de son“ in concert, and for the most part to this day refuses to speak in public about Eurovision, Gainsbourg, or the early portion of her career.
If you need a palate cleanser after watching Serge Gainsbourg elaborately humiliate a sheltered teenager to prove his own cleverness, you could watch Estonian Eurovision contestants Winny Puhh play an electric banjo so hard that gravity stops working. But consider this — if it weren’t for “Poupée de cire, poupée de son“, this might have been a slow ballad. No wrestling singlets, no werewolf masks, no anti-gravity drums. Just schmaltzy orchestral pop sludge.
(This article was originally published on May 22, 2015)