Feminism, gender fluidity, and France: In conversation with Christine and the Queens
“Cause what I have left, baby / What gives me hope maybe / Are weathering fires when I’m dancing” — a slightly accented voice delivers the lyrics like a sermon, and then a stunning electric glide gives way to the next verse. The song is “Safe and Holy,” and it’s one of the many standout tracks on French artist Christine and the Queens’ recently released self-titled album.
Or rather, recently compiled self-titled album. Héloïse Letissier, under her performing name (inspired by her showier, not-quite-alter-ego Christine, and the group of drag queens who helped her along in her identity formation), has been steadily releasing music for years, albeit only in France. “Safe and Holy,” for example, came out on her 2012 EP Mac Abbey. “iT,” the pronoun-playing song whose chorus earnestly boasts “I’m a man now,” came out on 2011’s Miséricorde. Known within the music world for her high energy, dancer-backed performances, and a playful but not irreverent attitude toward gender and sexuality, Letissier’s emerged as one of pop’s most subversive, smart, and show-stopping voices.
But while Christine has become a headlining name in her homeland, the transition across the Atlantic required some lyrical translation — after all, it’s much easier to fall in love with someone who speaks your language. So Letissier reworked some of her French lyrics into English, added some older and new tracks to her 2014 album Chaleur humaine, et voilà: A best-of/introduction, a contradiction, not unlike the singer herself.
HelloGiggles had the chance to speak with Letissier after she opened for the equally theatrical Marina & the Diamonds, during the latter’s Neon Nature tour stop at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles. Our conversation covered everything from modern musicals to being a “Trojan horse” for questioning femininity to the struggle, but necessity, in standing up for your own work.
HelloGiggles: I noticed you were speaking with a couple of French-speaking fans outside. Do you meet up with a lot of French speakers, ex-pats around the world, and how does it feel to find that language community?
Christine and the Queens: I was quite surprised to see French people here! There aren’t so many this time, because this is Marina’s tour, but it’s cool because she has a great audience. I did some headline shows in Norway or in America, and it’s a lot of French people. It’s fun because I have an American version of the album, so I translated some songs. The French people will be like, “Sing in French!” So then I’m mixing all the versions together.
HG: I’ve heard from other non-English-only artists before that sometimes it can be a weird choice of, “I’m going to sing this, in this language, that I know a huge part of the music-listening community isn’t going to understand.” How do you make the decisions as to which songs, and which parts of songs, go in French or English?
C&TQ: The language is actually a weird part of the process from the beginning, even with my French album. Some songs have an English chorus and a French verse. In the beginning, in France, people were like, “Why don’t you write the whole song in French or a whole song in English?” I like to play with the two languages because for me, it’s a different way of writing. Of course, when I’m writing in English, I don’t have the same tools as when I write in French, because I’m not bilingual. It’s quite naive and direct. With French, I’m more at ease, I can play more with images and rhythm.
It was always a back-and-forth, so when I got the chance to release the album in the U.S., I immediately thought all about translating some songs. I chose the ones I wanted to translate because I wanted some to be quite direct and more efficient, and I wanted people to understand exactly what I was saying. A song like “Half Ladies,” for example, is about being a different type of girl, an awkward girl, but being beautiful in that way. I wanted that song to be quite clear. But some others, like “Saint Claude” and “Here,” I didn’t touch because I felt they were just good like that. HG: It’s interesting because a lot of American artists won’t do the same thing. So for international artists, the music industry, or the movie industry, is about expanding your approaches. On that note, your performance includes a lot of dance. That’s super fun! But a lot of people don’t go nearly as all out with that.
Even female artists who have dance as a component of their expression, they won’t necessarily bring it into a live show the way you do, or someone like FKA twigs does. What is the impetus for making that so much a part of your live performance?
C&TQ: The character Christine was born with the dancing. It was a huge part of her from the beginning, but Christine is about being more daring, more carefree. For me, being free of being self-conscious came through dancing as well. It didn’t have to be beautiful or sexy or anything, it just had to be an expression. Christine right away had an attitude and dance moves, and the more I did that, the more I wanted to do that, the more I wanted to work on it, on my own at first. Then I met an amazing choreographer, Marion Motin, who has this mix of languages. She can be really manly; she brought hip-hop to me because I did a lot of classical ballet. Then Nick, who’s one of my dancers, is a voguer.
