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Epigone pop - click opera
February 2010
 
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Mon, Jul. 10th, 2006 05:38 pm
Epigone pop

C'est dur, dur d'être bébé; it's hard to be a baby, as child-star Jordy complained in the most annoying French hit of 1988. It's especially hard to be the baby of a famous person, because you're almost certain to be an epigone.

epigone, noun:
An inferior imitator, especially of some distinguished writer, artist, musician, or philosopher.

The least annoying French hit of 1986, at least for me, was the album Serge Gainsbourg wrote for his then-14 year old daughter, Charlotte Forever. Despite some over-long session sax solos, the record balances gorgeous pop melodies with an ominous sense of loss and disappearance; Serge's own, accomplished in 1991 with a heart attack.

We -- and I suppose I mean we who went on to pour out pop records in the 90s in Britain and France and Japan and America, contributing to genres like Britpop and Shibuya-kei -- played "Charlotte Forever", Serge's record for Charlotte, to death (Serge's own) and beyond. We memorialized the retro arrangements in our own, because pomo was retro. Pomo loved the past. Mostly the cool 90s people liked Melody Nelson, though. That was Gainsbourg's acknowledged masterpiece, and so that's what you stole from. There was lots of that record in 90s records by Bertrand Burgalat and Air and Beck and Pulp and St Etienne. It was there in less likely suspects too; Blond Redhead, Placebo, Nick Cave.

I remember having dinner with members of St Etienne, and they'd invited Arthur Greenslade along, the guy who did the string arrangements on "Je T'Aime (Moi Non Plus)". We toasted him in wine and beer, and we toasted him in praise and pastiche. Those of us rich enough worked with him, and paid him to sound like he sounded back then.

A few years after that dinner, I heard Beck's "Sea Change" and wondered what the hell he was up to; the string arrangements, by his dad, were pastiches of Jean-Claude Vannier's on "Melody Nelson". I mean, what is the point in hearing the exact same Satie-esque arrangements that you associate with Gainsbourg's erotic labyrinths playing, suddenly, behind a muddled and glum new Beck song? Well, that's pomo, isn't it? It's retro. You go with the flow. You toast the past, because it's glorious. By implication, the present is cowering and null and glum, a mere epigone.

So... a vocabulary exists, the Gainsbourg arrangement style. But would Serge, had he lived, have become dazzled by his own past? Would he have made a record now, in 2006, pastiching his own string arrangments from 1971? Hell no. He'd be working with Timbaland and Missy Elliot, or Dre and M.I.A. Always pushing on, always provoking.

But here's Charlotte, with a new record coming out. An album called 5.55, to be released on August 28th. Twenty years after "Lemon Incest", and 35 years after Melody Nelson (she appears on the sleeve as a foetus in the womb, an invisible bulge in her "Lolita" mother's belly).

We never thought she'd do it. She seemed to have an extraordinary restraint, a delicate tact, leaving that one album she made with her dad as the last word. Oh, sure, there was the odd collaboration with MC Solaar. And there were lots of films. She's an actress, like her mum. Sure, she was always being approached by people like Burgalat, would-be producers who'd gladly have gnawed their own right arm off to make an album with her, people who idolized her dad, modeled their shoes on his shoes, their dogs on his dog, their fatal cigarettes on his. She always said no. Her silence was Beckettian, Wittgensteinian.

Until now. Suddenly there are some exclusive preview clips of 5.55 on someone's MySpace page. And it sounds, immediately, great... No, wait, it sounds terrible because it sounds great. It sounds like a pastiche of Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg. And look, it has a cast of millions of guest artist epigones who wear Gainsbourg's shoes, and smoke his cigarettes, and walk his dog, and grow his stubble: Brian Molko, and Beck's dad, and Jarvis Cocker. The usual suspects! The postmodernists! The Britpoppers, propping up pop with a bit of retro, a bit of sampling, a bit of a tribute to the re-runs!

These clips sound "good" in the way so much contemporary record production does: because they hit familiar buttons. They do for pop music what YouTube does for television: pick over the corpse, snarfing up the tasty bits. They succeed by formulae already well-established, and in fact funereal. This born-too-late, blow-over-the-embers, dance-on-the-grave stuff (dur, dur d'être bébé) suggests that pop's genius -- which is, as Serge knew, a genius for depravity, disturbance, but above all novelty -- is going, going... gone.

55CommentReplyShare

restartsmyheart
restartsmyheart
inadvertently mean to the blind
Mon, Jul. 10th, 2006 04:00 pm (UTC)

thanks for getting jordy stuck in my head.


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constructionism
constructionism
constructionism
Mon, Jul. 10th, 2006 04:18 pm (UTC)

I'd probably listen to it because I have a headache all of the time.


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kaecyy
kaecyy
Kaecyy
Mon, Jul. 10th, 2006 04:35 pm (UTC)

There's often something to suspect about anything that's too immediately easy to like.

Thank you for your fascinating analysis.


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beketaten
beketaten
Juliet
Tue, Jul. 11th, 2006 12:06 am (UTC)

I find Momus immediately easy to like :D But perhaps it's just that I'm perverse...


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alibee
alibee
slightly radiant
Mon, Jul. 10th, 2006 04:38 pm (UTC)

Since when was constant whispering considered talent?

Ooh, look, she has an accent.

-- Those were my two thoughts upon listening. Oy.


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(Anonymous)
Mon, Jul. 10th, 2006 04:40 pm (UTC)

Do not criticise whispering on these pages!!


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(Anonymous)
Mon, Jul. 10th, 2006 05:05 pm (UTC)

I thought Jean Claude Vannier did the strings on Melody Nelson?

http://www.barbican.org.uk/music/event-detail.asp?ID=4655


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Mon, Jul. 10th, 2006 05:18 pm (UTC)

You're right, Greenslade did "Je T'Aime". I'll fix my text.


