To Strike Down Idols

To strike down idols: the musical convergence of Serge Gainsbourg and Ziad Rahbani


Et chaque fois les feuilles mortes       
And every time the autumn leaves

Te rappellent à mon souvenir         
Bring you back to my mind

Jour après jour     
Day after day

Les amours mortes 
The autumn loves

N’en finissent pas de mourir 
Will go on dying

 بتذكرك كل ما تيجي لتغيّم                                   
I remember you whenever it is cloudy

وجهك بيذكّر بالخريف
Your face reminds me of autumn

بترجع لي كل ما الدني بدها تعتم                           
It brings back all that the world wants covered

مثل الهوأ اللي مبلّش عَ الخفيف
Like the wind that blows lightly

Dry and detached, and yet seeping with emotion, these are the autumn leaves of Serge Gainsbourg and Ziad Rahbani. A twist on Jacques Prévert’s poem on love and loss, they both muse, with a touch of both humor and regret, on the nature of time and forgetting.  One in France of the 60s, the other in Lebanon of the 80s, the two were the enfants terribles of their time. While they created some of their countries’ most popular and heart-wrenching songs revolving around sorrow, loss, en somme, la douleur exquise, they are both hated by some for their irreverence and refusal to conform. Ziad Rahbani’s Salini al-nas and Kifak Inta, sung by his mother Feiruz, are classics, key parts of the cultural repertoire of Lebanon, as are Gainsbourg’s flirty songs La Javanaise and L’eau à la bouche in France.

They are both as infamous as they are famous. Both known for their controversial behavior on live television, their propensity to épater les bourgeois, by refusal to show any deference to society’s conventions or idols, reflected in their tongue-in-cheek lyrics, filled with crass jokes, sexual puns, and cheesy pop culture references. While Rahbani openly satirized the Lebanese political establishment, society, and even his own musically traditionalist family in his subversive and hilarious musical theatre, Gainsbourg defied sexual taboos and poked at the hypocrisy of French pop music. More generally, both composed lyrics which were open about drugs, booze, and flirting, becoming the insolent muses of song.

Not only are their musical style and content similar, but also their general demeanor. Can one really whether it is Gainsbourg or Rahbani in the following photo?

Capture d’écran 2018-04-14 à 22.14.56.png

Marba al-Dalal, a song about a spoilt woman with a rich father, could basically be a Serge Gainsbourg song, just as Elisa, an absurd song about a woman searching for lice in her lover’s hair (based on a poem by Rimbaud) is quite conceivable as Rahbani’s. Both auteurs took petite young women with high voices pleasantly verging on the unpleasant as their muses. Both mixed jazz piano with bossa nova beat and enjoyed inserting weird synthesizer sounds into their songs. One is the author’s favorite French musician, the other is his favorite Lebanese: both are his overaged crushes.

Tidy Beginnings 

From an anonymous piano-bar crooner in the 50s, Gainsbourg rose to prominence in the 60s by writing jazzy chanson française for Juliette Gréco and then bubble-gum pop for France Gall. His position was that of the man behind the stage, and his own recordings are soft and low-key, using typical tropes from chanson française ‘la vie ne vaut d’être vécu sans amour’. The word-plays he used in his music at this point were witty, but not yet provocative: in La Javanaise, his alliterations in ‘ja’ (‘javoue j’en ai bavé pas vous’) are a reference to the 19th century argot of ‘javanais’, which consisted in placing the ‘ahv’ sound after ever consonant.

Ziad Rahbani was born into the most famous musical family of Lebanon. The son of Fairuz, ‘the First Lady of Lebanese singing’, and Assi Rahbani, her song-writer, he took over his father’s role in the late 70s. His first album of compositions for Fairuz, Wahdon (1979), contains mainly dreary love laments, with a jazz piano, sax, and violins for accompaniment.  Yet the greatest innovation lies in the album’s song Al Bosta (The Bus) which caused a scandal at the time for having the national treasure Fairuz, who was known for singing about flowers, love, and Jerusalem, sing about the lowly subject of a stinky sweaty bus ride.

Both Gainsbourg and Rahbani had made it their artistic task to strike down idols. It all comes down to the fine line between tribute and parody.

