The girls among us were beautiful, willing to offer a bed of tenderness

On misogyny in song-writing

It was in the year 2007 or 2012. The German feminist monthly Emma, published and edited by the well-known journalist Alice Schwarzer, celebrated an anniversary – the 30th or the 35th. I don’t know exactly but remember that on this occasion I ventured a plan to write an essay on one of Schwarzer’s main notions – the hatred of women. She often wrote about this hatred and it might seem as if it were a natural feature in men which it is of course not; it's a socially acquired, socially constructed behaviour, according to Schwarzer’s doctrine, a cultural commandment. Yet the compliance to this demand is often also found in men who esteem themselves as progressive, leftist and anti-sexist. But, alas, the works on my project did not advance.

In the year 2013, the famous singer-songwriter Georges Moustaki (born 1934) died. In a kind of sentimental journey, I listened to his songs again, his chansons, being fond not only of this deceased leftist chansonnier, but of the culture of French singing-songwriting as a whole. And, of course, there is this progressive touch, this fancying the working class, this stress on underclass descent, this anarchist and communist partisanship and contempt of upper-class and petty bourgeois values and conduct in a kind of urban, we may say, plebeian music. And there is, of course, love in these chansons. Lots of love. Love of all shades und hues. Heartache, longing and desire, satisfaction, gladness, fortune, and luck. And the disdain of bourgeois matrimony and family and the cheering of free love, again of course.

While listening to these songs, it dawned on me that all those hails for love and all that praising of beloved or loving women were undertaken from an explicitly male point of view. This refers not only to the cultural mainstream, but also to progressive and leftist singer-songwriters. I recalled the concert I attended in the late 1970s, when I was in Paris at the annual Lutte Ouvrière festival and heard, for the first time, Anne Sylvestre (also born 1934). Two songs of this performance I kept in my memory, ‘Clémence en vacances’ and ‘Petit bonhomme’. After the festival, I went straight to a FNAC store and looked for the respective records.

By now I have a complete collection of her songs, as I have complete collections of Moustaki’s, Brassens’s, Ferré’s and Ferrat’s and the like. Here I want to compare some songs of Moustaki and one of Brassens (1921-1981) to those of Sylvestre, where they embrace the same topic. First of all, I shall give you a general impression of the songs of Moustaki, of the amiable and charming and yet ambiguous words to his tunes. There is ‘Les amis’ (The Friends), where he talks (or sings) about inviting his friends and preparing them a fine living or at least, we may say, a fine evening, with the best wines, the best food, delicately scented tobaccos, exhilarating liquors, and then the refrain says:

les filles qui seraient parmi nous seraient belles

prêtes à offrir tout un lit de tendresse

(The girls that should be among us were beautiful, willing to offer a bed of tenderness)

Suddenly the friendliness that the singer grants his friends turns into nothing, when we perceive that the friends he enchants are only males. And females are no women but girls, on the same level and for the same purpose as dainty food, wine, tobacco, lit candles, florid perfumes, mellow music — all made to please the men of this Round Table, bibelots rather than companions.

This leads to another song, in which Moustaki deplores, in wonderfully sentimental words, the fate of St. Joseph. I’ll give here the translation but look for the French original – ‘Joseph’ – also because of the melody and the poetry. But this is the content, in English:

That’s what had to come, my old Joseph, from having taken the loveliest of the Galilean girls, the one they called Mary. You could have taken, my old Joseph, Sarah or Deborah and nothing would have happened, but you preferred Mary. You could have stayed at home, my old Joseph, shaping your wood rather than fleeing and hiding in exile with Mary. You could have made, my old Joseph, children with Mary and taught them your profession as your father taught you. Why had it to be, Joseph, that your innocent child produced those strange ideas that made Mary cry so much? Sometimes I think of you, Joseph, my poor friend, when they laugh at you who begged for nothing more than to live happily with Mary.

There is a subtext in these lines of friendship that again betrays male chauvinist solidarity. Poor old Joseph has married the wrong woman! Moustaki speaks in a kind way of the ill-fated carpenter, but eventually joins the chorus of those who laugh at Joseph and had known better before. They and the singer unite in addressing the fault as Mary’s: She was the wrong bride.

Let’s contrast this chanson of Moustaki’s with one of Anne Sylestre’s, also with a biblical background, ‘La faute à Eve’. In an ironic, or rather sarcastic way, she tells the story of Eve, who brought about the Original Sin. I plead again to look up the song, music and lyrics, for I’ll give here only a sweeping translation. The first three strophes are to be looked at in detail. It says there:

First, she tasted the apple, even if it was not so good. There was nothing else and so, all considered, she was right, wasn’t she? And she had it all arranged, it wasn’t the man who did it. Never mind, yet he ate the apple up to its core, and quickly, too. Yes, but it’s the fault of Eve. He, Adam, had made nothing. He hadn’t said, ‘Wife, I’m starving! There’s nothing here to swallow!’ By the way, it wasn’t bad, though not seasoned. And it is in the Scriptures, Adam, he was there at the wrong time. After that when God addressed them in fury and wild yelling, ‘An apple is missing in the inventory! It is you, Adam, who’s stolen it’, Eve advanced and, showing off, said, ‘No, no, daddy, it was me. But, incidentally, it wasn’t all too sweet. I think, we must let it ripen’.

