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The French pop of Jane Birkin and Zazie

By Michael Freedberg

APRIL 19, 1999:  "I've the keys to paradise!/Me, who never won anything!", exclaims France's Jane Birkin -- now a 30-year veteran of song and screen -- in "Les clés du paradis," at the beginning of her new A la légère (Philips France). This is quite a change of scene for the British actress who first became famous through the softcore sex of Serge Gainsbourg's 1969 international hit "Je t'aime . . . moi non plus," but a timely one. Of all the sentiments in our hearts these days -- and Birkin is our era's most thoughtful singer of sentiments -- winning entry to paradise when one's never won anything is at least as catholic a hope as the desire for great sex. Indeed, given Birkin's personal history, her holding the keys to paradise certainly encompasses sex -- except that as she phrases it, delicately in that somewhat melancholy and little bit joyous, quivery high soprano that marks her, the keys to paradise she finds herself holding surpass the keys to sex, whatever its joys. She sings the song as if she were discovering, for the very first time, that she is alive -- and how precious that is.

It may seem odd that Birkin, now in her 50s, can speak convincingly of first feeling alive. But she has it right. Just about every song she has recorded (and certainly all the known ones, a collection of which can be heard on the Philips France CD Actrices -- Jane Birkin: Quoi) was written by Gainsbourg. She was his favorite muse, and he hers. But Gainsbourg is dead now, and the 12 songs on A la légère draw for the first time upon songwriters of Birkin's own choosing.

And what songwriters! Three generations of French variété's most eloquent lyricists contribute one song apiece -- from Claude Miossec, Françoise Hardy, and Nilda Fernandez to Alain Souchon, Alain Chamfort (who helped pen "Les clés du paradis"), Etienne Daho, Marc Lavoine, Zazie, and MC Solaar. Souchon, Daho, Lavoine, and Zazie come from the funk and rock worlds, and MC Solaar made his name in rap. But Birkin's wispy whisper rides all their rhythms. The music changes, she doesn't. She dares to sing her tiny soprano down whatever troubled streets the music takes her, toughly. And she needs all her inner toughness to sing difficult songs like Lavoine's "Simple en français," a bilingual pun, Gainsbourg style, about the double difficulties of living single, and the dark blues, internally rhymed, of Claude Miossec's "Les avalanches." (An Alpine winter full of tragic snowslides has given this particular song a terrifying new meaning.)

The millions who bought Birkin's previous CD, Versions Jane, and her 1992 live double set Je suis venu te dire que je m'n vais (both on Philips France) have already heard her sing the hardest rock, soul, and blues as tiny as she likes -- in a voice as imperious and shocking as Robert Plant's banshee falsetto sailing over a Zeppelin hardline. They've also heard her voice probe the introversions of quiet songs without frightening them away, and certainly if she's to coax the intricate emotional secrets out of A la légère's droll songs -- Souchon's Chic-like title track, Zazie's "C'est comme ça," and Hardy's "La pleine lune," for example -- she must speak discreetly and work patiently.

For such an approach she can hardly look to American pop, with its bombast and its instant gratification. The jaded irony of Suzanne Vega won't work (too New York), not the scented drama of Fiona Apple (too mall-ish), even less the can-dos of Sheryl Crow. Birkin is never sure, when she begins a soft song, that she can do, any more than Little Richard is sure when he reaches for one of those high notes that he'll hit it. Because uncertainty of success is a theme of Birkin's singing, we care about it, as deeply as we cared about the shortfalls of Little Richard.

Still, just as Little Richard stretches beyond himself, Birkin takes more time than she has in a brief song, inching toward the issue at hand. One part of an emotion at a time, her soprano sketches its way, almost visually, through the words. Those who've seen Jacques Rivette's four-hour film La belle noiseuse (1992), which dramatizes the interactions between a painter and his naked model, and in which Birkin plays the painter's wife, can appreciate the way in which she uses the powers of sight to gain vocal insight into songs that guard their privacy, without resorting to deception. On A la légère, as opposed to the practice of American pop, lying is never a strategy. Birkin does, however, speculate about falsity in "Si tout était faux," a dreamy piece of Europop as understated as any diva drama you'll ever hear.