Musical Subversions

N’écoute pas les idoles, écoute-moi  
Don’t listen to the idoles, listen to me

Car moi seule je suis folle, folle de toi.
Because I alone am mad, mad for you

Ces chansons que tu fredonnes, comment veux-tu   
How could I ever like the songs

Que je les aime ? Personne n’a jamais pu 
That you hum? No-one could ever

Me faire croire que l’on se donne à cœur perdu 
Make me believe that someone  would surrender to a lost
Pour se quitter à l’automne bien entendu. 
To leave each other at autumn, of course

The lyrics of N’écoute pas les idoles, composed by Gainsbourg for teenage pop star France Gall, are a direct attack on pop music, deriding it as shallow and cult-like. Forget about deep meaningful songs, and just listen to me. Rather than fight against the decay of art represented by pop music, Gainsbourg embraces it in all its degeneracy, in order to expose its sheer stupidity, conveyed by France Gall’s complete lack of awareness that she is singing against herself. Teenage pop idols are devoid of the emotion expressed by the mature, passionate chanson française singers such as Jacques Brel, Yves Montard and Gainsbourg himself, whose voices and countenances suggest the true heartache behind the song. The emptiness of bubblegum love songs, songs you chew on rather than feel a deep emotional experience, is expressed in the Eurovision winning song Poupée de Cire:

Je suis une poupée de cire
I’m a wax doll

Une poupée de son
I’m a music doll

Mon cœur est gravé dans mes chansons
My heart is recorded in my songs

Poupée de cire poupée de son   
Wax doll music doll

Seule parfois je soupire    
Alone sometimes I sigh

Je me dis à quoi bon     
I ask myself why

Chanter ainsi l’amour sans raison   
I sing about love without any point

Sans rien connaître des garçons   
Without knowing anything about boys

Similarly, Rahbani wrote the musical Shi Fashel (A Failure-1983), in which he ridiculed his own parents’ plays, by having all attempts by a troupe to stage a classic folkloric play doomed to failure. Similarly, the title of the musical Bikhsous al-Karameh wal-Shaab al-Aaneed (On Generosity and Stubborn People- 1993) is a direct parody of the song Bhibbek Ya Lubnan (I Love You Lebanon), sung by Fairuz and composed by Assi in which the line ‘Lebanon (full of) generosity and stubborn people’ occurs, declaring love for the country despite the ongoing war. Ziad regarded this as hypocrisy, which he full-out denounces in the play: stubbornness for Ziad does not mean heroism, as his parents meant, but ‘stubbornly grasping onto sectarianism’. And yet, he wrote his musical parodies of the Rahbani tradition all whilst continuing to compose music for his mother.

In a similar fashion, Ziad has moments where he parodies the Levantine musical tradition of tarab (a long repetitive song which induces musical ecstasy). In his musical Sahriye, he has Joseph Saqr, who had previously worked with the Rahbani brothers, play a tarab singer, anachronistically and hilariously donning a fez, whilst singing irreverential songs.

Saqr and Rahbani produced the album Bema Ilo (1997) together, intercepting jazzy songs about sex and failure with the ‘serious’ (some would say sacred) style of tarab sung by Saqr, piano followed by oud and vice-versa. The two styles mix until the hilarious point at which a lady corrects Saqr’s French pronunciation in the middle of the tarab. With genres confused, the glorified musical past of Lebanon is desacralized.

Both reject the over-glorification of the past made by their respective cultures, and are equally cynical about the present.

Laughing in recordings. making fun of silly girls: Sucettes/ Marb al-Dalal

Rahbani and Gainsbourg subvert their creations. While Gainsbourg simultaneously creates and derides pop music, Rahbani does this with Rahbani (family) music. They knock down their former idols. They do the same with their women. Gainsbourg doesn’t just desire a Lolita: he mocks her.

Oh! Ma Melody Oh!
My Melody

Ma Melody Nelson
My Melody Nelson

Aimable petite conne   
Lovely silly cunt

Tu étais la condition     
You were the condition

Sine qua non
Sine qua non

De ma raison
Of my sanity

Gainsbourg made an unwitting fool out of France Gall by composing her the song Les Sucettes, in which  poor France Galle sings about a girl who likes sucking lollipops, without understanding Gainsbourg’s malicious word-play.

