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

Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?