Iconográfica: A Tribute to Jeanette, the Godmother of Sad Girl Ballads

GIF by Cristobal Saez for Remezcla

During the 1950-60s, yeyé girls dominated the charts in Europe, especially in Spain, France, and Italy. Yeyé girls (coming from the English “yeah, yeah!”) followed the formula of British beat music by re-recording hits into different languages and crossing over to international markets. “It” girls like France Gall recorded singles that sounded naive and innocent, but contrasted saccharine vocals with darker, more sexual lyrics. After the popularity of beat music slowed to a halt in the 1970s, the yeyé girl archetype found new life in Jeanette. With hit ballads like “Soy Rebelde” and “Porque Te Vas,” Jeanette crafted her own vision of yeyé music.

Jeanette Anne Dimech was born in London in 1951 to a Spanish mother and Belgian father. The singer grew up in California and eventually moved to Spain after her parents separated. At just 16, she joined the folk-pop band Pic Nic, whose smash hit “Callate Niña” resembles the “Hush Little Baby” lullaby, but translated into Spanish. Once Pic Nic’s debut EP came out, the hype had fizzled, and the group disbanded. However, Hispanovox, Jeanette’s record label, saw a future for the young singer.

Instead of pursuing the folk-pop route, Hispanovox pushed for Jeanette to become the new queen of ballads. That’s how “Soy Rebelde” was born. The slow jam, accompanied by a melodramatic piano and violin, showcases Jeanette’s pacifying and wistful voice. “Yo soy rebelde porque el mundo me ha hecho así,” Jeanette laments, as she lists the ways in which the world has wronged her. The song was another smash hit for Jeanette, and the start of her international career. Much like her yeyé forbears, she recorded the song in English, Italian, Chinese and Japanese, which helped skyrocket her to new fame.

Like most pop stars nowadays, Jeanette’s career was defined more by her singles than her full-length records. Her first album Palabras, promesas had the potential to be a hit, but flopped. Her sophomore album Porque Te Vas faced a similar fate until the music industry equivalent of a miracle happened. When director Carlos Saura discovered the title track on the radio, he added it to the soundtrack of his art house classic Cría Cuervos. The film uses a young girl’s “dark, deranged infancy” as a metaphor for the reality of bleak, Francoist Spain. The child’s misconception of death as a mere disappearance fits perfectly with Jeanette’s innocent vocals and the sense of longing found in the lyrics. The song, released the same year as Franco’s death, became another international hit for the star. Much like “Rebelde,” this single was also recorded in other languages, even snagging a no. 1 spot on the charts in France. Jeanette’s career had its peaks and lows, until she faded from the spotlight in the late 1980s.

Drawing on the innovation of yeyé girls in the 1960s, Jeanette’s music redefined the very nature of the ballad. Her voice – candid and raw, yet tender – evoked simpler, sweeter times. Meanwhile, her lyrics evinced rebellion, darkness, and loneliness, topics rarely explored in 60s pop. Her heavy accent and girlish, doe-eyed looks helped create an aura of exoticism that resulted in a “Lolita”-like character. In a world where not everything is peaches and cream, Jeanette is a cult figure for sad girls everywhere, and her iconic catalog will live on in all of its melodrama.