Annie aime les sucettes,     
Annie likes sucking lollies
Les sucettes à l’anis   
Aniseed lollies

Les sucettes à l’anis
Aniseed lollies
For Annie

Donnent à ses baisers     
Give her kisses

Un goût ani-     
An ani-

Sé. Lorsque le sucre d’orge                 
-seed taste. When the sugar

Parfumé à l’anis         
stick, perfumed with aniseed

Coule dans la gorge d’Annie,          
Slips down Annie’s throat

Elle est au paradis.      
She’s in paradise.


Faut savoir s’étendre   
You gotta know how to stretch out

Sans se répandre    
Without spreading out

Pauvre Lola    
Poor Lola

Faut savoir s’étendre      
You gotta know how to stretch

Sans se répandre   
Without spreading yourself out

C’est délicat  
It’s delicate

Il est des mots tendres      
There are tender words

Qu’elle aime entendre 
That she likes to be told

Tendre Lola   
Tender Lola

The Rahbani equivalent to Annie and Lola are Dalal and Layla. Rahbani jokes with Dalal’s name, which happens to be the name of his ex-fiancée : the rearing of Dalal or the rearing of opulence/coquetry (as a note for language nerds, the Hebrew root dalal is to be low, to languish, meaning poor, the opposite of opulent, while in Urdu, coming from Arabic it means a pimp). Instead of singing of love, Rahbani sings about a hilarious exchange with Dalal’s rich father, while claiming absolute destitution of the kind we hear in Gainsbourg’s Le poinçonneur de Lilas , and mocking  his fiancée’s bourgeois family:

قالي يا ابني كيف احوالك وصرنا نتحدث بالاحوال
He asked, oh son, what is your (financial) situation, let’s speak of your (financial) situation

قلتله سيدي طمنلك بالك عيشة رضية قد الحال
I said, mister, calm down, you only think about money

قلي بتعرف بنتي طلبها المحامي
He said, you know, a lawyer proposed to daughter

رح قلك للدغري احوالي ما بتغري
I’ll tell you, my situation is not to be envied
ورتوني المكنسة وطلعت زبال
I inherited a broomstick and became a garbage cleaner

الحالة تعبانة
It’s a bad situation

الحالة تعبانة يا ليلى
It’s a bad situation, oh Layla

خطبة ما فيش
The engagement’s off

انت غنية يا ليلى
You’re rich, oh Layla 

ونحنا دراويش
and we’re all broke

انت بوادي ونحنا بوادي
You’re in one valley, and we’re in another valley

وكل لحظة بعدنا زيادة
And every moment we’re further apart

الارض اللي عندنا بلا سجادة
The floor of our house doesn’t have a carpet

وانت معودة تمشي عالريش
And you’re used to walking on feathers

What makes Rahbani’s songs all the more original is the fact that names aren’t usually common in Arabic songs. That’s why we hear ‘habibi habibi’ so much. Instead of ‘habibi’, a word which Rahbani only uses sarcastically, he uses characters.

Serge Gainsbourg Ziad Rahbani
Annie Layla
Lola Dala
Manon Rida
Melody Nelosn  
Jane B.  

Table 1: Characters

Serge Gainsbourg Ziad Rahbani
Juliette Gréco Fairuz
Catherine Sauvage Selma Gingele
France Gall Latifa
Brigitte Bardot Rasha Rizq
Isabelle Adjani Tania Saleh
Anna Karina Monica Hawat
Catherine Deneuve  
Marianne Faithfull  

Table 2: Muses

Layla and Dalal are archetypal snobbish, superficial, and rich lovers the bohemian lyricist enjoys for a bit, but doesn’t actually want to be tied to. The mépris shown to them is mirrored by Gainsbourg’s sadistic indifference.

Such indifference is at its height when in a love letter,  Gainsbourg only seems to care about the grammar:

C’est toi que j’aime 
I love you so

(Ne prend qu’un M)   
(With an extra O)

Par-dessus tout   
And only you

Ne me dis point 
Don’t you say

(Il en manque un) 
(No capital A)

Que tu t’en fous   
That you’re unmoved

Je t’en supplie          
Listen to me, try

(Point sur le I)     
(Dot on the I)

Fais-moi confiance     
Have confidence

Je suis l’esclave 
I am the slave

(Sans accent grave)   
(What does this say?)

