Three years ago, Christine was that French woman cutting a sharp figure in a suit and shoulder-length hair, slinging surprisingly sleek 80s-influenced tunes from a middle-tier Osheaga stage. Her Queens were, best guess, the pair of dancers behind her.
Nowadays, I blush to think of this time when I didn’t know Christine and the Queens to be the singular artistic vision of Héloïse Letissier. As it turns out, the only “Queens” with her on stage are the spirits of the drag queens which first encouraged Héloïse to try her hand at songwriting. Music guided Héloïse through that time of personal turmoil, and through “Christine” she grew a platform through which she could engage people not only in French but in English often more articulate than that of some native speakers. Following the breakout international success of the 2015 anglophone re-release of her debut album Chaleur Humaine, Christine evolved yet again. Forged in the rigors of touring and tempered with the perspective and confidence of newfound fame, a second collection of songs took shape. This time the album has production credits that are hers alone except for a Dâm-Funk feature and exists in full French and English versions out the gate. It unapologetically owns the pan-sexual and gender-fluid identity upon which Chaleur Humaine ruminated, infusing the mixture with an extra dash of rage and sexual heat. Of course, the whole thing is coated in a tasty shell of party-ready pop beats. With a facility for language and enthusiasm for meaningful dialogue that would make buzzword-chucking SJWs quake on their soap boxes, the album’s voice gleefully subverts the male gaze and lives out a femininity established on her own terms. Apparently, Christine went in for a haircut and decided to trim off more than just her locks. It’s time to meet Chris.
An act with the socially transgressive weight of Christine and the Queens requires an opener who packs enough punch to avoid getting washed out. Queens-based rapper/songstress Dounia stepped up to the task. As I walked into Place Bell just prior to 8 o’clock, the track selection of Dounia’s DJ already left a good impression with “New Person, Same Old Mistakes” resonating through the arena speakers. Although it was Dounia’s first time playing such a large setting, as the 20-year-old admitted a few songs in, she exuded a confidence that came from more than just her thigh-high white patent leather boots – though they must have helped. Her music doesn’t shy away from the difficulties she’s had navigating the music industry as a woman of color, but her determination and winning relatability are garnering her a growing fanbase of people grateful to see themselves represented.
Halfway into the set, she began finishing each song with such an emphatic “thank you so much!” that I mistook at least 3 songs to be her last. Although it doubled as an effective method for keeping people at the edge of their seats, the gratitude felt sincere. Fans in GA that had come early to support her sang along with the catchy chorus of “Casablanca,” which preached a self-made attitude that continued into “Avant-Garde.” “East-Coast Hidin’” touched on her love of New York as a place of refuge from the difficulties partially coming from a minority identity which includes Moroccan roots (check out her trilingual freestyle on YouTube). After “So Cool,” which samples the same keyboard part as Jorja Smith’s “Blue Lights,” closed out her half-hour set, and she thanked the crowd one final time before exiting backstage with triumphantly raised arms.
A few stragglers rushed down the arena stairs, desperate not to miss anything as the THX-like synth wash of album opener “Comme si on s’amait” announced the start of the show. A 6-person dance crew appeared first, clothed in vaguely industrial 80s-looking garb against a static backdrop that could have been mistaken for a blown-up Thomas Cole landscape. A staged face-off had broken out with so many moving parts Chris herself managed to strut past them nearly unnoticed before taking command of the situation. Suddenly, the chaos of confrontational bodies fell into an organized exchange of choreography between each half of the group. This dialogue of dance returned to clear a perpetually aggressive atmosphere at each chorus, with Chris always fronting one of the groups. On Chris, the song serves as an introduction to the eponymous character. It aurally flirts with the listener, enticing them with a brazenly masculine brand of femininity. The song ended with Chris giving some attention to each dancer before taking her place at the focal point of their semicircle arrangement.
“Damn, dis-moi” began with the dancers in a triangle behind Chris. They perfectly synchronized bursts of movement that referenced Michael Jackson with an occasional lean or kicked leg. Tension from the tight choreography found release in verses that pitted Chris against her dancers to play out the lyric’s bold reappropriation of male-tinged hubris. Whip-smart wordplay cracked even harder as Chris spat extra emphasis onto lines designed to roll off the tongue like artillery. The gibes of her hecklers glanced off her body as it rolled along to the taunting “touché” of the outro, inviting them into a literal interpretation on top of the bilingually understood. Pausing only to blow a kiss, Chris enthused about being back in Montreal with a sincerity rarely felt in the commonly delivered line and complimented the energy radiating from the crowd.
