clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How “People, I’ve Been Sad” Became the Perfect Anthem for Quarantine

The heartbreaking and emboldening song from Christine and the Queens’ Héloïse Letissier has taken on a new resonance during isolation

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“In French, we have an expression, ultra-moderne solitude,” says Héloïse Letissier, the introspective pop provocateur known professionally as Christine and the Queens, or simply Chris. “It’s like the gathering of the screens.” She is referring to the diffuse spectacle of 110,000 or so lonely souls, gathered in self-quarantine isolation and staggered across time, poorly lit by their respective laptops or smartphones, watching as she gazes forlornly out a bright, tall window and, at Stephen Colbert’s request, sings a heartbreaking and emboldening song called “People, I’ve Been Sad.”

“People, I’ve Been Sad” is my favorite song of this year, by a huge margin; it’s among the precious few 2020 songs blunt and incisive and vulnerable enough to effectively describe this awful year. It is a synth-pop power ballad that combats that awfulness with an exquisite gentleness; released in February and part of that month’s luscious six-track EP La Vita Nuova, it’s a plea for togetherness all the more painful, and all the more necessary, given that the COVID-19 pandemic made togetherness so elusive for so long.

The profound yearning of that song title alone, of the word people alone, of that comma alone. The way the chorus makes you somehow feel, within the depths of your personal loneliness, far less alone:

If you disappear
Then I’m disappearing, too
You know the feeling
You know the feeling

Christine and the Queens, whose 2015 breakout hit “Tilted” was a woozy marvel of whooshing earworms and gracefully off-kilter choreography, would prefer to spend this summer belting those lines to raucous crowds at various gargantuan music festivals. Her 2018 album Chris was insidiously funky and slyly insurgent, full of slinky pop-R&B hits like “Girlfriend” and the fantastic “Doesn’t Matter” designed to shatter any status quo, social or sonic, that might be imposed on them. She is a pop star, with all the outsized charisma that term implies, and thrives amid the sort of teeming, adoring crowds pop stardom demands.

But for the foreseeable future, she’s stuck singing “People, I’ve Been Sad,” alone, to people on the internet via a series of homemade quarantine performances, which is to say stuck painting a portrait of ecstatic solidarity from a palette of enforced solitude. You know the feeling. “I think the connections come from all of those loneliness merged together,” she says, chatting cheerfully over Google Hangouts in early June, and making peace with the gathering of the screens. “It’s a bit dystopian to me, honestly. It’s cool. It’s OK.”

It’s not cool at all, obviously, but nobody’s working harder right now to thaw out the frigidity inherent to most COVID-era art, the stiffness inherent to the woeful sight of an artist without a physically present audience. “Theater kind of maimed me forever to things like that, because theater is precisely about the human warmth and that,” she explains. “And you learn in theater that the person seeing the performance terminates it—like, finishes it with imagination and all. Screens are not the same, for sure. But it’s the way we have now. So we use it. But it’s not my ideal way.”

This way does, however, bring Chris full circle. The first Christine and the Queens album, released in 2014, was called Chaleur Humaine—French for “human warmth.” Before that, it was just her and a screen and a constantly shifting identity, as an aspiring pop star, as a human. “When I wrote music for the first time, I had no contacts in the music industry, I came from theater, I was using the tools I had,” she says. “And the tools I had were my computer. I crafted lots of self-made videos—quite creepy, actually. If some people have time to waste, they are still on YouTube, and it’s pretty old, it’s from 2010, and it’s creepy black-and-white self-portraits, and the camera was the first way to introduce Christine as a character.”

Here in 2020, Chris endeavors to turn every new online performance of “People, I’ve Been Sad” into its own event, into its own autonomous organism. Take, for example, the Instagram version in mid-March, filmed in a cavernous studio, the camerawoman perched in a little carriage attached to a bicycle that squeaks as it tools around, a tableau of immediate pre-lockdown whimsy meant to celebrate, Chris says now, “the awkwardness of the present moment.”

The Colbert performance in early May—the tall window, the startling view, the palpable fatigue—was her way of doing the most with the least. “I think it is quite complicated to do, actually, a good lockdown performance, because you have stillness and no feedback, so you have to create the tension by yourself,” she says. “For me it was exhausting mentally, because precision is really a thing. If you’re not precise, it’s immediate, and you lose your connection, which is merciless.”

