The French singer-songwriter, preparing for her first tour stateside, is queering pop — and showing her scars.
Heloise Letissier, who performs as the pop act Christine and the Queens, mostly goes by Christine lately. “It feels like I chose my own name and people are acknowledging it. Even close friends start to call me Christine now,” she explains to me in a dim Holiday Inn bar in Toronto, wearing a textured black suit. It’s the same suit she will wear all day, and then wear onstage at Mod Club Theatre to perform that night. The winner of Female Artist of the Year at the Victoires de la Musique (the French equivalent of the Grammys) this past February, Letissier is poised on the verge of American stardom as she prepares for her first U.S. tour with Marina and the Diamonds later this fall — poised to be more of Christine, more of the time. For 27-year-old Letissier, claiming Christine as an identity is sanity. Or transcendence. Christine is a far-flung self that stokes Letissier’s motivation to pursue her art. “I’m longing to be her,” Letissier says.
“Maybe it’s a trick for me to project and delay and be a coward sometimes. Maybe it’s a cheap trick,” she adds. By it she means being Christine, who perhaps represents Letissier’s consciousness ahead of her experience. The projecting and delaying is what’s beautiful about Letissier’s work. She’s not a package; she’s a becoming.
"Maybe it’s a trick for me to project and delay and be a coward sometimes. Maybe it’s a cheap trick."
During her set, she reaches in her blazer pockets and pulls out palmfuls of glitter. She presses her hands to her face, letting her sweat adhere the flecks. Onstage in Toronto, Letissier and Christine take turns on the mic. The former cracks jokes to salve her self-doubt; the latter touts her guns like the strongman at a sideshow. Christine winks and tells an audience member, “Call me,” and her accent sounds like “Cull me.” A song ending is swept in waves of cheers, and self-deprecating Letissier muses aloud that people in the back are “running for the door.” Christine peels off her blazer, flexes her biceps, then lets her fingers drift in front of her crotch. Letissier watches one of her dancers slip backstage for a sip of water and jokes to the audience, “I think he just quit. He’s like, ‘I’m sick of this shit.’”
A week later at the Box in New York, the show is all Christine. She introduces the set with: “Tonight I’m a little boy, but I can also be a half-lady.” Her onstage swagger recalls Laurie Anderson, but in place of Anderson’s tended spikes Christine has lackadaisically dirty long hair; the strands lap at her suit lapels as she dances across the stage with a crossover slide that’s part moonwalk, part soccer practice grapevine. Her Michael Jackson meets Pina Bausch dance moves, choreographed by Marion Motin, isolate wrists and ankles. If traditional vogueing is whipping and diving through the air, each move indicating just how much space you can take up, how far you can extend, Christine’s fluttery rapid-fire movements are like butterfly vogueing — littler. Wrist. Fingertip. Wrist. Fingertip. In her video for “Christine” — later rereleased in English as “Tilted” — she lies on her back and pops her feet in and out from first position, little wings that beat, her ankles naked between her cropped suit pants and black loafers. Sometimes she throws a limb away from herself, like she’s shaking something off, a winged bug that landed on her, a bad thought, self-doubt. At the end of the video for "Saint Claude" (which won Music Video of the year at the Victoires de la Musique), she literally takes flight, rising up, relieved of the body’s joints, the mind’s disjoints.
As her compacted pop mythology goes, Letissier left university to nurse a broken heart in London, where she befriended three drag queens at the now-defunct red-lit Madame Jojo’s; she’d been studying stage direction, but they urged her toward a microphone. “The project is Christine and the Queens and not Christine Is a Queen because it’s about how a drag queen made a young woman like me feel,” she says. “I felt empowered looking at a drag queen because of how she played with gender, because of how she didn’t give a fuck, and she was both really fun and tragic at the same time. This is basically everything I want to be and give.”
Christine made her stateside debut at SXSW in March 2015, and in April, she released her EP Saint Claude in the U.S., comprising translations and a new track in English, "iT," which will also be the opener on her forthcoming U.S. album. The song opens with a tinkling piano crescendo that might be the sound of a hard-earned idea coming to mind, an idea like the song’s surprising refrain: “I’m a man now.”
Before music, Letissier wrote plays and novels, including one “about a woman who is basically schizo and in love with herself.” "iT" is one of the first songs she ever wrote. “It’s like an introduction. It was the birth of this character and this project.”
“iT is like my queer anthem,” she goes on. “An ambivalent one, but it makes it interesting because it’s a complicated fight still.” The ambivalence makes the song a new kind of queer anthem: It asserts selfhood, but without the claim of being “born this way,” without assuring that you “want the world to know.” Christine owns the identity of the instant. “I’m a man now.” A beat later: “I’m a man now.” The next show: “I’m a man now.” The show after that: “I’m a man now.”
“It’s really talking about the character of Christine as a fight,” Letissier says. “It can be an internal fight or a fight with society, because the dialogue can be with someone in front of you who just doesn’t allow you to be.” The song is an internal-external dialogue of statement and erasure. As she sings, a breathy, snaky chorus (her own voice replicated onto itself) taunts her: She lies, she lies.
