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Dossier - French Popular Music

Aux armes et caetera ! Re-covering Nation for Cultural Critique

Edwin C. Hill Jr.

Résumé : Gainsbourg’s 1979 release Aux armes et cætera, an album enti­rely recor­ded in Kingston with legen­dary reggae musi­cians, takes French song where it had never geo­gra­phi­cally or musi­cally gone before. In retros­pect, we might be temp­ted to dis­miss this cover of the French natio­nal anthem ; after all, Gainsbourg had already bor­ro­wed other musi­cal genres like jazz and disco. Yet, while Gainsbourg’s pre­vious work had earned him recog­ni­tion as a major inno­va­tor of French song somew­hat because of his play­ful and pro­vo­ca­tive eccen­tri­ci­ties, this song was met with a sca­thing, overtly anti-Semitic and natio­na­list back­lash. Gainsbourg’s play with genres (natio­nal anthem, French song, and reggae) tou­ched on sour spots of French iden­tity. 20 years later, Big Red reco­vers Gainsbourg’s cover of the natio­nal anthem on his release Big Redemption. While Gainsbourg only mini­mally alters the words of « La Marseillaise » let­ting the genre itself per­form the cri­ti­que, Big Red’s release remi­li­ta­ri­zes and desexua­li­zes the cover while inver­ting and re-ins­cri­bing the roles of revo­lu­tio­nary and oppres­sor in the contem­po­rary dyna­mics of popu­lar culture and post­co­lo­nia­lity. His reco­very of the natio­nal anthem beco­mes a per­for­mance of the « empire sin­ging back ».

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