Entertainment Music

Wednesday 21 March 2018

Vive la revolution: a Gallic new wave

Putting French pop on the map: Christine and the Queen.
Putting French pop on the map: Christine and the Queen.
John Meagher

John Meagher

Madonna's Rebel Heart world tour called to Paris last December and she invited a special guest, Héloïse Letissier, to join her on stage for a joint performance that culminated in Madge playfully spanking the younger woman. The crowd roared their approval - the union between the veteran pop star and a new pretender, one of their own, was seen as the highlight of the night.

For anybody not residing in France for the past few years, there's a strong possibility they had no idea who the twenty-something who calls herself Christine and the Queens was. But there's every chance they would know now, and, by the way, Madonna isn't the only music veteran who sees something special in her: Elton John has apparently been in touch too.

A star in her native land for several years, and a two-time winner of the Victoires de la Musique, the French equivalent of the Grammys, the 28-year-old has had a quite spectacular 2016 in the non-Francophile part of the world. A slightly modified version of her 2014 debut album, Chaleur Humaine, was released to glowing reviews in February and it was quickly followed by star-making performance on Later... With Jools Holland in April, which featured the singer delivering a gorgeous homage to Prince, who had died just a couple of days before.

But it was her turn on The Graham Norton Show that really changed the game for the Paris-based, Nantes-born performer. Drake - who has been enjoying a stupendously long run at the top of the UK singles chart with 'One Dance' - had been booked, but had to cancel. Christine was drafted in at short notice (after the Corkonian himself had read a review of her album in an in-flight magazine, photographed it on his smartphone and passed on the details to the show's music booker), and she certainly seized her opportunity to impress on the biggest chat-show on British TV.

From failing to get much notice on its international release earlier in the year, it enjoyed chart success last month with the album debuting in this country at a lofty number three.

Tomorrow, she makes her live Irish debut with an appearance at the Longitude Festival at Dublin's Marlay Park. The day boasts a quite brilliant line-up, including Father John Misty, Jamie xx, Róisín Murphy and headliners The National, but it's well worth getting there early for Christine, whose UK shows have attracted considerable acclaim. The Guardian, in its five-star review of a performance at Koko, London, back in March, described her set as "pop at its transformative best", noting "she goes all out to impress with a potent mix of sincerity and absolute authenticity" while the Daily Telegraph said of a show in the larger Roundhouse that "she may deliberately lack the aesthetic polish of those two millennial divas [Beyoncé and Taylor Swift], but she certainly shares their ability to sing, dance and put on a show." Her set at Glastonbury, meanwhile, was among the most acclaimed of the entire weekend.

Part of her appeal centres around the fact that she's a pop star who's far less manufactured than most of her peers. Her songs lack the sort of homogeneity that's beset even the better chart music of today. Christine - or plain old Héloïse, as she was then - had something of a road to Damascus conversion when visiting London in 2010. At the time, she was a drama student who looked destined for anything but a pop career, but an encounter with a trio of drag artists - who live on in her stage name - gave her the confidence to embrace full-on theatricality, tinker with her identity and conceive of art and music that looks at sexuality with a tad more sophistication than the bump-and-grind approach favoured by so many of her contemporaries, female and male.

Chaleur Humaine (which translates as 'Human Warmth') captures her considerable gifts, and not just an ability to concoct memorable synthpop songs to connect with both the heart and feet. This lady also knows her way around a recording studio, having produced the album.

The new edition isn't hugely different to the original. There are more English lyrics and some of the songs have been renamed, including standout 'Christine', which is now called 'Tilted', and along with the album's other high-water marks, 'Saint Claude', is fast becoming one of the songs of the summer. The biggest differences arrive in the form of two (inspired) US collaborators: rapper Tunji Ige on 'No Harm is Done' and the criminally little-known Perfume Genius who helps make 'Jonathan' one of the album's most beguiling cuts.

"Perfect has never been my thing," Christine told a British newspaper at the weekend, "so I had to find another way. I always say on stage that I am like a broken flower compared to those perfect pop singers like Beyoncé, who I love. I am trying to create a new version, a new way to be a woman in this industry and on stage. For me, I like the awkwardness of it all. I like awkward people, I like fools, I like scars. Christine is about embracing your faults."

If Christine and the Queens is helping to put French pop music back on the map again, she's by no means the only one. There's a new generation of Gallic stars whose effervescent tunes really should be in your life right now. Hyphen Hyphen, a boy-girl four-piece from Nice, do a fine line in pulse-quickening electro-pop, while Toulouse native Jain embraces north African and middle eastern sounds on her smart and playful album Zanaka. The latter's most emblematic song, 'Come', incidentally, is a stupendously catchy affair whose mind-bending video is worth three minutes of your time on YouTube.

But Christine isn't sure if there's a French new wave and she doesn't appear to be keen to fly the blue, white and red flag either.

"I'm not trying to be an exotic French pop person," she said recently. "I don't want anyone to say, 'Oh, that's so cute, she's French'. I want the songs to resonate. I want to get my message across. I want to be a voice in pop that's about who I am and what I have to say, not where I'm from."

Well, her bewitching songs certainly resonate and she is getting her message across but her nationality is stamped all over her songs, and not just because she sings in French and in heavily accented English. In a world where so many of those who occupy the upper reaches of the charts sound the same, Christine and the Queens offers a very welcome respite.

Christine and the Queens play ­Longitude, Dublin, at 5.15pm tomorrow.

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