For both April’s star-studded Together at Home international telethon and a Pitchfork Listening Club mini-concert the following month, she sang slightly different versions of “People, I’ve Been Sad” in an empty room save her equipment and a few flowers, a stylish minimalism that made both the song and the singer feel much bigger, and much closer, than it appeared. The invasiveness of a coronavirus-era performance is just another problem to be solved.

“I immediately thought of how I could deflect that, because to be honest, I am more interested in the performance than the performance of my home,” she says. “The MTV Cribs vibe, I was not really into, because I personally don’t want to see that, as a music lover. It kind of could break things for me.”

Hence, the decor, or rather the lack of decor. “I was like, ‘Let’s create a kind of neutral space that is not totally freaky,’ so I put the flowers, so people don’t think I’m a serial killer,” Chris explains. “Actually, lots of French people commented on the lack of furniture, and they were really worried about me, like, ‘She’s living in an empty house.’ It was an indicator of, like, craziness to them. Actually I’m just trying to remove the information that could invade too much of your brain.”

She notes, at the top of that Together at Home clip, that “People, I’ve Been Sad” is explicitly past tense, and also, she has a squeaky floor. But the past, of course, is always closer than it appears, too. “I was experiencing a really rough year personally, but I was sure I was doing OK,” she says. “And then I wrote that song, and the song’s just a moment of brutal truth. Which is why it’s also scary to write a song sometimes, because you’re really afraid of what could come. I had to acknowledge the sadness. I couldn’t pretend anymore.”

But now, it’s a different sort of sadness, and for that matter a different sort of loneliness. “The lockdown is not the solitude we chose,” she says. “When I was younger, I actually chose to remove myself from the world sometimes because I didn’t feel like I would be fitting in, for example. So it was really interesting to see that this time, that loneliness that I am experiencing is imposed on me, and before I used to almost hurt myself by imposing, to myself, a solitude. So it was like an existential loop.”

The simplicity of “People, I’ve Been Sad” is a huge part of why it hits so hard, with its plainspoken talk of missing out, of falling, of disappearing, of “forsaking things for way too long.” Halfway through, she switches to French and sings, roughly translated, about a crazy teenage loneliness, and a sun that still burns her when she goes outside.

But now any break in her ultra-moderne solitude is a blessed relief. In early June, she was energized after attending a huge police-brutality protest in Paris inspired by the deaths of both George Floyd and Adama Traoré, a black Frenchman who died in police custody in a Parisian suburb in 2016. “Like a protest, also, there is an energy field that hooks you,” she says, adding that “it was quite heartwarming to see so many people actually taking a stance, and it was lots, lots of young people, which is hopeful to me.”

A protest is likely the only crowd available to her, or to anyone, for months, for starters. Per a terrifying New York Times report published Monday, a majority of polled epidemiologists don’t expect to personally attend a concert for another year or more. Compared to the ideally communal hedonism of other recent major pop-star releases from Dua Lipa and Lady Gaga, “People, I’ve Been Sad” is a better emotional fit for the self-quarantine era, but the longer this era drags on, the higher the chance that this song becomes synonymous with it, a gorgeous evocation of a terrible feeling it can never quite shake.

For the moment, though, Chris is content to watch old movies and listen to Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters and sing her own unlikely anthem to any captive audience that requests it. “I think the beauty of it is that you cannot predict what the song is going to become,” she says. “You have to let it go and you see where it goes. And sometimes it becomes really trapped in the moment, but maybe it’s for—talking about the Fiona Apple album, I actually lived lockdown with that record, but I lived crazy experiences with that record, by myself in my house, totally diving into the record, which was kind of perfect for that moment of like, peeling your skin off and seeing what happened. And in a way I’m grateful that record arrived, so I guess it’s fine.”

In retrospect, then, maybe “People, I’ve Been Sad” will be our best example of pop music making the best of it. “When you write a song, honestly, it’s out of you forever,” she says. “You let it live. You’re like, ‘Go child! Don’t hurt yourself on the way!’” There’s an even greater distance to cross when there’s nowhere to go.

A previous version of this piece misspelled Héloïse Letissier’s name. It is Héloïse, not Hélöise.