Christine And The Queens
The French Revolution
“Death to the patriarchy!”
In 2016, Christine And The Queens had the biggest-selling debut of the year, bringing pansexualit y into mainstream pop culture, to standing ovations from Madonna and Elton John. In 2018, the French star returns with a new identit y – Chris – and a snappier sound built to swallow the globe. But does selling over a million albums complete you? The singer talks identit y, sex, da funk and the meaning of life with Laura Snapes.
WHEN CHRISTINE AND THE QUEENS PERFORMED AT
Radio 1’ s Biggest Weekend this May, Twitter could only talk about one thing. It was not Chris’s tough new backing dancers. Nor was it the BBC’s decision to have her comeback performance clash with Taylor Swift. No: it was the whopping great love bite on her neck. Chris – formerly known as Christine, née Héloïse Letissier – speaks the Queen’s English but the French musician learned a new word that day. “The hickey,” she repeats, pleased by the sound and the prudish outcry. She has another one today: a smattering of purple speckles under a black-and-white neckerchief. Chris, her dancers, her French label, American label, an Apple Music film crew and dedicated caterers are in Saint-Omer, North-East France, to conclude a week of production rehearsals in an empty venue. Chris isn’t singing or dancing in these rehearsals – that won’t happen until August, the month before her second LP arrives. Instead she sits at a long table facing proceedings in the role of stage director, making notes and commenting via a mic.
The male dancers keep vanishing to watch France’s World Cup fixture against Argentina. “Mort au patriarcat!” Chris yells – death to the patriarchy! – half joking, half absolutely not. They sprint back and rehearsals proceed. Chris conceived the whole thing from sketches up and needs to see if it works. Huge backdrops projected with dramatic landscape paintings drop and sweep offstage. These are temporary, she stresses: the real things will actually be painted. Instrument risers slide on and off, contracting and widening the space until sometimes the boards are completely bare. Fake snow falls (incandescent powder, not wet foam globs) and a dancer fires a green smoke grenade. “Non, non, c’est trop tôt!” Chris shouts – too early. They break, letting the sinister cloud dissipate, then try again. The aim is to create something monumental without using standard effects, “something quite hedonistic and sensual and overly dripping with desire”. They’re getting there. “This is the risk of deciding on your own,” says Chris. “Either it’s good or I’m fucked.” Her attention to detail makes it seem extremely unlikely that the
original hickey was accidental. “What do you think?” she pouts jokily. The sunaverse 30- year-old is wilting over lunch in the scorching car park, lifting her chair like an aggrieved hermit crab to shuffle towards shade. While serious at work, she naturally sends herself up, exclaiming, “Oh la!” if she gets over-serious. Of course, she asked someone to give it to her specifically for the show, though receiving it wasn’t exactly a business matter. “It was a simple sign of unapologetic desire – kind of dirty in a way – but it’s weird, no, how infuriating it can be for people?” She’s pleased yet baffled: are people that easily shocked? (And no, she didn’t get a fresh one for this interview. Occupational hazard.) Here is where we left Chris at the end of 2016. She had the UK’s biggest-selling debut with Chaleur Humaine, identity and isolation set to shimmering synth-pop. Her luminous Glastonbury performance single-handedly prevented newly Brexited Britain from laying face-down in the mud and never getting up. Fêted by Elton John and Madonna, she helped bring pansexuality and gender-fluidity into the mainstream and repeatedly out-styled Harry Styles when they kept getting snapped in the same opulent suits. A pop identity born from depression, even suicidal thoughts, made her the country’s most beloved new star. All she’d ever wanted was to be accepted and understood. The nerd became a superhero, the outsider crowned prom queen, roll credits. What next? Chris didn’t really show her body before – she was convinced her work wouldn’t be taken seriously if she did. But YouTube commenters still debated her fuckability and doubted that she wrote and produced her music. Her generous conversations about sexuality and gender were flattened. She started feeling like a Rorschach test, addressed as a projection, not a person, leaving her lonely and depressed again. “I was doing everything for people to actually know me, and then I was furious at the result.” The more she explained, the less anyone seemed to get it. So maybe she would just stop explaining. “There is a form of resistance in complicating the story.”
Not to underestimate Chaleur Humaine. Beyond the bald facts of success, the album did what therapists couldn’t. They told her to stop constructing her own reality: she said, “Tell me something I don’t know”, and stopped after two sessions. Her early 20s were a “nightmare” of agonising perfectionism, romantic rejection and expulsion from a theatre school that refused to let her (or any female student) direct. Christine saved her: born first as a dark journal character and alchemised as a pop star after encouragement from some no-nonsense London drag queens. Becoming a stage athlete “felt mending and empowering”. After that sexist expulsion, she fantasised about “dicks solving problems I was having” and wrote Chaleur Humaine’s It: “I’m a man now,” she sang, “and there’s nothing you can do to make me change my mind.” But Christine slowly, surprisingly, sent her “back into my woman’s body”. As a teenager, despite her professor parents respectfully discussing her every emotion (for better or worse), welcoming her queerness and bookishness, she remained obsessed with attaining the “perfect image of a girl that I would never be”. She would sabotage hook-ups because the ambience was wrong: surely prospective girlfriends would vomit in her face if bad lighting revealed her true monstrousness. Performing made her proud of her 5’2” figure, “seeing some muscles surface and your silhouette getting tighter, functional, the pleasure of dancing, authoring your body through the art.” She became “more narcissistic”, eager to bare skin. While she had experienced “great love stories”, sex was usually crippled by similar fears over stage direction.
