Charlotte Gainsbourg, singer?

Charlotte Gainsbourg; image courtesy of loudersoft.com

A little while ago, my friend Alex forwarded me a press release from a rep at Atlantic Records for Charlotte Gainsbourg’s forthcoming album IRM. As a fan, he had wondered if I had considered writing about her, an interest apparently motivated by reading an earlier post I did on Scarlett Johansson. When we saw each other at a mutual friend’s dissertation proposal party, we talked a bit more about it, wherein he basically outlined an entry’s worth of critical inquiry.

1. Like Johansson, Gainsbourg works almost exclusively with men, whether they be film directors like Michel Gondry and Todd Haynes or music producers like Nigel Godrich. Thus, she often occupies something of a muse position for male creative types, perhaps further enforcing masculinist notions of auteurism. Gainsbourg’s previous work with Air and Jarvis Cocker from Pulp and her recent collaborations with Beck on her new album further illustrate the point.

Beck and Gainsbourg at work; image courtesy of pitchforkmedia.com

1A. Gainsbourg has occupied this role for some time, as her father is beloved French yé-yé chanteur Serge Gainsbourg, with whom she sang the controversial “Lemon Incest” in 1984 when she was about 13.

1B. Before casting Charlotte as an artistic man’s (or father’s) plaything, I’d point out that her mother British actress-model-artist Jane Birkin, who was pretty liberated in her views on gender, sexuality, and monogamy. However, she may also be cast in something of a muse position. Like her daughter, she’s also worked with Serge and Beck. And like her daughter, who will be representing bestie Nicolas Ghesquière as the spokeswoman for Balenciaga’s new fragrance next February, Birkin inspired numerous fashion trends and clothiers (why yes, she is the namesake for the famous and expensive over-sized Hermès tote.)

Gainsbourg with husband Yvan Ittal, wearing Balenciaga to the Metropolitan Costume Ball; image courtesy of style.com

Unlike her daughter, Birkin also had a predilection for posing nude on camera, sometimes while in the act of coitus, perhaps with multiple partners. I’ll leave you to Google. I’ll also leave you to speculate if her daughter is relatively modest about her sexuality as a result of having such . . . “open” parents.

2. Thinking about our friend Annie’s post on Rachel McAdams, Gainsbourg is something of a thinking man’s pin-up, a cultural figure already saddled with normative ideals around race, class, gender, and sexuality. Given that she was recently featured with her half-sister Lou Doillon as the archetype for “thin” in Vogue‘s size issue, I’d add body type to the list of norms she represents. 

3. Gainsbourg doesn’t sing so much as talk in her songs. She intimates her way through songs in a breathy, sensual monotone, perhaps made more exotic by her British lilt or her occasional dalliances with French.

So, I’ll bring myself into the discussion. I like Gainsbourg but am probably too casual about her work be considered a fan. I’ve listened to 5:55 and IRM a bit, and have seen some of her more recent movies, in which she is often my favorite aspect. While I haven’t seen Antichrist (or any other Lars Von Trier movies) and am nervous about just how wanting it seems to be of a psychoanalytic or auteurist read, her turn as a mother rendered destructive by the death of her son has peaked my curiosity.

That poster is so NSFW; image courtesy of iwatchstuff.com

In addition, I thought her emotionally mature performance as Clair, Robbie Clark’s long-suffering ex-wife in I’m Not There deserved an Oscar nomination. I also liked her cover of “Just Like a Woman.”

I also liked her quiet, discreet turn as Stéphanie, the protagonist’s disinterested object of affection in Science of Sleep, a movie I otherwise hated. This is perhaps in part because the majority of film-goers at the screening I attended found Gael García Bernal’s Stéphane to be charming, whereas I found him infuriatingly petulant and wanted to smack him with his own disasterology calendar. But I quite liked her. The only parts of her performance that felt disingenuous were when she wears an uncharacteristically skimpy sweater dress to Stéphane’s calendar launch party (which I’m pretty sure was a figment of the protagonist’s puerile imagination) and at the end, when she’s cries about how Stéphane won’t leave her alone. He’s not worth your tears, girl.

