1Serge Gainsbourg’s album Aux armes et cætera (1979), entirely recorded in Kingston with legendary reggae musicians, takes French song where it had never geographically or musically gone before. Gainsbourg’s personal musical trajectory, his public persona, and his place in the history of French popular music may lead us to overlook the particular implications of this transatlantic collaboration. After all, by 1979 he had already successfully utilized jazz and disco as he would later use rap to push the boundaries of French popular music and to experiment with personal musical identity. However, while Gainsbourg’s previous work earned him recognition as an innovator of French song in part because of his playful and provocative eccentricities, the title track of this album, a reggae cover of the French national anthem, sparked public backlash. Gainsbourg’s play with genres crossed borders in ways that touched on socio-cultural sore spots and national anxieties within dominant narratives of French identity.
2Twenty years later, francophone hip hop artists like Big Red, a former member of Raggasonic, turn the art of surprising national borders with new combinations of musical identity into a rule of cultural practice. With songs like ‘El Dia de los Muertos,’ a collaboration with La Cliqua’s MC Rocca, ‘1001 Nuits’ recorded with 113, and ‘Respect or Die’ from his solo album Big Redemption (1999), Big Red refutes any suggestion that today’s popular music is devoid of political content and ideological self-awareness. Vocal delivery, linguistic strategies, and artistic collaborations decenter official French and francophone identities by relocating them within the musical boundaries of the banlieue and the bled, boundaries extending beyond and cutting across those of the nation-state and the postcolony.
3What follows from this transnational musical encounter? How specifically does this encounter resonate with cultural reception and the production of musical meaning? And what are the implications for discourses of power and protest in popular culture? In short, how do these two cover songs critique grand narratives of identity and live to tell ‘the half of the story that’s never been told’? I explore these questions through an imaginative and theoretical metaphor I am calling recovery, in order to propose hearing performance quotation and cover songs as musical interrogations of and recuperations from dominant narratives of identity. In this paper I argue that these musical recoveries of the ‘Marseillaise’ point up disjunctures between the histories of French universalism and imperial discourse on one hand and the reality of the postcolonial, postmodern condition on the other.6
4Serge Gainsbourg initially gained credibility as a great composer, if not so great singer, of chanson française. ‘Le Poinçonneur des Lilas’ (1958) typifies in many respects the established tradition of French song where wit and word play frame a psychological portrait of the quotidian. Here, Gainsbourg pays homage to the poinçonneur, a subway ticket puncher in the Paris metro. Haunted by the petits trous that seem destined to follow him everywhere, the poinçonneur contemplates shooting himself. Realizing that this would still be making petits trous, and that no matter how he dies he will be buried in a petit trou, he teeters on the brink of insanity. The song ends with him stuck between worlds, muttering “des petits trous, des petits trous, des petits trous.”
5A slick up tempo jazz feel provides the narrative’s musical backdrop. The song depicts the daily travails of Parisian modernity in a genre strongly associated with (African) American musical culture; yet it is the French narrative, privileged by a lyrical, economic melody, that dictates the piece musically. The musicians’ tight playing, the sparse texture created through instrumentation (oboe, baritone sax, flute, piano, snare drum, and upright bass), and the closeness of the voice in the mix work with the text to produce the intimate feel characteristic of chanson française. The quick swing pattern of the brushes on the snare drum mimics the sound of the train moving down the tracks. The chromatic climbs and descents in the winds evoke the subway’s motion while dissonant contrapuntal movement and voicings between the baritone saxophone and the flute produce a musical sound effect akin to (European) police sirens; together they suggest the unexpected dark turns of the subway tracks. The double time feel (with occasional piano and saxophone double time fills) against the slower movement of the bass and melody mirrors the depressing paradox of the poinçonneur who spends all day in a bustling environment of movement while never really going anywhere. The flat second that punctuates the descending line at the end of phrases adds an ominous air that underpins the thematic of the world of the subway as it leads inevitably back down to the tonic. Essentially, the piece uses various strategies of instrumentation and rhythm playfully to create the psychological soundscape of the fast-paced and alienating life below the big city.
