Les belles et le beat: The 'yé-yé girls' of French Sixties pop

The 1960s was a golden era for young French female pop singers with risqué lyrics

Fans of ‘Mad Men’ might recall Don Draper’s young wife, Megan, giving a coquettish performance of a French pop song at his 40th birthday party, much to the suave ad man’s horror. The little-known song, “Zou Bisou Bisou” (meaning “Oh Kiss Kiss”) was a 1960 hit for Gillian Hills and reacquainted modern viewers to the genre of music affectionately known as ‘yé-yé’ (and so called after the “yeah yeahs” that permeated British and American rock music at the time).

Yé-yé was a style of pop featuring young female singers that was generally marked by its campness and sometimes tongue-in-cheek lyrics, and was hugely popular in 1960s France. The main practitioners were some of the biggest Gallic stars of the day: Sylvie Vartan, France Gall, Françoise Hardy, and Chantal Goya. Even more well-known names, such as the actresses Brigitte Bardot and Jane Birkin, were involved with its suggestive, candy-coloured aesthetic.

Now they are the subject of a new book, Ye-Ye Girls of ’60s French Pop by Jean-Emmanuel Deluxe, a Paris-based music writer. Charting the movement’s trajectory from its initial niche appeal to mainstream entertainment, and all the controversies along the way, it also catches up with modern-day acts keeping the spirit of yé-yé alive.

“The interest in yé-yé music has grown internationally over the last 10 years,” says Deluxe. “Twenty years ago it was very underground. For some reason, perhaps down to its appearance in films such as Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof [April March’s “Chick Habit”] and Wes Ander-son’s Moonrise Kingdom [Hardy’s “Le Temps de l’Amour”], right now people are even more curious than they used to be about French pop.”

The term “yé-yé” was actually coined by the sociologist Edgar Morin in a piece for Le Monde, in which he attempted to explain why it was important that a new wave of youngsters was making such passionate and charming music that was replacing the more straightforward rock’n’roll, and one quite at odds with the intellectuals’ music of choice at the time: jazz.

In the book, Deluxe attempts to align the growing popularity of the music with what was happening in French society at the time. The concept of the teenager was being imported from the US, and youth and its various subcultures were rising in prominence. But the adults had a lot of catching up to do.

“The older generation couldn’t understand what young people were all about; there was a generation gap,” observes Deluxe. “The underground didn’t really exist. In a way this music was really the only window of liberty for a lot of young people.” At the time, American and British songs were often imported, and given to a yé-yé singer to sing in French, as the public preferred. “But they would often rewrite them using much more risqué lyrics, and their own kind of arrangement,” notes Deluxe.

The cover of the new book  

Despite accusations that the music sometimes was no better than bubblegum pop, the women still captivated. Françoise Hardy beguiled everyone from Mick Jagger, who called her his “ideal woman”, to Bob Dylan, who dedicated a poem to her. Singer and model Zouzou dated The Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones. France Gall won the 1965 Eurovision Song Contest with “Poupée de cire, poupée de son” (covered recently by Arcade Fire).

Although men were very much were in charge of the music industry, as women’s liberation pressed on, yé-yé allowed women the opportunity to take charge. But that’s not to say that men didn’t play a part. One whose presence looms large over yé-yé is Serge Gainsbourg.

Although Gainsbourg was at first dismissive of the genre, he later changed his mind when he saw the opportunity they afforded. As well as Gall’s Eurovision winner, he wrote another track for her, “Sucettes (à l’anis)”, which became one of the most controversial yé-yé songs due to it being an ode to oral sex under the guise of a playful song about sweets (“Annie loves lollipops/ Anise-flavoured lollipops”). He went on to pen tracks for the likes of Petula Clark as well as the actresses Brigitte Bardot and Anna Karina, and brought him to the nation’s attention.

Not that his involvement should overshadow what the women achieved. Indeed, the contradictions they presented (beautiful and sad, innocent and sexual) paved the way for any number of pop acts after them (Deluxe cites Lily Allen and her humorous lyrics as a “spiritual daughter” of yé-yé).

‘Ye-Ye Girls of ’60s French Pop’ by Jean-Emmanuel Deluxe, £17.99, published by Feral House on 23 January

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tv 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there