Redcar hasn’t always been Redcar. Héloïse Letissier, born in 1988 in Nantes, France, was a theatre student – until an argument over the right to direct a play led to expulsion.
Christine and the Queens was next – a full-throttle electro-pop act inspired by the drag queens Letissier hung out with in London. Chaleur Humaine (Human Warmth), a collection of tight, keyboard-driven dance tracks, was released in France in 2014. The following year an English language version was the UK’s biggest selling debut album of 2015.
Then came Chris, a hyper-sexual, masc woman. Chris had slicked-back hair and wore tailored suits. The songs were sleeker, poppier than ever.
At the Cirque d’Hiver Bouglione in Paris on 9 November, a sign outside reads: “Pop music is dead / Long live theatre.” In August Letissier, who now goes by Redcar, or just Red, came out as transgender on social media – “je me genre au masculin” (“I self-gender as male”) – and has since used male pronouns. After the shock death of his mother in April 2019, he started seeing red cars everywhere, and he took them as signs (the name is not, despite the flurry of British newspaper articles that appeared this week, a tribute to the town in North Yorkshire). He says the archangel Michael started appearing to him too.
Redcar’s grief for his mother fills Redcar les adorables étoiles, his third album, released on Friday 11 November and sung mostly in French. It’s these songs that he performs in the round in Paris, in what is less a gig than high-art cabaret. The venue is usually a circus, punters sitting in red velvet seats to watch a show that features a lion and an elephant. Tonight Redcar’s collaborators are masked figures who bring on his frequent outfit changes and new props – but the show is all his.
He appears first in a wedding dress to perform the album opener, “Ma bien aimée bye-bye” (“My beloved bye-bye”), a transfixing lullaby, anchored by an Eighties guitar lick, that mourns the loss of a lover. His hands are tied in front of him until he wrestles out of the rope and then the dress, stamping on the white fabric and then waving it above his head like a matador.
From then on, Redcar shapeshifts: he is a mime artist, his right hand dipped in red; then he is a cavorting nymph for the 21st century, his torso exposed save for reflective nipple tape. He dances, his toes outstretched like a ballerina. But it’s not an all-dancing Christine and the Queens show as you might expect it. He damaged his left knee during rehearsals and any hope of more elaborate tricks – there was ample opportunity for trapeze work – was squandered. He makes an act of it, appearing initially with a ringmaster’s stick for support, but as the show develops his limp becomes more evident. When he climbs the stage barrier to get into the crowd, he must use his hands to lift his leg to get there. In his final ascent up the stairs, alongside candles and angel memorabilia, he drags his left leg, never bending it.
His frustration at the restrictions imposed on his body is evident, a pent-up anger that he can fully release only through song. His voice is resplendent, particularly on the guttural yet bright “la la las” of “Tu sais ce qu’il me faut” (“You know what I need”), an anthem whose propulsive harmony has no need for language, and the soaring “La clairefontaine” (“The clear fountain”). He sings only to a backing track, which is musically disappointing: the album’s crisp synths and snappy drums are diminished in such a vast, empty space. This is about far more than the music though. It’s theatre, clearly, and Redcar – who is by turns a slighted lover, a grieving child, a circus master – has more on his mind.
Redcar’s injury restricted what would be possible in this show, which will come to the Royal Festival Hall, London, on 22 November. It is easy to think: what if he had not been impaired? What might we have seen? Who might he have been?
This show is a reminder of the ways in which real life seeps into performance. His pain warns of the physical toll all this takes on the body – dancing, performing, and living (“Let me just say patriarchy again,” he told the Observer this month). Other artists – David Bowie, Lady Gaga – have embraced theatrical onstage personae. For Redcar, transformation is not so much a performance but a part of life. We all change, his new show insists. Will you still have me?
[See also: Will there be a great CD revival?]