Christine and the Queens: A portrait of Chris

© Michelle Helena Janssen
Jacket: Alex Eagle
Trousers: Acne Studios

Words by:

The mood in Salle Pleyel is serious as we wait for Chris – the musician born Héloïse Letissier – to debut her sophomore album, also called Chris. Phones have been confiscated, drinks are banished from the auditorium and, like waiting staff at a posh restaurant, ushers personally guide ticket-holders to seats at the slick wood and slate-black Paris venue. The event feels like it’s taking place inside a Bang & Olufsen speaker.

But just when the formality seems too much, the opening synth burst of Comme Si, a luminous and coolly euphoric track deserving a spot opening a forgotten John Hughes film, sends vibrations through the crowd. Chris and her dancers – the troupe (LA)HORDE – compete with each other, and she charges about with all the scamp and puckish charm of an adolescent boy. Strutting in whopping white sneakers, she chucks her bravado about like she’s Back to the Future-era Michael J Fox. Or Leonardo DiCaprio in Romeo + Juliet, or Justin Bieber, or James Dean, or Michael Jackson circa Off the Wall, or any other passionate heartthrob at his peak. Halfway through the show, she undoes her billowing red shirt just enough to expose a simple black bra, and the audience whoops, before checking themselves and laughing at their own boorishness.

It wasn’t always like this, Chris explains a week earlier in an east London restaurant. The first Christine & the Queens album – 2014’s Chaleur Humaine – sold one million copies worldwide and attracted over 194 million streams by January 2017. Alongside critical acclaim, and appreciation for its subversive and candid exploration of gender, sex and humanity, it won Chris four Victories de la Musique, awarded by the French government’s department for culture. Chris, though, is far more “grounded”.

© Michelle Helena Janssen
Crop top: Stylist's own
Trousers: Acne Studios

“There is a physicality… it’s sweat and muscles,” Chris tells me, fresh from Crack Magazine’s cover shoot in a long-sleeved black t-shirt with a dog-collar neck. “Before, I was dreaming of being nothing – not in a bad way!” At this point, she pauses, adopts a high-pitched hyperactive squeal and exclaims, “She just wants to be nothing, a mist!” before resuming: “the second one brought me back here.” She taps her fingertips so hard on the table between us, her knuckles whiten.

Chris is reminiscent of early Madonna, both Janet and Michael Jackson, Cameo, Shannon and Chaka Khan, themselves influenced by the hip-thrusting power of tough basslines and 80s drum machines. The result is a record drenched in sexuality, supercharged with desire. It’s a bold step away from her former presence – all languid movements and hazy vocals – and it feels iconic.

This new incarnation of Chris represents a willingness to wrench gender from its two fixed binaries. Letissier has long referred to herself as genderfluid and much has been made of the new album’s promotional material. In some instances, the “tine and the Queens” is scratched out to leave a simple “Chris”, and visuals feature a fresh-faced Chris frowning, in neutral, functional shirts, vests, heavy tweed coats and baggy trousers. She’s got “masculine energy”, “big dick energy”, and, according to her, she is “obsessed with the idea of macho”.

This is revolutionary in the context of her French homeland. In France, attitudes towards women’s sexual freedom have been hotly contested, most recently evidenced by an open letter attacking #MeToo. Co-signed by 100 of the country’s most iconic entertainers and businesswomen, it highlighted the reactionary views of France’s cultural elite, who seem to relish having views as retrograde as the manual doors on the Parisian Métro. Does Chris take pleasure in confronting such reactionary views on womanhood? She’s not exactly Dan Bilzerian, but somehow her butchness, in this landscape, is still disarming.

“I’m surprised at how easily disarming it is, because I don’t think I look overly…” Chris raises her hands into Popeye fists and flexes, adding: “and people took the haircut as a statement of ultimate masculinity. But I was like, ‘Dude, I just have short hair.’”

Chris’ hair looks kind of Mia Farrow today anyway, I suggest. She breezes past the compliment, getting straight to the theory: “Because I’m talking about gender and its construction, at one point people asked me if I was transitioning. I was like, ‘Have you seen the breasts on the poster?’ I just have short hair as a woman.” Femininity, to Chris, is “so small and easy to break out of. Just like masculinity!”

“Masculinity needs to be defused. It all needs to fall down and be rebuilt”

The finest example of this on the record is Damn (What Must a Woman Do), an ear-wormy Yazoo-does-dubstep ode to lust. On it, she whispers “Let me taste on a butch babe in LA” before her bluesy vocals wail “Damn what must a woman do/ Para follarse” – the latter words translating in Spanish as “for a fuck”. However, when Chris performs this at Salle Pleyel, she prowls after her male dancers, pulling them in close then pushing them off, taunting them with her assertive sexuality. Does Chris – who’s watched Netflix comedy special Nanette, where Hannah Gadsby says she dresses like a man because “you guys need a good role model” – think masculinity needs a rebrand?

“A rebrand? Masculinity needs to be defused. It’s not even about rebranding, it all needs to fall down and be rebuilt and restructured.”

