A Tribute to France Gall’s Rainbow Body of Pop

From Eurovision to Psychedilia and Serge Gainsbourg, the singer led a life of style.

January 16, 2018 5:00 am

See, the 20th Century, babies, was war. That’s what it was. That’s how it will be remembered.

I know people prattle on about Apple and Bowie and motion pictures and Michael Jordan and television and whatnot, but at the end of the day, the last century was the epoch where the ancient empires and colonial leviathans collapsed in ash and blood.

Pop music is absolutely inseparable from that reality. The Second World War, especially, shaped Our Pop: America, vigorous victors, never invaded, never ashamed, responded with the sound of dynamic and hardy sun kings like Elvis and Eddie Cochran and the Beach Boys. The West Germans, on the other hand, had to renounce the work of their fathers and create something without roots in the collective guilt: so they invented Year Zero Rock, i.e. the mesmeric drones of Krautrock. The British, whacked and skinned by decades of rationing and deprivation and the near-complete decapitation of their empire, made music that was vulnerable, credible and nostalgic, music that begged for the respect lost in rebellions and treaties.

And the French, well, they had to paint a smile on the rather staggering fact that they had been stomped and split during World War II; so Yé Yé, that bizarre and beautiful cooing, chirping, hushed and holy charm-bracelet form of small-object electric pop, was perfect.

Yé Yé admitted no guilt, and nor did it trumpet arrogance; it just, well, pretended neither guilt nor arrogance really factored into the picture. Its pursuit of pleasure and distraction was so singular; its mantra of melody so adamant; its isolation from everything but it’s own loose-limbed sky-bound joy so complete; it was utterly unattached from anything but its own needs and its own impossible child singers. And most of all, it gave us France Gall, who released music that achieved perfection, transcendence, a rainbow body of pop.

France Gall, the absolutely definitive singer of Yé Yé music, died this past week at age 70. Between 1964 and ’72, she achieved the rainbow body of pop again and again and again. “Sacré Charlemagne,” “Laisse Tomber les Filles,” “Poupée de Cire, Poupée de Son,” “Baby Bop,” “Les Sucettes,” “Teenie Weenie Boppie,” “Der Computer Nr 3,” these productions and melodies run up and down vanilla soft-serve staircases in the shadows of candy-coated Sacré-Cœur; they have the gentle crunch of glazed caramel, the absolute sweetness of buttercream, the rosy, sepia finish of the Fender VI, and they achieve a kind of holy grace, yes they do. And fronting it all is the form body of France Gall, this swaying, blowsy, bangs-y dove of a half-adult.

It’s almost madness, madness, the perfection of France Gall’s music; these tracks sound like a child dreaming of Brian Wilson, Jack Nietzsche, and Herb Albert. It’s the Anti-Spector in its cuteness and intimacy, and it also has this magic: it’s everything groovy and holy about the pop dream of the 1960s, but without foreboding. France Gall’s ‘60s hits are the bible of transistor bop with all the pages about the Revelation ripped out. It is so complete, so genuinely diverting, so able to take you into its own world that it is the pop of forgetting: there is no Manson lurking at the end of this story, no sad slog to the adulthood of Abbey Road, no premonition of Morrison, drooling and dripping and swollen and pickled in the inevitable Paris bathtub.

France Gall’s music is an absolute defiance of the 20th century, this War century, this age of neurosis and death, where an entire generation of young men died inhaling mud and mustard gas in the trenches of France; where brittle bones cracked and burned in the kilns of Silesia in the name of racial superiority; where, even as Gall nodded to her cloud-puff’d tunes, the earth was shadowed by the fear of imminent nuclear destruction. Gall’s music has so little to do with that and it has everything to do with that: We have stepped off of the freight car after nine days locked into its rank, rancid darkness, and we blink against the brutal white of the early morning winter light. A little blonde girl stands outside in a thigh-long navy blue toggle coat and says, “Would you like a stick of gum?” It is all wrong and it is utterly perfect.

Because yes, the 20th century was brutal motherfucker, and yes, I would like a stick of gum.

It all made perfect sense: Less then 20 years before France Gall threw her bright melodies across the high blue sky (and twenty years is nothing — think how recently 1998 was!), France had been invaded, smashed, occupied, and divided, it’s freaks and dissenters and Jews herded like cattle to die. The antidote to this horror is the cotton candy popsicles of Yé Yé, music that holds neither a mirror to the past nor makes any prophecies about the future.

And France Gall made absolute pop, and absolute pop is uncorrupted, absolutely. So much pop and rock require the listener in order to complete the circuit, but this is not true of France Gall. Her music is not a platform or mnemonic for our own thoughts or emotions; it bypasses our hopes and fears and goes straight to the amygdala, where it is just pop. It is complete without us. Like the sacred emptiness of the work of John Cage (so full of itself even in silence that you could think of nothing but it) or the brain and sternum-stomping V2-siren harmonic muffler symphonies of Glenn Branca, the 1960s’ hits of France Gall prevent the listener from considering anything but the aural sensation coming into the brain. And like Branca or Cage, it is so loaded with intent and brilliance that it is instinctual and moronic.

Later on, France Gall became more serious and made that sort-of I’m-a-National-Treasure music, with swelling orchestrations and (relatively) little reference to her holy, silly past. Lord knows this was her prerogative. Yet the absolute singular delight of Gall’s body of work in the 1960s and early 1970s remains adamantine, and one of the most important and distinctive pop catalogs of the entire era.

So let us honor France Gall, a Bodhisattva of pop, who delayed her ascension into Nirvana so she could bring pleasure to us who suffer here in this incarnation.

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