Becoming Chris: Queerness, Performance, and Héloïse Letissier




Banner image by Jamie Morgan / Courtesy of the Artist

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THE ANCHORED MIC marks the place for Christine and the Queens — the stage character of French singer, songwriter, and producer Héloïse Letissier ­— and the spotlight casts a stark periphery. In a live performance, this configuration is usually used to set a somber tone for a soliloquy, a simple backdrop against which the curious enactment of the artist’s inner life parlays their remove from the audience into an opportunity for greater intimacy with them. Yet, the bass-heavy trap groove of the song, “Intranquillité,” is incongruous with the setup, as Christine’s physicality — the way that she uses her body as allure and sledgehammer — defiantly animates the stillness so that the spotlight isn’t a space for quiet intimacy, but for riotous electricity.

Small details in her outfit — the white T-shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and the loose end of the belt loutishly tucked awry — distract from her petite frame. Christine’s body is lithe yet taut. Her gaze is irreverent. She punctures the air around her with sharp flexions that are evocative of Michael Jackson’s symmetry in motion. But she breaks form with feral abandon, throwing feints, brushing off her shoulders, fixing her jaw to articulate a scowl. Her body reacts to invisible enemies in the dark, chasing them away or inciting them to fight her. Christine is no poser; she convinces us that she is tough as nails.

The scene I’m describing is from one of the finest recordings of the artist’s earlier performances at the Victoires de la Musique award ceremony in 2015. Christine and the Queens’s debut album, Chaleur Humaine (2014), won an award in the category of “Female group or artist” at the ceremony that year. The popularity of the album — released both in French and English — was spearheaded by the tracks “iT” and “Tilted” in the United States. Both songs engage with themes of queer expression and in some ways, indiscriminately speak to the experience of marginalization. With “Tilted,” Letissier underscores the feeling of being an outsider without specifying the lens through which her identity is Othered. As Letissier’s work has evolved, she has found ways to write about her experience of otherness to relay the elemental strife of alienation that resonates with any ostracized human being, regardless of the terms — from sexuality to race — of their disenfranchisement. But on “iT,” the reality of the transgender experience is front and center.

With iT
I become the death Dickinson feared
With iT
I’m the red admiral on his ship
And I raise
With infans for my coronation
I rule
over all my dead impersonations
’Cause I’ve got it
I’m a man now
I’ve got it
I’m a man now

In the lyrics, literary metaphor and mythical resonance meet to convey the otherworldly extravagance of declaring one’s realized identity. Letissier’s proclamation becomes something of a quixotic contrivance natural only to paeans. The symbolism and characters that inhabit the verse — from Emily Dickinson’s preoccupation with death in her poetry to the infans connoting epicene characteristics, or perhaps, more fittingly, a child who doesn’t comprehend the world through the limiting purview of language yet — induce an immortal and enigmatic potency that is becoming of fictive narratives. Letissier’s delivery soars — fierce and indomitable — over the sturdy beats. The fervid boast is not unlike the more contemporary, empowering narratives that speak to social pariahs — like that of superheroes whose civilian identity is disenfranchised, ostracized, or complicated. But the evocation of the image of the infans also hints at the chaste portrayals — denying mortal agency ­— of the androgyne in mythological and religious texts. Letissier effectively sets these familiar codes, that suspend disbelief, against the socially contrived authenticity of lived experience.

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” is representative of Letissier’s genius for exquisitely portraying the agony and the ecstasy of subversive self-exploration. While celebrating singularity, and the privilege of truly knowing oneself, the artist does not elide the tension of struggling to reconcile the oddities with societal convention. In doing so, especially through the perspective of a woman, she relays the difficult, darker narratives of queer representation that are well explored in queer literature, film, photography, and visual art, but up until recently pop music mostly accommodated as a garish affirmation of pride or aesthetic flair. “iT” ends with the repeated assertion, “She’s a man now.” The line emphasizes the heteronormative constraints of language, but Letissier is not one for semantic acrobatics or Prince-esque (“I’m not a woman / I’m not a man / I’m something that you’ll never understand”) sleights of transcendence. In many of her songs, Letissier’s matter-of-fact articulation of dissonant identifiers is a clever act of resistance.

