Stella Goes Mod

Baby Stella
Photo courtesy of Stella and Pink Frankenstein

At the height of French pop mania, sociologist Edgar Morin wrote an op-ed piece on the new music scene for daily newspaper Le Monde, where he coined the term yé-yé. It was an insulting term used to reprimand the youth for their poor taste in music. Most teenagers ignored the scathing criticisms of yé-yé coming from adults, but 13-year-old Stella quietly agreed.

Stella Zelcer was born in Paris in December 1950, and spent her formative years palling around with uncle Maurice, who took her to museums and movies, and introduced her to music- particularly jazz and American pop. Stella was 13 years old when yé-yé exploded in France. She and uncle Maurice found this phenomenon quite entertaining. With their broad understanding of American music, it was difficult to enjoy the French versions- they sounded funny and not as rich.

Just for fun, Uncle Maurice and Stella decided to write some songs and send the demos to Vogue Records. They scored their first meeting with Jacques Wolfsohn, the man responsible for signing Johnny Hallyday, Françoise Hardy, and Jacques Dutronc (although it would be three years before Dutronc emerged with songs much like Stella's).

Photographer Jean-Marie Périer once told me a great story about Wolfsohn's auditioning techniques: "[Wolfsohn] would sit in a mini-sauna that he had in his office, and only his head would be visible from the outside of this big box. One by one, auditioning singers would come in, sing their song, and if he didn't like it, one arm would come out the box and shoot a gun into the ceiling to alert his assistant to remove the singer from his office. He was nuts, I tell you!"

"He was very nice to me." Stella recounted. "I was only 13 years old, you know. I didn't know anything. He wanted to release my songs, so I liked him."

In November 1963, Vogue Records issued Stella's first EP, which included "Pourquoi Pas Moi," (Why Not Me?), a seemingly sweet pop ditty with the most sarcastic lyrics.

I think I've got what it takes to be a pop star
I write the music, I write the words
I should already be raking in the big bucks
Alas, for the time being, I'm broke

Why not me?
I can sing "woo woo woo woo woo woo"
Why not me?
I can sing "yé yé yé yé yé yé"

Musically, "Pourquoi Pas Moi" echoed Françoise Hardy's early records (possibly because the two Vogue artists also shared arranger Roger Samyn). Lyrically the two singers couldn't have been more different. Stella used the term "yé-yé" to mock the absurdity of the current pop craze while Françoise Hardy appropriated the term for her album, The Yeh-Yeh Girl From Paris. But yé-yé wasn't the only target of Stella's wrath. On "Les Parents Twist," Stella blatantly ridicules parents who "do the twist." "My god it's sad when the parents are doing the twist," Stella laments with sneering cynicism. "Les Parents Twist" however, seemed harmless compared to "Un air du folklore Auvergnat," which harshly criticized the French obsession with American music. According to Stella, the biggest casualty of the American rock n' roll invasion was French music- all traces of France's musical history had vanished once American pop influences infiltrated France. "We had such great French songs. [Jacques] Brel and [Georges] Brassen and all those people were writing fantastic music. I thought that we should be writing music like them rather than taking American songs and translating them into French," Stella said.

"Un air du folklore Auvergnat" was a spoof on ""Le Folklore Américain," a gushing ode to American folk songs made popular by yé-yé singer Sheila. "Sheila was singing about American music, but I thought we should be singing about France, so I made the same kind of song with French roots," Stella said. Over a backdrop of horns and harpsichords, Stella sings: "This is a Auvergnat folklore melody. Verchuren was singing it. He's the Dylan of the country." However, French music didn't have its roots in the countryside of Auvergnat, and André Verchuren- a geeky accordion player from the 1950s- was far from the bohemian cool of Bob Dylan. Stella's sarcastic patriotism caused the ire of many in the French music establishment. "The Auvergnat Association of Paris took the song quite seriously, and managed to have me banned from French radio and TV. Major articles appeared everywhere in the press," Stella recalled. "It was completely crazy, but it helped me get famous."