In this song, every second strophe alters the melody and, beginning with a phrase like Oui, c’était la faute à Eve, produces a kind of refrain. The fourth one goes:

And then it was the fault of Eve when he, from his heights, chased them away. Whereupon Adam, having nothing on his back, caught a cold. Eve said, ‘Wait a bit, I’ll pluck you something’, but flowers were too small. It took a big leaf to hide his dick.

The song goes over another six strophes, making fun of the story of the eviction from Paradise. They both had to work now, as the Lord demanded, and Eve the bitch knew what to do: She gave birth to children, while Adam struggled with hunting antelopes and hares. And when he comes home, he has to see her living a life of ease, sowing some grains of corn, massaging a bit of clay for pottery, and he grouches that she has made only boys and that for fresh meat he has to wait to become grandfather. And to top it all, she’s burdened us with a big sin, she has goofed it all up, and that seems to be natural for all girls. Anne Sylvestre concludes,

But if it is the fault of Eve, as the Good Lord has told her, then I shall be on strike. I won’t enter Paradise. No, no, and what does he fancy? I go directly to hell. The Good Lord is misogynist, but the Devil is not!

What a striking difference to the sentimental lyrics of ‘Joseph’! Where Moustaki seems to take the tale of the Scripture literally and for granted, only enlarging the myth and weaving his own reflexions into the story without the slightest effort to criticize it, Anne Sylvestre attacks the myth profoundly, holds it up to ridicule and destroys it. But she rides her attacks not always smilingly and jokingly. Lots of her songs are sometimes depressing, sometimes moving, every time thoughtful, all of them performed with great commitment and still greater artistic competence. The fate of women is her main topic, on stage and on records. Her dedication to the cause is conjunct with her will not to make concessions, artistically or in content, to a mainstream public and label policies (look for ‘Me v’là’, if you please).

Let’s make another comparison. George Brassens (1921-1981) wrote a song, ‘La traitresse’, about adultery. As he looks upon society with sarcasm and contempt for its values, he not only laughs at matrimony and adultery but equally at the lover who wants to enjoy the delights of love without taking on the burdens of marriage. The lover is betrayed by his mistress, who denies him the security of her affection. Brassens sympathises with the woman who chose her lovers (though the assortment he offers in this chanson isn’t too numerous) and lets the wounded beau sing:

I have surprised my mistress in the arms of her husband (…) Do I find the right words and names to describe the infamy of that bitch who chose her husband to deceive her lover, who drove adultery to its ultimate peak? My mistress, the traitress! (…) And to drive the knife into my heart, with satanic subtlety she remarked, ‘The greater cuckold of the two is not the one you would reckon,’ my mistress, the traitress. I caught the Duponts, that miserable couple, reviving their wedlock anew. I caught my mistress, ambiguous and equivocal, inverting the order of her cuckolds, my mistress, the traitress.

Of course, we smile at the picture Brassens paints and jeer the deceiver deceived, but, alas again, all his sarcasm is in vain, when the wife is regarded. A glimpse of male chauvinist conservativism cannot be disowned given the position of the woman sandwiched between husband and family friend. Brassens offers her no escape.

Quite different however is Anne Sylvestre’s attitude in ‘Petit bonhomme’, where she too mocks the extramarital lover, yet comes to utterly diverse conclusions. Let’s listen to what she tells, and again I highly recommend looking the song up, perhaps on YouTube, to have the pleasure of her performance and relish the structure of melody and poetry. She begins:

The husband of Maryvonne was my lover. Sometimes I’m amazed about it still now. In the beginning, fervent and mettlesome, he was nice. When he made himself at home, he made the bed. He told me, you are beautiful, before and after, and he took the dustbin down when he went. La, la, la, little feller, how well he is educated. That is thanks to Maryvonne, but he concealed that to me. La, la, la, little feller, how he was a-lying! My wife is a matron, he's told me.

Again, we find a refrain, beginning with La, la, la, little feller, advancing the story. In the next strophe, the husband of Maryvonne is less polite to his mistress, calling her unappropriate and unwelcome names, but the first-person-storyteller has meanwhile met Maryvonne who is thankful — since her husband cheats on her, he’s less at home. However, he has told his mistress that Maryvonne was ugly and clinging on to him. The refrain continues,

La, la, la little feller, how badly he’s educated. Maryvonne’s a pleasant one, but he concealed that to me. La, la, la, little feller, how he was a-lying! My mistress is dumb, he's told her.