Before Christine and the Queens came to be, Letissier battled days of uncertainty and loneliness at Madame Jojo’s nightclub in London’s Soho neighborhood. It was there that her creative mission was revitalized by an empowering engagement with a troupe of drag queens. Even as she draws on the legacy of David Bowie, Prince, and Grace Jones, Letissier introduces realism to the tradition of queer art’s characteristic inventiveness. Her work sources creative agency from the fabulous artifice of drag culture, the chimerical impersonations of Bowie, the incredible mystique of Prince, and the inimitable sensuality of Jones. But Letissier’s stage characters and visual interpretations of otherness are not as reliant on devices of fantastic transmutation or hyper-glamorous portrayal. The French singer and performer lets her freak flag fly, refashioning social conventions into non-insular idioms.

In her famous essay “Notes on Camp,” author and cultural critic Susan Sontag brilliantly intellectualized the inextricable relationship between queer art and camp:

Most people think of sensibility or taste as the realm of purely subjective preferences, those mysterious attractions, mainly sensual, that have not been brought under the sovereignty of reason. […] Today’s Camp taste effaces nature, or else contradicts it outright.

Letissier’s stage impersonations engage with interesting diversions from Sontag’s appreciation of the fundamental quality of camp. She pushes to bring these “mysterious attractions” under the “sovereignty of reason” and the natural. Theater is integral to Letissier’s art and her characters are dramatic, but Letissier’s impersonations are only affected iterations of her true nature and way of being.

In one of her earlier songs, “Starshipper,” (2013) — that features on her debut EP, ­predating “iT” and Chaleur Humaine ­­— Letissier describes the beginnings of this personal journey of self-realization: “If everyone is a disguise / I’ll choose my own way to arise […] If you are here to scrutinize / I’ll choose my own way to arise.” Letissier’s work is reflective of the influence of her artistic predecessors, of the legacy of sexual representation in the public imagination, and the evolution of identity politics, but she is not simply contemporizing and revivifying that aesthetic in pop culture. Letissier’s art asks tough questions about identity and sexuality, sensitive to the struggles and hesitations of feeling comfortable in one’s own skin, that are rarely explored in pop music, and her stage “disguises” are not immune to the trials of marginalization.

On Chaleur Humaine (Human Warmth), the French artist tepidly negotiates the validity of her peculiarities against stilted circumscriptions. “I am actually good / Can’t help it if we’re tilted,” she sings, as if reassuring herself. The choreography and cinematography for the song’s popular music video effectively use enchanting guile — Letissier’s slick manipulation of the dimensions of the frame through simple moves that punctuate linear formations with spirited diversions, whimsy, and fluidity challenge and complicate the point of view. A signature stance of the choreography for the song involves Letissier maintaining her balance on one leg, inducing an almost imperceptible tilt to her disposition. Letissier’s dance moves are rendered as liberating abstractions against the sparse and symmetrical setup — that is solely characterized by a large, rectangular riser. Chaleur Humaine was an exposition of the artist examining the inconsistencies of her being and letting the audience in on a very intimate narrative of alienation and trepidation. In one of her interviews following the success of the album, Letissier hinted at the direction of Christine’s evolution: “Girls are obsessed with being desirable, not desiring […] I love this album and character, but it’s really soft and beautiful. I want to be the girl who lunges at people, wants to eat them.” The artist’s next record would reveal a woman that was not the less “clever” because she was untameably “slutty,” a woman who explores “desire as a force of chaos that surprises” her.

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The artist’s second album, Chris — released this past September — comes after a four-year wait. She wears her hair short ­­now, though it is not stylistically gamine or any variation of a dramatic fade, and her stage character and alter ego simply goes by “Chris.” In an interview with The New York Times, she spoke about this transformation as being “a new chapter in the life of Christine — about a woman she described as ‘horny, hungry and ambitious’.”