I like the fact that I’m dancing with people who have different personalities. Diablo is more hip-hop and like, breaking bones, whereas Nick is voguing. It’s not like routines of dancing like some artists can do; it’s more about what you can express. I’m improving, but I want to keep something quite genuine, improvising as well. I don’t want it to feel like, “I have to do this!” I’m fascinated by the performance aspect as well. I love singing and dancing, and not using any backup vocalists, to try to do it all the way. At first it was quite hard, but now I feel like an athlete. I admire Beyoncé for that! The performance aspect of it.
HG: I love that all the examples of artists you love, which you shouted out on stage, were all women in the American music world (Beyoncé, Rihanna, Lady Gaga, etc). Some of them have that dance component, some of them don’t, but they all have very distinct images. Yet Christine and the Queens occupies a really niche place that none of them are touching — wearing masculine clothing, etc. Whereas many of those artists are capital-W Women.
Part of the reason your album is so cool is that you can mix these international elements within a persona that’s mixing gender boundaries. When it comes to your gender performance and gender identity, as you travel around the world, how do you negotiate and/or change your ways of expressing them?
C&TQ: I never really changed what I was saying or what my character is, but peoples’ reactions change. I never got hostile reactions, but I also haven’t done a full America tour; I don’t know in which part it could be like, “Oh.” Even in France, it depends on the cities. I’m always opening my show in France saying, “You can be whoever you want to tonight, and I am a little boy.” And sometimes people are not “getting it,” but when you’re an artist, you have this weird place where people see you as performance artists. So you get to say things more lightly, even though they’re quite heavy inside for you.
When I say I want to be a little boy, I really wanted sometimes to be a little boy and to be free of all these labels people put on you because you’re born a woman. But because you’re on stage, and the stage is a weird space where anything is possible, people kind of accept it. You get to try and say things, but on stage, gender is a performance, really, and in society that’s where the problem is: It can’t be a performance anymore. I feel like I’m lucky because of this weird job I have to try . . . I feel like if I can just succeed in raising eyebrows, or raising a question inside someone’s head, [it] is a beginning. People usually get the playful side of it: “You can be whoever you want to be tonight, okay!” But the more and more I think about what’s my role as an artist, I don’t want to do politics or anything but I wish I could do maybe more.
HG: Kanye West for president.
C&TQ: I know . . . Do you really think he’s going to run?
HG: No one would’ve said Donald Trump would be running four years ago, so.
C&TQ: That’s true, everything is possible. But yeah, I don’t want to be president or anything, but I should definitely step up for the things I’m saying on stage. It’s a good thing, if I’m just planting seeds, invisible seeds, by just existing with this character. I’m not an extreme character in terms of gender; I’m not Planningtorock, for example; she’s really questioning gender. But in France, my character is quite friendly and soft, but I’m raising questions like, “What is being feminine? Do we have to wear dresses just to be feminine? Is there another way to be feminine?” It’s small things that I can try to do. I’m not extreme punk, I’m friendly and I do jokes. It’s like a Trojan horse — I want to do that, be that.
HG: Touring with someone like Marina, the audience has a lot of very young girls. When you have so many female performers walking the line between masculinity and femininity, saying, “I’m not just straight, I’m not just gay, I’m queer, I’m pan,” that’s important. For a show like this, are you conscious of the feedback from the audience, and not just from people who are at the front row of the pit? Do you think people are “getting” your character?
C&TQ: Especially when you’re opening for someone else, you have 40 minutes to try to introduce yourself. The energy I have when I’m dancing, which isn’t really sexy, the things I’m saying in between songs, the lyrics — they’re clues about what I can be. I really rely on the energy of my dancing, and my quite simple, masculine outfit, to make people curious about me. Then, maybe they see the video clips, I’m really proud of those and think they present the character well. Back in France, I have a full show, an hour and a half. You get to have an aesthetic and sing all the songs. Here, it’s back to, “Hi, it’s Christine. Maybe you want to see more of me.” The challenge is to do that, and I don’t know if I’m succeeding! I’ll have to ask people, “Did you understand everything? What do you think of me?”
HG: You do have a comedian/show person vibe. Do you practice that at all?
C&TQ: I don’t! The best jokes come quite naturally, like the ones tonight. But before I made music, I did make a lot of theater; I wanted to be a stage director. I did lots of stages as a comedian, and I was really good at comical roles. Every time we were doing a Shakespeare play, everyone was like, “Who will play the fool? Héloïse?” When I started with Christine’s character, I had a huge reference for the shows: Andy Kaufman.
