“I think it's a shame most people don't believe in pop music being political — I'm talking about the audience and the artists altogether. My conviction is that everything is political; you cannot shy away from it, ’cause, well, you were born in politics,” Chris, of Christine and the Queens, writes over email when I inquire about the historically apolitical framing of pop music as a genre.
Understanding the fallacy in depoliticizing pop music requires you to look no further than the name of the genre itself: pop — popular, the masses, the people — accessible, above all else. Of course, it would be ignorant not to acknowledge that in a capitalist economy, the goal for “accessible music,” with the potential to be mass marketed, often is manipulated into maximizing sales, a goal that doesn’t inherently prioritize political discourse. But, with the massive reach potential provided by serotonin-generating choruses and magnetic earworms, the right pop artist has the capacity to take the hyper-political, the overly academic, the inaccessible, and turn it into art and into impact for the masses. See: Christine and the Queens.
No stranger to rebirth, in the path to her 2014 debut as Christine and the Queens, the French singer, producer, choreographer and songwriter reinvented herself following expulsion from her theater school and a terrible breakup. It was at this low-point that the bookish and insecure Hélöise Letissier created Christine: a bold performer, an extension of herself, the ultimate channel through which she could now assert herself on stage as an artist, as the talented, powerful queer woman she is. She released Chaleur Humaine (Human Warmth) to unfathomable success across Europe and the U.S. — the kind of success that scores an artist performances alongside (Elton John)[https://www.thefader.com/2016/09/20/watch-christine-and-the-queens-elton-john] and Madonna before they’ve even made their second ablum.
Four years later, she’s come even more into herself. Or perhaps just evolved into the moment. Either way, Christine has become Chis. Her social media and website titles appear as “CHRIST̶I̶N̶E̶ ̶A̶N̶D̶ ̶T̶H̶E̶ ̶Q̶U̶E̶E̶N̶S̶.” Accompanying a spread in the French magazine Egoïste — her first photo shoot as Chris, donning a sleek, masculine haircut and what would traditionally be labeled “menswear” — she painted “Fragments of a Self-Portrait,” what reads beautifully as both a declaration of self and a gender manifesto for the masses.
“I, a tennisman who clutches his fist shortly after match point ; I, a footballer who sways his index nonchalantly after scoring a goal. / Watch me steal the time-worn parades of your manhood, and turn them into something way more suspicious,” she writes, concluding the piece with, “Women with a sword, women with an appetite, women with a revenge, bloody witch: everything she’s asked to buy, she just told you she doesn’t want it.”
Chris is everything her boundary-pushing self-portrait promises, and more: a catalogue of thunderous, jaw-dropping pop tracks, an assertion of self, a complex artistic exploration of gender that could give entire doctoral theses a run for their money and a political statement that supersedes the idea of “self” altogether into something much, much larger. And just as importantly? Sincerely impossible not to dance to.
VMP: Do you remember the moment you decided to go from Christine to Chris on this album?
Chris: I actually remember that I became slowly Chris before it was even a conscious decision; people were calling me Chris more and more on tour, and that nickname pleased me for it was both confident and ambivalent. My body was slowly getting sharper thanks to the stage, with muscles surfacing; I surprised myself by becoming stronger and more resilient than my young teenage bookish self could suppose, and thanks to the first album that introduced me to the world for what I was standing for, I could experiment more with love and desire. Chris arrived slowly in my life as a resonance of all those alterations. My stage character is always the rawest, most unfiltered version of who I am and what I feel. Deciding to adopt the nickname and to own those changes was then both a really conscious and subconscious process.
To me, Chris has a more upbeat, in-your-face sound that a lot of your older songs. Is this sound tied to the themes of masculinity in this album?
More than masculinity, the sweatier, more stamina-infused sound matches more the idea of a newfound sensuality, a new perspective on love. This album is all about touching, trying, running after, relentlessly searching... Something in Chris is more sexual and defiant; the idea that desire is a force of chaos, and that it should be lived and embraced crystallizes for me the great difference between my first and second album. With Chris, I play around with masculinity, its codes and its theatricality, to actually explore what it means to be a woman in lust, a woman in love, a woman questioning the world around her. I guess I’m using macho codes first because I love them, for they are both really feminine actually (I mean, the display of oiled muscles, the ornaments, the wet hair, it’s all quite offered) and also really oozing with a loose confidence. In this record, there’s a sense of empowerment, of raw incarnation, and the sound had to translate that — more aggressive bass lines, different aesthetics in terms of drums (less round and warm like the classic 808, but more meaty and full of imagery, like the ’90s inspired kits). It’s minimalist, still, but with a shift of perspective.
When I read your piece “fragments of a self-portrait” on your website, I was hung up on this part: “Their women don’t exist. They suck the idea of their women out of their very neck - then it bleeds. My eroticism is precisely what sets me free of those skimpy limits." Will you elaborate on this idea?
Well, it's quite brutally summed up, isn't it! I see so many women being objectified, diminished, simplified. So many standing next to someone else, in silence. So many suffering to try and attain impossible standards of perfection. And what I meant by that is: those narrow constructions are usually not even made by ourselves, for ourselves. They’ve been imposed on us for centuries. I just try with Christine, and now Chris, to own my narrative, own my sexuality, to take back what is mine, to choose the way I want to exist and be addressed. It’s a resistance to ideas of what a woman could and should be, cause my guess is that we should be the ones who get to define ourselves.
As a young queer woman, I listen to this album and feel very empowered, which is often hard to feel when the world feels really threatening right now. Do you ever get discouraged by the problems we face in the world today?
