If you’re wondering just what on earth was with that “Zou bisou bisou” song from Mad Men on Sunday night, look no further — we’re here to help! The song was a prime example of yé-yé, the Francophone take on bubblegum teen pop that flourished in France during the early 1960s and briefly became a global phenomenon. The genre took its name from a bastardization of the English “yeah yeah,” gave the world some of the 1960s’ best pop songs, and even got a serious academic working-over from Susan Sontag, who wrote about yé-yé in her 1964 essay “Notes on Camp.” And judging by the slew of articles that have appeared on the subject since Sunday, it’s all anyone’s gonna be talking about until the next episode — so click through and take advantage of our handy yé-yé primer!
We might as well start with “Zou bisou bisou,” which was sung by 16-year-old Gillian Hills in 1961. The song was produced by a young George Martin, who’d soon go on to hook up with a little-known Liverpool pop group called The Beatles, and it later appeared on the soundtrack to Michelangelo Antonioni’s classic Blow-Up — as did Hills herself, shedding her clean-cut teen idol image along with her clothes in the famous scene where she gets naked with Jane Birkin. Swinging London, indeed.
Perhaps the most famous yé-yé singer, France Gall embodied many of the era’s contradictions — she sang ingenuous songs for children and pop tunes for innocent teens, but she was also a sex symbol, albeit often an unwitting one. Much of the latter, it has to be said, was due to her work with the perma-lecherous Serge Gainsbourg, of whom more shortly. In the meanwhile, enjoy “Laisser tomber les filles” — you may also be familiar with April March’s English-language cover, which figured prominently in Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof.
The conflict between the yé-yé singers’ wholesome images and what Troy McClure might have called their throbbing biological urges was a constant implicit theme in the music (as, indeed, it is in pop music today — look no further than the risible virgin schtick of Britney Spears’ early work for an example). Few embodied the dichotomy better than Sylvie Vartan, who was dubbed the “Twisting Schoolgirl” when she emerged onto the scene in 1961, and cultivated a rather raunchy image compared to her peers. She poked fun at the contradiction at a show in 1968 with the above performance, which envisaged a discussion between an adult Sylvie and a young, innocent version.
By contrast, Chantal Goya followed up a successful decade as a yé-yé singer with a move into children’s music — she’s spent the last 35 years in a double act with her husband, playing a character called Marie-Rose as one of France’s most beloved entertainers for kids. (Fun fact: she’s also appeared in Absolument fabuleux, the French remake of Absolutely Fabulous.) But before all that, she was one of the yé-yé generation’s foremost members, recording a series of hits throughout the 1960s and early 1970s.
Hallyday was undoubtedly the most famous male singer of the yé-yé era — he was married to Sylvie Vartan, and the two were quite the iconic couple in the 1960s and 1970s, starring together in a movie entitled D’où viens-tu Johnny? (“Where did you come from, Johnny?”) and also recording an album together in Nashville. Some over half a century later, Hallyday remains as successful as ever — he’s sold some 110 million albums over the course of his career, despite never really cracking it outside France. While he was never really seen as part of the yé-yé scene — largely because most of the singers were female — his Francophone take on American sounds totally fits the criteria as far as we’re concerned.
Whether or not Hallyday truly fits into the yé-yé box is open for debate, but either way, there were definitely some male singers who did. Foremost amongst them was Claude François — he’s probably best-known for writing “Comme d’habitude” (later made famous by Frank Sinatra as “My Way”), but he had a slew of upbeat, mildly cheesy hits throughout the 1960s, most of them were reworking of English songs. He died at only 39 years of age in 1978, electrocuted in his bath while trying to straighten a light fitting above the tub.
Of all the yé-yé singers, it’s Françoise Hardy’s work that’s had the most enduring appeal (in our opinion, anyway.) This is perhaps because Hardy’s songs aren’t quite as fluffy as those of her contemporaries — even her most upbeat works had a shade of melancholy to them, but it was her more reflective songs that really found her at at her best. “Tous les garcons et les filles” is perhaps her most enduring classic, but we’ve always been partial to “Mon amie la rose” and “Le premier bonheur du jour” (the latter covered to great effect by Françoiz Breut a few years back.) Also: apparently Nick Drake was besotted with Hardy, and heartbroken when she didn’t return his affections.
While Hardy’s perhaps the most enduring product of the era, the undisputed queen of yé-yé in the 1960s was Annie Chancel, better known as Sheila. She embodied the ingenuous spirit of the era, performing songs with titles like “L’école est finie” (“School’s Out”) and “Pendant les vacances” (“Over the school holidays”), and has sold some 24 million records over the years. She also reinvented herself as a disco act in the 1970s, performing with three black male dancers under the, um, perhaps slightly questionable name “Sheila and Black Devotion.”
Behold: a song based on the idea of fantasizing about Paul McCartney! This was Jacqueline Taïeb’s debut, and remains her most famous song — she later recorded an English version, although we far prefer the original. She was one of the lesser-known yé-yé girls, but also one of the best — her music had a certain grit lacking in some of her contemporaries — and this song is a genre classic.
And, finally, there’s Serge. It’s pretty much impossible to discuss the French music of this era without running into Gainsbourg sooner or later, and sure enough, his fingerprints are smeared all over the evolution of yé-yé. Most notoriously, he penned a song for France Gall called “Les Sucettes,” which translates as “Lollipops” — the ostensibly innocent lyric about a girl who likes lollipops was laden with double entendres about oral sex, a fact to which Gall was oblivious at the time, and which makes watching the video above a rather uncomfortable experience. She was apparently mortified when she found out, and these days refuses to play the song (or any of the others Gainsbourg wrote for her) — all of which only goes to show that even in his 30s, Serge was already a dirty old man at heart.