Image credit: Ella Mansell
The first summer heatwave of 2019 inaugurates June in Paris and a fervent buzz grows louder in Bois de Vincennes as my friends and I wait in anticipation for headline act Christine and the Queens at the ‘We Love Green’ festival.
Christine and the Queens, born Héloïse Adelaide Letissier, is an award-winning French music artist whose top hits have graced French, UK and US popular music charts. Characterised by an 80s electropop influence infused with modern indie pop and strong, repetitive bass lines, their music is nothing if not addictive. With forward-thinking political lyrics, Christine, also known across the industry as Chris, attributes their music to navigating the androcentric music industry and public sphere as a self-identifying genderqueer, pansexual artist. Best-selling titles such as the eponymous ‘Christine’, ‘Girlfriend’, ‘Saint Claude’, ‘iT’ and ‘La marcheuse’ permeate mainstream music with a discourse and experience that falls outside gender and sexual hegemony.
In an interview with Attitude Magazine, Letissier expressed themselves as ‘someone who escapes binarism and works on something more fluid’, with gender and sexuality as transitory. The opening track ‘iT’ on Christine and the Queens’ debut album ‘Chaleur Humaine’ (Human Warmth) delves into the possibility of biological fluidity by being figuratively ‘born again’ with male anatomy, and the stereotypical implications of male hedonism and violence that come with this. This Freudian look into the implications of sexed experience on gendered experience simultaneously draws attention to and fractures the links between the two, raising the possibility of cohabitation of the male and female within one biological site. Through the song, Christine also calls into question ideas of realness and passing as loaded struggles. However, whilst it is not a penis that makes a man a man, the role of the body in the performance of gender is an idea central to Christine and the Queens’ live performances and music videos through dance.
Dance is interdisciplinary as both Christine and the backup dancers move between stasis and movement, unity and solo pieces, choreographed dance and sporadic brawl. Ballet and hip-hop, historically female and male spheres within dance, are fused to create an androgynous choreography.
‘Comme si on s’aimait’ (As if we loved each other) kicks off Christine and the Queens’ festival set. Christine enters the stage alone, only to be joined by backup dancers midway through the track. Sex as a taboo is shattered as Christine centralises bodily desire in their honest lyrics and stripped-down live performance. Yet, rather than becoming an object of a sexualising gaze, Chris’s body is made the subject of sexual expression. Their performance is a reauthorisation of desire through dance, costume and lyrics. From Christine’s signature unbuttoned, burnt orange shirt over a black two-piece ensemble to the androgynous dance moves, their fluidity is expressed and celebrated. The dancers, whilst united, do not form one body of movement on stage and instead complement one another with their individuality. Each separate body is presented on stage as a centre of personal experience, the body in conversation with the voice and mind. In fact, like their changing lyrics, Chris’s body is rarely static on stage but is instead a constant site of movement, of transformation. Dance therefore transcends the strict binaries of the gendered French language and lyrics, to become another mode of expression for the performers.
‘La marcheuse’ (The walker) a song of isolation and personal journey and the fifth on Christine and the Queens’ setlist, sees the dancers leaving the stage once again. Christine’s body on stage becomes an image of vulnerability. Despite experimentation with masculine tropes, Christine and the Queens’ music is laced with the typically female experience as they discuss sexual harassment, prejudice and assault in public settings. Christine poignantly outlines these experiences in their onstage prelude, with support from the audience.
‘The Queens’ in Christine’s stage name pays homage to drag artists Adelaide Letissier (Christine) encountered in Madame Jojo’s nightclub in London, according to an interview for Terrafemina. They introduced Letissier to ‘the idea of creating a character, inventing another silhouette’, revealing to Christine that understanding identity as a transformative act is key. Identity is not a stable site so it can be reinvented, reshaped. Christine and the Queens is a reminder that we can change who we identify as. Yet they are also a reminder of those who formed the groundwork for these liberations, and the historical persecutions of those who fight for and are outcast by their queerness, whether gender or sexual. These people, such as Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera and Pepper Lebeija should be commemorated and celebrated, but not overshadowed or appropriated by white public figures. Music provokes these interesting questions of visibility in comparison to mainstreaming.
As the sun sets over the festival crowd, the ‘Chaleur Humaine’ (Human Warmth) of Christine and the Queens’ choral vocals escape the stage and infiltrates me and my friends in the audience, a musical mimesis. Their music and performance, as always, remains a melodic ode to all womxn.
Edited by Emma Short, Music Editor, and Malina Aniol, Sex and Relationships Editor