Bubblegum pop has a bum rap. Since time immemorial, the need to shift units has had the recording industry in a bind the world over. Labels flirt with different combinations and when they strike gold, they drive that particular business model into the ground. Luckily the cyclical nature of popular music means that after existing in the margins of contemporary culture for most of the aughts, bubblegum pop has finally become fashionable again. Thank you, Lady Gaga. This also means that revolutionary fads within the genre are prime to enjoy new life tooâmost notably, the yĂ© yĂ© pop of 1960s France.
Itâs a fad that many of us would be hard-pressed to term, but many of us recognize: The baby doll dresses. The twee voices. The false eyelashes, oversized eyewear, excess lipstick. The two-and-a-half minute jingles. Though it was dominated primarily by French, Quebecois, and Spanish popstrels who were easily interchangeable, yĂ© yĂ© performersâ hallmarks seeped through the ages. Everyone from Baby Spice to Ke$ha have co-opted some elementâaffected naĂŻvete, hemlines, bubbly hooksâfrom the yĂ© yĂ© girls. During the height of its success, Susan Sontag wrote of the movement in her essay Notes On âCampâ:
âIn the last two years, popular music (post rock-’n'-roll, what the French call yĂ© yĂ©) has been annexedâ into the camp sensibility.
The movement takes its name from the yells of âYeah! Yeah!â that peppered the movementâs hits. YĂ© yĂ© songs, though explicit by nature, still opted for more subtlety. It was an era when mankind on the whole wasnât so desensitized to sex that we needed a musician to hammer us over the head with sex and booze. Fans made do with France Gallâs âLes sucettes,â or âLollipopsâ which at once managed to be subtle and profaneâclearly an allusion to oral sex.
And therein lies the curiosity of this movement. The yĂ© yĂ© girls, although hypersexualized idols of their time, still played coy despite the explicit nature of their music. Their music was upbeat, punchy, and fun. It was flirty and spontaneous.
The success of French singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg made the effects of the movement global, even if the term remained elusive. A yĂ© yĂ© mastermind, he orchestrated Gallâs career (and wrote âLes sucettesâ)âthe foremost yĂ© yĂ© performer who he dubbed the âFrench Lolita.â He also penned songs for Brigitte Bardot and Petula Clark. In Clarkâs case, most noticeably through âDowntown,â which is known for its arguably racy undertones. Echoes of this particular movement even hit success in Japan, with the rise of a brand of âidolsâ or shibuya.
Performers like Jacqueline TaĂŻeb managed to make a dent in Europe, by borrowing from The Whoâs âMy Generationâ into her song, â7 heures du matin,ââa tune in which she vocally crushes on Paul McCartney. More interesting is how like pop stars today who struggle to evolve from their first album to their second, even these yĂ© yĂ© girls were out to carve out entire careers despite the gimmicky pretense of yĂ© yĂ©. A performer from Italy named Mina found herself trying to sell a âbad girlâ image after taking some time off to get married and have a babyâboth virtually death knells in the pop world, regardless of era. Itâs an image struggle that someone like Madonnaâwho in her earliest days flirted with the Lolita image tooâknows all too well.
Although many of these songs have been lost to time as kitschy detritus, the yĂ© yĂ© spirit still burns bright as ever. On American shores no less. If Gaga has made bubblegum pop a cool commodity again, another unlikely, hipster-friendly musician has picked up the yĂ© yĂ© torch and reinvigorated the genre. Itâs here that French cross-over act Yelleâs 2007 album Pop-Up stands tall as a direct descendent of Gainsbourgâs labor of love in the â60s. Itâs also here that Ke$ha, despite her dĂ©classĂ© approach to pop, owes her career to a parade of mod-styled naĂŻfs.
–By Rohin Guha