Héloïse Letissier’s story has almost become part of modern pop mythology now, the tale of a young anxious, broken-hearted outsider travelling to London and being taken in by three drag queens in Soho, who inspired our heroine to embrace her contradictions and thus give birth to Christine and the Queens.
It’s a story that only adds to the full effect of Christine and the Queens as one of the most exciting artists around today. This magical concoction of a fabulous origin story, a purposefully confusing name (inviting the question – who are the queens?) and of course, true musical talent and song-writing capabilities, is utterly unique and captivating. Where Héloïse ends and Christine begins is perhaps unclear but in the end it does not matter. On the one hand, the ambiguity only reiterates the provocation and challenge of societal norms seen in her work, particularly with regard to gender, beauty and being your true self. On the other, she has recently admitted that Christine is really her true self, albeit a freer and less filtered version and I suspect many of us wish we had a Christine.
Obviously the average listener will probably not go into quite as much analysis or deep thought as I have done into this relationship. Yet this is precisely what makes Christine and the Queens so great, the fact that she works on all levels. She is accessible, firstly because her music is catchy and makes you want to dance. Her music videos and talk show performances also serve as future classics – full of Janet Jackson style choreography and simple but effective lighting and outfits. She is radio friendly and cool. But when you look more closely, you will see that there is so much more under the surface. And this is where it gets really interesting.
Having first watched Christine and the Queens perform on Jools Holland, I then eagerly sought out her other performances and knew I had to see her live and experience it for myself. Here was a woman often singing in lyrics I didn’t understand, in cool androgynous suits, dancing in a slick style that didn’t need stripper moves or a lack of clothing to grab your attention. It was totally refreshing. When you take all this into account – her dance moves, clothing and bilingual lyrics, you realise that everything about her has a deeper level. You don’t need to know this to appreciate her music, but it certainly does add an extra something.
Christine and the Queens’ debut album Chaleur Humaine was released in June 2014 in France and the adapted English version arrived on our shores in February this year. It is without a doubt my favourite album of the year (maybe even the decade so far), a perfectly crafted record showcasing the huge potentials of pop music. It works on various degrees, most simply as a selection of hugely catchy songs infused with a variety of musical influences, but also more deeply as a provocative and emotive commentary on gender and sexual politics.
But when performed live, it’s a whole other ball game. In the 2 years since she released her debut in her native France, Christine and the Queens has proved that she is in a league on her own when it comes to the live circuit. Her crystal-clear vocals, charming interactions with her audience and of course, intense and flawless dance routines are a winning formula, as I experienced on Thursday night. Playing her second sold-out night at Brixton Academy, she performed the most energetic, fun and exciting set I have ever seen in such an intimate venue.
Very few artists can truly achieve magic on stage, especially with just one album under their belt. For god’s sake many supposed legends rarely achieve what she did on Thursday night! From the opening ‘Starshipper’ to the funky choreographed transition songs (including the opening to Serge Gainsbourg’s ‘Mon légionnaire’) and her gorgeously 80s pumped cover of Beyoncé’s ‘Sorry’, it was pure joy from start to finish. It isn’t just her sound that makes her so exciting, it is the combination of her dance routines with her wonderful male dancers, her overall message that you can be whatever you want to be and her whole look that makes her so influential and special. It felt like the most accepting party ever, one in which you don’t wake up with a hangover but wake up feeling inspired to be your best self. And what’s even more exciting is that this is only the beginning.
When I was on the train home on Thursday night, still completely buzzing from the gig, I started typing my unfiltered reaction on my phone. This is what I wrote:
‘Wow. She was incredible. Her voice is incredible, her energy, her message, her awkwardness, her fierceness, her vulnerability, her aggression and dance moves, her clothes – everything.
And the way she speaks about openness and experimentation and owning yourself is just awesome. For her it matters that you are a person, first and foremost, rather than what gender. And she embraces the fact that she may want to dance like a ‘boy’ one song and not for the other.’
Christine and the Queens at Brixton Academy was something very special. In his recent autobiography, Bruce Springsteen writes about his firm belief that you can change someone’s life in one live performance, it may only take 3 minutes. Héloïse Letissier certainly is proof of this and in my experience, her performance only comes second to the Boss himself.