Even in New York City where she achieved her peak (although admittedly limited fame) in the early ’80s, Cristina was never a household name. But during one of music’s most experimental, fertile transitional period, a woman born Cristina Monet-Palaci became an essential, undervalued influencer on future generations of dance-pop with an acerbic wit and penchant for prickly pop. After being persuaded to record music by then-husband Michael Zilkha (founder of ZE Records, an indie label eons ahead of the genre-blurring curve), Cristina embarked upon a brief but influential recording career, delivering the John Cale-produced send-up “Disco Clone” and two solo albums.
Despite her passing involvement in the music industry, she left an impact that’s stunningly ahead of its time for those who favor oddball pop. Below, following her coronavirus-related death at age 61, we’re celebrating seven of her best recordings.
There are numerous versions of this Cristina song – the sparse, roomy John Cale-produced original, the string-laden Studio 54 send-up, the tongue-in-cheek pretension of the French version (Cristina’s father was a French psychoanalyst). Any way you cut it, this is a delightful skewering of the way many cultural tourists viewed NYC nightclub hookup culture in the late ’70s/early ’80s. As perfect as it is, its parodic levels don’t demonstrate the full scope of her take on a seminal period in NYC history as much as…
“Is That All There Is”
Doubling down on Peggy Lee’s Kurt Weill-influenced “Is That All There Is,” which was drenched in the ennui of life’s myriad disappointments, Cristina took the measured, somber tone of Lee’s version and catapulted it into the dancefloor stratosphere, intoning droll calls for partying in the face of meaninglessness amidst a bed of spiky guitars, slide whistles and a shuffling rhythm. It might sound hopeless on paper, but truly, few recorded statements want to make you live more than hearing Cristina recount the (fictitious) story of her mother lighting her house on fire when she was a child and concluding, “I stood there shivering in my pajamas and watched the whole world go up in flames / And when it was all over I said to myself, is that all there is to a fire.”
“Drive My Car”
Beatles covers are plentiful – hell, there are entire blockbuster films devoted to reworking Fab Four compositions. But by eschewing any sense of fealty to an acclaimed songwriting duo and allowing herself to completely reinterpret the arrangement, Cristina produced one of the most low-key genius versions of a Beatles song. Part of its brilliance lies in the fact that non-discriminating ears will hear it and dismiss it outright as bizarro pop pabulum, but anyone who pauses and gives it a fair shake can relish in the sardonic delight of her cooing, parodic sex kitten vocals and complete refusal to approach the song with any degree of professional seriousness. In a world where most cover the Beatles like a priest reading from the Gospel, her footloose take on the Rubber Soul standout is a much-need breath of fresh air.
“Blame It On Disco”
The disco era was a strange time. Unlike the ’60s, which welcomed new noise, this exuberant, innovative strand of music was subject to critical and public disdain mainly because its celebratory club vibe didn’t jibe with the purported seriousness of ’70s classic rock (without a doubt, prejudice over the fact that the genre came from predominantly queer Black artists contributed to the idiotic ‘Disco Sucks’ movement). So Cristina’s island-inflected “Blame It on Disco” (drenched in the production vibes of August Darnell, the Kid Creole and the Coconuts frontman who produced her debut) serves as a perfect defense for the genre and send-up of its detractors.
“Things Fall Apart”
A song named after a Chinua Achebe book named after a line in a W.B. Yeats poem could be insufferably pretentious, and yeah, this Cristina song is not light fare. But the energetic production, the sawtoothed guitars and her matter-of-fact delivery make this one a perfect Christmas song that appeals to both sides – it’s not a happy story, but she acknowledges the familial importance of tradition. Later on, Cristina dedicated it to Lizzy Mercier Descloux, another vastly underrated avant-pop pioneer.
“When U Were Mine”
Cyndi Lauper certainly wins the competition for best cover of this song, but Cristina’s take on it – alternately confused and curious – is indispensable. Considering her lover’s proclivities without truly accepting them (“I know now that you’re going round now with a guy” is a beautifully low-key inversion), Cristina embodied the all-too-relatable reality of jonesing after an unattainable person who’s just out of your reach.
“Don’t Mutilate My Mink”
The sloppy no wave alternative to Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen,” Cristina’s “Don’t Mutilate My Mink” eviscerates the self-obsessed wealthy and their penchant for animal fur – way before it became fashionable.