Sometimes there are artists who speak to us in ways which are so personal that we feel that they have broken the bounds of art itself to reach us as human beings. One such artist is the French singer Barbara, whose real name was Monique Serf (1930-1997). Her many songs are imbued with the sense of genuine presence which represents the essence of the artist whose experience gave these songs life. Listening to her songs today, in some cases over fifty years after they were first written, they seem as vital and moving as when they were new. Although little known in the Anglo-American world, Barbara is celebrated in France, where she is known as the Grand Dame of French song, in succession to Edith Piaf. There, she is celebrated above all for her courage in remaining true to her own self and for the theatricality of her many live performances. Yet there is far more to this great artist than the memory of a theatrical performer, a monstre sacré of the French stage. Her voice has the ability to speak to us now, of our own needs and fears as we live increasingly disconnected lives, in search of an intimacy that often eludes us.
That intimacy was conveyed through a voice that many listeners felt to be strangely personal to them; to speak to them in tones of confidentiality that seemed meant for them alone. The voice itself was and remains instantly recognizable, full of warmth and tenderness, with just enough distance and irony to temper the prevailing warmth with a layer of mysterious reserve. Later it changed to something more ragged and less smooth, but the same warmth was apparent, now more vulnerable-sounding and fuelled by a new-found intensity. But there was far more to her art than a voice which is one of the most beautiful to have ever graced the world of French chanson. Her songs reached directly into the heart of each listener, as she exposed her most intimate experiences in a way which must then have seemed unprecedented and remains unique even in a world which has seen the rise of the confessional singer-songwriter as a marketable sub-genre. Whereas there have been other singers who have exposed their most private emotions to the public gaze, few have been able to convey the sense of personal experience with such apparent directness and candour. Many of her songs seemed, on the face of it, to evoke memories so personal that their impact might have been lost on listeners who could not supply comparable experiences of their own. Yet her songs have continued to speak to a wide and growing audience in many countries who have found in them a source of understanding, consolation and, most significantly, self-knowledge. It is as if she has the ability to understand the concerns of each one of us and to communicate her experiences in ways which relate directly to our own.
There are several reasons why this should be so. Firstly, despite their personal content and direct emotional appeal, her songs contain significant elements of ambiguity, which gives them a wider relevance than if they had been simply straightforward records of personal experience. To a large extent, listeners can read what they want into them, and can fill in the gaps in the narrative or choose to interpret the emotional resonance of her songs in ways that are meaningful to them. This leads on to the second reason why her songs have such a personal resonance. To a greater extent than those of most other artists, they do not seem to be sung simply to us, her audience, but for us, an offering from the artist to her public. They seem to be offered as exemplary life-experiences which we are invited to respond to by relating them to experiences of our own. In this way we enter into a kind of contractual relationship with the artist in which we are offered access to apparently intimate knowledge in return for our decoding the ambiguous elements in the lyrics with the aid of our own emotional understanding. The experience gained need not be a comforting or consoling one. Many of her songs deal with uncomfortable or harrowing experiences (‘L’Aigle Noir’, ‘Le Soleil Noir’), and in one case directly implicate the audience in allowing cruelty and violence to flourish unchecked (‘Perlimpinpin’).
The final and most significant reason for her capacity to evoke a strong private response in her listeners lies in her ability to evoke a persona that we can relate to, who appears shaken by her experiences but never broken by them, and whose ability to learn from them gives us the feeling that we too can encounter greater growth and self-knowledge through mastering our own experiences. This persona is not identical with the personality of the artist, but represents an intensified and idealised version of what can be presumed to be the artist’s deepest inclinations and desires. In this refined and strengthened form, it becomes a point of reference from which we are able to measure our own emotional response. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the song ‘Nantes’.
In this song subjective feeling is described objectively, turning an intensely private event into something public and universal. The song was, as its author makes clear in her posthumously-published memoirs, Il Était un Piano Noir, inspired by the singer’s sense of emotional conflict as she travelled to Nantes to be with her dying father, only to find that he had died just before she was able to reach him. The lyrics seem to suggest that the singer wants to take us by the hand at the start of the song, so she can guide us through her own emotional landscape, inviting us to identify emotionally with each step of the story. The tale unfolds gradually, supported by a memorable melody in the form of a slow waltz, and is told almost in the style of a folk-ballad, with a minimum of subjective emotion, until the final verse. In this way, the sentiments expressed by the song are placed in a more universal context by being presented objectively. This makes the last verse, with its final revelation of the identity of the person the singer is visiting, all the more devastating.
Many of the songs have a far more subjective approach to emotional experience than ‘Nantes’. In ‘Mon Enfance’ (My Childhood) emotions are described subjectively, but precisely what emotions are being described is left deliberately vague. The song seems to be a straightforward account of the singer’s childhood. From what we know from her autobiography, Barbara’s childhood was often far from happy, yet the song describes an intense nostalgia to return to the world of her formative experiences. However, the pain described in the song seems not simply to refer to the ache of nostalgia, but the hurt caused by traumatic experiences which have blighted the normal memories of childhood and rendered even the benign memories more vivid. The song could be describing a person haunted by a traumatic childhood (the likely autobiographical interpretation) or someone who longs to encounter again the intense, but very possibly benign, emotions which they have known in their formative years. By leaving the emotional context vague, the artist has created a song which speaks to many more types of experiences than would have been the case had she spelled out the emotions more explicitly.