The conversational camaraderie flowed seamlessly into the rhetorical questions kicking off “Le G.” Chris asked “you know what’s missing?” so casually that when the snare answered with a coordinated swing of her arm, it startled many an unprepared spectator. The audience braced themselves for another surprise, but apparently the only thing still missing (“some girls!”) was sent across the stage as Chris stood apart from her dancers and received them one at a time. When the song’s infectious funk became too irresistible, they all broke off to do their own thing. The culminating guitar solo cut through this haze, and they gathered to form a human spotlight around the soloist’s riser.
After introducing her name as “Chris, the diminutive of Christine,” the singer traced her pursuit of “freedom” back to Chaleur Humaine. She singled out the title track’s first line, “I am against chastities,” as a record of this, first stating it plainly before imbuing the words with melody. The magnetism of her raw vocals, untouched by pitch correction or processing on the record, exerted an even stronger pull on stage. With each heaving breath, she channelled the song’s emotion through her body. Untying the oversize red shirt knotted at her stomach so that it relaxed around her chiselled frame, she opened herself to the crowd literally and figuratively. Dancers reappeared in quiet procession, keeping to the shadows as she finished. Brimming with “human warmth,” she reassured the arena that they were in a safe space to express and receive affection.
“Science Fiction” started out with Chris flanked by two dancers near the back of the stage, establishing choreography seemingly designed to ward off bad energy with sweeping hands. The unit advanced upstage, tacking on two more dancers that joined them in another MJ callback with “Thriller” paws swiping at the air. Chris finished the song on one knee while Queen’s “Radio Ga Ga” played through blacked out lights. She soon reappeared, alone again behind a mic stand with shirt re-tied for “Paradis Perdus,” her austere cover-mashup of 70s French singer Cristophe and Kanye. Burying her head in her hands after asking one last time, “how could you be so heartless?” bass rumbled and lights flashed until the bucolic background fell away to reveal the painted waves of a frothing ocean stretching twice as wide as the landscape it replaced. The singer remained alone as the first English lyrics of “iT” floated to the surface, yet now she carried herself with an assurance that made the queer anthem feel like the spiritual forebear of “Damn, dis-moi.” The mic stand, previously something to hide behind, became her baton to be swung around as she proclaimed, “I’m a man now.” While the keyboardist took over vocals for a few bars of the refrain, dancers re-entered, taking seats around Chris to become the watchful eyes against which she asserted herself. The musician podiums were pushed farther back to clear the way for “Feel So Good,” exclusive to the English version of Chris. The song’s aloof striding and kicking, conducted with hands thrust into pockets, punctuated orchestra hits with synchronized flashing lights.
Chris broke off from her pack frozen in formation from the last song, playfully weaving in and out of the stoic dancers as the background waves cooled to a serene blue. The audience, reading into the played-up suspense, figured out what was coming as she prefaced the next song. By the time she lurched into the instantly recognizable choreography of “Christine,” not a soul remained in their seat. Riding on the song’s energy, Chris transitioned to “5 dollars” as the lighting returned to normal. She was the singing centerpiece of the stage as her dancers ran in various formations around her, joining them near the song’s end as the pattern to their movement devolved into what can only be described as a carefree dance party.
After her troupe whisked themselves off the stage, she was solitary once more for “Machine-chose.” In an instant, the empowerment and confidence she had radiated were overcast by the song’s shadow of insecurity and pain. Though she moved only to sway to the refrain’s undercurrent of nagging self-doubt, she captivated the arena just as easily as before. Turning away from transfixed onlookers, she faced the backdrop for “Here,” where she dropped her shirt completely and began to writhe, contorting the exposed muscles of her back until she spread her wings to embody the instinct of survival contained within the song.
The production value suddenly ramped up, strobes and fans whipping the background artwork into a convincing tempest for “L’Etranger (voleur d’eau).” Mirroring this firmament, clusters of dramatized violence played out in slow-motion amidst Chris belting ad-libs over the chorus track. At the song’s climax, the mass of bodies gathered together to form a human raft oriented in pursuit of a blinding light at the edge of the stage. Before anyone had a chance to ponder this stirring imagery, the structure disassembled and a last strobe-thunderclap set off cannons of snowy confetti.
The theatrics continued with a green smoke flare ushering in “Goya! Soda!.” The song is described in an Apple Music interview as being inspired by the Francisco Goya painting of Saturn Devouring His Son. From this sprung a simple rhyme that got stuck in her head until it grew into a story of some younger version of herself trying to impress an apathetic boy at a museum. Though she knows he doesn’t deserve her affection, she can’t control her emotions. On stage, this narrative found life in the push and pull between her and one other dancer. Through movement alone, they express the tumbling dynamics of attraction, the “boy” toying with her feelings as they flit between desire and disgust. They end in what is almost a heartfelt embrace before he disappears in a cloud of smoke.