’Cause I won
I'm a man now
’Cause I've got iT
I'm a man now
And I won't let you steal iT
I bought iT for myself
I'm a man now
She wants to be a man
But she lies
She wants to be born again
But she’ll lose
She draws her own crotch by herself
But she’ll lose because it’s a fake
It’s a fake it’s a fake it’s a fake.
Note by note, the tone changes. “Me saying all the time ‘I’m a man’ even if I look obviously like a girl, it can be grotesque, but it can be tragic as well, or it can just be fun, and it depends on the moment when you hear the song. It depends for me even,” Letissier says. If she says she’s a man, she is.
In the song, the repetition of “a man now” is so constant, the words start to blend. The meaning distorts and you begin to hear “a mannow,” “I’m a mannow.” More than a claim of gender, the song is about the simultaneous elation and insecurity of self-definition. Freedom and fear in now. The verses include lines about the past, present and future: “I’ve lost some eyeless friends whose blood runs cold”; “No! I’ve got iT”; “I’ll rule over all my dead impersonations.”
Christine speaks about performing like a man: desiring from the stage instead of being an object of desire. It’s a reversal that perhaps we should strive to de-gender; wanting is wanting.
When I think of Christine’s rhythms, the word downbeat comes to mind — intended hesitations like the dashes in Emily Dickinson’s poems. On "Saint Claude," there are lines I risk belting out when they come into my headphones. And sometimes, when my train pulls into the subway platform and I know I’ll be drowned out from the noise, I do it. I scream them. “I match them with my euphoria” or “With iT I become the death Dickinson feared.” Sometimes, it sounds like Christine’s voice is peeling away from itself. Does that have a name?
A fly now buzzes between us. (“Usually it’s around me that she flies so I don’t know why she’s choosing you this time. I’m usually the fly person.”) Letissier orders an orange juice.
“In interviews,” she says, “people just love to ask you, ‘So, what style is your music?’ and you feel like, ‘I don’t know!’ and they’re like, ‘But what style is it?’ They keep asking you. So sometimes it can be a bit scary, just avoiding questions.”
The fly is now with Letissier (“Ah see, now she found me”).
"I didn’t really know who I was. And I couldn’t enjoy everything because of that — but now it feels really sexy to not know.”
“I think people are uncomfortable with the idea of not choosing and changing your mind and not giving answers,” she continues. “This is something I have a hard time relating to. It used to be painful, really painful, when I grew up. My desires were changing and my perception of myself was changing all the time, so I didn’t really know who I was. And I couldn’t enjoy everything because of that — but now it feels really sexy to not know.”
On Christine’s Instagram, she claims her split persona. She captions a photo of herself sitting on a bench, fully clothed in gold summer light: “A Half-Lady sometimes keeps her shirt on [at] the beach, and watches her friends run to the water.” She posts a close-up photo of her glitter-dotted face onstage, gritting her teeth, neck clenched in the downbeat before she releases a note. She captions it: “I could not care less/ about how it looks.”
Onstage, while singing "Saint Claude," Christine’s hand is a butterfly flipped on its back, trying to right itself; her fingers are frantic legs running in the air. It’s sexy. She busts into a dance interlude to 20 Fingers’ “Short Dick Man,” testing the stretch of tonight’s trousers. When she sings the line “Pour que l'orage s'annonce” (For the storm looks), she drags her middle finger up her throat, letting it slide off the bottom of her chin, flicking her hand at the audience. According to the Telegraph U.K.’s guide to "rude hand gestures of the world":
In France, this gesture is known as la barbe, or “the beard", the idea being that the gesturer is flashing his masculinity in much the same way that a buck will brandish his horns or a cock his comb.
I’m sitting at a bar in very queer Bushwick, editing this essay. I flip my laptop around to show my friend, tending bar, the video for “Tilted.” She can’t hear the music, but watching Christine move for the first time, I see her face relax into recognition. “She’s fucking great, man. This is beautiful.”
Christine holds a mirror up to members of her audience, or at least those who are reflection-seekers: those posturing in the just-steamed bathroom mirror, adjusting in a darkened shop window — constantly catching reflective surfaces and looking. This spring, I got obsessed with a YouTube video of Christine performing "iT" in Berlin at Studio des Berliner Admiralpalastes, a direct spotlight casting her into a massive shadow on the wall, free of any signifiers outside of pure line, a long cast of her movement, her power stance; she looks free in a way that I want to see myself free, a mannow. This kind of indirect shadow-gazing makes me think of the Marguerite Duras line: “The body of a woman might yield a new foreign language.”
“Everything that makes me ashamed, with Christine, I just try to show it and stop being ashamed of it,” Letissier says. “I think it’s quite queer. I think this is the queerest thing my project is about: showing your scars, making them trophies.” As she sings on a newly released track with Tunji Ige (which premiered today, and you can play below): “If it’s where you stand, then no harm is done.”
Starting in October, Christine and the Queens will be touring with Marina and the Diamonds, and her U.S. album Christine and the Queens (which includes a collaboration with Perfume Genius) will be released Oct. 16.