Following the song, Maryvonne’s husband isn’t the singer’s lover anymore. Having lost the love of his wife, too, he now lives with his mother, while the two women scheme to go to the south together on holiday. But soon his mother calls: she’ll come with them. And the refrain tells us,

La, la, la, little feller, it’s getting harder for you. He took his mother for his housemaid and she soon had enough of it. La, la, la, little feller, how he was a-lying! My mother is a Gorgon, he’s told us.

The affairs are culminating. The mari de Maryvonne has to find a new home and finds it at Sophie’s, who offers him a bit of lust. And he tells her that she’s beautiful, before and after, and he takes the dustbin down when he leaves. But the refrain leaves him nothing to feast upon.

La, la, la, little feller, it won’t last for long. The time he calls her sweetie, she will withdraw from him. Me, Maryvonne and his mother, we told Sophie, we’d be awaiting her in the south.

Then there it is, the real French refrain, as known from the medieval ballade and repeating the last four lines of the foregoing verses (and by the way, Anne Sylvestre kept in this chanson in one way or the other the traditional form, albeit without the refrain’s usual foreword Prince, and that on good grounds)

si longtemps ça recommence

on va se retrouver

toute une colonie de vacances

on va bien s'amuser

(If that holds on for long, we will have to find us a whole holiday camp; we’ll have the time of our life).

Note the ultimate female solidarity, making no excuses. The wife, the mistress, the mother-in-law, the new mistress, they all join to stick together against male predominance and unfurl a feminine sketch of living together.

To close, I’ll hark back to a chanson of Serge Reggiani (1922-2004), ‘La putain’. It need not be translated word by word. Suffice it to say that Reggiani sings about a youngster – that is, in reality, about an elderly guy remembering his youth – who adores the prostitute vis-à-vis the window of his chamber, watching her with his friends and cousins and romanticising her. He indulges in pictures of his youth and comes to a rather miserable conclusion: Having taken the whore for his first and only fine (and unfulfilled) sexual experience, he states, denying his own lack of affection and putting it on his relatives not even addressing them personally,

mais, mes cousins

sans le vouloir, sans le savoir

ont tous épousé des putains

(But my cousins, without knowing and without wanting it, they all got wed to whores).

Serge Reggiani was a famed singer and actor of the same shape and generation as Yves Montand, Lino Ventura or Jacques Brel (and Moustaki and Sylvestre, of course). In his performances he was rather the actor than the singer. But as a gifted actor he performed as if the words to the songs came straight out of his heart. I dare not blame him for the professionalism of his recital, but the lyrics of Jean Loup Dabadie Basset lead us directly to the lyrics that Georges Moustaki wrote bona fide in his chanson on his friends. It says in those questionable lines, which Reggiani interprets, that the youngsters had mistaken the prostitute for the woman in any case (moi, mes cousins, en pyjama, au cinéma, nous l'avions prise pour femme), if in the cinema, if peeping from their own chamber’s window, but the fault of the social commandment is the one that separates putain and pucelle, the whore and the virgin, as it comes to us in another song of Brassens’, ‘La première fille’. He obliterates the differences in his anarchist, non-bourgeois but still male chauvinist way,

You’ll never forget the first girl you held in yours arms. You’ll remember her forever, were she nothing, were she honourable, were she virgin, were she wench.

Apparently, she has no social position in respect to the barely untouched young man Brassens sings about, except of being the first one. There's no reflection in the lyrics that Brassens or Moustaki let us listen to, on the true social standing of the woman in bourgeois society, which is defined by her not being paid for what she does. And if she’s paid all the same, she’s a misfit struggling to combine paid (bourgeois career) and unpaid work (care and family), or who denies this combination at the cost of not being regarded as a righteous woman but having a straight industrial or political career (would you have, by the way, asked Catherine the Great for her accomplishment of being tsar and woman, as journalists of either sex ask Angelika Merkel or Theresa May today?) or at the cost of taking care work to its ultimate peak as is in the entertainment industry and, at its worst, in prostitution.

Anne Sylvestre
Neither in Brassens, nor in Moustaki, nor in Reggiani (and his song-writers) do we find any of these reflections. The answers Anne Sylvestre gives in all brightness (please look up ‘Clémence en vacances’, where Sylvestre paints the picture of women refusing to do domestic work) don’t and, sorry to say, didn’t represent any social mainstream, albeit in her times – and in my times, if I may be so bold – she appeared (and still does so) as an artist of reputation and also political recognition. Today there's no feminine answer to sexist insinuations, as seen at the Echo-award for the so-called German rappers Kollegah and Farid Bang in Germany or to the discussions of the works of Wanda or Seiler und Speer in Austria. So, women stand up, as I should try to…