Growing up, Heloise Letissier felt like society was pressuring her to be straight, but she couldn't help that she was "tilted."
The pansexual and gender-fluid French singer who performs as her alter ego, Christine and the Queens, has shared the stage with pop icons such as Madonna and Elton John. While performing in Los Angeles at the Theatre at Ace Hotel in October, Letissier told the audience, "The world wants us to be straight, but I'm tilted," before launching into the hit song "Tilted," joined by a cadre of backup dancers in swift modern dance moves. "Tilted" won Best Track at the NME Awards Wednesday.
Letissier isn't just a singer or songwriter. "Tilted," an anthem about embracing your weirdness that was named one of the best singles of 2015 by Time magazine, is as much about movement and dance as it is about sending a particular message. Letissier elaborated on how she combines dance and music in her songs in an interview with The Advocate. "As soon as I write a song, I immediately wonder if I'm about to dance on it, how I'm going to perform it," she said. "It sometimes goes along with a video idea right away, or a stage design trick ... everything is intertwined, mostly because I do love to perform -- what I do is connected to the stage."
Christine and the Queens is a solo project, but "the Queens" is a tribute to the drag queens who inspired her. When Letisier was healing from a breakup, she met three drag queens in London who suggested she use music as a tool to overcome her heartbreak, and Christine and the Queens was born. More than an alter ego, Christine is a queer writing project for Letissier, and out of that experience comes a singer who challenges what it means to be a woman, what it means to queer, and what it means to be a pop star.
"I think my whole character, my whole project is queer in a way," Letissier once told Time. "Christine as a stage character is just a way for me to be more daring, to be more out of the box, to be stronger, and to use everything that could weigh me down like a fuel, like an energy. For me, she is a writing technique, and a queer one."
Letissier is petite, but she's learned how to use dance to take up more physical space and make her songs come alive onstage. While appearing in Los Angeles at the beautiful historic church hall at the Ace Hotel, she owned the stage, telling the audience that she's aware of how tiny she is, but she works with her body to "take up space."
I took that phrase to have a double meaning -- there's the theory of "manspreading," which refers to men who take up more space than they need to by spreading their legs on public transportation when they could easily make room for another passenger. But some women have embraced this theory of "taking up space" to mean that they too will not only take up more physical space, instead of making themselves physically small in social environments to accommodate men, but will also take up more social space, as men tend to do in conversations.
I asked Letissier about this theory of using dance and performance to take up space, and she said, "It's not even that I'm thinking so much about it; it happens to me. ... I just feel like I'm growing inches, dissolving, exploding in the best way onstage." And you can see it in her performances. There's a bit of Michael Jackson in the way she wears her ankle-length pants and the ease with which she moves in time to her tunes. It looks effortless, but it's all part of the Christine and the Queens mythology.
It's a mythology Letissier herself is inspired by. Riffing off "Tilted," she said, "The society we live in makes it too easy for people to feel like they're tilted -- not fitting in, that is. When you're too fat, too queer, trans, when you're black." She wants to allow fans to intepret that lyric as they may, but for her it's a reference to her queerness.
"I'm smiling when I talk about this straight world of ours onstage for the obvious link that line has with my own experience of being tilted -- mainly through my sexuality -- but I wanted this song to embrace the many, many ways you can feel like an outsider," she said.
She also takes inspiration from such artists as David Bowie, Fever Ray, and Grace Jones. Though she doesn't put herself in the same category, her artistry is putting her there. Beloved pop stars like them have a lasting legacy not only because they sang incredible songs but also because they had a message to go along with their sound. There was a performative aspect to their personalities as artists. It's something Letissier has as well.
Asked if she thinks of herself of as the same type of touchstone for her fans that Bowie was for her, she said, "I don't know if I'm succeeding in that myself, but by being onstage this is precisely what I'm trying to do."
Toward the end of her show in Los Angeles, she said it was the moment she decided to embrace her full identity as a "tilted" person that everything changed. Even her complexion became better, she said, because she wasn't constantly worrying about living up to a societal ideal. It freed her to have extra time to create, to read, and to make the amazing music that has drawn fans who connect with her vision.
In our interview, Letissier expanded on this thought, saying that when she thinks about "Tilted" and what it represents, "it's queer in the way that I'm taking everything that could be absolutely freaky to other people and deciding to display it proudly." It's a feeling she produces in the song when she sings, "I'm doing my face / with Magic Marker / I'm in my right place / don't be a downer."
Last year fans mourned the deaths of Bowie, George Michael, Prince, and Juan Gabriel. It wasn't just the loss of their presence and the music they would have made that left fans devastated; it was what these gender-fluid men represented. They were not afraid to challenge masculinity or the gender binary, and some of them were openly singing about being with people of the same sex. Their star-studded shoes will be tough to fill, but Letissier is charting her own path and dancing, singing, and writing herself into that tradition.
"Being myself is a constant and difficult work in progress," Letissier said. "I'm not at peace yet, but Christine is definitely me trying to have my own set of rules, me trying to escape."