The self-assurance the French pop singer has developed during this time is pronounced on the album. Chris is fierce and sensual, and reveals her vulnerabilities with disarming candor that plays off of her masculine energy. Letissier’s radical stage presence has always made her performances irresistibly provocative. As Chris, she now collaborates with a dance troupe, and her synergy with these new characters allows for inventive body talk in the storytelling of her act.

In November 2018, promoting the new album, she performed to a packed house at the Brooklyn Steel in New York City. Today, when she takes the stage to perform the anthemic “iT” she assuredly grabs her crotch and scoffs at the supporting vocalist when he sings the dithering refrain — “But she’ll lose / Because it’s a fake.” On Chris, Letissier doesn’t entertain any self-doubt, her truth is inviolable. But this truth needn’t be construed as qualified fact as some label-obsessed media outlets — that have described the artist as “pan-sexual” and “bisexual” — are wont to do. In interviews, the artist opts to identify as “pan-sexual” for the edification of publications that sometimes qualify her as being bisexual. In an interview with Fader, while expressing frustration at the lack of people’s appreciation of the legitimacy of her relationships with men just because of their ironically narrow interpretation of “pansexuality,” she gets at the root of the crippling inadequacy of categorizations.

People are more comfortable when you answer a question clearly than when you say “Actually, I don’t know.” Because the “I don’t know” is infuriating and scary to them, because it opens an abyss in front of you. Because if I don’t know, why do you know? It’s this weird Freudian shit. I’m not going to simplify just because you feel more comfortable if I do. I was intrigued in working a complicated narrative on the second album.

While labels might serve to constructively complicate the cultural politics of sex as well as the laws that regulate sexual expression, they fall short of more productive, creative conversations about singularity and marginalization, about the broader appreciations of personhood beyond our paltry identifiers for the experience of sex and gender. Christine likewise challenges the careless branding and misuse of the word “queer” in contemporary media. “Queer is about intense questioning that can’t be made nice and glossy,” she explains.

The incisive prose of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (2015) relayed the polysemous curiosities of the word queer. Most notably, Nelson’s engagement with and reaffirmation of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s inquiry brings out the intrinsic quality of queerness that Letissier translates to pop music:

Eve Kosofky Sedgwick wanted to make way for “queer” to hold all kinds of resistances and fracturings and mismatches that have little or nothing to do with sexual orientation. “Queer is a continuing moment, movement, motive — recurrent, eddying, troublant,” she wrote. “Keenly it is relational and strange.” She wanted the term to be a perpetual excitement, a kind of placeholder, a nominative, like Argo, willing to designate molten or shifting parts, a means of asserting while also giving the slip. That is what reclaimed terms do – they retain, they insist on retaining, a sense of the fugitive.

The hook of “Girlfriend,” the first single to release off of Chris, drips with seductive honesty — “Girlfriend, don’t feel like a girlfriend / But lover, damn I’d be your lover.” As the 30-year-old artist dodges gender roles, there also seems to be something unqualifiedly liberating at play here — a rejection of customary practices and commitment, of domestic ideals, of the sublimation of women’s sexual agency. Other than its licentious thrill, the song’s defiant licks are elemental to its sexual verve: “Boys are loading their arms, girls gasp in envy / F-f-for whom are they mimicking endlessly?”