That was a bit weird for French people because I was staring for minutes into the silence like that. [Ed. note: Letissier then demonstrates.] I’d be like, “I’m doing Andy Kaufman, that’s cool!”, and people would be like “Uhhh.” I like the way you can play with the feeling of being uneasy, or being on the edge, and then you crack a joke. Again, it’s about being a Trojan horse; you can do really heavy songs like “Saint Claude” and then make a joke, and you can move on. It’s a way to protect myself as well; having a good sense of humor is like being polite in a way, so you get to be gracious and elegant and not polluting people with your dark thoughts. Because usually funny people are the sad ones as well! This is a way to relate while being light. One day, one old lady came after my show and was like, “If the music doesn’t work, you should start a one-woman show!” I was like, “Thanks for the advice.”
HG: The seeds are planted for another character.
C&TQ: Right? Maybe when I’m 60 years old, I’ll kill Christine and start a new act.
HG: That’d make a very interesting music video.
C&TQ: “Killing Christine.”
HG: Part of the ease that you might have — or at least, it looks very, very easy from the outside, which is the case for any good performer. You do have that theater aspect and that performance art aspect, so when you’re building out the visual components of your music, do you have every concept about it built from the beginning of a song? Or, does the song come and then the rest follows?
C&TQ: I’m more the kind of artist for [whom] everything comes together quite quickly. I really value the music, it’s the start of everything, but when I’m writing a song, I have ideas as to how I want to perform it, if I want to dance on it. For example, “Saint Claude,” I immediately had an idea as to how to do a video clip. I thought, “I don’t want it to be narrative, just me dancing and maybe being slowly deformed.” It helped, sometimes, finishing the song or finishing the production.
It comes because of my stage directing days, where you learn to make everything resonate. You have to play with lots of disciplines and it’s the fun of it. Music is a way of being a stage director, but in another way, in the production and in the music. I’m a huge fan of James Blake because he’s staging the silences and the music. I don’t feel like I have a great voice, so I’m staging my voice as well. I perform and use my voice in different ways, and dance a lot. I don’t know how to separate them. Even the new songs come with new aesthetics and a new Christine and new outfits. Feels like a musical, creating a huge musical.
HG: Speaking of musicals, during “Safe and Holy,” with the stage setup and the way the sound comes through in the Greek (a huge outdoor amphitheater), it reminded me of the opening of The Phantom of the Opera. What other musicals are touchstones for your performances and/or the music itself?
C&TQ: I grew up with lots of different musicals because my mom made me watch so many good ones. I had the classics: Singin’ in the Rain, An American in Paris, and Les Demoiselles de Rochefort [The Young Girls of Rochefort], which is a really good French musical. I don’t know if it fits into the musical side, but my favorite movie ever is kind of a musical, by Bob Fosse: All That Jazz. It’s not quite a musical because the songs were not [written] for the movie, but it has musical numbers in it, and it’s about a guy who can’t live his life without staging it all the time. I can relate to that!
There was this pleasure in seeing performers singing and dancing their way through the story, creating a song, then moving onto dialogue and then song again. This is probably why I love dancing and singing so much because I was just exposed to great musicals when I was young.
HG: Something that does help with music is if you have a really strong visual component in it; musicals have that built in. Are there any other new musicals that you’re checking out?
C&TQ: I don’t really know what’s new! Do you know some new ones?
HG: There’s one in New York right now that a lot of people I follow like, called Hamilton. It’s retelling the story of America’s founding fathers through hip-hop? The Book of Mormon, a very American one. It’s so interesting that in conversations about art, performance art is considered high culture, musicals are their own thing, and opera’s its own thing, but in pop, you have the ability to bring those influences together.
C&TQ: You don’t get to say what’s tasteful or not. This is what I love about pop music. I don’t feel like indie and mainstream make sense when you’re a pop artist, because you feed on everything. For me, Grimes is a pop artist: She’s a pop star, she’s a rock star. I’m waiting for her new album, like, “Drop it! Already!”
HG: Unlike Frank Ocean . . .
C&TQ: We’re still waiting! On the first of August, I was like, “Dude.”
HG: I love talking to artists about other artists, and everybody wants Frank Ocean to drop his new album.
C&TQ: Maybe he knows it, and freaks out because of that.
HG: What other influences are you pulling into Christine and the Queens? And, does it change?
C&TQ: Yes, it does; I have a first album and I’m thinking about the second one. It already feels like two different things. That’s the fun of it: For the first album, I wanted a really minimalistic universe, clips that could be like paintings with huge colors, like red. In my live shows in France, it’s like that, I think about paintings and minimalist lighting in bright colors. Like I’m thinking about stage directors like Bob Wilson, he’s working stage design like paintings.