Oh, and I enjoy her vocal cameo in Madonna’s “What It Feels Like For a Girl.” Her confrontational monologue about male gender-bending comes from The Cement Garden, a 1993 film adaptation of Ian McEwen’s 1978 novel that was directed by her uncle Andrew Birkin.  

But let’s go back to her voice and problematize the idea of whether or not it’s okay for Gainsbourg to talk through her songs. Pitchfork’s Marc Hogan was really critical of 5:55 particularly for this reason, arguing that her vocal style suggests that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. I’d counter with two things.

For one, is making such a display of singing really necessary? Phrasing and expressiveness are just as important as vocal range for singers, if not more so to those with more limitations. And isn’t talking through songs how Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Patti Smith developed mythic rock poet status? 

Bob Dylan and Patti Smith; image courtesy of brooklynvegan.com

For another, um, you could easily make the same argument for any of Gainsbourg’s male collaborators’ work. Something tells me that Jarvis Cocker, Beck, and Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel of Air were probably all influenced by her father’s barely-sung approach to documenting his own erotic misadventures. I only hope they were just as interested working with Charlotte Gainsbourg as they were working with Serge Gainsbourg’s daughter.

That said, it might be easy to overemphasize or project notions of what French sensuality might be onto Gainsbourg and her songs (something her character in I’m Not There bristles at during her first date with her future ex-husband, as well as something Air have gotten a lot of critical mileage on from certain online publications with hipster cache until recently). While her second album was adorned with breathy vocals, acoustic instrumentation, and sumptuous production that may have lent itself well to such an essentialist reading, the lyrics to songs like “The Operation” and “Little Monsters” document both the wonder and terror of bodies and childhood, suggesting what might have drawn Von Trier to cast her in Antichrist. Her new album, which was inspired by working on her latest movie, gives way to more lyrical abstraction, while at the same time emphasizing a harder sound.

In short, Gainsbourg may make male-appointed bedroom music. But that isn’t all that’s going on, if you give a closer listen.

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4 comments

  1. Alex C

    <3

    I think it's really important that you reclaim not-quite-singing as a valid practice in itself. I could listen to Charlotte's voice all day long, there's so much going on there.

    I think part of the "thinking man's appeal" is that, underneath the hegemonic body image and the chanteuse allure and the beguiling accent, you can tell she's smart. (I'm under the impression that, while she does not write her songs, the lyrics are hers.) Which is kind of what I see in her film roles as well – even though she plays vulnerable feminine characters, there is a kind of resilience and intelligence she brings to the screen.

  2. Lola Rasta

    I saw her concert last night at the Crocodile in Seattle and was quite disappointed. I hope she decides to focus on her acting career instead of joining a long line of mediocre French whisperer-singers. I am not anti-French at all, having lived there for 20 years. I have great admiration for Charlotte’s father, the late Serge Gainsbourg, and her mother is such a fixture in France that it is hard not to pay attention.

    In parting, I would like to say that any comparison with Patti Smith (as a singer who supposedly talks her way through songs) is misplaced, in my opinion. Patti Smith had and still has an incredibly powerful singing voice. I just saw her, also in Seattle, when she came to promote her book. At the end of the reading/interview, she stood on stage and sang 3 songs, one of them a cappella. It was simply awesome. Listen to any one of Smith’s albums, with their blend of sung and spoken singing, and then listen to Gainsbourg. Ca n’a rien à voir! Again, I am speaking as a franophone and a music lover.

    • Alyx Vesey

      Fair points, Lola. I wasn’t trying to compare Gainsbourg to Smith (or Dylan). Rather, I was trying to point out that if these artists are praised for their employment of spoken word (as is Gainsbourg’s father), Gainsbourg shouldn’t be dismissed as a bad singer because she speak-sings.

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