It's hardly news that the French do most things with great style and aplomb, and pop music is no exception. One of the country's most enduring musical legacies is the string of incredible female pop vocalists that it gave rise to from the '60s onwards. As Europe blossomed in post-war reverie, a particular style of fun, frivolous pop music emerged from numerous European countries universally referred to as 'Yé-yé', or 'Yeah yeah' in reference to the strong influence that British beat music had at the time. The French exemplified 'Yé-yé', creating lushly orchestrated bittersweet pop caught between the joys of modern consumerism and the transitory nature of youth. 'Yé-yé' laid the groundwork for successive decades of successful French chanteuses. Here are some of our favourites:
Universally acknowledged as one of the biggest sex symbols ever after her star-making turn in 1958's And God Created Woman, like many entertainers of the time Brigitte Bardot was a model, actress and singer. Her singing career eclipsed her acting career by a number of years, so it's ironic that she didn't posses the greatest singing voice. Nonetheless, what she lacked in ability she made up for in attitude, exemplified by 'Contact', a retro-futurist oddity composed and produced by the patron-saint and seedy uncle of French pop, Serge Gainsbourg.
Slender and stunning, Françoise Hardy cut a plaintive and introspective figure. Her soothing, soulful voice was well suited to brooding, existential songs about love and loss, and her finest moments are those of moody dreaminess. Hardy too crossed over into film as well as fashion – she was muse for Paco Rabanne and Cristóbal Balenciaga. Her 1970 album Soleil contains this gem of self-reflexive pop: ‘Fleur de Lune’.
If high-profile stars Bardot and Hardy exemplified crowd-pleasing pop, Brigitte Fontaine was the antithesis of ‘Yé-yé’s breezy, joie de vivre. She made records that married offbeat pop and folk with the bourgeoning avant-garde, and later in her career teamed up with avant-rock icons Sonic Youth and The Art Ensemble of Chicago, continuing to make genuinely strange music well into her seventies. Produced by Serge Gainsbourg’s string arranger and composer extraordinaire, Jean-Claude Vannier, ‘Je Suis Inadaptée’ marries her brazen vocals with off-kilter arrangements and musique concrete.
France Gall is the definition of a 'Yé-yé' star, releasing her debut single shortly before her 16th birthday in 1963, and following it up with a string of hits over the following years. She even won Eurovision in 1965 with 'Poupée de cire, poupée de son', and like a number of other female singers of the 60s, fell under the influence of Serge Gainsbourg, whose questionable motives and subversive lyrics had her singing paeans to oral sex and LSD. If the 'Yé-yé' movement has an anthem, it must be 'Laisse tomber les filles', which translates as 'Leave the girls alone' - an early girl power rallying cry if ever there was one.
Although she was born in Denmark, Anna Karina has spent the majority of her working life in France. If her status as French chanteuse were still in question, consider that she modelled for both Coco Chanel and Pierre Cardin, and was the muse of French new wave cinema's best known auteur, Jean-Luc Godard, starring in four of his films. Whilst her singing career may seem like an aside compared to these achievements, consider 'Roller Girl' - a masterpiece of fuzz guitar and big brassy '60s horns. Her sassy vocals make this a delectable piece of frothy pop attitude.
Whilst countless more 'Yé-yé' stars came and went over the course of the '60s, most of whom were one hit wonders, several artists enjoyed more than just a fleeting brush with fame. Worthy of investigation are Jacqueline Taieb, whose impassioned delivery and self-penned songs make her more than just a frothy confection, Annie Philippe - another teen star in the mold of France Gall, and Victoire Scott, whose 1968 EP 4ème dimension is a cult masterpiece of atmospheric arrangements and beat-driven pop songs.
Plenty of contemporary musicians have continued the tradition laid out by 'Yé-yé', drawing upon its lush, dreamy atmospherics and giving it a contemporary spin. Whilst Fabienne Del Sol is amongst the more traditional in her adaptation of the style, Charlotte Gainsbourg, daughter of Serge, has eclipsed her father's shadow whilst simultaneously referencing his influence. More recently Lou Doillon (Charlotte's half-sister) has built a career pairing smooth pop with Motown and contemporary rock influences. And of course, for those who appreciate Brigitte Fontaine's otherworldly experiments there's Stereolab frontwoman Laeticia Sadier, who pairs leftfield pop with lounge music.