Des apparences     
Of appearance

C’est ridicule  
It’s absurd

(C majuscule)   
(Misspelt word)

Tout ça m’affecte    
All this affects

(Ça c’est correct)   
(At least that’s correct)

When speaking of prostitutes (filles de joie), Gainsbourg says: Celles que mangent le chewing gum pendant l’amour (Those who chew gum while making  love). From his lyrics, one would actually imagine him chewing gum as he gets laid. Just Gainsbourg’s song titles show his complete and utter disregard for female feelings:Je suis venu te dire que je m’en vais  (I came over just to say I’m leaving); Les amours perdues ne se retrouvent plus (Lost loves are never refound); Ce mortel ennui quand je suis avec toi  (This deadly boredom when I’m with you). 

Such extreme disengagement is in Rahbani’s song Un verre chez vous, undoubtedly indebted to French indifférence. The man is completely unengaged, repeating ‘shu?’ (‘what?’) over and over again throughout the song, while the woman attempts to seduce him. It’s just a way of saying he doesn’t give a shit. In Ma Btfid, meetings are literally impossible:

تعطي مواعيد
You give me appointments
شو بتفيد؟
But what s the point
توقيتك مش معى
I don’t have a schedule
و الا انت التحديد
And you don t have a date
شي جديد؟
What’s new?
ما فى جديد
There s no news       

Sometimes they take the female’s side of having to bear with this male indifference. Gainsbourg wrote for Brigitte Bardot :

C’est un jour comme un autre 
It’s a day like any other
Et pourtant tu t’en vas   
And yet you leave
Tu t’en vas vers une autre    
You leave for another woman
Sans me dire un seul mot       
Without saying a word
Et je ne comprends pas    
And I don’t understand

The same is expressed in Rahbani’s Ussa Mush Hai (It makes no difference) and Aisha Wahda Blk  (Living by herself without you. They turned the normal ‘I miss you’ song into the ‘I actually don’t miss you’ on the man’s side, and ‘I’m forcing myself to not miss you’ on the woman’s. Which is both misogynistic and powerful.

By subverting the traditional love song, both Gainsbourg and Rahbani reach in fact a higher version of love. The love of everyday life. Love that doesn’t work. Indifference provokes disturbed emotions in the listener.

The impossibility of love heightened by both Gainsbourg’s and Rahbani’s duets. They sing with women, not about how they love each other, but how it really doesn’t work. Gainsbourg’s Je t’aime moi non plus is the greatest example. When the Jane Birkin sings “Je t’aime”, he answers “moi non plus”. Similarly, when he calls for “la décadence”, she answers: “non, pas comme ça”.

Rahbani’s great Romantic duet consists in a misunderstanding about whether or not a Romantic dialogue ever even took place:

 قلتيلي حبيتك…
You told me I love you….                         

 لأنك زعلان بتضلّ وبتضلّ منكوَت
because you are always sad and irritated

صاير هالحديث؟
Did this talk happen? 

(Answer:)   It happened.

قلتيلي حبيتك…
You told me I love you….

لأنك غير شي بتكون ولأنك أخوَت
because you are something else and you are crazy

صاير هالحديث؟
Did this talk happen?

(A:)   It happened!

وعدتي تركتيني…
And then you left me

 لأني زعلان بضلّ وبضلّ منكوَت
Because I’m always sad and always irritated

 ولأني أخوَت
and because I’m crazy

صار ولا ما صار؟…
Did this happen or not?

(A:)   It happened.!

يا عمّي أنا ما اتغيرنا..
My dear, I wasn’t the one who changed us

. أنتِ اللي تغيّرنا
You are the one who changed us
We changed

تغيّرنا ما تغيّرنا؟
We changed or did we not

 صار ونصّ
(A:) It really happened (literally: it happened once  and a half)

In other words: La farce du grand amour, dites jamais dites toujours.

Yet even when they parodize, disparage, and objectify women, Rahbani and Gainsbourg are capable of charm. Their lyrics incorporate the ambiguous and ambivalent game of flirtation.

