Christine and the Queens’ Spaces In-Between

#angryfrenchgirl

In the middle of a kinetic set on the Sunday of last weekend’s Boston Calling, French pop star Heloïse Letissier — known by her stage name Christine and the Queens — offered the joking lament that this is probably how the Boston audience sees her. As a #angryfrenchgirl.

Gallery: Day 3 at the Boston Calling Music Festival | WGBH | Front Row Boston

Jess Barnthouse/Wicked Bird Media

Letissier was playful on stage. She was lighthearted. She was fun. But when an artist has something to say, there may lurk the unrelenting scolds lobbing supposed epithets at them. “She’s an SJW.” “She’s an activist.” Or “she’s angry.” When even Beyonce faces the vituperation of the “shut up and play” crowd, it’s a challenge to be a pop artist with something to say. So Letissier’s tack to disarm her audience and to defuse such criticism was a waggish poise that headed off such shots. “For me, it’s like a boxing ring. You go on stage, you have fun, you try to give energy. You sweat a lot, and hopefully people can click. And today was fun actually, because people clicked,” she said in our interview an hour or so after her set.

So though Letissier isn’t really an angry French girl, she fed the hashtag to those trolls who might tweet or tag their discomfort with her message, a message that blurred lines across categories from gender to genre. Letissier’s identity is not cisgendered. It’s not heteronormative. Likewise, her music is not simple pop. And Letissier is not simply Christine. The truth of both lay in the spaces in between. And Christine and the Queens make the spaces in between stark for their audience.

The conceit of the name Christine and the Queens involves an ambiguity that Letissier loves to exploit. While in interviews she has often pointed out that Christine is a character that emerged from a dark period after a devastating breakup, and the Queens refers to a support group of drag queens in London who helped give her the confidence to launch her career, in a more conventional reception, Christine is her stage name as she fronts the Queens, her backing band and dancers. Whether the audience gets the back story and understands Letissier’s journey as an artist is likely beside the point. What seems to matter when she’s on stage is to consider this angry French girl, and what she has to say about who she is and who her audience is.

Letissier dropped her #angryfrenchgirl line when introducing “Paradis Perdus,” her self-described “weird” mash-up of French pop icon Christophe’s “Les Paradis Perdus” with Kanye’s “Heartless.” The song itself — which FRB’s Christine Champ detailed in our Boston Calling preview — contrasts the foppish personality of Christophe’s narrator with the sensitive and heartbroken text from Kanye’s 808s and Heartbreak. For Kanye, the song was an exercise in raw, soul-bearing earnestness, while Christophe’s persona has always been a bit of a facade, the melancholic dandy. When Letissier performed the song, she interrupted her sprightly set to remain stationary, at centerstage. The contrast between the source material may have been a bit lost on an American audience unfamiliar with the language or the imaginaries of Christophe’s performance, but the passionate and brutal performance contrasted so starkly with what Letissier had offered earlier, in that the energetic and angry French girl became the sad bilingual boy. Toward the end of the set, after assigning identities to flowers in an affecting discourse on gender-fluid acceptance (“Oh, the orange one is Beyonce”), Christine gave away them game: “I feel like a little boy.” As an audience, we were witnessing a performer in-between: French and English, male and female, facade and earnestness. This is what Letissier wanted us to see.

Gallery: Day 3 at the Boston Calling Music Festival | WGBH | Front Row Boston

Jess Barnthouse/Wicked Bird Media

Even the relationship between Héloïse Letissier and Christine remains in-between. The easy assumption is that Christine exists on stage, and Heloïse is the person one meets off-stage. When she tells me, “It’s just like this electricity on stage. I go mad. It’s just sometimes I forget what happens. I don’t remember what I said or did,” it might seem natural to read that as her admitting to a split performing personality. But how many pop stars live out their truest self on stage until, eventally, that truest self becomes their private persona as well (Elton John, Elvis, Madonna, etc.)? And perhaps that may be the case here, but even that seems too simple. We aren’t dealing with a binary, be it #angryfrenchgirl/sad little boy or Christine/Héloïse. Asking that question, in a way, is missing the point. The fact that the contrast exists, and that there’s a space in between those identities? That’s what’s important. That’s what Letissier (or Christine?) would like us to know.

Exploring spaces in-between draws an audience to Christine and the Queens. A sense of mystery and willingness to play with borders has marked so much of the best and most interesting pop music. From Bowie’s gender-bending sci-fi to Madonna’s ironizing on the female archetypes of the madonna and the whore, the spaces in-between are where pop music seems to gain so much of its meaning. With CATQ, such relief exists on record, yet accrues more layers of contrast and meaning on stage. “I wish I could have in the studio the same energy that I have on stage. For some reason, the studio version can be a bit more melancholic. Even my voice is a bit lighter,” Letissier said. What happens in the studio may come off as melancholic, but contrast that with a lively and playful stage presentation, and such disparity becomes intriguing to the audience.

At Boston Calling, a good part of that audience consisted of teenage girls, and outside of perhaps Sia’s Friday headlining set, Christine and the Queens likely drew the youngest audience for the weekend. Though this differs from her earliest audiences in France — “In France, I started by appealing to older people, and then I got the younger people” — Letissier considered the fact that she may be drawing a younger audience in the US. “I actually think that the things I’m talking about in my songs — even the quite gender-y, sexual interrogations — are the things I got around their age. For me, it’s like something that can happen in your head when you’re a teenager. Like all the ideas of feeling like a monster, but trying desperately to relate to others. This is for me the teenage years,” Letissier said. Making a point of speaking for those who don’t know what they’re feeling, Letissier’s message may resonate most strongly with those experiencing the most in-between stage of their life: adolescence.

Toward the end of our interview, I interrogated Christine briefly on how her own upbringing, particularly her town of Nantes, affected her music and stage persona given the fact that Nantes has gained a reputation as a rapidly evolving technoindustrial center in France. She said, “It’s one of the few [cities] in France where you can actually witness things changing all the time, like, ‘Oh!’ And I remember growing up in the city being really dynamic, culturally. Great music. Great things to see. Great things to do. Really, like, alive.” The shifting landscape of her hometown, and the passing influences of classic French pop musicians like Christophe certainly add depth to the available interpretations of Christine and the Queens’ contemporary pop music. And the possibility of understanding her music and message from a variety of interpretive horizons seems to be at the tip of Letissier’s mind. At one point in our interview, she slipped a false cognate from her native French into our conversation. Regarding how she approaches performance, Letissier said, “I’m always trying to bring another lecture.” Another lecture, meaning another reading. Another way of understanding, of analyzing. If her own identity is fluid, Letissier is comfortable with, if not a champion of, her audience’s fluid identities and their views of her work. If anything, prodding her audience with this type of dynamism is Letissier’s primary goal.

“Aesthetically, I’m interested in creating links between things that aren’t obviously linked. Because this is a great challenge. And even being pop, but being weird, like, meaning having weird references but still trying to do efficient pop music, all those things are obsessing me. I just want to be a Trojan horse. At first it’s efficient, but then you’re like, ‘Oh! This is actually interesting.’ I’m trying to do that.”

Efficient pop music can sometimes deliver the most trangressive messages. If it takes that delivery to be a Trojan Horse for the world of pop music, then Letissier is well on her way.