Christine and the Queens: Chris review – pop music that truly matters

A swaggering masculine alter-ego delivers Letissier’s punchy statement of intent, wrapping themes from gender fluidity to female agency in heady electronic pop

At the close of 2016, it was announced that Christine and the QueensChaleur Humaine was the UK’s biggest-selling debut album of the year. It’s worth remembering how unlikely that seemed. We live in an era in which the gatekeepers of mainstream success seem bound to ensure that anything too smart, interesting or strange gets shunted to the margins. It’s there, in the hinterlands – where you have to make do with rapturous column inches in lieu of actual sales – that you might reasonably have expected to find a pansexual French androgyne such as Héloïse Letissier using fine-boned electronic pop to explore her self-confessed “obsession with having a dick and being a man”.

This music is an unalloyed joy … Christine and the Queens: Chris album artwork
This music is an unalloyed joy … Christine and the Queens: Chris album artwork Photograph: PR company handout

Watching the short film released to accompany Chaleur Humaine’s follow-up, Chris, one does wonder whether international success on a scale at which Madonna wants to be seen with you and noticeably less-interesting pop stars are ripping you off caught Letissier on the hop: “Everything happened to me as a benediction and slow poison,” she says. “Admiration and money. I’ve been seen dancing a lot, now it’s time to see me react.” Said reaction involved abandoning recording sessions with Mark Ronson and Damon Albarn to write and produce her second album herself, and the creation of an alter-ego called Chris – muscular and masculine, her hair in a schoolboy crop, a love bite on her neck.

This persona was unveiled to the world on Girlfriend, which may well be the best pop single this year. It’s audibly inspired by early 80s post-disco boogie, sophisticated and subtly shaded, but possessed of the same heady effortlessness as Daft Punk’s Get Lucky. The lyrics, meanwhile, are at odds with the faintly apologetic air of Chaleur Humaine’s big hit, Tilted: “I am naturally good, can’t help it if I’m tilted” is replaced by the swaggering self-aggrandisement of “boys are loading their arms, girls gasp in envy” and offers to “make your girl come”.

It sets the tone for the rest of the album. There’s a tendency to write about Christine and the Queens as if listening to her is worthy, the musical equivalent of eating chia seeds. It’s an understandable response, given Letissier’s penchant for quoting structuralist philosophers in interviews and touching on hot-button topics in her lyrics. In 40 minutes, Chris touches on female agency, mental health, sex work, the complexities of sexuality and the negative response afforded those who refuse to fit defined gender roles. These are all clearly important and timely things to be singing about, and Letissier has a way of addressing them with impressive economy. She never lets her righteous anger slip into lecturing or cloud her way with a succinct and powerful line: “Some of us had to fight for even being looked at right”; “I am done with belonging.”

Christine and the Queens: Girlfriend – video

But the furrowed-brow response doesn’t communicate what an unalloyed joy her music is: how it never seems like hard work, no matter how thorny its themes. Like Girlfriend, the rest of Chris harks back to the early 80s – tellingly, a period when the charts were populated by the queer, transgressive and ostensibly marginal. Its main currency is the kind of beautifully turned pop-soul that emerged post-disco. You don’t need to see her dancing to work out that Letissier is a fan of Michael Jackson – but you also catch an occasional echo of Scritti Politti’s pillowy white funk, not least on opener Comme Si, and, on Feel So Good, the clank and grind of both Jam and Lewis’s work on Janet Jackson’s 1986 album Control and the Art of Noise’s sample-mad dance music. She just writes fantastic songs: the melody of 5 Dollars is perfectly poised between sweetness and melancholy; What’s-Her-Face frames a lyric about self-loathing with an ominous cloud of electronics; Damn (What Must a Woman Do?) conjures a crowded dancefloor at 4am so effectively you can virtually feel the perspiration dripping from the ceiling.

It is an album about pop music as much as any of the other topics it addresses. Or rather, about a belief in pop music as something more than ephemeral – as a vehicle for ideas, a space in which you can transform yourself – in an era when pop is supposed to have lost its longstanding hold over its audience, when it’s not supposed to amount to much more than a pleasant soundtrack or minor distraction. Get it right, Chris implies, and it can still be powerful.

This week Alexis listened to

Kelela – LMK What’s Really Good ft Princess Nokia (remix)

From a forthcoming remix album, Kelela’s homage to hazy old R&B slow jams is ratcheted up to various levels of intensity by guest rappers Princess Nokia, Junglepussy, CupcakKe and Ms Boogie.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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