Flirtation and mockery are not the only themes explored by Gainsbourg and Rahbani. They both painted tragi-comical pictures of the crass social realities of Parisian and Beiruti societies, in ways that were innovative and at times shocking. Whereas the chanson française has had a long history of ‘underground’, bohemian themes (Brassens sang of the filles de joie in the 20s),  topics such as poverty, traffic, drugs, were unheard of in Arabic song.

In Al-Bosta, Rahbani combines an insipid ride on public transportation (not a theme of any other Arabic song to my knowledge) with the exaltation of a woman’s eyes (the highest cliché of the Arabic song, ya ayn wa layl ya ayn wa layl– oh eyes, oh night, oh eyes, night). Rather than a parody of the ayn wa layl trope, the song places the admirer in the very tangible reality of sitting next to his beloved on a hot and sweaty bus. When Fairuz first sang her son’s song, many Lebanese were in uproar: the singer, who had starred in folkloric films and plays, symbolized the innocence of pre-modern Lebanon, was now singing about the vulgar and futile theme of buses! 

بهشوب وفطسانين نيالن ما افضى بالن ركاب تنورين
We were riding the bus in this heat and dying of exhaustion
وواحد عم ياكل خس وواحد عم ياكل تين
One guy’s eating lettuce, another guy’s eating figs
في واحد هو و مرتو و لو شو بشعة مرتو
And there’s another guy with his wife, wow, his wife is so ugly
نيالن ما افضى بالن ركاب تنورين
Lucky them, their minds are completely empty, the Tannourine passengers
و مش عرفين عليا، عيونك يا عليا شو حلوين
They don’t know your eyes, Aaliyah, they’re so beautiful
نحنا كنا طالعين طالعين ومش دافعين
We were riding the bus, riding without paying

Even more scandalous was Gainsbourg’s vulgarization of the Marseillaise. Bringing the song from its statue-like status, frozen in its 18th century form, he made a reggae version. Such is the nature of organic transformations in music: the same tunes tend to to cross genre lines. Reggae Marseillaise was such an outrage to the conservative French that there were protests at his concerts.

In their songs, they portrayed subalterns; both became pariahs, for political opinions or for odd appearances on TV. In other words, they refused to be part of an ingroup.

Sublimation of excess, decadence, drugs

دورها دور دور واعطيني شحطة
Pass it round, round, and give me a drag
قبل ما تجي تجي تجينا الشرطة
Before they come, come, come to us, the police!
دورها دور دور
Pass it round, round
ما بدي اصحا
I don’t wanna wake up 

This refusal to aggregate is somewhat related to the lone-wolf, inward-looking nature of the musicians. One might interpret the frequent reference both make to drug use as a form of ‘bohemian individualism’. Drugs are, one might say, the ultimate pleasure for the misanthropist, the artificial paradise requiring no social interaction.

L’alcohol, Je bois. Reference to Poe, Baudelaire, and Rimbaud: this tradition of drugged poets 
passes through most of Gainsbourg’s work, which is undeniably linked to his raging alcoholism.

In Duwerha (‘Pass it round’), the reference to people speaking in Standard Arabic and being ‘mean’ hint at the anti-social nature of the narrator’s drug use. Pass it round, pass it round, but don’t annoy me by striking stuck-up formal conversation; I’m just here to get high, not to talk. How many times does Gainsbourg tell his woman to ‘shut up’?

The relationship to drugs they express in their songs is one of intense love, but at the same time acerbic. Drugs are like women… My lady heroine, toi mon amour platonique. Nothing actually amounts to anything, not even drugs.

Word Plays

In addition to introducing vulgar themes to the Arabic song, Rahbani intentionally jeered with the foreignness of the Lebanese language. Made up of a mish-mash of dialect, French, and increasingly English, the Lebanese of Rahbani is not that of Fairuz, which verges on fussha (interestingly, although Rahbani writes in foreign words in songs that he and others sing, none of Fairuz’s songs contain any French or English). It is the Lebanese used on the streets of the 1970s, a Lebanese so de-Arabized that in Isma3 ya Rida (‘Listen Rita’), the narrator sings:

تعلّم لغة أجـــنبيّة هيذا العربي ما بيفيد                      Learn a foreign language, because Arabic is useless

In Bema Ilo, Joseph Saqr sings the high genre of tarab,  to be interrupted by a woman who tells him: ça se dit pas comme ça en français’ (‘that’s not how you say it in French’).  In a segment of Dawerha, Rahbani tells his habibi to speak Chinese with him; ironically, his assonances in ‘ee’ and alliterations in ‘ch’ make his Lebanese sound quite Sinitic.