6In the Sixties, Gainsbourg continues to musically evoke other places while he increasingly pushes the envelope on social taboos. While chanson française struggles to figure out its place (or understand its lack of one) on the UK and US dominated international music market (Looseley, 703), Gainsbourg explores the playful and pleasureful possibilities (whether financial, aesthetic, or sexual) of transnational dynamics for French musical traditions. ‘Je t’aime…moi non plus’ and ‘Les Sucettes’ (both 1969) transgressed social norms with clever if blatant play with sexual themes and innuendos. ‘Ford Mustang’ (1968) and ‘New York, U.S.A.’ (1964) evoke modernity through association with American symbols. ‘Qui est ‘in’ qui est ‘out’’ (1968) combines symbolic and musical contact with bilingual expression. ‘69 Année érotique,’ through Jane Birkin’s performance (and English accent) pulls these themes together by locating sexual encounters and musical trips in transnational movements.
7Although at times Gainsbourg speaks rather than sings the text, in ‘69…’ a clean, economic melody again takes center stage, dictating harmonic and rhythmic progression. Even when he is not singing, the piano and vibraphone strongly indicate the melody without interfering with textual clarity. While the larger instrumentation, particularly the sweeping runs in the strings during the chorus, creates a potential for the grandiose, the song retains a playful intimacy. The clin d’oeil of the text suggests a faux melancholy. The lyrics evoke crossing the English channel in a ‘ferry-boat bed’ where “Ils s’aiment et la traversée / Durera toute une année / Et que les dieux les bénissent / jusqu’en soixante-dix.” Gainsbourg’s commercial successes seem to suggest the cultural acceptability of his signature strategy. His music challenges the limits of French song by relating desire and creativity to transnational (gender) encounters.
8Considering Gainsbourg’s history we might be tempted to dismiss the implications of his 1979 release of the single ‘Aux armes et caetera,’ recorded with Sly Dunbar (drums), Robbie Shakespeare (bass), Ansel Collins (keys), and backup singers Marcia Griffiths, Rita Marley, and Judith Mowatt (the I Threes). After all, the French Ministry of Education includes Gainsbourg’s version in La Marseillaise, a book/CD put together in 2002 to help teach French schoolchildren history and civic appreciation. Jack Lang (Ministry of Culture 1981-86 and 88-93) writes in his preface that the ‘Marseillaise’ is an “oeuvre emblématique” that “fait partie du patrimoine de l’humanité.” Here, ‘Aux armes’ has been recast to fit the ‘multicultural,’ ‘universal’ take on the anthem and on French history that the book promotes: a postcolonial ‘nos ancêtres les Gaulois.’
9Yet, at the time of its release Gainsbourg’s collaborative reprise triggered a scathing, overtly anti- Semitic backlash. Negative reaction, especially from the military and the far right, included demonstrations, death threats, and performance cancellations. The reaction of Michel Droit, an award winning writer and media personality as well as military veteran, has become emblematic of this reception. The conservative Droit, elected to the Académie française in 1980, writes the following for the Figaro magazine in 1979: “Que l’on veuille bien m’excuser de dire aussi nettement les choses et de manquer peut-être à la plus élémentaire charité, mais quand je vois apparaître Serge Gainsbourg, je me sens devenir écologique. Comprenez par là que je me trouve aussitôt en état de défense contre une sorte de pollution ambiante qui me semble émaner spontanément de sa personne et de son oeuvre, comme de certains tuyaux d’échappement sous un tunnel routier.”
10Droit’s attack on this “profanation pure et simple de…ce que nous avons de plus sacré” continues with a description of Gainsbourg’s “œil chiasseux” and “lippe dégoulinante” (LNO, 2001). Just as Droit pits the ‘sacred,’ national ‘purity’ and moral character against the ‘polluting’ cultural presence of outsiders, Gainsbourg’s cover uncovers racist and nationalist currents in French narratives of identity.
