From her notoriously provocative work with Serge Gainsbourg at the close of the Sixties through the decades that followed, she brought style to everything she did
In 1968, Jane Birkin was a 21-year-old English actress looking for her next gig when she auditioned for Slogan, a film that featured middle-aged singer-songwriter and infamous lothario Serge Gainsbourg opposite her. “I couldn’t speak French,” she’d later recall in Sylvie Simmons’ book Serge Gainsbourg: A Fistful of Gitanes. “I had about two hours to learn it.” She nevertheless got both the role and Gainsbourg, who was seeing the married Brigitte Bardot at the time. Soon Birkin was his full-time focus, and he helped her become a hit-making French chanteuse, releasing the overtly sexual single “Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus” and their debut album together, Jane Birkin/Serge Gainsbourg, in 1969. “He wanted me to be a star,” she said of why her name was first in the title. “That’s what he did to people he loved.”
Their artistic relationship outlasted their love, and Birkin, who sang in a limber soprano up until her death at age 76, stayed true to the dark, sexy style she’d originated in those early years. Here are 10 of her best recordings.
“Je T’aime … Moi Non Plus” (1969)
The song that made Birkin a worldwide sensation — and whose notorious moans of pleasure continue to echo half a century later — almost wasn’t her song at all. Serge Gainsbourg wrote it first for Brigitte Bardot, going as far as to record a version that he later deemed “too…hot,” before shifting allegiances in the studio and in bed to his young English co-star. Birkin’s breathy, flute-like vocals pushed “Je T’aime” right over the edge from the absurd to the sublime. At an early listening session in a Paris wine cellar, it was clear the song was something special: “Everybody’s knives and forks were in the air, suspended,” Birkin recounted in Simmons’ 2002 Gainsbourg biography. “Nobody went on eating. Serge said ‘I think we’ve got a hit.’” He was right, although the song’s shameless erotic tone got it banned in much of the world on the way to selling millions of copies. As critics through the years continued to examine and reconsider her late ex’s complex life, Birkin kept on performing their signature song, right up until earlier this year. “It wasn’t a rude song at all,” she told an interviewer in 2004. “I don’t know what all the fuss was about. The English just didn’t understand it. I’m still not sure they know what it means.” —S.V.L.
“69 Année Érotique” (1969)
Far be it from the legendarily louche Serge Gainsbourg to ignore the fact that the calendar had folded over to ’69. Even with the Sexual Revolution in full effect, “69 Année Érotique” (which translates to “’69, Erotic Year” in English) would still likely have been the most scandalous track on Jane Birkin/Serge Gainsbourg if it weren’t for “Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus” on the same album. Gainsbourg takes the verses, singing about the couple sailing around Paris and London. “They’re in love and their voyage will last a year,” Gainsbourg sings in French. It might all be metaphor until Birkin sings the song title in her soprano — breathy and drawn-out, a reaction to her lover. The orchestral strings just fade away. —K.G.
“Ballade de Melody Nelson” (1971)
Determined as ever to push his art well past the limits of propriety, Gainsbourg dedicated his next album to the Nabokovian tale of an adult perv’s tragic obsession with a 15-year-old girl. If that’s not twisted enough for you, consider that this fantasy was his way of paying tribute to Birkin, who was 24 and pregnant with their daughter Charlotte at the time. That’s her dressed provocatively and clutching a stuffed animal on the album cover, and that’s her brushing her soft voice against Gainsbourg’s dark rasp on Melody’s theme song. “Melody is Jane,” he said later. “Without Jane there wouldn’t have been any record.” Like the gorgeous prose describing vile behavior in Lolita, the music on “Ballade de Melody Nelson” is so melodically rich that you’re tricked into humming along to a song narrated by a madman. In the Nineties, the lush orchestrations on Histoire de Melody Nelson became a key influence for artists like Beck and Air, though none of them dared to go as far as Jane and Serge had into the gnarly realms of the subconscious. Years after Gainsbourg’s death, Birkin still spoke warmly of their time together making records like these. “I really came into my own with Serge because he did nothing all day long but think of jolly things to do with me. So I was extremely happy,” she said in 2020. “And although now people consider him as really quite a genius in France, which indeed he was, he was never a boring genius.” —S.V.L.
“La Décadanse” (1972)
Essentially “Je T’Aime … Moi Non Plus, Deuxième Partie,” Gainsbourg and Birkin profess their love to each other in whispers over a mellow pastiche of strings, chiming guitar, and rock organ. Occasionally their voices embrace an ascending melody, rising as they achieve “La Décadanse” — a pun that roughly translates to “decadance,” a portmanteau of decadence and “dance,” a.k.a. dirty dancing. Birkin’s voice sounds thin and, well, enraptured, as she sings about Gainbourg’s hands brushing against her chest … “and my heart, which is yours.” One of her sexiest lines is telling Gainsbourg, “You kill me, my love.” Perhaps because it wasn’t as outwardly scandalous as its predecessor, the song only made it into France’s Top 50. —K.G
“Ex-Fan Des Sixties” (1978)
At the end of the Seventies, “classic rock” wasn’t a thing yet. Disco, punk, and prog had taken over the pop charts, many of rock’s biggest stars had died, and Gainsbourg was beginning to turn his attention to reggae. So “Ex-Fan Des Sixties,” an elegy for Sixties rock, feels sarcastic in its nature — a little Farfisa-like organ, heaps of Gainsbourg’s typically snide lyrics — but also sincere because of the way Birkin sings to a “petite baby doll” who used dance to rock & roll. “What happened to all your idols?” she asks, mentioning the Byrds, the Doors, the Animals, and the Moody Blues as well as each former Beatle. She lists all of Sixties rock’s most famous casualties, like Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and Janis Joplin, as well as a couple better known for their work the previous decade (Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley). “Where are your crazy years?” she sings in a winsome way that’s both inquiring and mocking. Only Birkin could pull off that cocktail. —K.G.
