Cet Air-La

Estimated read time (minus contemplative pauses): 4 min.

Back in the summer of 2006, I was asked by the now retired e-zine Harmonium to write about a “Perfect Pop Song” of my choosing. Looking at it now, I could ditch the 4th and maybe even 5th paragraphs. Anyhow, here’s what I submitted:

The phrase “Perfect Pop Song” evokes a lot of auditory images in my mind, but the one I keep coming back to is the song “Cet Air-La” by France Gall and Alain Goraguer, as sung by France Gall on her 1966 album “Baby Pop”.

“Cet Air-La” is an upbeat, very catchy tune that is simultaneously fun and melancholy, and one doesn’t have to understand French to sense the sadness of the lyrics. The song is fairly formulaic, so why it works so much better for me than the thousands of similar songs a mystery, but it does work. Often with these kinds of songs it’s the arrangement and performance that elevates the tune, so I would be tempted to say what I’m mostly responding to is the infectious organ hook and the charismatic lead vocal (especially on the chorus where her voice is harmonized in diatonic 10ths; this forces her to push her range from top to bottom, and the effect is enthralling). The arrangement is great, but the truth is that I first fell in love with a different version of this song, performed by April March (on “Chick Habit”, 1995). Instead of organ and drums, she utilized a pair of nylon string guitars to accompany her own charmingly charismatic voice (though there’s a tasteful glockenspiel thrown in to keep it from getting too serious). So let’s just say it’s a great song and leave it at that.

I also chose this song for reasons that have more to do with sociology than music. At the time when it was released, 19 year old Gall was considered to be insubstantial by people with “good taste”. She was a teeny bopper who basically fit a description you could have applied to a young Britney Spears. So it’s fascinating that Gall’s early albums are now held in high regard by many critics, and that every time I put this song onto a mix-CD for someone, they get back to me saying it’s a highlight. People seem to genuinely like it with no irony in sight. I try to avoid allowing marketing and social pressures to dictate what music I’m supposed to think of as “good” or “bad” (whether we’re talking commercial Top 40 or fashionable indie bands), but the general reaction to this song causes me to look more closely at my taste and ask myself: would I have liked Gall’s music had I lived 40 years ago, within the context of those times? Will I like current Top 40 music 40 years from now once it’s removed from the current context I’m perceiving it against, and once current production methods are so obsolete that songs today sound like oldies? Will people with “good taste” 40 years from now be saying “This stuff is classic, and the production is so warm!”?

Gall worked with seasoned songwriters who were creative at heart, but their job was to churn out the hits. One of them was Serge Gainsbourg, who wrote many of her hits at a time when he wasn’t doing so well in his own career as a performer. When Gall was 17 Gainsbourg wrote a song for her called “Les Sucettes”, a song about a little girl who likes to suck on lollipops until the creamy center runs down her throat (that’s one way to get a hit); she claims that the real meaning of the song wasn’t pointed out to her until later, causing her so much embarrassment that she couldn’t leave the house for weeks. Incidentally, she continued to work with Gainsbourg, practically saving his career at the time. I digress here. As I was saying, any quality music that came out of their hit-churning was probably an accident because it’s hard to be inspired when writing under those guidelines. I’m sure the same is true now. Surely there are some gold nuggets I’m missing out on, but I’d rather wait 40 years to hear them (after they’ve stood the test of time) rather than have to sift through all the Top 40 cutout bins to find them. We are on the verge of a musical revolution right now where anything can be pop because you’ve got corporate music doing one thing, existing like cheap wall-paper lining the walls of a mall, and then you’ve got all these other musicians attempting to explore music and do something new. Thanks to sites like this one, underground artists have a louder voice than ever. The truly original and inspired are still few and far between, but at least the derivative artists are copying something interesting. This is a great thing, and I’m truly excited about the possibilities for those who go the creative route.

To summarize, I chose France Gall’s “Cet Air-La” because I really enjoy it as a pop song, and because it causes me to reconsider what it is I like about much of the other pop music that I hold in high regard, and what it is I don’t like about the music I avoid. It’s all a gut reaction, but the gut is informed by the way my brain happens to be manipulating information today, and this version of “Cet Air-La” (even though a product of the 60’s Top 40 formula) hits me today. It’s the exception that proves the rule to the point of almost disproving it, so it must be perfect pop.

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