Body confidence changed that. “I really discovered how carnal and raw and beautifully dirty sex could be: how empowering and moving and creatively interesting.” The stage name had to go. She wanted to escape the Christine story, plus friends were calling her Chris now. It felt efficient, joyous. Plus Héloïse is hard to shorten: “Hélo” makes people yell, “’Ello, ’Ello!” and “Lolo” is French slang for nipples, which the flat-chested teenager never appreciated. She cut her curls into a bob, then a chic quiff. People started asking if she was transitioning: hadn’t they listened to It, that song about dicks she’d been singing for four years? Today her hair is the functional crop of a 12- year-old boy – crucially less French gamine, more the kind of soft brush that aunts love to ruffle. It’s slicked back on the cover of Chris, her second album, framing an expression halfway between sneer and solicitation. Chris opens with a smash and a yelp, something broken and awoken. It is exactly what she said it would be in interviews from 2016
I was doing everything to for people actually know me, and then I was furious at the result.
(Chaleur Humaine was released in France in 2014, so she had time to plan): sweatier, harder, more erotic, echoing Janet Jackson and strungout Serge Gainsbourg. There is still sadness, shame and crystalline balladry, but it also borrows from G-funk, LA gangsta rap’s raunchy soul, to buoy her feminine machismo: Damn (What Must A Woman Do) beseeches prospective male and female conquests to just pleasure her, s’il vous fucking plaît. Insults hardened into beauty marks on Chaleur Humaine; Chris’s trophies are sweat, throbbing veins and the flushed cheeks she used to conceal, departing insular spaces and missed connections to grind against the world and revel in the rashes. It was hard to tell the Christine chicken from the Christine egg: did liberation feed the work or vice versa? It’s no surprise that the new album fulfils her earlier brief, she says: she always has to write her next incarnation “so I have no choice but to actually become it”. Still, Chris wasn’t truly born until a photographer called her bluff. A French magazine asked her to write un autoportrait to accompany some photos. She turned in eight purple pages. The Italian photographer read it: “It’s wonderful but where is Chris, I don’t really see her now?” She stuttered: “Uhh yes, but, uh, you know, I write and I am going to after that become…” He made her do it right then, yelling, “You are like Marlon Brando BUT YOU’RE A WOMAN!” In the photos she has abs like Action Man and pants slung so low they’d make Justin Bieber blush. Becoming everything she had wanted was terrifying. “I’m going to have to show something of my personality that I haven’t shown yet and it’s going to be fucking scary.” Her mum worries she’s setting girls a bad example. But maybe people will get it: her team, initially confused, now oil her muscles before shoots. Mostly, birthing these hidden parts felt like release. “I knew I could have that freedom, I wanted to have it, but I had to find something to allow me to.”
If Chris actually wanted to locate the source of her repression, she could always revisit the shrinks. But it was much more fun to use her newfound confidence to embrace the chaos that tormented her younger self. Despite accepting her gender, she’s still furious she never got to be a male writer: why can men be empowered by their voice when her identity is always up for debate? So she wired Chris, the album, with counter-signals. The first single, Girlfriend, was a bolshy reclamation of sexual swagger. The second, Doesn’t Matter, uses a writhing Jam and Lewis-inspired skeleton to gird her saddest song, written at a moment when genuine human connection felt impossible. Satisfaction clashes against self-sabotage, while shame is both a weapon and the dead weight that stops her getting out of bed. She sings about vanishing and, on The Walker, striding chin-out into a world that would rather recoil from her lack of shame. She is not going to reconcile the gaps. On a business level, it means she can’t be misunderstood. Before label Because agreed to let her self-produce Chris, she agreed to two ultimately dissatisfying studio sessions, one with Mark Ronson, one with Damon Albarn. Both had very specific ideas of what she would do: Ronson asked her to ad lib in her mother tongue. Unaccustomed to improvising, her stress mounted: “So they want an exotic French topline?!” Nothing came of either. It also means she can’t be ripped off as easily. Madonna admitted to borrowing from the video to
Saint Claude, in which Christine danced against a red backdrop and floated into the air. Charlotte Gainsbourg picked her brain about choreography, though others didn’t give her credit. She calls the video for Dua Lipa’s IDGAF “blatant” – the sleek suits, colourwash backdrops, the dancing, though what really gave it away was Lipa’s incorporation of rude French gesture la barbe. She doesn’t want to be “shady” but doesn’t get the point of copying. “Why not find original ideas?” She understands the “big machine of pop music, eating and digesting, right? So I’m eaten.” What bothered her was not necessarily being known enough to be recognised as the inspiration. “But what’s the point in being bitter.”
