Although the term yéyé had its origins in the English language, it was in France that it became synonymous with a sub-genre of 1960s pop music. Also known in Southern European countries (Spain, Portugal and Italy), in Eastern Europe, too, it signified a musical style.
It is unclear where the term yéyé first originated, but one of its earliest appearances in song was in the early 1960s. A well-known example is Mongo Santamaria’s tune ‘Yeh yeh’ (1963), covered in 1964 by the British jazz organist Georgie Fame, who was very popular in the London mod scene. Even more prominently, the word ‘yeah’ served as a hook in the Beatles’ song ‘She Loves You,’ written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney in July 1963 and recorded also in German (as ‘Sie liebt dich’). A chart-breaker for several months in a number of countries, the song had a decisive effect in spreading the word ‘yeah’ to a European audience beyond the UK, where it was already well established in casual conversation (although often deplored by defenders of ‘standard’ English as a vulgar Americanism). In France, for example, the impact of the song can be seen in girl group Les Gam’s shout of ‘yé-yé’ by way of introduction to their recording ‘Il a le truc’ (1963), a cover version of a doo-wop ‘He’s Got the Power’ by the US doo-wop group the Exciters.
Whereas in Britain the Beatles’ music was considered ‘beat,’ in France the term yéyé (sometimes yé-yé) was adapted from the vernacular to describe a new generational approach to music. When an overcrowded open-air concert with an audience of some 150,000 at the Place de la Nation in Paris in July 1963 devolved into mass panic, sociologist Edgar Morin used the term in an article for the French daily Le Monde (Morin 1963/Sohn 2005/Tamagne 2014). For Morin the ‘courant yéyé’ signified a new culture resulting from both the emergence of a youthful mass market and a certain musical style, while for US critic Susan Sontag ‘what the French call yé-yé’ simply signified ‘post Rock’n’Roll,’ as she explained in her influential essay ‘Notes on Camp’ (Sontag 1964). New youth media such as Salut les copains, a radio program and print magazine, also picked up on the term (Barsamian 1983).
The term yéyé superseded older labels such as ‘la nouvelle vague ’ (the new wave) coined by the journalist Françoise Giroud in the news magazine L’Express, and that of ‘tricheurs,’ which had been popularized by a film of that name by Marcel Carné (1958; English title Youthful Sinners). Yéyé replaced these older labels for generational youth styles, and became the common expression to describe new Francophone singers. But the musicians pigeonholed as yéyé artists were in fact from a variety of genres, extending from rock’n’ roll (Johnny Hallyday) to pop songs (Sylvie Vartan) to chansons (Serge Gainsbourg). Gainsbourg not only wrote many songs for artists such as France Gall, Jane Birkin and Brigitte Bardot, but also composed two songs in which he ironized the yéyé era (‘Chez les yé-yé’/’Le temps des yoyos’ ).
In Italy the term yèyè replaced the older urlatori (yellers), which had been used since the late 1950s to label a new generation of singers inspired by rock’n’roll, doo-wop and other musical genres from the United States. In the years 1964 and 1965 the term yèyè was widely employed by the Italian media to indicate all music inspired by the Beatles and Rolling Stones – and largely as a term of disapprobation (Eco 1985).
The term was particularly associated with the Piper Club, a dance venue in Rome which launched pop culture in Italy on the model of venues such as Copenhagen’s Nimbs, Hamburg’s Star-Club, New York’s Palladium, London’s Mecca dance halls and the Olympia in Paris. In many of these clubs young people were stars of the show for the very first time, dancing and dressing to a fashionable new music from beyond national borders (particularly Britain and the USA). Yèyè connoted freedom, new looks (such as long hair), and a music that was in stated opposition to adults (called matusa, from the biblical figure of Methuselah, famous for living to extreme old age) and to the conventional rules of society. Yèyè was the music of young Italian singers and bands such as Rita Pavone, Gianni Morandi, Equipe 84, Rokes and especially Patty Pravo, one of Italy’s most successful singers of the 1960s, who made her musical debut as a teenager in 1965 as ‘The Piper Girl.’