Birkin's art (and thus the songs on A la légère) now draws attention in the US because of the growing fad for lounge music. Gainsbourg's oeuvre has benefitted posthumously from this '90s trend. But no music could be less like exotica than Birkin's. She has nothing to do with the badly chromed rhythms and oily singing that have made lounge a momentarily amusing bad joke. Just the opposite. Bittersweet percussion blues like "Trouble," the tricky dream pop of "La bulle," and the sighing melody and pillow talk of Solaar's "Love Slow Motion" draw upon soul music, an American idiom that has long been there for those with the ears to hear it. In soul, righteousness is a given, candor a necessity, and take-your-time the entrée to bliss. It was bliss that Birkin and Gainsbourg trusted when they sang their own off-stage love affair into the bedroom sex vignette that was "Je t'aime . . . ," a song that was a hit in the same year that the sweet falsetto soul ballads done by vocal groups like the Moments, Stylistics, and Delfonics began to take over the pop charts. "Love Slow Motion" revives the almost forgotten style of bliss present in "Je t'aime . . . " without quoting even one note of it. What is more to the point of Birkin's art, however, is how she sings it: in a voice short of breath that seems to break in two as it phrases the lyric against a reflective, melodic undertone.

There seem to be two Jane Birkins working this song -- the present singer assured of her message and an off-stage one who doubts that everything is as okay as it sounds. In US pop this sort of double imagery would be expressed by irony, by the sense that things are never what they seem. But Birkin simply sings the facts of her life as a British-born actress enjoying a French career as a variété star -- a life in which, as her song says, she's found herself holding the keys to a lot of people's paradises, and to hers. That is discovery, not irony. Her voice accents and proves her double nature: as she turns her soprano into and through a melody, you hear that thin high note veering to the light side with a melancholy edge. It is a two-sided soprano that is hers alone.

Nowhere in US pop do you find art and life reinforcing one another purely in song like this. The range of funk-jazzy and folk-rock expressions Birkin inhabits suggest Ani DiFranco, but Birkin is profoundly urbane where DiFranco is cutely brattish. DiFranco sings about herself. Birkin sings about the external world. The in-your-face DiFranco does battle with city life. Birkin dwells in it, ill at ease, dark sometimes and, in Zazie's "C'est comme ça," carefully pensive. But not too withdrawn to become, in "Love Slow Motion," as believing and blissed out as she's ever been.

By choosing to record a Zazie song, Jane Birkin has directed her audience's attention to variété's most important new female talent. Zazie's new Made in Love (PolyGram France), her second CD, is a 12-song session done in much the same ballad-funk and rock-sweet styles that Birkin uses. But there are differences. First, the much younger Zazie sings without any hint of a double existence. Her soprano is fuller in its softness. It's a voice of bliss without second thoughts. Second, Zazie borrows hooks, instrumentation, and rhythms more directly from British synth-pop, melodies from American alternative rock, and noise riffs from European techno. It's a bit strange to hear these genres set into the blissful dreamworld of variété, and positively exotic to find them backdropping, in "Cyber" and "Stop," Zazie's satirical side. Still, Zazie displays an intelligence at least as alert as Birkin's, and perhaps more complete.

The romantic idealism of the mathematical precision of Zazie's "La preuve par trois" goes back to the ecstatic Platonism of John Donne. It is his sensibility that echoes through the song's lyric, through four stanzas of lonely guitar and bittersweet drumming as Zazie argues her case that the birth of a child to a couple makes three and thereby proves the existence of the initial two. Not many US pop hits use mathematical illustration to express true passion. And lots of American pop songs talk about ecstasy, but few evoke it. Zazie, however, knows that when ecstasy is at hand, talk is never enough.

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