While the artist identifies with a more classically masculine aesthetic — the white T-shirt and short pants of a rock-a-billy or James Dean — she uses performance as a tool to invert gender dynamics. In a poem, “Fragments of a Self-Portrait,” Letissier invokes the spirits of Jean Genet and Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, describing her intent in an interview with Egoiste magazine like this: “Watch me steal the time-worn parades of your manhood, and turn them into something way more suspicious.” Christine doesn’t want the phallus, she wants to transform it. In these ways, Letissier doesn’t neatly fit the narrative of a person identifying with masculinity or femininity for its own sake, nor is she naïve about the potential for inadvertently perpetuating gender stereotypes in queer rebellion. Rather, her visual representation and performances challenge our “ways of seeing” in ways resonant with John Berger’s critique, in ways of seeing, where he explains that:

A man’s presence is dependent upon the promise of power which he embodies. If the promise is large and credible his presence is striking […] The promised power may be moral, physical, temperamental, economic, social, sexual — but its object is always exterior to the man. A man’s presence suggests what he is capable of doing to you or for you. His presence may be fabricated, in the sense that he pretends to be capable of what he is not. But the pretence is always toward a power which he exercises on others.

By contrast, a woman’s presence expresses her own attitude to herself, and defines what can and cannot be done to her. […] To be born a woman has been to be born, within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of men.

Chris works through a non-threatening conception of virility, one that emphasizes the privilege of celebrating your sexual desires and pursuing them with conviction. Most fundamentally, Letissier repudiates the propriety attached to women’s sexuality. (The artist has cited the likes of Madonna as being somewhat inspirational in this regard — in the way Madonna unapologetically owns and chases her desires.) The crude urgency of the language on “Damn (what must a woman do)” attacks the ridiculous artifice of modesty that is expected of women:

Damn, what must a woman do?
Para Follarse, para follarse [to fuck]
[…]
Do I have to pay?
’Cause I sure can pay, can pay

Throughout the album, in her stage persona and performance, the pop singer brandishes her desires and the delicious perversions of sexual indulgence. Letissier revels in the liberating expressions of decadence that are unique to queer expression. As she explained in a recent Vanity Fair interview: “It’s all about the truth of the body. Eroticism is more complex and rougher and more exciting than we’re shown, and since queerness is out of the norm, it embraces all the stuff that society would like to smooth over.” Until very recently, even within queer art certain prejudices associated with the gender binary were still very prevalent. Coarse and unabashed representations of lust and sexuality were mostly the domain of male artists — from William S. Burroughs and Genet to Prince and Fischerspooner — of queer disposition. While a queer artist like Peaches offers similar, aggressive sexual portraiture as her male counterparts, she muddies the terms of feminist inquiry by starkly referencing a hermaphroditic framework. Letissier creates a novel space for the female queer artist as she owns the enticement of libidinous overtures — that have long been the privilege of men — by masterfully upending stereotypes. The fact of being a woman is central to Letissier’s queer identity even as she is “building ambivalence into her femininity.”

While Chris is a wickedly hedonic album, it is also very much an earnest exploration of the difficult and intimate narratives of striving to unapologetically embody your singularity. Songs like “5 Dollars,” “What’s-her-face,” “Doesn’t Matter,” and the devastatingly powerful “The Walker” access feelings of vulnerability and compassion that are contained in the strife. As if it were a postlude to “iT,” “The Walker” lays bare the scars of Letissier’s proud, transgressive existence — one that she won’t renege on. On stage, to the outro to “Here” — from Chaleur Humaine — her body vigorously writhes — as if struggling to break out of her anatomy’s assigned form and reclaiming ownership — under a shallow spotlight. With the final ebbs of the music, with her arms thrust out, Chris mimics taking flight. Performing these songs on stage, she is poignant yet playful, licentious yet tender, proud yet vulnerable. And through the essentiality of the carnal in her art, Letissier reaches for a conceivable version of divinity, vowing devotion to the authenticity of her nature.

As the concert comes to a close at the Brooklyn Steel, Letissier tells the audience she’d like to leave them with a lullaby for the night. Mischief plays across her face as the restless throb of the intro to “Intranquillité” surges through the repurposed warehouse, sound-tracking Letissier’s invitation to embrace your deviance.

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Neha Sharma is a writer based in New York. Her work has appeared in publications like the New Republic, Kirkus Reviews, The Caravan, The Daily Beast, The New York Observer, and Rolling Stone (India).

 

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