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Arcade Fire: "Poupée de cire, poupée de son"

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This piece of music is fun on so many levels, I can't not share it.

First, Arcade Fire is one great band. Second, "Poupée de cire" is one great song. And this performance is just wonderful.

A word about the song. It's by Serge Gainsbourg, the brilliant bad-boy of French popular songs from about 1960—1980 or so. There's so much more to say about him than I have space for.

This song was introduced in 1965 by France Gall (one of the great French pop singers) when Gall was 18 years old, on Eurovision, one of Europe's "Pop Idol" shows. It won first place and launched both Gall and the song internationally.

The song has a trick — the lyrics:

▪ A "poupée" is a child's doll. "Cire" is wax, and "son" is grain, bran, or in an American context, sawdust (inert material to stuff a doll with).

So on the surface, the title "Poupée de cire, poupée de son" could be translated roughly as "Wax doll, rag doll" or "Wax doll, sawdust doll" — with the usual association of "doll" as a girl of interest. (Sam Seder on, for example, regularly plays a French song about a "doll who always says No" — same idea.)

▪ Next layer down — Who is the "wax doll" of "poupée de cire"? The singer herself, who makes recordings in an age when records were called "wax discs" (as in the old DJ's comment, "these are the wax to watch, the picks to click.") France Gall is herself the "wax doll" — a "doll" who makes wax recordings.

And there's a nice pun in French on "son" — it's "bran" (grain) but also "sound". In other words, "poupée de son" is another reference to France Gall, the singing doll. The lyrics are loaded with these double meanings.

▪ Ultimately the song is about innocence, and maybe not in a good way — "Am I better or worse than a fashion model [poupée de salon]," she sings, "(because) I see the world through bright rosy (innocent) eyes?" Is the songwriter actually making fun of youthful 60s singers like France Gall?

▪ Add to that the relationship between the singer and the writer. There's no indication that the 18-year-old was in a personal relationship with Gainsbourg, but the professional relationship was turbulent. There are layered sexual meanings buried in some of Gainsbourg's songs of the period (for example, "Les Sucettes", "The Lollypops" from 1966, another France Gall hit). Gall claimed that she was unaware of this aspect of the lyrics she was singing (and making hits with), all of which colored for a while the way the French public came to receive her.

France Gall managed to right her career, especially after meeting, working with, and marrying her perfect collaborator, Michel Berger. (I may present their classic jazzy "Il jouait du piano debout" — "He played the piano standing" — at some later date.)

If you really want to dig into the lyrics, try this or this.

But if you just want to listen to a heck of a song and performance, click below and sit back. (Earworm alert; it's seriously hard to get the opening melody out of your head.)

That's a live performance from Paris, 2007. To see France Gall's 1965 Eurovision performance, go here.

Music for a Republican-dominated February; they don't own the whole world yet, and they don't want France. Good.


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