Barbara was one of the very first female singer-songwriters to make a living through singing her own songs. She always insisted on being taken seriously as a woman as well as a singer, believing that love songs written by women have many different nuances from those written by men. This difference potentially extends to other areas of experience as well. In her fearless exploration of the human psyche from a feminine perspective, she has much in common with a poet born exactly one hundred years earlier: Emily Dickinson. Both artists combined irony and ambiguity with a startlingly direct description of emotions and mental states. Loneliness, depression and death feature in the work of both, but neither can be considered morbid, since against these dark subjects can be placed themes of childhood, nature and sensual fulfilment in love. Nevertheless, for both, the impossibility of a true meeting of souls in love is taken for granted. This becomes clear if Dickinson’s poem no. 640 (also known as ‘I cannot live with You’) is compared with a song such as ‘La Solitude’, in which the singer admits that she can never find fulfilment in love while her inner loneliness continues to haunt her like an unwelcome companion. In both poem and song, an invisible force comes between the protagonist and the possibility of mutual love; in the poem it is the fear of commitment which is equated with the ultimate sacrifice demanded by the religious life, whereas in the song it is the mocking voice of despair that convinces the singer that all her loves will come to nothing.
It is significant that both artists have come to terms with their solitude, and that this was signified by their adoption of clothing of a symbolic colour. Emily Dickinson was known in later life for almost exclusively wearing plain white dresses, while Barbara would hardly ever appear on stage in anything other than the colour black. This adoption of clothing of a single colour, reminiscent of the uniform of a religious recluse, is often seen in the case of Dickinson to signify her withdrawal from society. While Barbara was no sense a recluse, she often spoke of her following the life of an artist as ‘taking the veil’, and her stage costume reflected a desire to assume a convincing persona for her audience, to whom she had given her unwavering devotion throughout her career. It is also notable that the colours adopted by both artists in their clothing find a reflection in their poetic language. In each, the symbolic colour is used to underline concepts and themes which recur in their work. Frequently enough these opposing primaries symbolise identical notions; above all loneliness and death. There are other similarities between the two artists. Both make use of irony, understatement and faux naivety to convey their message, creating shocks in the reader or listener when what is taken at face value is suddenly turned on its head or revealed to be at best a partial truth. In this way a depth of emotion and immediacy are achieved far beyond the means of words. The frequent dashes and unfinished sentences in Dickinson’s poems also have their parallel in the singer’s pauses, and wordless vocalisations which likewise hint at a meaning beyond words.
Although both artists seem to work within the conventions of the confessional mode, in neither case can the ‘I’ of the poem/song be unequivocally taken as the ‘I’ of the artist. In the case of Emily Dickinson, the poems tend to deny the reader any sense of the firm identification of author and persona. And even in Barbara’s case, we should not always make the assumption that she is singing about herself; in songs such ‘J’ai Troqué’ and ‘Hop Là’ the singer assumes the persona of a libertine who embodies some aspects of her character but who also exists as an imagined individual through whom she is able to express a more free-spirited view of life than in her own autobiographical songs.
While Barbara is significant for writing and singing from a feminine perspective, this does not mean that all her songs can only be understood in this light. Another singer whose music has resonated with many different types of people in a personal way that many have found both haunting and healing is Nick Drake. The writer Ian Macdonald has spoken of how his music has appealed to a wide range of music enthusiasts, and he has often seemed to have something important to say about the experience of living. Although Drake’s tragically early death and lack of success during his lifetime separate him from Barbara, he similarly conveys a sense of wisdom and understanding through his lyrics and the indefinably personal quality of his vocal delivery, which has been described by Macdonald as seeming to project itself into the listener, rather than the listener having to seek it out. While both singers could be said to have felt themselves as outsiders, Nick Drake was much more extreme in his withdrawal from life, and never seemed to have fully engaged with human relationships, giving his music an otherworldly, almost virginal quality. His might be considered as songs of innocence in contrast to Barbara’s songs of experience. Like those of Nick Drake but more compellingly, her songs touch on universal themes of life and death. Her unique gift is to write from the inside of her personal lived experience and in doing so to connect the personal with the universal.
It is difficult to speak of the significance of Barbara without recalling the many ways in which she affected her audience. Her powerful presence and the force of her personality imbued everything she did with an ambience that was larger than life. She seemed to have a personal impact on each audience member, and now has the same impact on those who are listening to or seeing one of her performances for the first time. One of the most memorable of her performances was filmed in Geneva for Swiss television in 1965. Here she seems to embody all the qualities that made her unique in the eyes of her fans. Addressing the audience directly, she sings ‘Dis, Quand Reviendras-Tu?’, her plea to an absent lover, with such unaffected sincerity that it is impossible not to be moved. To witness her performance is to be made aware of the possibility of a form of artistic communication that transcends both time and space, connecting us to a moment that lives eternally.