11The album comes at an uneasy historical moment; it was only “[a]fter de Gaulle and Pompidou had died [in 1974, that] it became possible to acknowledge openly that France had entered the post-colonial era, that it was a medium-sized economy rather than a world power” (Forbes 188). Still shaken from May 68, Giscard d’Estaing, just a few years before the release of the song, had called for a period of ‘décrispation’ and declared that France would be ‘governed from the center.’ May 68 suggested that revolution need not be strictly based on the class-consciousness of the proletariat; just as important as economics, cultural production can provide the ideological impetus to move people to action (Forbes, 1996). For if, as Benedict Anderson (1983) has it, mass media helps build national sentiment, popular culture was proving its ability to construct and contest national, class, and ethnic identities.
12‘Aux armes’ also coincides with important intellectual trends emerging in or building from French thought and aesthetics. Works like Jean-François Lyotard’s La Condition postmoderne (1979) and Pierre Bourdieu’s La Distinction (1979) can be used to relate Gainsbourg’s cover with important developments in the study of culture. Lyotard’s work reveals the decline in power and viability of grand narratives to serve as tools of epistemological and ethical legitimation. At the same time, writers like Bourdieu recognize that popular culture and taste participate in the construction and9
13policing of dominant paradigms of identity. The impact of these critical modes of thought will not be lost on students of popular music. Dick Hebdige’s groundbreaking Subculture: the Meaning of Style (1979) explores reggae music to reveal the powerful identity wars taking place on the surface of popular culture through networks of minor transcultural and transnational circulation. Our challenge here will be to “account for the appearance of specific fusions at [this] particular historical moment… [and] to probe the power relations implicit in… such [an] encounter” (Walser 58).
14Irregardless of Gainsbourg’s intentions, reggae’s ability to make the French national anthem resonate with discourse of the far Right implicitly performs a musical and cultural critique which is then made explicit through socio-cultural contexts and cultural reception. ‘Aux armes’ runs the language of French republicanism into music reggae – a genre built around the expression of Rastafarian discourse and its belief in “the imminent downfall of ‘Babylon’ (i.e. the white colonial powers) and the deliverance of the black races” (Hebdige 34). ‘Aux armes’ forces the myth of French universalism to face the history of racial colonialism and its aftermath. The cover’s musical networks of meaning and the far Right’s violent reaction to them reveal the reality of French cultural insiderism and its historical roots in the colonial discourse of French universalism. Whether or not Gainsbourg’s French listeners in 1979 related reggae with the racist cultural politics of colonialism, Big Red indicates the way this connection is made by cultural practitioners of today’s francophone black Atlantic. How do these musical trajectories (French song, national anthems, reggae) and discursive traditions (French universalism, national sentiment, and black Atlantic critique) produce or contest the meaning of French identity?
15David Loosely investigates the politics of authenticity in chanson française through the ‘Brel- Brassens-Ferré trinity’: «So what were they? White, male, solo performers initially leading somewhat bohemian Parisian lives, accompanying themselves on guitar or piano as befitted the intimate Left-Bank cabarets where they began, and writing songs whose lyrics were remarkable for their polish, complexity and wit, their dissidence and political incorrectness, their combination of personal emotion and social criticism. This is still chanson’s Platonic ideal.» (68)
16Gainsbourg may have already drifted a bit from the stylistic path of chanson française by 1979. His penchant for provocation, his creative use of English, his taste for American symbols of modernity, and his flippant experimentation with non-French musical identities set him apart from the ‘trinity’ in many respects. Yet, Gainsbourg’s overall musical identity and his cultural reception up until his 1979 album still circulated via French song’s politics of authenticity. And despite reactions in 1979 Gainsbourg has today been recuperated by French cultural and political institutions. The public mourning of Gainsbourg’s death in 1991 and his inclusion in the state’s Marseillaise book are demonstrative of his iconic status in the mythology and ‘musicalization’ of French culture (see Looseley, 2003).
