Eurovision has wrapped up for another year, but thanks to the magic of the internet, pretty much every performance lives on forever – for better or worse. Amid the endless amounts of cheese and sap, there are some truly worthwhile gems to be found. You can check out my Eurovision tag for a few of my vintage picks that generally don't make it onto lists of nostalgic favourites.
Today I want to revisit one such entry: 'Boum badaboum', performed by Minouche Barelli, a French singer who represented Monaco in 1967. Written by Serge Gainsbourg, it's a rather bizarre number for the contest, one that certainly stands out among the typical mawkish ballads and emptily jaunty tunes. In a bold, shouty vocal style, backed by a booming rhythm and disorienting strings, Barelli brazenly sings of her desire to experience all life has to offer in the face of an expected nuclear apocalypse. It's perhaps one of the first genuinely weird entries in a contest that now doesn't feel complete without at least one a year.
'Boum badaboum' was the second of Gainsbourg's three contributions to Eurovision. In 1965, France Gall took home first prize for Luxembourg with Gainsbourg's 'Poupée de cire, poupée de son'. The song was innovative for the contest, with its uptempo rhythm and lyrics rich with layered meaning. Gainsbourg pulled off a seemingly impossible feat with this entry: he impressed Eurovision judges accustomed to more conservative, sentimental fare; he didn't compromise his literate, chanson-inspired lyricism1; he deftly satirised teen pop; and he created a successful modern pop song that appealed to and expanded Gall's young fanbase. The song poetically reflects on the artifice of a pop idol, and the gulf between the realms a performer like Gall inhabited, that of the worldy, confident figure in her songs and the limited, sheltered reality of her lived experiences. While the song "unobtrusively plays on words to deconstruct the yéyé industry"2, there's an empathy alongside Gainsbourg's wryness that gives it poignancy. Gall's later recollections of her life as a pop star during this era suggest she found Gainsbourg's lyrics painfully apt.
Though a less sophisticated effort, it seems with 'Boum Badaboum', Gainsbourg was continuing to attempt to push the boundaries of what was acceptable to Eurovision audiences and judges. Nineteen-year-old Barelli sings of wanting to experience life before the world ends in a nuclear explosion. She pleads for a little more time to have the chance to fall in love, and, it's heavily implied, experience sexual pleasure:
If my days are numbered
I don't only want to love
If there are other paradises
I want to know them too
When I have tried everything
I'll leave without regret
The concept, while not as complex as Gainsbourg's previous contribution, is daring in both its gloomy fatalism and its expression of female sexual desire. In a way, there is empathy in the cynicism here, too. Gainsbourg gives the protagonist voiced by Barelli the chance to experience some liberation from social norms; facing certain atomic doom, she is free to pursue her desires on her terms.
With its brash sound, abrasive vocal and less intricate lyrics than 'Poupée de cire, poupée de son', 'Boum badaboum' was unlikely to repeat Gainsbourg's earlier coup. The blurb below from a Swiss newspaper report published on the day of the contest gives some insight into how the song was regarded. While it did, predictably, stir controversy, there was also some appreciation for Gainsbourg's humorous, spirited piece. It's mentioned the song attracted criticism for being 'vulgar', but note this refers to the execution rather than the lyrics – it's actually suggested that if there were more French-speaking judges, it would likely have garnered more appreciation. André Salvet, a songwriter who wrote for many of the top names of the era, expected the song would prove popular with a young audience, as it was "lively, cheerful and rhythmic"3. Perhaps these qualities are why it ultimately placed surprisingly high despite being a strange fit for Eurovision, coming in fifth.
