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The pop music coming out of France in the early 1960’s may not have seemed terribly important on the surface. Essentially, it was a bunch of sticky sweet teenagers singing French translations of American songs and a new girl rose to her 15 minutes every week. They could hardly be compared to the message driven folk music or innovative sounds coming from England and America at the same period.
Ye-Ye had something special, however, that made this specific style of highly produced pop music more alluring, catchier, and simply more fun than its English speaking cousins.
This trend in music was not known extensively outside of Europe, until recent films by Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson, and the popular American TV show Mad Men have all featured Ye-Ye songs and there seems to be a resurgence of interest in the sound.
But, what exactly is the Ye-Ye sound and what makes it such an addictive style?
To start, we will solve the mystery of the strange name, “Ye-Ye”. The quite uninspired origins of the funny phrase come from the simple frequency that the singers would interject, “ye! ye!”, the English equivalent of “yeah! yeah!” into their songs. Now onto the next question…what exactly was it?
In December of 1959 the radio program, Salut les Copains, hit French airwaves with a wash of the Ye-Ye singers. They were featured in a segment of the radio program called, “le chouchou de la semaine” or “sweetheart of the week” and from the moment the young artists was featured on the show, they would quickly skyrocket to their momentary success.
These singers were adorable teenage girls, ranging from 15-20 years old singing French versions of American rock and roll songs in breathy, sweet voices, and occasionally their own compositions. Throughout most of the Ye-Ye singers, there was an underlying naughtiness. The doe-eye girls wearing bows in their hair would sing sweet songs about lost love or other typical teenage dribble but in such a way that could make the listener blush.
France was packed by the mid-sixties with French Ye-Ye singers. Since the market was flooded with seemingly identical young girls, it became a requirement of singers to have their own special niche in the scene. The competition and diversity that came from this sudden rise in popularity made for some of the most inventive, scandalous and bold music of the time.
An example of one of the unique and talented Ye-Ye singers is France Gall. Though she is categorized in the same genre as so many other young women, her sounds was individual and set her apart from the rest of the pack.
France Gall’s career started off innocently enough and but quickly morphed into a strange Nabokovian nightmare. Being born into a musical family she was encouraged to send out demos at the ripe age of 15 to music publisher Denis Bourgeois. In 1963 her first single was released and she quickly became a massive success.
Donned with her blonde bob and breathy voice, France Gall’s take on Ye-Ye was ramped up by her collaboration with many famous French musicians, most notable, beloved jazz singer, Serge Gainsbourg. Her songs were well composed and were also original pieces, unlike the other English and American songs being reworked by her peers.
The young ingénue and the notoriously mischievous Serge Gainsbourg worked together producing many chart topping hits until one song came along that pushed the envelope a little too far, Les Sucettes.
Previous songs released by Gainsbourg and Gall had minor sultry innuendoes in them but were vague enough that audiences easily took the messages as cheeky, not as indecent. Clearly trying to gain more attention, Gainsbourg’s Les Sucettes, which translates to Lollipops, was packed with obvious double-entendres. This blatant sexuality coupled with the naïve innocence of the teenage Ye-Ye singer marred her career forever.
With her youth, talent, and stubbornness on her side, France was able to continue her career in music and even worked in film. Though she never peaked as she did during her Ye-Ye career, she is still considered one of the most talented singers within the genre.
Though in the end many of the Ye-Ye’s ended up being one hit wonders, their impact on the music scene was so influential that we are still talking about them to this day. The sound that this group of young French women made was so infectious that it redefined itself from being just campy pop music, becoming rebellious, visceral, and significant for future female musicians to come.