French music icon Serge Gainsbourg’s legacy continues to inspire

French songwriter and performer Serge Gainsbourg died on March 2, 1991 in Paris.
French songwriter and performer Serge Gainsbourg died on March 2, 1991 in Paris. © France 24 screengrab

French pop artist Serge Gainsbourg died thirty years ago Tuesday after a career that redefined the boundaries of pop songcraft and challenged conventional mores.


Born in Paris to Russian émigrés in 1928, Gainsbourg released his first album, Du chant à la une!... in 1958. He achieved international renown with the 1969 long-player Jane Birkin & Serge Gainsbourg, which included the sultry hit Je t’aime, moi non plus, and 1971’s Histoire de Melody Nelson, a concept album with orchestral elements.

Gainsbourg’s romantic life imbued his music and helped make him a front-page artist. The title of a 1968 album, Initials B.B., refers to French actress Brigitte Bardot, who sang the chorus on its ode to the US outlaw characters “Bonnie and Clyde”. Gainsbourg and the English actress and singer Birkin were together for more than 10 years; their daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg is a musical artist and actress in her own right. 

Challenging traditional values and mores also became an essential part of Serge Gainsbourg’s art. He recorded a reggae version of France’s national anthem, La Marseillaise, in 1979 that angered soldiers, and duetted with Charlotte on the 1984 track Lemon Incest about “the love we will never make together”. 

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