The French singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg often behaved with dubious intent, fondling and insulting the women in his path, and alluding to incest and pedophilia in his lyrics.
But he was always forgiven by the Parisian intelligentsia which venerated him as a creative spirit, a sort of post-war version of the 19th-century poet Baudelaire, whose genius exceeded convention and everyday morality.
He was also a source of national pride after he became one of the few French singers to achieve global fame with hits like “Je T’Aime … Moi Non Plus,” the song full of heavy breathing that he performed with Jane Birkin, the British actress with whom he had a 12-year relationship.
Now one of France’s most celebrated contemporary singers, who performs under the stage name Lio, has offered a different perspective on Gainsbourg by comparing him to Harvey Weinstein.
Her depiction is far removed from the image of un homme à femmes (a ladies’ man) that the media has given Gainsbourg following numerous affairs with stars such as Brigitte Bardot.
“I have gone off Gainsbourg, who is quite simply a harasser,” said Lio, 58, whose real name is Wanda Maria Ribeiro Furtado Tavares de Vasconcelos. “[He was] someone who was not cool with girls and who was a Weinstein of songs in a certain way.
He was also a source of national pride after he became one of the few French singers to achieve global fame with hits like “Je T’Aime … Moi Non Plus.”
“Gainsbourg has become an aristocrat of French music but I am not going to pay homage to him. I have experienced for myself his behavior that was more than specious towards young women and the real lack of respect that he had,” she told Arte Radio, the Franco-German radio station.
Lio did not go into more detail, but her comments prompted critics to start reassessing some of the most infamous episodes involving Gainsbourg, who died in 1991 at the age of 62.
In 1986, for example, he was being interviewed for a French chat show alongside Whitney Houston when he blurted out: “I want to f*** her”.
While Houston clasped her hands to her mouth in shock and anger, Michel Drucker, the interviewer, who was manifestly embarrassed, tried to explain away the outburst as the result of Gainsbourg’s inebriation.
It was not the first time that Gainsbourg had caused embarrassment on Drucker’s program. A few years earlier, he had been invited along with Catherine Deneuve, the actress, to sing their 1980 hit, “Dieu Est un Fumeur de Havanes”(God smokes Havana cigars), which Gainsbourg had written.
“I have gone off Gainsbourg, who is quite simply a harasser.”
Live on air, and apparently drunk, he began fondling a clearly upset Deneuve, who struggled to remove his hands while continuing to sing. The episode was laughed off in the media as further proof of Gainsbourg’s love of women, and gave rise to speculation that he was having an affair with Deneuve. She later denied it.
French commentators took a similarly lenient view of Gainsbourg when he insulted Catherine Ringer, another French singer, on another chat show in 1986. Ringer was explaining that she had begun her career as a porn actress when he turned to her and said: “You’re a whore. You’re disgusting.”
She said: “Stop giving me moral lessons. You are the stereotype of a disgusting man.”
When he cut her off, saying, “You’re going to get two punches in the gob as quick as a flash, you bitch” the chat show host and the audience laughed. He was barely even criticized for threatening her. In the 1960s, Gainsbourg won widespread admiration when he wrote “Les Sucettes” (The lollipops) for France Gall, a pop star who was then a teenage singer.
The song, like many written by Gainsbourg, was full of sexual innuendos that appear to have gone over Gall’s then innocent head. She later admitted that she had never imagined the song was about anything other than sucking lollipops, and that Gainsbourg had been careful not to tell her.
Gall, who died in 2018, said that when she realized that the song was full of double-entendres, she felt humiliated. “Fat pig” was how she described Gainsbourg.
Lio said that she sympathized. “It felt like a rape to her and that is legitimate,” she said. “And the [musical] industry just laughed. That’s unacceptable.”
In 1984 Gainsbourg wrote a song, “Lemon Incest,” that he performed with Charlotte, the daughter he had with Birkin, who was then 12 and who is now an actress in her own right. The sexually suggestive lyrics and the accompanying video, which show father and daughter lying on a double bed, caused controversy at the time.
But again Gainsbourg, who wrote more than 550 songs, which have been covered more than 1,000 times, was pardoned by a French elite in awe of his talent.
“At the time avoided prosecution, but 30 years later, his multiple provocations would no longer be accepted,” said Le Point news magazine following Lio’s denunciation.