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 too—most notably, the yé yé pop of 1960s France.
It’s 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, yé yé performers’ hallmarks seeped through the ages. Everyone from Baby Spice to Ke$ha have co-opted some element—affected naïvete, hemlines, bubbly hooks—from the yé yé girls. During the height of its success, Susan Sontag wrote of the movement in her essay Notes On “Camp”:
“In the last two years, popular music (post rock-’n'-roll, what the French call yé yé) has been annexed” into the camp sensibility.
The movement takes its name from the yells of “Yeah! Yeah!” that peppered the movement’s hits. Yé yé songs, though explicit by nature, still opted for more subtlety. It was an era when mankind on the whole wasn’t so desensitized to sex that we needed a musician to hammer us over the head with sex and booze. Fans made do with France Gall’s “Les sucettes,” or “Lollipops” which at once managed to be subtle and profane—clearly an allusion to oral sex.
And therein lies the curiosity of this movement. The yé yé 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 yé yé mastermind, he orchestrated Gall’s career (and wrote “Les sucettes”)—the foremost yé yé performer who he dubbed the “French Lolita.” He also penned songs for Brigitte Bardot and Petula Clark. In Clark’s case, most noticeably through “Downtown,” 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 “idols” or shibuya.
Performers like Jacqueline Taïeb managed to make a dent in Europe, by borrowing from The Who’s “My Generation” into her song, “7 heures du matin,”—a 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 yé yé girls were out to carve out entire careers despite the gimmicky pretense of yé yé. A performer from Italy named Mina found herself trying to sell a “bad girl” image after taking some time off to get married and have a baby—both virtually death knells in the pop world, regardless of era. It’s an image struggle that someone like Madonna—who in her earliest days flirted with the Lolita image too—knows all too well.
Although many of these songs have been lost to time as kitschy detritus, the yé yé 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 yé yé torch and reinvigorated the genre. It’s here that French cross-over act Yelle’s 2007 album Pop-Up stands tall as a direct descendent of Gainsbourg’s labor of love in the ‘60s. It’s also here that Ke$ha, despite her déclassé approach to pop, owes her career to a parade of mod-styled naïfs.
–By Rohin Guha