Some of the song's unlikely appeal was surely down to the charm of its performer, Minouche Barelli, who delivers a strong, gutsy vocal performance with a touch of youthful playfulness. Barelli was the daughter of two esteemed figures in the French musical world, Lucienne Delyle, a chanson singer who was popular in the 1950s, and Aimé Barelli, a jazz musician and conductor, regarded as "one of Europe's best trumpeters"4. Barelli began taking singing lessons at age fifteen, and soon discovered she had a five-octave range. By seventeen, she was performing with her father's orchestra, learning a large repertoire of songs in multiple languages. When the Eurovision opportunity arose, Barelli had just one EP to her name, 'Goualante 67', which hadn't sold well. She was chosen to represent Monaco at the insistence of Prince Rainier, as her father was, at the time, the conductor at Monte Carlo's casino5. A whopping 150 song choices were offered to the young Barelli, including 'Il est mort le soleil', a song that was later given to Nicoletta as a potential contender for France's entry that year, before it was rejected for being too dark. The following year, it became a breakthrough hit for Nicoletta, launching her to stardom. Barelli's artistic director felt the song was not suitable for a teenaged singer, and thus they settled upon Gainsbourg's livelier composition. Though Aimé Barelli's position had secured the plum job for his daughter, he was not happy with the song choice – unsurprising, given its subject matter, and that its style likely didn't appeal to a jazz purist. "My father was hysterical, he did not like this song", Minouche Barelli told Platine magazine in 19956. Nonetheless, he was hardly going to miss his daughter's big night, and dutifully fulfilled his role as conductor for her performance.
It was a brilliant performance, with Barelli effortlessly maintaining the required vocal intensity while appearing to also be having fun with the song. As great as the live version is, the studio recording, featuring an even more boisterous vocal from Barelli and a solitary male voice coldly counting down the seconds, is more fully realised, and thus more effective in conveying the moods of hedonistic abandon and nuclear paranoia. Here's a vinyl rip from the single:
Though it's not as good, clever or as groundbreaking as 'Poupée de cire, poupée de son', it's odd that 'Boum Badaboum' doesn't get a little more attention, at least as a curio of Gainsbourg's career or an early example of a peculiar Eurovision entry. If mentioned at all, it's usually as an off-handed note that Gainsbourg had a second crack at Eurovision in the sixties, or as an example of a supposed 'nonsense' song titleNote. Even if you don't particularly like this song (personally, I think it is fantastic, but I am a sucker for weird sixties pop), isn't it at least really fascinating that there was a sixties Eurovision entry that involved a young woman audaciously declaring her urge to lose her virginity should she die in a nuclear blast?!
- Est-ce Est-ce Si Bon? Gainsbourg in the Culture Bunker – The first part of this excellent article by Andy Miller looks at Gainsbourg's career in 1967, including his Eurovision foray.
- Tobson In Euroland – A song about the Big Bomb
- Hero Culte shared a great publicity photo of Gainsbourg and Barelli, and there's another here.
- You can hear the English version of 'Boum badaboum' in this older post, though note the English lyrics discarded the sexual innuendo and are overall fairly meaningless.
Note: I would argue 'Boum badaboum' isn't 'nonsense' in the same way a title consisting of newly invented words or sounds is, as it was an established, understood onomatopoeic term. It's more an example of Gainsbourg's typical wordplay – a combination of the boum badaboum of a drum with the boum! of an explosion.
- 1. Jonathyne Briggs, Sounds French: Globalization, Cultural Communities, and Pop Music, 1958-1980 (Oxford University Press, 2015), 74.
- 2. David Looseley, Popular Music in Contemporary France: Authenticity, Politics, Debate (Berg, 2003), 33.
- 3. Henri Hartig, "150 millions de téléspectateurs pour entendre dix-sept chansons", Feuille d'avis de Lausanne, 8 April 1967, 6.
- 4. "Dix-sept chansons devant cent cinquante millions de téléspectateurs: Le grand prix Eurovision de la chanson", Feuille d'avis de Lausanne, 29 March 1967, 54.
- 5. Gilles Verlant, Gainsbourg (Albin Michel, 1992), 99.
- 6. Minouche Barelli, interview by Jean-Pierre Pasqualini, 26 October 1995, in Platine April 1996, 22-24.