Cristina Monet Zilkha — who was born Christina Monet-Palaci, and recorded under the mononym Cristina — died on Wednesday (Apr. 1). Her death was confirmed by Michel Esteban, co-founder of her label ZE Records, who wrote on Facebook, “Wake up this morning with this devastated news, dearest Cristina past away. So sad..” She was 61.
The daughter of a French psychoanalyst and an American novelist, playwright and illustrator, Cristina dabbled in theater (both as a writer and a critic) before turning to pop music at the behest of her eventual husband — Michael Zilkha, co-founder with Michel of ZE, an influential New York post-punk label. Zilkha persuaded her to record “Disco Clone,” a single ultimately produced by Velvet Underground guitarist John Cale and released on ZE in 1978. Campy, self-aware and infectious (with a young Kevin Kline as Cristina’s spoken-word co-star on a later re-recording), the song developed an underground following.
Cristina would release two full-length albums on ZE, 1980’s self-titled effort and 1984’s Sleep It Off — produced by a pair of left-field disco fixtures in August Darnell (of Kid Creole & The Coconuts) and Don Was (of Was (Not Was)), respectively. While the former followed in the winking disco model of “Clone,” the latter adopted a sharper, punchier new wave sound to match Cristina’s increasingly dry, acerbic songwriting: “My life is in a turmoil, My thighs are black and blue/ My sheets are stained, so is my brain/ What’s a girl to do?” lamented the chorus to “What’s a Girl to Do,” arguably her signature track.
The two albums caught some critical attention and underground favor, particularly in New York — as did jagged reinventions of Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” and The Beatles’ “Drive My Car,” both released as standalone singles — but little national renown. Cristina left the music industry shortly afterwards, retiring to move to Texas with Zilkha and their child. The couple divorced in 1990, and Cristina returned to New York, where she wrote sporadically, but never resumed her music career — though a pair of expanded reissues of her two ZE albums brought her newfound attention in 2004. By that point, she had already been battling “an MS-like ailment” for years, according to a Time Out New York interview.
While Cristina never achieved mainstream success, her wry songwriting, deadpan delivery and infectious beats proved roundly ahead of their time, a touchstone for the electroclash movement of the early ’00s, and a precedent for later post-modern pop superstars like Lady Gaga and Lana Del Rey. “Cristina was a HUGE inspiration to me,” tweeted art-pop singer-songwriter Zola Jesus after news of the artist’s passing broke. “I loved how she was too weird for the pop world and too pop for the weird world.”