For the dance, I was thinking Michael Jackson meets Pina Bausch. I needed to think about a coherent universe. The second one is gonna be a bit different; I can’t say how now, because it’s too early, but I have different references involved. It’s always a mix of always different influences like stage directors, musicians, dancers, and I don’t feel like I’m just inspired by musicians. I could possibly be inspired by an Instagram, by Petra Collins’ pictures.
HG: I actually interviewed her a couple months ago! She’s so good.
C&TQ: I love her work! And the first album was about my teenage years as well, and this is why I love him so much—
HG: Did you just call your album “him”?
C&TQ: I just realized it as well! I don’t even know if it’s a boy!
HG: It’s your baby!
C&TQ: Yeah, and a diary as well. And I’m saying Petra Collins, because I love how she displays different ways to be a teenager and a woman, that I find personally beautiful and real, flawed but in beautiful ways. I loved when she posted pictures of her with spots and like, breakouts. It’s so great!
I wish I could’ve grown up with like, Lorde for example. Because I grew up with girls in magazines who had always to be beautiful and flawless, without pores. I suffered from it because I had acne, and it didn’t feel good, and then Lorde came in. I was 25 and thought, “Dammit, that’s just cool.”
It’s only starting now, as women, deciding how we want to be pictured. We decide that, we shall not be perfect. It’s quite cool to see it, but I really want it to be a bit faster than that!
HG: Someone as famous as Demi Lovato is going to Vanity Fair with no makeup, no retouching, and that’s something that goes against the image of like, “Ex-Disney star goes to Vanity Fair for a photoshoot.” For someone who is looking at it from outside the direct mainstream, do you see this sea of change as having affected your work, or did your project start and then happen to flow in that direction?
C&TQ: Well, my character’s work has been about that, about being flawed but embracing it. It came from this meeting I had with the drag queens, that introduced me to this queer aesthetic, embracing your flaws and making your scars, crowns. That really moved me, because I felt like girl culture wasn’t there yet, and I found it in queer culture.
I was starting the project when Lorde was exploding, but in France, it’s just starting to be an issue now. For example, I’m doing photoshoots in France, and I have to be asked not to be Photoshopped. Sometimes they just don’t accept that, like, “No, we’re going to Photoshop you.” Why did you call me in the first place? I’m not a model, and I don’t want to be one.
America is a bit interesting, because I feel like you guys are advanced even though it’s quite violent and contrasted. You articulate those issues more. In France, racism and queer culture and feminism are not really articulated yet. You are articulating it, even if it’s still violent and problematic.
American actresses, it’s quite cool to say that they’re feminists. In France, they don’t even want to say the word because it feels “dirty” to say you’re a feminist. I wish France could catch up, and I wish some more girls could be loud and proud and weird. But it’s quite cool to be an artist right now; it’s a challenging time, because we have to take positions and be brave, and sometimes there are no people encouraging you. I mean, in France, they really wanted me to not really say that I was bisexual or anything at first. I was like, “Why? My album is [about] being not sure who I want to be.” Why would I hide? I don’t hide in my songs, why would I hide in interviews?
HG: Growing up, I always thought France was a lot more liberated when it came to sexuality! That’s the American perception of France, where everybody goes and loves each other and it’s so romantic! And then you’re big in France—
C&TQ: For now!
HG: But for someone like you to ascend there, that does signal some sort of change, or at least tacit acceptance. The question then becomes how to make it less tacit.
C&TQ: Well, I don’t know why Christine is so successful in France, but I feel like people love this thing about me, that I’m speaking out about these issues. It helped me in a good way, to be honest and sincere about a lot of things, and to embrace the weirdness of the character. But I don’t know if it’s progressing though, if I’m this exception . . .
Last week on Twitter, I said something about always being robbed of your work as a woman. For example, in my video clips, all the ideas are from me, but then French journalists say, “This video clip” and then all of a sudden, you’re just a girl in the video clip that you didn’t think of. So I said, “Jesus, can’t people just acknowledge that I, I, had the ideas, and I made the songs into production?”
(Allow me to speak here because it’s extremely frustrating to work this project in all details of its clips 1/2)
(And understand later that it is sufficient that a man is in the room with you so that it is considered the origin of your ideas 2/2)
And French journalists said terrible things about this tweet, like, “Oh, she’s just having periods! She’s just yelling!” There’s a lot to work on.
