In the music video for her melancholy synth-pop track “5 Dollars,” French artist Christine & The Queens -- the stage name of Héloïse Letissier -- acts out a curious morning routine: After hopping out of the shower, she opens a closet full of S&M gear and puts on a harness to wear. Then she covers it with a suit and tie, grabs a briefcase and walks out the door. She never reveals where she’s going or why she’s dressed that way, which makes the video’s exploration of gender and bedroom politics all the more provocative.
“I’m trying to make something exist in the pop realm that is missing for me: different [portrayals] of bodies and ways to exist as a woman, ways to talk about desire without feeling ashamed,” she says one recent morning at her East Village hotel.
Since adopting the Christine moniker in 2010, Letissier, 30, has used music to examine intimate topics, often in ways that prompt more questions than answers. Her 2015 self-titled debut, the English version of 2014’s French-language Chaleur Humaine, features songs as brainy as they are catchy: On the sparse “iT,” she cryptically declares, “I’ve got it/I’m a man now.” The album wasn't a commercial hit stateside, but it debuted in the top 10 of a half-dozen European countries; made fans of Elton John and Madonna; and cast Letissier as the next great outsider-pop cult star in the tradition of Robyn and Marina & The Diamonds.
On her new album, Chris, out Sept. 21, she’s exploring her “same obsessions” from a new perspective. The music, mostly self-produced, is tougher and dancier, inspired by ’80s electronica, ’90s G-funk and classic Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis beats. The delivery is also notably different: This past spring, Letissier unveiled Chris, the macho, gender-bending evolution of Christine, and traded the long hair and androgynous suits of the last album for a boyish ’do and revealing wardrobe.
The move puzzled many. Some wondered on Twitter if she was coming out as trans. And when she dropped the choreo-heavy video for the album’s first single, the Dâm-Funk collaboration “Girlfriend,” she noticed “lots of really confused heterosexual dudes writing desperate comments like, ‘I’m horny, but I don’t understand why!’” She wants people to examine those reactions further. “Every morning, we choose a way to perform our identity,” says Letissier, who identifies as pansexual. “By being a woman differently, I can be a sign that it’s all a construction. I’m trying to be freer myself so [I can] give a hint of freedom to someone else.”
Letissier bristled at gender roles from an early age, especially in high school. “I was like, ‘Fine, I’m a girl, but I don’t want to be that type of girl, and I do want to be a bit like a dude, but I’m not a dude,’” she recalls. Home was a safe space -- her parents, both teachers, recommended books like Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble -- as was the theater. Before making music, she hoped to become a stage director, but encountered resistance in a university program that, says Letissier, barred female students from directing and eventually expelled her for trying. Not long after, she endured a tough breakup and defected to London, where she met three drag queens who taught her that if she didn't like her reality, she could invent a new one. She created the Christine character to inhabit a bolder, more daring version of herself.
Songs from her first album reflect that fake-it-till-you-make-it attitude, with lyrics about drawing on crotches and making up your face in Magic Marker. At the time, explains Letissier, “I was fantasizing about canceling femininity because it was a problem for me.” But touring and developing muscles from the intensive, conceptual choreography of her live shows helped her reconnect with her own body. As a result, Chris tracks like “Girlfriend” and “Damn (What Must a Woman Do)” explore desire and queerness with lyrics that celebrate all things physical: sweat, saliva, flushed cheeks. “My eroticism is full of the imperfections,” she says. “The human body is a gorgeous mechanism of wonder and ingenuity.”
All this might seem like complicated material for pop music, but Letissier loves the idea of “being a Trojan horse” and slipping big ideas into the mainstream via slick hooks. Pop culture plays a huge role in shaping our self-expression -- look at David Bowie or Michael Jackson, she says as she mimes grabbing her crotch. Weren't they performing different models of femininity and masculinity, just like she is? “We are taught to desire things, and we are taught to feel ashamed of some things,” she says. “When you’re a young girl flipping through the pages of a magazine that tells you how to please your man, it’s already politics in there.”
The reactions to her work motivate her to keep pushing buttons. She still encounters hostility in France, where her rejection of simple binaries and easy labels often frustrates reporters. In turn, she makes a point of not over-explaining herself to anyone. Get too bogged down in the specifics of Chris and Christine, and she will let your question hang in the air, wiggling her eyebrows and flashing a mischievous grin. She thinks listeners are smart enough to work through the implications on their own. “In theater, you learn how to trust the audience,” she says. “If you point at an empty stage and say, ‘It’s a castle,’ then you trust people to finish the work.” She approaches pop music the same way: If you want to feel like a queen, build your own kingdom -- the people will follow.