Conor Mulcahy delves into Hélöise Letissier’s second album and shows us how this French songwriter is altering perceptions of gender and perceptions of pop.
Liberté, égalité… masculinité? The follow-up to 2014’s Chaleur Humaine, Christine and the Queens’ sophomore studio album sees French singer, songwriter and dancer Hélöise Letissier use traditionally male heroic archetypes (think of a similarly mop-haired Leonardo DiCaprio circa Romeo and Juliet) to blur the lines between masculinity and femininity and release a primal scream of gender expression through which she becomes her own gender-fluid protagonist – Chris.
In the first few seconds of the opening track, “Comme Si”, Letissier lifts the velvet rope into practically every facet of her life with a booming cinematic synth, introducing us to the patriarchy-smashing Chris with the literal sound of shattering glass. The line, “The thickness of a new skin, I am done with belonging” sees Letissier bid farewell to Christine’s fragility and embrace her queerness, debuting key album themes of liberation, self-expression and sexuality, over rippling electronic synths and punchy guitar riffs. The album is loaded with Michael Jackson-esque cadence and gyrating basslines, exemplified on “Feel so Good”, “The Stranger” and lead single “Girlfriend”, in which Letissier takes commonplace Eighties pop tropes and imbues them with startling originality. She breathily declines the role of “girlfriend” on the basis of her fluid gender identity and her unwillingness to commit to a traditional relationship, instead opting for the title of “lover”, a role reprised on “Damn (What Must a Woman Do)”. This track is unabashed, swaggering pop propelled by whirring, sweaty synths and the most sexually-explicit lyrics on the whole album. Again defying societal expectations, Letissier croons openly about her lust for raw sexual pleasure, and even further her frustration that no man or woman can pleasure her as well as she can herself.
Album standout “Doesn’t Matter” fuses dramatic, vibrating bass, pulsing drum-driven synths and angelic harmonies to create a towering wall of sound, detailing the trauma caused by a failed (and possibly abusive) relationship. On the Song Exploder podcast Letissier explained that the line “Run if you stole a shard of sunlight” is a reference to another character she has created, “the Sun Stealer”, a male persona whom she implores with pleading vocal delivery to take the light from her life and to leave her to the darkness of her thoughts. An open discussion of mental health and the harrowing depths of her “suicidal thoughts”, this track is both important and refreshing in today’s pop landscape.
Contrastingly minimal production on “The Walker” captures the sparse, echoing solitude of a reflective solo walk while vivid lyricism shows Letissier internally dissecting her traditionally masculine post-violence anguish. Here she gives herself time to think and her bruises time to develop, which combined with her blood-stained cheeks and stern expression act as a warning for strangers not to approach her, and another warning to the listener that she will under no circumstances adhere to traditional gender roles, or even gender at all. Lyricism is also the focus on “5 Dollars”, with Letissier delivering an Americana, Springsteen-style pop ballad about both the empowerment in paying for sexual acts and in being paid to carry them out. “Some of us just had to fight for even being looked at right” sees Letissier bite back against slut-shaming and also for being made to feel shameful about her pansexuality, which is a triumphant leap from her youthful experience of being an outsider whose “name became a slur” as depicted on “What’s-Her-Face”.
Throughout the album she retains the powerful melancholic imagery she was praised for on Chaleur Humaine and presents it in a bigger and better manner, through a glimmering Prince-like, funk-infused lens. Chris is a defiant and devastating counter-punch to conservative societal norms, a breed of deeply intelligent pop comprised of Letissier’s unique syrupy vocal tone, infectious hooks and soaring ethereal delivery. What’s more, she is as effective as Stevie Nicks in her Fleetwood Mac heyday in masterfully using ambiguous lyricism to create an air of mystery onto which listeners can project their own human experience, regardless of their gender. In short, Christine and the Queens’ sophomore effort is an unmissable modern classic dedicated to those who can relate to Letissier’s experiences and needed by those who cannot.