Sunday 9 December 2018

Queens, queer identity and gender-bending alter egos: why Christine and the Queens is essential to modern music

 

Changing guises: Héloïse Letissier as Christine and the Queens
Changing guises: Héloïse Letissier as Christine and the Queens
David Bowie during his Ziggy Stardust days
John Meagher

John Meagher

In a sea of manufactured pop clones, Héloïse Letissier stood out like a beacon. It was 2016 and her debut album as Christine and the Queens had its international release. It was already a sensation in her native France, and now the rest of the world was getting to hear what all the fuss was about.

Chaleur Humaine - French for 'Human Warmth' - was utterly captivating and not just because the bilingual songs were so good. The album, and its creator, toyed with identity and celebrated those who were gender fluid. And that was a year or so before the term became common currency.

And it was a reminder that some of the very best pop has been made by artists with pan-gender identity or have written songs that have captured the life and times of such people.

If tracks like the peerless 'iT' and the giddy 'Half Ladies' from that first album were anthems to pansexuality, then she really has pushed the boat out on her latest album, Chris, which she will air at her first Irish show in two years when she plays Dublin's RDS on Friday. Chris also happens to be the singer's newest alter ego - and she's embraced the role with the sort of élan that David Bowie adopted for his multiple guises in the early 1970s.

David Bowie during his Ziggy Stardust days
David Bowie during his Ziggy Stardust days

Bowie, of course, mined gold from his gender-bending exploits in that spectacular, genre-hopping half-decade between The Man Who Sold the World and Young American albums. The cover of the former album featured the luxuriously coiffed artist in a very fetching dress, lounging on a chaise longue.

It's easy to imagine what conservative Ireland would have made of it on its release in 1970, or how certain God-fearing types would have been aghast at that fabled Top of the Pops moment two years later when, exotically attired as Ziggy Stardust, Bowie put his arm around Spiders from Mars bandmate Mick Ronson, his painted fingernails clearly visible and the pair sang into the same microphone as sweetly as Sonny and Cher might have done. Much has been written about how that TV performance was a milestone in youth culture and its significance remains undimmed.

Bowie was one of several artists at the turn of the 1970s to use gender in his art - and, let's be honest, as a means to provoke the sort of people who needed to be provoked. In June 1970, the Kinks released 'Lola', that playfully sing-along tune that celebrated transvestism. Some commentators have subsequently argued that the song is mocking Lola - and people like him/her - but they must be hearing something else entirely. If anything, Ray Davis's creation is a sonic snapshot of a sliver of permissiveness in a grim, grey Britain that was about to experience a tough decade epitomised by such measures as the 'Three-Day Week' in 1974.

Across the Atlantic, the Velvet Underground were tackling sex and gender with the sort of gusto that few of their peers could match. And their leader, Lou Reed, delivered perhaps the most emblematic song ever about gender and identity on 'Walk on the Wild Side', a standout from his pan-gender celebrating second solo album, Transformer.

It was a gloriously provocative album in an America being ruled by the Republicans and Richard Nixon, one in which the hippy movement of just a few years before had seemed like a distant memory - and it remains a milestone release in queer culture.

It was an album that helped not just turn American singer-songwriter Ezra Furman on to the boundless possibilities of great music, but also towards an understanding of his own sexuality.

Furman has been making some of the most intriguing pop music of recent years and much of it is built around the idea of being an outsider - and being exceptionally comfortable in that. He has spoken about the importance of Reed in influencing a generation of musicians, but also the power these role models can have in helping those struggling with sexuality, gender or sense of place in a world that can still feel terribly straitened and conformative.

No doubt, Furman himself is proving inspirational for a new generation in much the same way that Antony Hegarty and John Grant have been. The latter has spoken about having to suppress his sexuality when he grew up in a conservative part of America and how he was the victim of gay-bashing, but his music has long gloried in who he is. It's certainly apparent on his latest album, Love is Magic, and it was fundamental to his work when he fronted The Czars, right down to that sublime cover of ABBA's 'Angel Eyes'.

Speaking of Grant, he - along with Goldfrapp and Hercules & Love Affair - provided the soundtrack to a revealing documentary film, Queerama, earlier this year. It examined the brutal suppression of anyone considered a sexual deviant and it offered a chilling reminder of how intolerant the US can be.

But Irish viewers would do well to bear in mind that the hugely popular annual Gay Pride festival grew out of a march in the early 1980s in protest at the failure to jail those who killed Declan Flynn in a homophobic attack in Dublin's Fairview Park.

What Queerama demonstrates is how fundamental to everyday modern culture those early, groundbreaking expressions of sexuality and pan-gender identity have been. Modern pop owes a huge debt of gratitude to people like Bowie and Boy George and Grace Jones. What seems perfectly normal now certainly wasn't only a couple of generations ago.

And that was the case on U2's Experience + Innocence tour, which concluded in Berlin earlier this month. During a performance of 'Love is Bigger Than Anything in its Way' at Dublin's 3Arena, the massive video wall featured the gorgeous little promo film shot in various locations in Dublin by the LA-based photographer David Mushegain.

It was peopled largely by young members of Dublin's LGBTQ community and even though many would have been familiar with it before the tour, there was something incredibly moving about witnessing it communally with thousands of others, only a few kilometres from where Declan Flynn was killed because his sexuality didn't conform to the restrictive norm of the era, one in which homosexuality was still a criminal offence until 1993.

But as testimonies reported for World Children's Day this week show, it is still difficult for many teens to come to terms with issues of sexuality and gender in the Ireland of today. And that's why people like Héloïse Letissier are so important - they offer two fingers to those who would like to turn back the tide on personal choice.

And Letissier is welcome here for another, not insignificant reason, too: her music is bloody brilliant.

Christine and the Queens plays the RDS Main Hall, Dublin, on Friday

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