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On her ’80s-inspired LP, Chris (out Friday), French singer Christine and the Queens (née Héloïse Letissier) turns gender norms on their head through poetic tracks about nonconformity, sex, and past trauma — all through the guise of her invented persona, Chris.
“It’s the truest form of self,” says Christine about Chris. “It’s like the highest, purest expression of what I can be.”
The album is also a shift from her 2014 debut, Human Warmth, with its wide-eyed tunes about longing and fantasy. On Chris, she is waging war on the status quo, one whose empowered weapons include ferocious lyrics about sexual liberation and a penchant for disrupting the norm through style and sonic surprise.
Below, the “Tilted” singer details the ecstasy, anger, and RuPaul’s Drag Race element that inspired her fierce new record.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Chris comes from the perspective of Chris. Why did you present her in the way you do on this record?
CHRISTINE AND THE QUEENS: This album expresses sexuality and desire in more blunt terms than the first record, which was very much about being a dreamer and longing for trying to relate to people. The second album is way more about incarnate desires, being touched, and touching, so Chris was wrapped around being more confident and empowered. I loved working around the idea of being a powerful woman by actually steering away from patriarchal codes. For me, a macho [man] is also really feminine in a way. Gendered performance is just constant theater. So Chris has a more defiant, fun energy.
And the “Girlfriend” video, too — I immediately thought of that famous photo “Lunch Atop a Skyscraper” that has become the epitome of capitalist masculinity. You’re repainting these ideas with a queer brush.
It’s almost campy, because it’s quite kitsch. I had referenced that movie by Rainer Werner Fassbinder called Querelle, inspired by Jean Genet’s books, so it’s saturated colors with orangey tones. It’s like a weird reinterpretation of that classic, monumental, masculine, capitalist figure. It’s warped from the inside, because first, I’m a woman flexing and taking upon that character for myself, and secondly, it’s a really queer aesthetic because queer for me is questioning the norm.
Drag queens had a hand in inspiring the Christine character, and your “5 dollars” video reminds me of the quote “We’re all born naked and the rest is drag.”
The quote has been a reality for me since I was a kid. I saw performance and theater everywhere, people choosing to perform such a precise identity. The playfulness of that sentence could be a guideline in the “5 dollars” video, because in that video there is some sense of humor. I’m kind of exposing my body way more than I’m used to, but I’m still deflecting the male gaze and refusing a classic way of being exposed as a woman. I’m deflecting what it means to expose myself and it’s wonderful. Because recently, underneath my videos on YouTube, I have really confused heterosexual men who are like, “I’m excited, but I’m confused!” It’s like they’re angry at me because I’m being a slight virus, and I’m enjoying that very much.
Why are people angry and unwilling to accept that something can be beautiful without fitting into their expectations?
It just opens abysses for them because if they can get excited by who you are when you’re not fitting the norm, then what does that mean for them? It’s kind of like the beginning of a question they don’t really want to address. Because when you stop to question your identity and your desire, you explore fluidity but you have less certitude about something. You are entering a world of doubts. For me those doubts are erotic and interesting, but for some people it’s purely scary.
Would you say it’s more vital now to make queer art, considering those conservative attitudes are so prevalent in society?
I think from the beginning I was healed and inspired by queer culture, and Christine and the Queens as an idea from the beginning is queer because it questions the norm. There is an element of resistance in queer culture that I think is interesting, and it’s sometimes scary when I see that it can become a trend ingested [by] the society that is aimed to be questioned. When there are lists made like, “Queer Artists to Watch,” we’re kind of boxed in again…. Continuing the queer thoughts and the queer inspiration, I think the second record has something a bit more firm and sensual, which makes all of what I’m saying more incandescent because I’m way more in my skin and my body and working through that with the body I have.
The album notes also say Chris is a liberating album, and that you’re sharper, older, and more in control, but also angry. What were you seeking to liberate yourself from, and what is Chris angry about?
It’s Slim Shady-angry. Yes, I’m dropping an Eminem reference. Because out of the anger comes a weird type of fun and ecstasy I hadn’t experienced before. It’s easy to get angry, especially when you’re a woman trying to not abide by really narrow categories of what it means to be a woman. It’s easy to be infuriated because you’re constantly clustered by misogyny. But instead of totally being exhausted by that I just try to get more playful and defiant, and if the game is like that I’m going to try to mess it up a bit and have fun…. I’m jut trying to be like a tiny virus, like a hint of something that could f—k [everything] up for the best reasons. Chris is just using anger as a fuel for something more generous.
It’s interesting having these really complex lyrics on songs like “Girlfriend,” “Goya Soda,” and “The Stranger,” paired with accessible pop and electronic production. Is that an intentional juxtaposition?
I was interested in both working on a sound that could be quite efficient and classically inspired by pop music from the ‘80s or early ‘90s, like Jimmy Jam, Michael Jackson’s Dangerous era, Cameo, and to work with the immediateness of the sound to put a more intricate narrative inside of it. The idea of that was rooted in the first album when I think of “Tilted,” which is actually immediate, but it’s more complicated than it seems. The lyrics sound deceptively fun, but if you dive into it, it’s weird and slightly creepy. So I wanted to push it even further in the second album. I’m a huge pop music lover. I do love the immediacy, the organic fever that happens when a pop track is so infectious. I love when I dive into lyrics that give me human complexity and intricate narrative. Let’s make more Trojan horses, actually, let’s complicate things but also be inescapable pop in the production.
“What’s-her-face” is also a standout track, mainly because of how it captures the trauma of youth and bullying, and how that pain can leave scars that last well into adulthood. Is that something you still struggle with?
This is a record about being powerful, but part of being powerful is about owning your scars — they’re still there, you can’t really hide anything, and wounds that never quite heal wake up. The song is very much about the idea of that permanence of that wound. Even though I’m way more empowered and confident as a woman, sometimes it just wakes up. It made me who I am and I have a particular empathy for outcasts and outsiders because at some point I feel like I was marginal myself. It’s all part of the same narrative of Chris.