Christine and the Queens – A Gift from France
Throughout my life as a music lover, I’ve listened to artists from outside the English-speaking world. Whether it was world music from Africa, such as King Sunny Ade, German 80s dance music (think: Falco), or Scandinavian metal, I’ve always trawled the places outside the American and British music scenes for great tunes. This includes the French-speaking world as well.
Back in the late 70s, one of my more favorite French-speaking artists was Plastic Bertrand. His blend of frenetic 70s new wave and Euro dance music, resulting in one of the biggest non-English hits on the new wave charts “Ca Plane Pour Moi.” Plastic Bertrand’s music sounded familiar enough to New York or London new wave audiences yet still maintained European theatrics that made his music more exotic. To a New York teenager at least.
Thankfully, we have another French-speaking artist that, like Plastic Bertrand, combines French theatrical sensibilities with modern music, in this case Indie Dance Pop. Known as Christine and the Queens, it is the showcase for French singer and dancer, Héloïse Létissier. With roots in Euro Dance Pop, this is a band that sounds familiar and yet not the typical pop dance music you might catch on American radio. It is music that is more interesting while maintaining it’s accessibility.
There are two different ways to experience Christine and the Queens. The first is the music by itself. It is an amalgamation of dance and trip hop beats, French chanteuse vocals, and modern pop that yields a sultry, swinging sound with high emotional content. It’s music you can dance to or just sit and listen. One of the more obvious examples of this style is the song “People I’ve Been Sad” from the La vita nuova EP. Sung in both English and French, the slow beats, mix with Christine’s soprano vocals to create a feeling of vulnerability and sadness, as if a good friend were explaining a long absence. The more upbeat and conventional “Tilted” from 2014’s eponymous album, has similar elements. Here, the song employs more rapping, sway, and swing – think 80s dance tunes – creating a sound at home on the dance floor but with more depth than typical EDM. On the other end of the spectrum, “Comme Si” from 2018’s Chris is very much a pop dance song but infused with Latin elements. It is the perfect mix of Euro dance pop and Indie pop. In contrast, “Girlfriend” from the same album is a collaboration with American musician and producer, Dâm-Funk, has so much funk that it’s sounds very 1980s disco, and hence quite American.
To fully appreciate Christine and the Queens, however, one must look to the videos. That’s where the theater and dance shine. Take the video for “Tilted.” The stage is minimalist, little more than a flat space, with a deep blue background and dark suits for costumes. Already, we get the sense that this is not a typical music video. Instead, it recalls the minimal staging of many Twyla Tharp choreographed dances. The dancing is clearly classically influenced modern dance, not that over sexualized pop dance that is pervasive amongst pop stars. This is art, in the conventional sense, not just a dance routine.
The video for Girlfriend is quite different but no less art. The coloring is earth tones, predominately dark orange (my old Crayola Crayon set would have called it burnt umber). Outward and below is a cityscape, veiled in the orange haze, which immediately produces a feeling of being high up above a polluted city, perhaps at sunset. As the camera pans out you see that Christine is on a set of girders of a building under construction. The height, color, and haze are disquieting, evoking fearfulness even, yet Christine glides across the girders and platforms with ease, leaping like a gymnast across a balance beam. The staging, song, and dance all transcend common music videos.
We Americans have traditionally looked to France as a source of culture in art, dance, and ideas. Sadly, we have been much pickier when it comes to popular music. Thankfully, Christine and the Queens have pushed past whatever barriers we put up to French popular music. This is an artist to watch, especially if you are a fan of 80s music. The connections to Michael Jackson, 80s dance pop, and European new wave artists are apparent and makes Christine and the Queens accessible across generations.