17The politics of authenticity involved in the ‘Marseillaise’ create musical identity myths that are interesting to compare with those in chanson. Patriotic songs and national anthems in the West share “a great intermusematic similarity,” strongly tied to meter, tempo, lyrics, and certain types of melodic movement (Tagg, 2000). Composed in 1792 by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle, the ‘Marseillaise’ was named after the volunteer troops of Marseilles. The latter it took up and participated in the storming of the Tuileries during the Revolution. It was adopted as the national anthem in the late 18th century, although it was banned twice in the 19th century for its revolutionary associations. Although the ‘Marseillaise’ differs from many anthems in that Rouget de Lisle composed it as a battle march for his troops (as its alla marcia tempo and its text indicate), it generally follows lyrical and musical traditions of the genre. The melody suggests harmonic progression through arpeggios and by landing on pivotal notes during key harmonic changes and phrases. Frequent melodic leaps of fourths and fifths generate the perceived majestic quality. The text violently projects Frenchness by distinguishing the natural, free, civilized, authentic citizen- self from the barbarous Other (from within and without) who savagely attacks the (‘French’) ideas of humanity and freedom.
18While the ‘Marseillaise’ constructs identity with paradigms of national inclusion based on forms of otherness and exclusion, reggae protest songs strive towards transnational solidarity along lines of oppression like ‘race,’ class, and colonialism. Bob Marley’s ‘Them Belly Full (But We Hungry)’ from Natty Dread (1974) and Max Romeo’s ‘Uptown Babies,’ off War ina Babylon (1976), inform and are informed by a crystallization of transcultural class consciousness. Rastafarianism’s interpretations of dominant narratives help connect black Atlantic culture to African history and politics. “And it was through music, more than any other medium, that the communication with the past, with Jamaica, and hence Africa, considered vital for the maintenance of black identity, was possible” (Hebdige 39). Reggae recovers the lost and officially forgotten bodies, voices, and cultures upon which European wealth, freedom, and brotherhood are built. In addition, reggae sound systems and rebellious styles provided a locus for interracial subcultural exchange (Hebdige, 1979).
19Gainsbourg’s cover puts these traditions into contact with one another in a way that cannot be understood as simple black face. While the effect of parody operates musically through the mix of genre and Gainsbourg’s extra-musical image, reggae and its musical value are not being mocked at all. These musicians and this genre would soon draw the interest of American and British pop musicians. Sly Dunbar, for example, has recorded with the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and the Fugees. Neither does the reggae genre only serve to mock French culture. Gainsbourg successfully sticks with the genre for the entire album and connects it to other cultural contexts as well. In ‘Harley Davidson,’ a song which Jacques Chirac would describe as “engraved in [his] heart” in 1991 (Drozdiak, 1991), Gainsbourg combines dub sound effects with American symbols of modernity and masculinity. His album suggests that white Frenchmen can legitimately try on reggae and participate in black diasporic culture. It may even imply that French identity actually needs to take similar routes in order to negotiate a place for ‘its self ’ in the transnational dynamics of contemporary popular culture. If Gainsbourg uses this genre to try on seductive, non-European musical forms of otherness, parody operates to the detriment of traditional French narratives of musical identity, not those of reggae.
20Gainsbourg’s performance uses the three musical trajectories of ‘Aux armes’ to undermine the power of the original text to be heard, let alone to dictate officially sanctioned forms of identity. This time Gainsbourg’s ‘talk-over’ delivery obliterates the melody of the ‘Marseillaise’ by following reggae’s compositional and studio aesthetics. Musical power operates from the bottom up; drums, bass, and rhythmic riffs overtake both melody and lyrics, rendering the message of what was once an imperative singular voice ‘unreadable’ at best, irrelevant at worst. Rather than relying on traditional methods of critique, Gainsbourg’s tune musically opens up the authoritative, absolute, and non-dialogic communication of the national anthem to the possibilities of re-contextualization.2
21Gainsbourg does not alter the lyrics as much as he carefully chooses and ambivalently delivers them. “Liberté chérie” chez Gainsbourg ambivalently suggests both ‘our cherished Liberty’ and a more sexually charged ‘sweet Liberty’ that emphasizes the feminine aspect of its symbolic embodiment. “Liberty, beloved Liberty / Fight with your defenders. Fight with your defenders” could make us think of his ‘Love on the Beat’ (1984) in which a woman’s ambivalent cries can be heard as signs pleasure and pain. Rhythmically, the half time feel transforms the ‘Marseillaise’ from a march into an indolent and sexually charged dance. While the anthem functions to dictate direction and to ensure efficiency of movement, building the will of troops to defend the motherland, ‘Aux armes’ suggests slow, easy bodily movement and transforms this international cultural encounter into a another kind of corps-à-corps.