“Amour Des Feintes” (1990)
Gainsbourg wrote his final song for Birkin, a typically tongue-in-cheek ballad about a doomed relationship, about six months before his death from a heart attack. She sings the title, a phrase that evokes putting on pretenses to ignore the real issues, pointedly and morosely as she parses the experiences that defined the fictional relationship, including a lost child, lying about emotions, and a few moments of happiness. At the end, she sings, “Who could be and who could have been, I’m asking the question/Maybe I was destined to dream of escape.” “‘Amour Des Feintes’ means ‘love of feigning’ in French, but it’s also ‘love of the dead,’” Birkin once said, according to the Gainsbourg bio Relax Baby Be Cool. “It referenced ‘Pavane Pour une Infante D’efunte’ [‘Pavane for a Deceased Infant‘] by Ravel, which was some of the music that Serge loved the most. That’s why he’s complicated.” Birkin captured that nuance masterfully. —K.G
“Je Suis Venu Te Dire Que Je M’en Vais” (1992)
Gainsbourg opened Vu de L’Extérieur, his 1973 follow-up album to Histoire de Melody Nelson, with a cold kiss-off: “Je Suis Venu Te Dire Que Je M’en Vais,” which means “I’ve come to tell you I’m leaving.” A woman, possibly Birkin, cries in the background as he tells her that her tears mean nothing to him and the folkish acoustic guitar reels on behind him. Nearly 20 years later, Birkin performed the song live after Gainsbourg’s death, and she sang it with all the emotion Gainsbourg lacked. Where he matter-of-factly says, “Yes, I loved you, yes … [but] your long sobs can’t change anything,” she sounds like she’s come to a realization that she can’t take anymore. Perhaps drawing from her acting career or from real emotion, she says goodbye beautifully and tragically. The audience recorded on her 1992 live album, Je Suis Venu Te Dire Que Je M’en Vais… (Concert intégral au Casino de Paris), cheers her on rapturously after she sings the final lines: “Yes, I’m sorry to tell you that I’m leaving/Because you did too much to me.” —K.G.
“Harvest Moon” (2006)
Everyone from Pearl Jam to Sunflower Bean to Maggie Rogers have put their own spin on Young’s quintessential love song, but Birkin’s version has a unique style that’s all her. Covering the song for her 2006 album Fictions, she evokes a scene that’s halfway between a coffee house in Paris and Young’s California ranch. The sparse, twinkling arrangement makes sure not to overpower Birkin’s delicate vocals, creating a celestial lullaby for the ages. And while the album also contains other covers like Tom Waits’ “Alice” and Kate Bush’s “Mother Stands for Comfort,” it’s “Harvest Moon” that really shines. —A.M.
On “Pourquoi” — a piano ballad Birkin wrote with singer-songwriter Alain Lanty, which appeared on her 2008 album Enfant D’Hiver — she addresses a deceased lover, asking, “Why is it always too late to shout, ‘I love you?’” But while the piano and her voice amble along at a pace befitting a weepy ballad, Birkin’s lyrics turn to measured rage, revealing a deeper nuance to her grief. “Why am I still living, dragging late, modest emotions?” she wonders, “Too scared to shout, ‘It’s you, my love’?” She even admits to missing her lover’s sarcasm and contempt. “I never want to see that trickle of blood, which empties your life, flow from you,” she sings. “I will hold your head, and say like a prayer, ‘Forgive yesterday’s silences.’” At the end, the piano ends on what comes across as a sour note — a perfect finish for her message. —K.G.
“À Marée Haute” (2020)
Birkin’s final album, Oh! Pardon Tu Dormais…, began as a theatrical play but blossomed into something darker when she began collaborating with songwriters and producers Etienne Daho and Jean-Louis Piérot, as she processed the untimely death of her daughter Kate Barry in 2013. “Etienne helped me release a past pain, which saved me from melancholy and inertia,” Birkin said at the time. The music for “À Marée Haute” contains all the musical hallmarks of her Sixties and Seventies recordings — twangy, surfy guitar and swelling orchestral strings — as the version of herself in the song takes stock of her life “at high tide” (the title in English.) She sings of defeat, of England, and of her own death, wondering in one breath, “By what heroic death could I redeem myself?” and in another, “I will be there on the beach of the hanged.” At the end, she declares, “If you don’t love me anymore, I don’t love myself anymore either,” and it captures all of the drama, heartache, and power of her best songs. —K.G.