The stage is barely cleared before smoke machines and floodlights begin to fill up the space with a feverish haze. A dancer power-sliding through the scattered confetti on his knees announced the return of the cast, and soon the uncertainty of the previous song transforms into the unbridled lust of “Follarse.” Groups of dancers stalked each other across the stage with animalistic determination before huddling into a mass of hands to clutch at Chris. It lurched along with her movements, then scattered and disappeared into the fog with her before emerging as a sharply synchronized phalanx of gyrating bodies. Before the fadeout, homage was paid to Jackson, this time Janet, as they danced to “Nasty” amidst delighted cries from the crowd.
The stadium fell quiet for a beat before Chris had a chance to speak, and when she did she immediately poked fun at the awkward silence, saying with faux resignation that she’d take the moment to sing “a sad French song… alone.” Her musicians held back and she eased into “Nuit 17 à 52” a capella at first but accompanied by an audience that grew louder as she encouraged them with playful commentary that belied the ballad’s subject matter. Before long the space rang with thousands of voices belting out the gymnastic melody of the chorus, capping off in peak Jackson mania, with a quick chorus from “Man in the Mirror.”
“Doesn’t matter (voleur de soleil)” added back instrumentation, but still held back on dancers except one. He started off as Chris’ parallel, but as the bridge’s exhortation to the “sun-stealer”, Chris stepped aside to give him the spotlight. Against soaring vocals, the dancer harnessed the heart of the song and let himself go, moving in a whirlwind of styles that must have been improvised.
With the sun successfully stolen, it was again clear what song would come next even before Chris completed its dedication to those that “bleed yet persevere and continue onward.” Avoiding a literal interpretation of the lyrics, Chris let “La Marcheuse” speak for itself. Columns of sand poured in wispy streams from the stage’s ceiling, as if the set had heard her words and decided to let its own wounds show. She finished the touching number by expressing her gratitude that Montreal would be the final stop on the tour’s North American leg before ducking out. Leaving the people in Place Bell on that note would have caused a riot, and sure enough, she reappeared on a large case in the middle of the arena. With her shirt held like a flag raised in a parting salute, she serenaded a sea of phone flashlights with “Saint-Claude.” After a thunderous round of applause, she confessed she’d have to let us go with an air of playful dismissiveness, waiting for a collective groan before clarifying that she merely meant we could go and do as we pleased with the rest of the night, whether it be a night of dancing (pantomimed with a jig) or Netflix. We had our lives and she had hers. She “conceded” to do one final song, one that she said would be a mellow farewell, like a hot cup of herbal tea to settle down before heading home.
Just kidding! As she hopped off her makeshift podium into the throng of fans, her dancers materialized around her, and she threaded through the crowd, stopping for a few minutes to dance alongside them to the club-ready beat of Chaleur Humaine outtake “Intranquillité.” Eventually, her team helped extract and return her to the stage. With a gleam in her eye and smile on her face, she let the song vamp, putting down the mic to unleash the last of her energy in dance. This time the show really was over, and Chris/Héloïse used the last seconds of her set’s hour and forty minutes to thank everyone involved in the show’s production, from lighting and sound technicians to each of her dancers and musicians. Not much was said to the audience in farewell, as she and the people that had shared the stage with her all night lined up to take a Broadway-style bow, but there was no need to – the performance spoke for itself.
In this final tacit exchange between performer and audience, as with the show’s other most humble moments, Chris’ tough facade softened into something more tender, more vulnerable. Was it a glimpse of Héloïse peeking through the cracks? A glimmer of Christine? In interviews, she impressionistically describes the persona of Chris with dramaturgical language that reveals her background in stage direction but ultimately self-mythologizes more than it demystifies. True to her word, though, clarity comes with the drama of Chris as she unfolds on stage. Héloïse, Christine, and Chris blur together as she switches from charismatic banter in one moment to soul-baring confession the next, older songs to new, pleasure to pain and everything in between. In the end, the boundaries between these identities are inconsequential, if they can even be clearly delineated. Who we are is constructed from the clay of our experiences, desires, and beliefs, moulded into whatever shape we deem best for a shifting landscape of pressures and demands. The different faces of Héloïse aren’t far removed from the various facets of our own identity that we rotate to catch the light however we feel works best. Perhaps the point of all the theatrics, once the carefully curated experience has been digested, is ironically that performance is not limited to the stage. Authenticity of self is neither easy nor straightforward; there is a core of sincerity to all of Héloïse’s artistic output which suggests an understanding of the ongoing practice and persistence it requires. No matter what version of Christine and the Queens may come next, she’s certainly on the right track.
Review – Dylan Lai
Photos – Steve Gerrard