22While even Jack Lang, an important backer of the French institutional turn around towards popular music since 1981 (Looseley, 2003), has argued that “‘mass culture’…amounted to interference in the international affaires of states” (Forbes 189), I suggest we hear popular musical recovery by instead ‘listening otherwise.’ Unexpected musical encounters and performance quotes create a distortion that disrupts clear communication of the politics of authenticity and difference maintained through cultural emblems. Jimi Hendrix and Bruce Springsteen offer important lessons concerning musical performance, reception, and socio-cultural critique. Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ offers a textual criticism of US policy that rock fails to effectively deliver as a genre. Its national ethos (Springsteen himself calls rock’n’roll America’s music) overpowers the textual criticism of war and racism; so much so that, quite sadly, even conservative American presidential hopefuls like Ronald Reagan can find it appropriate for campaigns. Jimi Hendrix’s performance of the American national anthem at Woodstock is quite different. Hendrix’s psychedelic encoding of the American national anthem uses subcultural style to distort ‘original’ narrative meaning and to perform and produce cultural critique (see Whiteley, 2000).
23Gainsbourg’s strategy is to put the French national narrative in a geographic, musical, and racial place that makes us hear its message ‘otherwise.’ The musical Other, as Susan McClary has shown, “can be anything that stands as an obstacle or threat to identity and that must, consequently, be purged or brought under submission for the sake of narrative closure” (McClary 16). In ‘Aux armes,’ the message of national identity and solidarity eventually breaks down entirely for the last minute of the three-minute song. Completely eschewing melody, the musical element which traditionally constructs and focalizes the narrative voice, Gainsbourg’s cover allows rhythm and drums to completely take over and suppress the national message of the text and the national self speaking it. Rather than traversing a musical territory of otherness to reassure the integrity of the self, ‘Aux armes’ stays in the place of the Other. The latter becomes a legitimate, attractive, and possibly necessary mode of self exploration (or self undoing). Linguistic signs do not have to be changed because they are simply overpowered by stronger musical parameters which suggest the frictions and contradictions already present within those signs (see Walser, 1993). ‘Aux armes’ casts the ‘Marseillaise’ through the prism of reggae projects a heterogeneity and threatens to musically invert the traditional paradigms of French self and racial Other to racial Self and French Other. In contrast to the postmodern information society of the West that punishes or eliminates the ‘non-functional’ (Lyotard, 1979), the final musical break in ‘Aux armes’ generates ‘surplus’ bodily pleasure. Free from the dictates of melody or harmony, information or efficiency, outside “cette logique du plus performant,” the body moves freely in order to go nowhere. Unlike the poinçonneur, the rasta takes pleasure in upsetting the boundaries between stasis and movement.
24If Gainsbourg uses his cover to disempower the original narrative of the ‘Marseillaise,’ Big Red’s ‘Aux armes’ demonstrates the empowering potential of ‘recovery.’ His rendition includes many musical changes. The instrumentation is more sophisticated and includes new electronic sounds, saxophones with harmonies and glissandos, and a slightly more up tempo delivery and feel. Big Red also uses his trademark vocal sound in the mix; instead of the intimacy of Gainsbourg’s close microphone recording, Big Red’s Redemption commands presence in the mix through the multiple tracks of vocal space. His delivery is dynamic and proclamatory, toasting through the intro to hype up his audience. The Jamaican accent that may add an element of exoticism in Gainsbourg’s version becomes fully readable in Big Red through his signifying on key reggae words like ‘reality’ and ‘society’ pronounced with a Jamaican accent. Both verlan and Jamaican English gain importance by virtue of landing on the rime of the verses.
