The expression “Yé-Yé” first appeared in France at the beginning of the 1960s and was derived from the “yeah! yeah!” that was often heard in English language rock songs of the time.
As a genre of music, Yé-Yé derived most of its inspiration from British and American rock & roll with additional stylistic elements including baroque music, exotica, pop, jazz and the French chanson, all presented with swinging, catchy rhythms and carefree, escapist, and playfully risqué lyrics.
The genre usually featured young female singers. France Gall, for example, was only 16 when she released her first album and 17 when she won the Eurovision Song Contest for Luxembourg singing the prototype bubblegum song Poupée de cire, poupée de son.
Yé-Yé songs had innocent themes such as that of Françoise Hardy‘s Tous les garçons et les filles.
Early French artists such as Johnny Hallyday who dabbled in rock & roll admitted they were creating an imitation of English-language rock music and Yé-Yé helped assimilate that music in a unique, French way.
The singers were sexy in a deliberately contrived naïve manner. Composer and singer/songwriter Serge Gainsbourg once called France Gall (pictured) “the French Lolita” and composed for her the song Les sucettes (“Lollipops”), full of double-entendres: “Annie loves lollipops, aniseed lollipops, when the sweet liquid runs down Annie’s throat, she is in paradise.”
In 1967, teen Yé-Yé singer Jacqueline Taïeb won the “Best Newcomer” award in Cannes at the Midem awards for her hit single 7 heures du matin.
Artists like Françoise Hardy, Jane Birkin and Sylvie Vartan were among the leading Yé-Yé stars, often referred to affectionately by their first names only. Other significant girl singers of the genre include teen TV star Christine Delaroche, Jocelyne, Zouzou, Evy, Cosette and Annie Philippe. Some Yé-Yé girl groups also emerged, such as Les Parisiennes, influenced by acts like The Shangri-Las.
After originating in France, the Yé-Yé movement extended across Western Europe. Italian singer Mina became her country’s first female rock & roll singer in 1959, eventually moving to middle-of-the-road pop.
Other significant Italian Yé-Yé girls include Mari Marabini, Carmen Villani, Anna Identici and the girl groups Le Amiche, Le Snobs and Sonia e le Sorelle.
In Spain, Yé-Yé music took off later than in the rest of Europe (initially, it was considered to be incompatible with Catholicism).
In 1968, Spanish Yé-Yé girl Massiel won the Eurovision Song Contest with La La La, while the sweet, naïve-looking singer Karina (pictured) enjoyed success as the Spanish Yé-Yé queen with her hits En un mundo nuevo and El baúl de los recuerdos.
Yé-Yé also grew very popular in Japan and formed the origins of Shibuya-kei and Japanese idol music.
While the movement was led by female singers, it was not an exclusively female movement. Among the more popular male Yé-Yé singers were Claude François and Eddie Hodges.
Strictly speaking, Yé-Yé thrived between 1963 and 1966. Although it did continue beyond 1966, the term became increasingly overused.
Interest in Yé-Yé remains high: The soundtrack for Quentin Tarantino’s Deathproof (2007) featured April March’s Chick Habit, an adaptation of France Gall’s Laisse tomber les filles. The TV show Mad Men (2007 – 2015) included the character Megan Draper performing a sultry rendition of Gillian Hill’s Zou Bisou, Bisou and many records from the era still fetch a high price among collectors.