يا حبيبي بي بي بي بي
Hey habibibibibi
شدير دير تنحكي صيني
Cmon let’s speak Chinese (Sini)
مشان شو ما مشان شي
For what reason? For no reason
مشان شو ما مشان شي
For what reason? For no reason
مشان شو ما مشان شي
[phonetically: ‘machanchu mamachanchi’]
يلعن هالعيشة
God damn this way of life

Funnily enough, a reference to the Chinese language is made Gainsbourg: Les Femmes, C’est du Chinois.

Gainsbourg’s greatest play on language is expressed in his meisterwerk, Comic Strip:

Viens petite fille dans mon comic strip    
Come with me, let’s get together in my
Viens faire des bull’s, viens faire des WIP !   
Comic strip, let’s talk in bubbles let’s go
Des CLIP ! CRAP ! des BANG ! des VLOP ! et des ZIP ! 
BANG! and ZIP! forget your troubles and go
J’distribue les swings et les uppercuts                 
I’m the hero and when I am fighting
Ça fait VLAM ! ça fait SPLATCH ! et ça 
I go PAM! and BLOF! and have a ball
Ou bien BOMP ! ou HUMPF ! parfois même PFFF !                                  
and also
SHEBAM ! POW ! BLOP ! WIZZ !                                    

Influences: Classy 20s, Jazz, Brazil!

Musically, Gainsbourg takes inspirations from classical traditions, ranging from Chopin and Brahms to chanson française of the 1920s. Rahbani uses tarab. Both were also extremely influenced by jazz/bossa piano. Gainsbourg uses the samba and bossa beat in  his compositions from the 1960s: Couleur Café, Baudelaire, Les Sambassadeurs, Ces petits riens, Les Cigarillos, Ce grand méchant vous, Pauvre Lola. Meanwhile, Rahbani translated Brazilian music in the songs Shu Bitkhaf (Manhã de Carnaval) and Mish Bas Telfani (So danço sambo).

Sometimes both go beyond parody and create really cheesy bad music

We must not forget that these were two singers from the 70s, and though some [I] view them as demi-gods with the Midas touch, both had their moments of weakness, and wrote awfully cheesy, oversynthesized, pop music with no self-referential jokes at its cheap quality. Here are some of the pearls, and one must note how extremely similar the arrangements of the two singers are at their worst:

Why are these singers so similar in their genius and in their sloppiness? I don’t know. I just know these songs are so terrible they are slightly good. They would make an excellent soundtrack for The Room.

Towards a Conclusion

Both love to inquiéter un peu les gens

Both are enfants terribles.

Their vision of love is always disquieting.

Their position is well summed up by Ziad’s song ‘Bisaraha’ (Honestly): what makes them appealing is in fact the fact they get straight to the point. 

Manage to mix nostalgic longing with bitter realism, sexist machoism with hopeless romanticism. I love them for it.

Angry pianist smokers singing love songs without any hope.

Mad crazy geniuses who manage to melt women’s hearts all whilst bringing them down.

One sang a song about lemon incest with his daughter, the other a controlling artistic relationship with his mother.

Artistic collaborations with petite young girls with frilly voices contrasting to their deep self-assured manly utterances.

Just imagining Selma and Gainsbourg singing Pauvre Lola together; Jane Birkin singing in Arabic with Rahbani with her ridiculously cute English accent.

C’est le gazon total.

Somehow putting high feelings on the level of funny-sounding words like zeytoun and sabon makes it more relatable and thus more heart-felt.

The most subversive aspect is that while they disparage women, they do manage to seduce. 

Mes amours perdues    
My lost loves

Hantent toujours mes nuits 
Haunt my nights

Et dans des bras inconnus  
And in stranger’s arms

Je veux trouver l’oubli  
I search for oblivion

Capture d_écran 2018-04-14 à 23.08.59

بلا ولا شي بحبك ، بلا ولا شي
Without anything, I love you without anything
حبيني وفكري شوي
Just love me, and don’t think

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