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Serge Gainsbourg’s Five Greatest Sexual Provocations

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The legendary French scoundrel gets a new biopic this week.

Serge Gainsbourg didn't just epitomize the sexy French singer archetype — half-lidded eyes, cigarette, half-talked/half-crooned songs that all seem to be come-ons — he practically created it. One of France's most enduring musical icons, he's getting his own big-screen biopic this week with Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life. We're marking the event by recapping the five most sexually provocative things Gainsbourg did during a long and sexy career: the good, the bad, and the really remarkably uncomfortable.


5. He wrote a song about oral sex for a teenager to sing.

Gainsbourg first came to prominence in the mid-1960s by writing songs for other people: one of these people was teenage songstress France Gall. The second song he wrote for her was "Les Sucettes," a charming little ditty about a young girl who enjoys lollipops. Gainsbourg being Gainsbourg, the whole thing was a thinly veiled paean to oral sex, which Gall, in a pre-Britney Spears bit of (possibly calculated) naïveté, professed to be completely unaware of. She was apparently mortified when the song's real meaning was expressed to her, and said she "felt betrayed" that she'd been allowed to sing the song. Gainsbourg, meanwhile, was characteristically succinct about "Les Sucettes," calling it "the most daring song of the century."


4. He made the French national anthem into a lusty reggae slow jam.

Sexing up a revered institution has always been a great way to turn heads. Madonna had her moment with the crucifix thing; Gainsbourg had his by remaking his country's national anthem as a sexed-up reggae tune. "Aux Armes et Caetera," Gainsbourg's take on "La Marseillaise," pissed everybody off. Conservatives were angry about his louche delivery, veterans were upset that he truncated the war-related lyrics, and the singer even received death threats. The funny thing is, our hero didn't even sing any particularly sexual lyrics on the track. He just delivered the song as his usual, drawling, eyebrow-cocking self; that was apparently provocation enough.


3. He was very, very honest with Whitney Houston, on live TV.

In 1986, Gainsbourg appeared on a French talk show with Whitney Houston. Fresh off "The Greatest Love of All," Whitney's being all poodle-haired and adorable, when Gainsbourg sits down and proceeds to tell her, in French, that he'd love to sleep with her. The host translates diplomatically, telling Houston that Gainsbourg thinks she's very beautiful… at which point Gainsbourg switches to English, warning the host that "You are not Reagan, I'm not Gorbachev, so don't try, eh? I said, 'I want to fuck her.'" Whitney's face at 1:06 says it all. So much for honesty being the best policy.

2. He recorded a song called "Lemon Incest" with his daughter.

Charlotte Gainsbourg is probably best known in the U.S. as being the kind of indie goddess that Zooey Deschanel used to be before everyone decided they hated her adorableness. But she's been a recording artist in France since 1984, when she duetted with her dad on a song he wrote called "Lemon Incest." The song's title is a pun on "lemon zest," and the song caused an understandably large controversy over then-twelve-year-old Charlotte singing deliberately ambiguous lyrics referring to the love between an adult and a child. The video didn't help matters (or, depending on your point of view, helped them immeasurably), showing Gainsbourg, shirtless and in jeans, and Charlotte, wearing a shirt and panties, lying on a bed. Predictably, the song was a hit.


1. Recorded 4:26 of simulated sex. Twice.

In winter of 1967, Gainsbourg's then-girlfriend, Brigitte Bardot, asked him to write her the most beautiful love song he could. Never one to shy from an offer, Gainsbourg wrote "Je T'Aime… Moi Non Plus," which the pair then recorded in Paris during a session that included some "heavy petting," as the engineer put it. Bardot was horrified when she heard it (probably because she was married at the time) and wouldn't allow Gainsbourg to release it.

So a year later, Gainsbourg and his newest love/muse, Jane Birkin, re-recorded the song and released it. The heavy-breathing lyrics and moaning by Birkin were reported as "audio verite," by the French press, but Gainsbourg and Birkin denied actually being entangled when they recorded it. The song was condemned by the Vatican, among others, and sold a boatload. It also smoothed relations for Gainsbourg when he went to Jamaica to record (see no. 4 above): a bit reticent to work with Gainsbourg at first, Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare told him the only French record they knew was "Je T'Aime" without knowing he was the guy that wrote it. Their whole mood towards the collaboration changed once he confessed.