Many might claim Christine & the Queens’ frontwoman, Héloïse Letissier, as many things. She’s Jacques Brel and the Cocteau Twins, with a bit of David Bowie and Laurie Anderson thrown in for good measure. She’s Bob Fosse and Pina Bausch reincarnate — or better still, Michael Jackson and Beyonce’s long-lost, would-be French love-child (apologies to Jay-Z). A simple YouTube search and mere glance at myriad comments by her loyal constellation of fans across the interwebs would confirm her as such. If one were to take a closer look among the expansive galaxy of CATQ performances for an example (or 1,350,000), one would look no further than those taken back when she landed onto the music scene with her 2014 debut, Chaleur Humaine.
One such video in particular, that of a performance at the We Love Green festival in Paris, might confirm such exclamations. Here, the eponymous Christine and her accompanying dancers give a stunning performance of the show’s opener, “Starshipper” — all whilst dramatically draped under a blinding spotlight or two. A deep electronic drone ensues, soon to be followed by light and steady percussion. The words are initially in French, but no matter — by the time Christine finally utters English in the song’s pre-chorus and chorus, it is clear that something interesting is at work here:
If everyone is a disguise,
I choose my own way to arise.
I wanna be a male bomber,
I wanna be a starshipper.
As the sweeping music rings out and builds up to a satisfying climax, one can do nothing but marvel at this sight — that sight, of course, being that of the slight, gamine frame of Christine herself. Anyone randomly coming across such a performance would perhaps meet it with more than a bit of confusion. Who is this so-called Starshipper onstage, this tiny French thing with the huge presence? This is just what I wondered myself just a little over a year ago, when I started listening to CATQ’s music. Fast-forward to earlier this month at the Brooklyn Steel (the second of a sold-out two-night run), where a friend and fellow concertgoer found herself wondering the exact same thing out loud.
The truth is, she is all of the above — and at once, none at all. It is perhaps more appropriate to say that Chris is a creature not of this world, yet one also borne from that most earthly of natural afflictions — heartbreak. As described by Laura Snapes in her 2016 article for The Guardian:
“In 2010 she took herself to London. In Soho, she stumbled into gay club Madame Jojo’s (since shut down) and watched a shambolic drag act. The three queens adopted this agonised waif, teaching her that threatre could be anything at all; to bend rules, rather than fulfil them. They encouraged her to adopt a persona and write songs, and dismissed her self-pity.”
And thus, Christine and the Queens was born. For Chris, the French electro-pop act’s new album and accompanying persona, Letissier cuts a different, but no less striking, silhouette on the Brooklyn Steel stage compared to her previous iteration. In a look she debuted earlier this past summer in French cult magazine Egoiste, she has now chopped off her hair into a boyish pixie cut; and, in lieu of the penny loafers and slim monochromatic pantsuits she once donned, she is now outfitted in sneakers, baggy pants, tank tops — and yes, that now-infamous Red Shirt. Taking familiar cues from Bad- and Dangerous-era Michael Jackson of the early- to mid-90s, the evolution of Christine-to-Chris perfectly marries the masculine and the feminine with as much ease as it takes to flex her arm or sway her body.
And, boy, is there a lot of body-swaying.
Indeed, the choreography in her current act, conceived in collaboration with contemporary dance collective (LA) Horde, is gender-fluid in its presentation; much rougher and rawer in quality compared to the abstract, modern dance-inspired movements of the past, as exemplified in the music video for her hit “Tilted” (the original choreography for which — along with other fan favorites — has been kept intact, much to the delight of the crowd and this writer*). If Christine’s Chaleur Humaine era was about a longing for a sense of self and feeling comfortable in one’s skin (or ‘feeling oneself,’ as it were), Chris is all about finding it and flaunting it. Embodying a different kind of swagger, Letissier and her dancers take the stage in brutish, angular movements, enacting scenes of street fights in “Comme si”, “Girlfriend”, and “The Stranger”.
Complimentary to much of this bravado are the softer, more lyrical elements incorporated into the choreography. In one standout moment during “5 dollars”, Chris’ dancers jump and leap in a circle around her, all against a large backdrop of crashing waves behind them. It is a moment of pure, unadulterated joy and elation, understated in its beautiful portrayal of contrasting strength and serenity. Another stunning number has her alone on the stage — in a simple black sports bra, sans red shirt — swaying to an equally-stunning, rhythmic remix of her song “Here”. In this moment, what was originally melancholic longing in Christine has now become full-blown desire in Chris.
Despite this seeming confidence in her present self, Chris makes sure we know that she hasn’t quite forgotten all the above-mentioned that went into the making of her past self. As in her Chaleur Humaine showcase, Chris still unabashedly wears her influences on her (now very muscular) sleeve. While she pays homage to her time in the clubs with various house music medleys (including snippets from the soundtrack of the cult documentary Paris is Burning and 90s hits like “Pump Up the Jam”) and covers of Christophe, Kanye West (“Paradis Perdus”), and Michael Jackson (“Who Is It”) in her 2015 repertoire, snippets of Queen’s “Radio Ga Ga” and Janet Jackson’s “Nasty” can be heard in her current show. Unsurprisingly, the King of Pop makes another musical cameo when, after an a capella version of “Nuit 17 a 52”, Chris breaks out into her own rendition of “Man in the Mirror” (a choice which, if one were to take the previous song’s music video into consideration, quite appropriately reflects the constant questions of gender the artist herself often poses).
She then goes on to end the night with a performance on a small stage in the middle of the crowd (pictured above), Chris forgoes her red shirt — and, indeed, sheds any other expectations of what she might be—man or woman, homo-, hetero-, or pan-—and simply chooses to sing her heart out. As she moves from the evocative “Saint Claude,” and into the crowd with the pulsing dance beats of “Intranquillite”, it feels as if the power of her vocals might be able to reach the heavens. It is music to move the stars, with us moving along with them.
Like all those who shone before her, we may never truly know the extent of loss and heartbreak, longing and desire, joy and elation driving the bright, energetic force behind Letissier’s Chris(tine). The only thing we can really do is watch in awe and thank our lucky stars we’re able to do so.
*Apologies to the Guy-Who-Stood-Next-To-Me — and Guy-Who-Stood-Next-To-Me’s friends — who unwittingly became casualties of my horrible attempts at singing and dancing along up in the Brooklyn Steel balcony! (One thing’s for sure: I am definitely not as cool as Chris. Quelle dommage!)