It’s sometimes discouraging or infuriating when you realize how narrow, clustered and gender-biased society still is, of course, there’s a sense of constantly fighting to readjust, educate, mend or defend. Even I, as an artist, find myself in situations of pure discomfort and reject by simply trying to elaborate on being a free, empowered woman. It’s hard, and there’s definitely work to do. But hey, some days, you receive a letter of a young woman who says thanks; you smile back to a young man who mouths merci; you read something like what you just wrote to me, and you think: maybe it’s actually not in vain. Representation, voicing opinions, using your platform for the things you believe in, this is something that I won’t stop doing because I remember needing it so much when I was younger. And I still need and want that world to change in order to evolve securely in it. We’re not the only ones hoping for this, and whenever it feels desperate, it’s also good to rely on your allies, your teammates, your family (the one that makes you feel good). If there’s one thing we learnt, it's that solidarity exists when times get rough. We’re in this together, sister :)
Pop music isn’t generally the first genre people think of when they think of music that’s political, but your music is extremely pop and extremely political. Do you ever find it challenging to balance expectations and make extremely political pop music?
The way everyone dresses, uses langage, acts and behave, it’s all soft, invisible politics; it’s a string of choices that imply immediate consequences. So, as an artist, even if it’s entertainment, politics never go away. Bowie shocked in the ’70s saying he was gay; Madonna shocked owning her horniness every night on stage. What do I want to say in that song? How am I going to exist? Those questions are political. It's also really easy to get intensely political, when I think about it. When I think of The Knife's last manifesto / album about queerness and anticapitalism, it seems that I'm on the soft side of politics — I just claim my right to exist differently, to address some complexity, to create safe spaces, and some links of empathy. Well, that sometimes is enough to feel like a total rebel nowadays, and I don't know if it’s a good sign or a bad one.
What was happening in your own life during the period of time your wrote the songs on Chris?
I stopped touring, so I was searching for the stamina I lacked (no more stage every night! It's like being a caged animal!) with stories of love and desire. Sometimes I was triumphant, sometimes a total failure, but it never was in vain; the writer in me received wonderful testimonies of intricacy, the woman got to get empowered through a fuller, more experimental sex life. I fell in love with young men, which was terribly interesting and infuriating at the same time; part of me becoming slightly more macho is actually out of the fetish of dating those young, hale dudes — I stole away from them as to remember also what they gave me — haunting stories of having to over-perform masculinity.
**Do you remember what music you were listening to a lot around the time you recorded Chris? **
My sound moodboard was full of [that] expressive, flamboyant music of the late ’80s, early ’90s. Cameo, Neneh Cherry, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’ productions, Michael’s Dangerous, Janet Jackson’s Control and Rhythm Nation... those albums were all about the beginning of the wonderful association between the man and the machine (the samplers, their first use as this childlike tool of superpower, when the sound — cut and paste and compressed — becomes a pure evocation of excitement). I was also listening a lot to the Velvet Rope, because it addresses the complexity of a female character in a way that is rarely allowed in pop music. It feels like contradictions, twists and turns, are usually reserved to masculine rock stars or intellectuals. Women, when they have to address intimacy, have to make it limpid or actually stick to it (the personal is always “feminine,” and never can exceed the house where it’s born, like Chris Kraus said once). The Velvet Rope is a beautiful piece of art on a conflicted soul, one that is out in the world. What a great record.
**In the video for “Doesn’t Matter,” you’re dancing and “fighting” with this traditionally masculine dancer. Is this representative of your relationship with, or understanding of, masculinity? **
Actually, I was intrigued by the reception of that video ’cause it was systematically a gendered one — fighting patriarchy. It was actually not that schematic for us on set, though of course it can be obvious to a viewer. The video is about love for me, that’s for sure. A troubled love -— could be brothers and sisters, could be lovers, could be someone and a projection, could be the dream of a mad woman. In a way, we do resemble each other — and informations of gender are quite bare. I don’t really want to explain further, but I wouldn’t especially “reduce” the whole understanding of the video to a “woman fighting a man” scenario, since it empties it then of all the intricacies. It’s probably a slight sexist reflex we’re used to making; when i’'s a woman that makes the art, one never escapes a traditional gendered reading of it.
**A recent New York Times article about your video for “Girlfriend” asks, “Is it possible to be sexual, but to not be seen as an object?” How would you answer that question? **
I’m trying to answer it, constantly, with my work. It’s one of the questions that is central to my identity as a performer. I think one solid answer to that issue is by asserting all the different facets of myself — I’m a writer, I’m a lover, I’m a reader and a hedonist. The right to be complex, sexual, the main actor of his thoughts and desires is usually a masculine prerogative — I’m trying, along with other women, to shift that paradigm.
**Do you ever feel pressure from the queer community to be a role model of sorts? **
I don’t really believe one should aim to be a role model or conceptualize being one. Seems a bit solemn and pretentious. And probably a bit hurtful to the art. I do want to remain free and daring. If I can give hints of more freedom, if I can offer possibilities, a slow disruption that could rise questions, it’s already fantastic.
**There’s been a lot of cultural discussion lately — inside and outside the queer community — about the evolution of gender and the future. Do you think a “genderless” future is possible? **
I do believe that escaping the classic performance of gender could be a fantastic future. It would probably be the end of patriarchy as we know it. But honestly, the gender biased system is rooted in capitalism as well — it would be a total questioning of society as we know it (although capitalism as a force is an inescapably clever one, so it’s already trying to digest queer as a way to make yet another profit — quite ironic when you think of the queer philosophy as also one that questions from the margins a cynical, profit-obsessed, normative world). And I also think our militantism should be transversal, more and more — we should address also the urgency of racism, the violence of a classist society, etc. Nothing can move forward without a deep questioning of all kinds of oppressive structures; there has to be an ample gesture of liberation, not just an individualist one.