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creditor
creditor
Mon, Jul. 10th, 2006 05:32 pm (UTC)

great post and I love the word pastiche.


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david_f
david_f
david fenech
Mon, Jul. 10th, 2006 05:48 pm (UTC)
fore-forever

charlotte forever is also a movie and the least i can say is that serge gainsbourg was not a genius for cinema. i've seen the movie once , when it went out here in france.. and can still remember the strange mood this movie put us into.

and for info, charlotte is also in the latest Gondry movie .. soon on screens.


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cityramica
cityramica
cityramica
Mon, Jul. 10th, 2006 05:52 pm (UTC)

yeah....
her music is very nice, and she is very pretty...but sigh. maybe she should use her powers to become an architect or a brilliant surgeon or a tight-rope dancing warbling puppeteer or something. i guess she doesn't have to leap over the musical bar her daddy set, but gosh, now i kind of just want to listen to her father's music. or for that matter...to your music, or kahimi karie or laila france...

makes me think a bit about sofia coppola for some reason...lovely girl, amazing family, but ugh her films remind me of the half-assed dream-based stories i wrote in 6th grade...too much fairy dust and tepid at the core.


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(Anonymous)
Mon, Jul. 10th, 2006 06:14 pm (UTC)
Butterflies and Guano

There was also a shockingly Robert Kirbyesque arrangement on Sea Change, so much like that on Nick Drake's Riverman that it made me wonder why he bothered. But if Beck had appropriated, say, the sound of Bartok's 4th Quartet for his strings, would they then be novel? Would a span of time and the lack of a foregoing magpie make him more original? Perhaps it's time for the 'modernist' project to be taken up again...




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cheapsurrealist
cheapsurrealist
Dave Nold
Tue, Jul. 11th, 2006 12:29 am (UTC)
Re: Butterflies and Guano

Harry Robinson did the strings for Riverman.

Nick tolerated it but then insisted on bringing in his friend Robert Kirby for the rest.


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tundraboy
tundraboy
tundraboy
Mon, Jul. 10th, 2006 06:35 pm (UTC)

So I ask: is Jordy's little hit actually to be admired for its novelty? It certainly wasn't copying off any other 3-year-old techno-fetishists at the time. An odd little album, that. I recall the sensation of my flesh crawling all over my body when Jordy sang a love duet with his 3-year-old girlfriend. Of course, he's now repositioning himself in his adulthood to become a dance music artist, the last refuge of an epigone.


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eptified
eptified
H. Duck
Mon, Jul. 10th, 2006 07:22 pm (UTC)

This post makes all of my music nerd nerve-endings pulse. Beautiful.


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(Anonymous)
Mon, Jul. 10th, 2006 08:11 pm (UTC)

Maybe it's meant to be a P-Diddy style sample of 'Bonnie and Clyde'? If not the Gainsbourg estate should sue (itself).


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kaipfeiffer
kaipfeiffer
Kai Pfeiffer
Mon, Jul. 10th, 2006 08:25 pm (UTC)

for a truly great tribute album to grand serge i recommend the one john zorn put together for his tribute series to jewish composers. great interpretations by the ruins, cibo matto, mike patton, cyro baptista, etc., and zorn himself a-capella!
i "study" gainsbourg and gainsbarre for years now, and for those who don't speak french, of course his compositional achievements might seem interesting enough, but in fact they'll miss one of the most astonishing wordsmiths to ever have put alphabetic letters in an order. and he could do with the french language just about what he wanted. i'm not sure this language really knew what could be done with or to it before. well, there were rimbaud, genet, céline, fair enough, but serge could write "lyrics" that rhyme, and make a certain sound, and still "say" exactly what he wants them to ("ford mustang", "tata teutonne", "qui est "in" qui est "out"", "exercice en forme de z"). and which big pop star made a scatological album ("vu de l'extérieur) about farting and "pipi-caca", and another one that is a nasty satire on the holocaust ("rock around the bunker"), with songs taking the perspective of hitler, or an ex-s.s.-officer hiding in uruguay, or a naive jew who "won the yellow star".
retro fans rightfully love the great album "ex-fan des sixties" gainsbourg wrote for jane birkin, but the equally fantastic "babe alone in babylone" shouldn't be overlooked. the production might repulse the average "connaisseur" at first, but that would be just giving in to a mainstreamed taste.


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cheapsurrealist
cheapsurrealist
Dave Nold
Tue, Jul. 11th, 2006 02:01 am (UTC)

Not a Serge tribute album but I recently purchased Luna's collection of covers. It includes both the clyde barrow and bonnie parker versions of Bonnie and Clyde.

The former is true to the original which begs the question - why bother? The latter drags a bit but I like the collection in general.

Americans missed out on a lot of good music because they only want to hear english. With few exceptions.

Je T'aime Moi Non Plus was a hit here.
And Kyu Sakamoto's Sukiyaki was a hit when I was a little kid. I loved that song.


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(Anonymous)
Mon, Jul. 10th, 2006 08:53 pm (UTC)

--Interestingly, Feist does a collaboration with Jane Birkin on her album Let It Die. It seems like endorsing someone like Charlotte Gainsbourg, St. Etienne, whatever, is a lifestyle choice--I mean sheesh, these days indie darlings the Rapture don't even write most of their own music.


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beketaten
beketaten
Juliet
Mon, Jul. 10th, 2006 11:03 pm (UTC)

Are you saying that including any elements of something previous makes it morbidly uninspired? There is a certain commonality to all Western music, which is by no means to make the differences therein undiscernable.

"If it sounds good, it is good."
-Duke Ellington

I'm rather inclined to un-masochistically believe that, in just the same depth as I value originality. They walk hand in hand.


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