July 10th, 2006


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.