25However, full recovery from the ‘Marseillaise’ for Big Red means re-authorizing and remembering the promise of French republican discourse, this time from the point of view of the “enfants de la téci.” While Gainsbourg follows the original lyrics to the letter (Rouget de Lisle marked ‘et caetera’ on the manuscript instead of writing out the chorus), ‘Aux armes’ is one of the more textually elaborated tracks on Big Redemption. While the ‘Marseillaise,’ like many national anthems, contains textual ambiguities and complexities I cannot fully address here, its cultural and institutional use seeks to dictate singular meaning from the top-down and to promote belief in a unified national voice. The text quite encourages defense of motherland in graphically violent detail. Identity and solidarity are based on the fear of an Other who threatens to rape your land, cut the throats of your sons, and enslave you. “To arms, citizens! / Form up your battalions / Let us march, Let us march! / That their impure blood / Should water our fields.”
26The ‘Marseillaise,’ whose narrative has already suffered a musical take over from the ‘bottom’ in Gainsbourg’s cover, is now recontextualized and renarrated from below in Big Red’s ‘Aux armes:’
“Je suis le bras vengeur de ma liberté chérie Je ferai de ta demeure ma nouvelle colonie Pour l’instant tu ne pleures pas mais ça viendra j’te le dis Plus que perspicaces sont les mômes de quatre ans et demi Ils représentent une menace pour ta society Met des soldats en famas dans tous les quartiers la nuit Voitures en flammes, commissariats brûlés D’un côté les gendarmes de l’autre des gens armés Inutile de tirer l’alarme elle est cassée Qui a raison ou tort, question déplacée Je suis pas là pour divertir mais plutôt pour t’avertir Le monde doit nous revenir, soundboy tu devras courir Aux armes etc.”
27Perhaps contrary to the expected comparison between today’s popular music and chanson française, it is Gainsbourg’s cover that privileges “dance over words, sound over sense, communion over cerebration, body over mind, intensity over rationality” (Loosely, 2003). In contrast, Big Red recovers from that move through a stronger understanding of the way reggae challenges these binary oppositions and their interaction with paradigms of power. The sexual play of Gainsbourg’s musical rendition has been subsumed and remilitarized. The urgency of the message dictates the soundboy run to arms, which may be both real weapons and musical ones. The “et caetera” is no longer a whimsical political dismissal and potential sexual reference, it is specifically explicated in scenarios Big Red sketches, and in the actions his music prepares the listening audience to undertake.
28We might be overstating the case to imply that Gainsbourg specifically intends a type of political critique of the state and its foreign policy with respect to its former colonies. Indeed his music rarely if ever approaches straightforward political engagement. On the other hand, as Jill Forbes notes, “cultural politics in France is often considered, by parties of the Left and of the Right, as the pursuit of war by another means” (189). Gainsbourg’s flippant cover of the national anthem has been recovered by Big Red’s black Atlantic empire singing back. ‘Aux armes’ creates musical sites for wars of identity; its recovery suggests the potential for pop music to participate in the meaning of the negotiation of power and to struggle for the authority and the authorship of transnational identity.
29Later, Gainsbourg would buy Rouget de Lisle’s original manuscript of the ‘Marseillaise’
“Le retour de Versailles fut grandiose. J’étais accompagné par Phify, d’origine polonaise. Il y avait Bambou, ma petite amie, une Niak. Moi je suis russe, juif et la voiture c’était une Chevrolet, une américaine ! Et sur la banquette arrière y’avait le manuscrit original de La Marseillaise… Étonnant !” (www.sergegainsbourg.com.fr)