In Spain, musicians such as the iconic singer Raphael covered a number of French songs translated into Spanish. The French program Salut les copains had a particular impact on female musicians who played new pop or ‘beat’ songs and were labeled las chicas yeyés to distinguish them from those who played songs for adults. Ultimately, the term had more generational connotations than musical ones in that it was primarily adopted by the older generation as a mocking epithet to disparage what they could barely comprehend (Marc 2013).
In Eastern Europe, even though yéyé was not an established musical genre, the term was used pejoratively to describe Anglo-American musical influences. For instance, the head of the East German Socialist party Walter Ulbricht spoke of the ‘Monotonie des Jay, Jeh, yeh,’ so as to justify tough bans and restrictions against guitar bands in 1965 (Rauhut 1993, 162).
Originating as a mocking term for youthful superficiality and frivolity, over the years yéyé became synonymous with a joyful style of pop music from the early to the mid-1960s and can therefore be considered a transnational construct mainly from South-West Europe. This music was accompanied by fancy dress, neat hairdos and colorful consumer products that were themselves the topic of a number of songs. ‘La terreur des yé-yés’ (as Paris Match put it) came to a gradual end around 1966, to be replaced a little later by the psychedelic ‘freak beat’ and chanson style of singers/songwriters with a certain critical approach and political agenda, such as Antoine or Yves Montand in France, Adriano Celentano in Italy and in Spain by conjuntos (bands) such as Los Brincos or Los Bravos – all of this signaling the advent of an era characterized by ‘deep’ and ‘serious’ rock music (Collin 1966).
Barsamian, Jacques, and Jouffa, François. 1983.L’âge d’or du yéyé: Le rock, le twist, et la variété Française des années 60 [The Golden Age of Yé-Yé: Rock, Twist and French Variété of the 1960s]. Paris: Ramsay.
Le Pajolec, Sébastien. 2009.‘Le cinéma et les yéyés: Un rendez-vous manqué?’ [The Cinema and the Yéyés: A Failed Rendezvous?]. InJeunesse oblige: Histoire des jeunes en France XiXè–XXe, eds. Ludivine Bantigny and Ivan, Jablonka.Paris: PUV, 183–198.
Marc, Isabella. 2013. ‘Submarino amarillos: Transcultural Objects in Spanish Popular Music during Late Francoism.’ InMade in Spain: Studies in Popular Music, eds. Silvia Martinez and Héctor Fouce. New York and London: Routledge, 115–124.
Prato, Paolo. 1998.‘Gli urlatori e la generazione del rumore: note per una sociologia della canzone’ [‘The Urlatori and the Noise Generation: Notes on a Sociology of Song’]. InMina: Una forza incantatrice [Mina: An Enchanting Force], eds. Franco Fabbri and Luigi Pestalozza. Milan: Euresis, 135–150.
Sohn, Anne-Marie. 2005.‘Edgar Morin et les décagénaires’ [Edgar Morin and the Teenagers].Sociologues et sociologies: La France des années 60 [Sociologists and Sociologies: France in the 1960s], eds. Jean-Michel Chapoulie, Olivier Kourchid, Anne-Marie Sohn and Jean-Louis Robert. Paris: L’Harmattan, 155–62.
Tamagne, Françoise. 2014.‘La Nuit de la Nation: Jugendkultur, Rock’n’Roll und moral panics im Frankreich der sechziger Jahre’ [The Night of the Nation: Youth Culture, Rock ’n’ Roll and Moral Panics in 1960s France]. InPopgeschichte: Band 2: Zeithistorische Fallstudien 1958–1988 [Pophistory, Vol. 2: Case Studies in Contemporary History], eds. Bodo Mrozek, Alexa Geisthövel and Jürgen Danyel. Bielefeld: Transcript, 41–62.