The video for Girlfriend, where a lithe and muscular Chris scrambles around the construction site of a 1930s skyscraper, pestering the men working on the erection of this giant phallic tribute, now clicks into place. Perhaps “rebrand” is too much of a marketing term, I concede. “Sometimes people in France tell me, ‘enough about the gender marketing’,” Chris replies. “But I was born having to think about that, having to think outside the norm. So please don’t tell me it’s marketing, darling,” she camply explains, drawling the ‘darling’. “Thank you very much, bye bye!”

“When you are an outcast, queer, different,” she continues, “you get to defuse violence by getting to know where it comes from. Even now when I’m talking about the album, dudes can be aggressive with me. I’m like, ‘My desire, unabashedly exposed, is an aggression to you? It’s not about me, it’s about how I make you feel… it was about what I represent.”

© Michelle Helena Janssen
Crop Top: Stylist's Own
Trousers: Acne Studios

“Extreme sadness and extreme horniness. This album is very much #AllTheFeels”

Chris is waging a gendered land-grab on all the bros by producing her music and pinching qualities that have, arbitrarily, been reserved for them. The result is liberation: as she straps into a Mapplethorpe retrospective’s worth of bondage leathers in the video for 5 Dollars, she gets to possess her own sexual objectification, snarling at herself in the mirror, pointing angry little gun fingers at herself, like DeNiro in Taxi Driver. “I actually feel more comfortable with patriarchal tropes, with them, we [women] can take more space, we can be desiring without being shamed. And if I get to explore them as a woman, I’m not turning into a man, I’m just using that theatricality for myself, because why should they be the only ones using it?”

There is a limit, though. As the tragic video for Doesn’t Matter shows, a woman can play along with the boys, but it doesn’t mean they’re given the same rules. The man she prances about with eventually hurts her, and all she can do is rage at the injustice.

Chris, who grew up in Nantes with a teacher and lecturer for parents, first wanted to make it in theatre, but was ejected from the École normale supérieure de Lyon for insubordination after defying a tutor who insisted women couldn’t direct. “It’s not me being aggressive,” she says, calmly but quickly. “If me just saying it loudly is aggression to some people, it means that we have lots of work to do.” So she started making music in 2011 with her folksy, piano-heavy debut, the self-released EP Miséricorde, and from then on, it was all on her terms. “Sometimes it’s hard, because you know you’re going to sound like a bossy bitch.”

Jacket: Michael Browne
Top: Stylist's own
Trousers: Acne Studios
Jacket: Alex Eagle
Trousers: Acne Studios
Trainers: Magnum

“The great thing women have to unlearn – and it’s not our fault – is the idea of never displeasing. It’s like a fucking disease that we have, especially when we want to assume power. Getting rid of that was a big challenge for me because I want to be nice.” She pauses, then adds, in her clipped English: “To a point.”

Chris featured Perfume Genius as the only guest on her 2014 debut album, and has maintained this collaboration quota on Chris, only inviting LA funk producer Dâm Funk to work with her. Would features be more appealing if she could produce others’ records, rather than slot into the mould of a young female artist singing over a male producer’s backing track? “It depends on the person. I think it’s easier for me to collaborate when I’m friends [with the other artist]. I still have self confidence issues and issues with shyness. I’d love to write a monologue for Madonna. I’ll never ask her and it’s incredibly pretentious for me to say, but I see theatricality there – it’s more than just writing a song!”

Though Chris is like Madonna, the eponymous 1983 record, both musically and in the way it tugs on the constraints put on female sexuality, lyrically, it goes far darker. On The Walker, she sings of bleak isolation, Doesn’t Matter is about death and female vulnerability, and Goya Soda is based on a Goya painting of Saturn eating his son. Even 5 Dollars, with that kinky video, has the refrain “I grieve by dying every night, baby”.

Chaleur Humaine was sad, sad, sad, and Chris is more like, sadness is a weird thrill and it sets you into motion,” Chris explains, keen that she isn’t depicted as maudlin. “On Doesn’t Matter, it’s precisely because the beat is aggressive and walking tall and being tough that I can allow myself to be completely vulnerable.”

The record is a celebration, then, of all of life’s emotions, especially, “extreme sadness and extreme horniness. This album is very much #AllTheFeels. And the stamina gives me the right set-up to be exhilarated by feels. I am very much in love and in lust – I wouldn’t be at this table otherwise.”

Plus, who says it’s all about her anyway? She cites her namesake, Chris Kraus, who noted in her 1997 book I Love Dick, that women aren’t considered capable of writing through others’ points of view in the way men can. “Even in art women are refused the apersonal, meaning that I’m writing or you’re writing and if you’re a woman it [must be] true, because we’re incapable of sublimating anything in the imagination.”

“People say to me, ‘Don’t you think you’re giving away too much of your private life?’ And it’s like, ‘How can you tell it’s even private? Don’t you think I’m a good storyteller?’”

In Paris, as Chris stomps around the Salle Pleyel, she’s telling a new story. This time as the leader of a pack of lads. Together with Chris, they look like Peter Pan’s lost boys by way of West Side Story. As they bop and lurch and swagger, arms crossed, brows furrowed, they make a beautiful mockery of masculinity’s sincerity, the pageantry of its toughness. And the crowd erupts.

Photography: Michelle Helena Janssen
Styling: Ade Udoma

Chris is out now via Because Music

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