The new show wasn’t inspired by other pop performances, but by European choreographers and theatre directors. Chris is still a pathological perfectionist. She made the album in English and French so her native fans weren’t shortchanged. If only she could paint the live backdrops as well. Mid-afternoon in Calais, there’s an impromptu break. Chris vanishes – manager Flavie says she’s upset. The American label wanted to film her rehearsing but since she hadn’t been on set she was anxious about disappointing them. “Why do they ask me that if they know I’m still not onstage? I don’t want to give something that’s not memorable.” She said no, a new and surprisingly effective skill. Mastering her craft offered freedom. As did refusing to explain herself – understanding that you can’t control everything. She went looking for more areas that could offer such joyful chaos: ie, love and lust. “You can experiment with it when you stop controlling. You learn with intense desire and physical contact to actually be excited by precisely what you were scared about before.” Off tour and out of a long-term relationship with a woman, she searched for anger “in places where I knew I would find it”. She was back in “heteroland”, nursing an inexplicable attraction to “basic” straight boys who she knew would prove a mistake: attracted to her body but intimidated by her power, money, “phallic” attitude. Friends who misunderstood her pansexuality – attraction to all genders – asked if dating men betrayed her queerness. Some partners attempted to shame her adventurousness, which had the opposite effect. Guys would ask, “‘Oh, so you do that on the first night?’ With judgement! I was like, ‘Well, you let me do that on the first night, what the fuck is wrong with you!’ How is it a trophy for dudes and not for girls?” It all felt pleasurable, another way to disrupt, even if she risked getting hurt. “It’s a real way to take power over your body, choosing what you inflict on yourself. I think everyone has this relationship to hurtling into the void.” She started writing Notes On Wanting, a journal about the “intricacies and the joys and the unexpected beauty of wanting people and living your desire”. The more she wrote, the more she wanted to write, and to write more, she had to live more, “to try more, to have more and be less afraid of it”. She calls it a detonation. “The more I let go, the more I learn how to be a lover, and the more I learn how to be a lover, the less I care.” Dating is hard as a public figure: she struggled
how carnal discovered I really beautifully dirty and raw and empowerin g how sex could be: creatively and and moving . interesting
with the idea that her celebrity might attract people – but accepted it after realising that she is, theoretically, famous for being herself. There was heartbreak – three rounds – but a better kind than before. “The eroticism comes from the disappointment and the fact that I’ve lived and it’s failed. Which is way different from Chaleur Humaine, which had something way more nocturnal and self-wounded pain. The second one, I’m smashing against people, but it’s tasty in a way, to try and fail.” She just doesn’t care any more “if people think I’m slutty or shoving too much of my body and my face in their head”. Madonna and the avant-garde memoirist Maggie Nelson taught her that you don’t have to make people forget that you’re a “lusting woman” to be considered a writer. She laughs: “I want to be the cleverest woman in the room but also the sluttiest if I want, and this character can work.”
When Chris started soliciting Paris’s production companies for directors to realise her meticulous music video treatments, she discovered that she had another nickname: the bitch. “The bitch has another idea she wants to do!” She hoots. It was not affectionate ribbing. She was aghast for two seconds, then let go. Fine: she would be the “bossy bitch”. She had already embraced the role of leader in the studio in LA, writing a letter to her male engineers to clarify that she was producing the album. Chris doesn’t do booze or drugs, but sucked down Rescue Remedy to drown her nerves as she instructed her vintage musicians, graduates of Janet Jackson and Annie Lennox records. There was no improvisation. “Sometimes if they were playing a different note, just the third one, I was like – with valerian coursing through my veins – ‘Can we just change a note, please!’” For Chaleur Humaine, Chris says she was advised not to make too much noise about the fact that she did almost everything then, too. She suspected that nobody had ever said that to a male artist, but went with it – besides, she finds behind-the-scenes stuff cheesy and undermining. The result was critics, haters, even fans blithely asserting that she didn’t write her own material. Just last weekend, she found two guys on Twitter saying as much (yes, she still looks). She was miserable: perhaps she would have to document her workings to make people believe that She. Does. Everything. She gets angry for the first time: “Now I do understand Grimes doing fucking pictures of her with a laptop – and some people still believe she’s staging shit.” Having her agency questioned has been a pain in her ass since she was young enough to create. (She recalls the first time writing stirred her, age 11, authoring a gruesome story about a man slicing up his wife’s body. Her mother asked if she got it off the internet. As if she got it off the internet!) Maybe it’s because the great French female musicians are nearly all male muses, bar perhaps ’ 80s giant Mylène Farmer. “Shit is taken away from me all the time and I’m the bitch” – she spits – “who is always like, ‘IT’S MINE.’” It makes her skin flush and her jaw pimple. Does she lack authority? Why won’t people listen? But then, the flipside of being undermined as a female musician is being credited but labelled a control freak. Chris was delighted when a recent Le Monde profile asked her collaborators if she was a tyrant. Because she knows she isn’t actually a bitch, she’s happy to be
French windows: (left) Chris, Paris, 2018; (below) her Chaleur debut album 2016) and Humaine ( year’s (bottom) this follow-up, Chris.
Dance to the music: the influential videos for (from left) Saint Claude and Tilted, from her debut album, and this year’s Girlfriend.