Christine and the Queens by Jeff Hahn.
Witnessing the birth of a great musical artist is a rare privilege in France. Indeed the phenomenon is infrequent anywhere, but especially so in a Gallic context marked by a succession of “best groups of the week” (which rarely last much longer) and by the return of old glories with a faint whiff of naphthalene about them. But then there was Christine and the Queens…
Christine just appeared one evening on our screens, at the Victoires de la Musique in February 2014. With the furious passion of gold-rush pioneers, a handful of aficionados had been following her since 2011, when her first tracks came out, but back then few knew that her name was really Héloïse, or that her Queens were simply whimsical creations of her unbridled imagination. On stage, Christine was alone. Her outfit, which seemed to be made from padded gold, gave her the extravagant Greta Garbo look which would soon become familiar to everyone. Christine and the Queens was competing in the “new group or stage artist” category, but she had no need to seek a coronation of this sort – she was already queen that night. With just a few transcendent lyrics, beats caressed with a few subtle strings, a few fragile gestures, Christine and the Queens was simply sublime. “The impact of this television appearance,” she confides, “allowed me to have access, at a point when I’d almost finished the album, to extra resources – a few more strings for example. But it didn’t change the essential: my search for a powerful, albeit minimalist, sound, my links to a family of sounds that’s moving towards the Kanye West side, even if that might seem surprising. With the Victoires I felt that my faith in this project really came across.” It was the start of a chain reaction that would lead her from her first supporting tours with the ubiquitous Stromae to the critical and popular success of her first full-length album, Chaleur Humaine, which came out in June 2014.
Since then, Christine has been on all the magazine covers in France, and seen her story develop from article to article into a modern-day legend. First, her leaving France following a break-up with a woman who wanted to become a man... Next her encounter in London with the flamboyant drag queens of Madame Jojo’s, who were supposed to have formed her famous troop of Queens if only they’d condescended to join Héloïse in her musical adventure. Inevitably, she’s seen herself assigned a role which isn’t entirely to her disliking, that of new gay icon and poet of gender confusion. But Christine and the Queens deserves better than to be reduced to a mere “phenomenon” of contemporary society. What do gender issues or sexual orientation matter when you sing with so much grace about love, hope and dreams? Her electro-pop compositions achieve such universal beauty that you can no longer tell whether Christine moves you in English (“I am a man now, and there is nothing you can do to make me change my mind”) or in French (“Je descends deux enfers plus loin pour que l’orage s’annonce” [I go down two more circles of hell to make the storm appear]), as a boy or as a girl (“Si je ne veux pas être une grande fille, je serai un petit garçon” [If I don’t want to be a big girl, I’ll be a little boy]). Combining soul and groove with great sophistication, her dizzying peregrinations conquer the listener with their disconcerting simplicity. The art of almost nothing – the creation of entire worlds from mere grains of sand – has here found its master exponent.
It’s in her stage appearances that her art is at its greatest. When, with a delicate gesture, she raises her hand to her eye and leaves a trace of spangled makeup, the emotion reaches its zenith; words are incapable of expressing her burlesque virtuosity. “Yes, burlesque. That’s how I see myself,” she shyly admits. Her body control, which owes much to her theatrical training, is part Buster Keaton, part Michael Jackson and part Pina Bausch. Christine and the Queens is a joy to watch because Héloïse herself is so spectacular, proving once and for all that true entertainment is not the exclusive preserve of either the U.S. or the U.K.
Chaleur Humaine, Christine and the Queens (Because Music). Live in Paris at Zénith, september, 25.