Yay for yé-yé
By Idrian Burgos, Senior Columnist
Whenever you turn on the radio nowadays, especially on the Top 40 stations, the music is mostly electronically generated, the words are mostly plain and shallow, and the lyrics are largely about relationships and partying. The best songs lie outside the pop genre like rock or R&B, but even these genres are being infiltrated by the dried-up pop logic.
However, it hasn’t always been this way.
During the ’60s and into the early ’70s, the French-speaking world saw the rise and flourish of a pop music attuned to that world’s sensibilities. It was called yé-yé, from the Gallicized form of “yeah.” While similar to the Anglophone pop music of that era, the French-language version departed from it in both melody and lyrics. Musically, it was more diverse and artistic, ranging from gentle, lonesome melodies to joyful, carefree rhythms, even mad guitar strums. Lyrically, the nature of the French language (at least from a non-Francophone perception) gave even the most mundane songs a sense of culture, not to mention those songwriters whose words made their songs perhaps one of the most creative in Western pop music.
Although yé-yé is connected to the more youth-oriented genre of that period’s French-language pop music, it can arguably be extended to encompass almost the whole of the language’s pop music in that period. The existence of yé-yé proved that pop music need not be dumb and monotonous.
The period saw the appearance of artists who eventually became some of the most representative figures of Francophone pop music. Leading among them is the controversial singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg, whose genre-breaking musical career and influence is matched only by his notorious personal life. He wrote many of the songs that would define the genre, writing for many yé-yé singers such as the iconic France Gall and the most iconic of them all, Françoise Hardy. Hardy arguably matches Gainsbourg in the song-writing department, having written many of her own songs, many of which also defined the genre.
Other singers of the period include Johnny Hallyday (another yé-yé star), Sheila, Sylvie Vartan, Richard Anthony, Michèle Torr, and Frank Alamo. What these artists did was adapt the prevailing English-language pop music of that time to their culture, shifting its elements in accordance to their cultural distinctiveness, and in the process making an important contribution to pop music in general.
While yé-yéhas since mostly faded away, its influence can still be felt today, especially through artists like April March and in the indie pop genre. More important is the lesson that it offers us: it is possible to create music that expresses ourselves in an original way and that explains our everyday lives in a more imaginative style beyond the superficial and uninspired.
Yé-yé shows us that music can be both popular and educated.