HG: The same thing happened with Grimes, and she actually Instagrammed her production credits just to make sure that people knew it was her.
C&TQ: It is so tiring. She’s a fighter, and I’m really . . . I love her. She’s like, “F—k it, I’m going to do it on my own. I did it on my own.” You have to be in good shape to fight all the time for that.
At the same time, it’s a good fight to fight.
HG: And you’re doing it in a way that’s actually comfortable to you.
C&TQ: It’s also not always depressing. I get to meet young girls who are like, 14, 15-years-old, and then say, “Thank you, this made me want to be my own boss” and stuff like that. So if you can inspire three girls to do their thing, that’s good. That’s something worth doing.
When you’re an artist, you have to think, what would you have loved to like as a young girl? I always think, with Christine, “What did you lack? What did you want to see?”
HG: If Christine had been your Barbie, or something like that.
C&TQ: Well that’s just like, [mimics snapping something in half]. She’s still dancing, she’s broken!
HG: Oh, that’s dark! That reminds me of FKA twigs’ “I’m Your Doll” music video.
Something I sometimes forget, as someone who covers music a lot, is that just because we have a lot of really interesting female and non-binary artists out there representing themselves, pretty freely all things considered, this wasn’t the case even a few years back. Like, when Lady Gaga first became someone, people would make stupid jokes like, “Oh, she’s really a man!”
C&TQ: She embraced the rumors, that was cool!
HG: So to go from that to having trans rights being at the forefront of LGBTQA+ issues, it’s literally mind-boggling. Especially since around the world, things haven’t caught on as quickly. Anybody who is pushing that conversation forward in whatever way they can, it’s this catch-22 of also realizing that there’s so much more to do.
C&TQ: It’s for everyone’s benefit. Feminism, it helps men, as well. If we don’t have one way to be a woman, then we don’t have one way to be a man. Everybody wins!
There’s a lot to be done, still. Because you feel, with the Internet, with discussion articles, it comes in waves. It goes forward, and then it goes backward, and then it goes forward again. With the Internet, with people like FKA twigs and Arca, you get to see more and more ways of existing. People are going to be, hopefully, exposed to many different ways to be an artist and a man and a woman and a trans man and a trans woman.
It’s all about being seen and heard, a fight to be recognized and to be there. The more brave artists we have, the more people will catch on.
Do you mind if I eat?
HG: Oh yeah, go for it! What’s your favorite tour meal?
C&TQ: I don’t know. I love eating! I don’t cook, so when I tour, I benefit from the cooking at every venue.
When you’re touring, you have to be careful as well. Because I’m dancing, I can’t really go with French fries all the time, even if I would love to. I’m like a kid — feed me whatever, sometimes I like it and sometimes no.
HG: Man, food and women can be weird sometimes. (“That’s a cool thing to say!”) Not in terms of women eating food, but when it comes to body image stuff, diet culture.
C&TQ: People are only now beginning to separate what you look like and what you consume. It’s so intrusive, like, “You should eat that!” You don’t even know what I eat! Some things are diseases passed on by parents.
Being a woman is about being commented on all the time. “You should wear these! You should eat that!” It’s constant. Even racist remarks about veiled women; why should you say to women what they should do? We have to fight for our right to live in our bodies the way we want to, and even me, with this silly stage character, I still had guys being like, “You could be pretty, you could wear a dress! Why don’t you?” I was like, “F—k you, I don’t want to wear a dress, I feel comfortable dancing in pants.”
HG: People need to stop telling women what to do, across the board, but especially when they’re kicking ass! What’re you doing? What’re you doing to advance yourself? People on the Internet . . .
C&TQ: They’re so mean! But sometimes it’s quite funny, because it gets to levels of absurdity, like, “You should cut your hair and eat your head!” Like, okay?! That was quite a nice way to say that you hate me, that’s inventive, I like it.
I’m obsessed with haters. I have a weird fascination with them; I spend hours to read mean comments about me. It fuels some kind of creative energy. I thrive on being unloved in a way: Oh, you hate me, I’m going to write a new song!
HG: “Haters are my motivators.”
C&TQ: They’re like nuclear energy. I’m gonna become the Hulk.
And when you answer to haters, sometimes they switch. They strive for attention! So you’re like, “Hey darling,” and they go, “Oh my god, I love you! Heart heart!” Like, that was easy, this is absurd, this is the Internet.
Listen to Christine and the Queens below: