The sad thing about unsung cult artists is it often takes their death for them to be properly reappraised and appreciated. Take confrontational post-punk No Wave chanteuse Cristina, who has died aged 61 (on 1 April 2020) from coronavirus complications. I’ve known who Cristina (full name: Cristina Monet Zilkha) was since I was a teenager (I’m old, remember) and was of course familiar with her two stone-cold classics (her listless and irreverent interpretation of Peggy Lee’s cabaret anthem “Is That All There Is?” and the gloriously downbeat Christmas staple “Things Fall Apart”) but for some reason I never properly delved into her oeuvre until now. And she’s a revelation! (Thank God Cristina’s entire discography – admittedly small – is represented on Spotify. She made precisely two barbed, weird and distinctive albums – released by the cutting edge ZE label - that flopped commercially and then retired from music).
Some quick reflections on this totally unique and neglected talent. Like many abrasive early eighties New York No Wave / punk funk musicians (see also: James Chance of The Contortions), she may initially work best in small doses and for many may be an acquired taste. But think of Cristina as analogous to Campari – once you acquire that taste, you wondered how you ever lived without it! Also: Cristina’s trademark is setting jaundiced, scathing sentiments to perky up-tempo music, and she mostly writes and performs within the persona of a debauched, jaded party girl or gold digger (a tradition that dates to Mae West and Eartha Kitt).
Self-titled debut Cristina (1980 (reissued in 2004 as Doll in the Box) is her mutated disco-not-disco dance album. Lushly produced by Kid Creole of the Coconuts, it’s campy fun with Latin rhythm in its hips (if you like cowbell, this is the album for you!), but I prefer the follow-up, the tougher, darker and more cutting New Wave pop of Sleep It Off (1984). If embittered songs like “Rage & Fascination” and “He Dines Out on Death” remind you of Broken English-era Marianne Faithfull, they were co-written with Faithfull’s long-time collaborator and guitarist Barry Reynolds. (And in fact, Cristina’s material is considerably stronger than the songs Reynolds and Faithfull rustled-up for Dangerous Acquaintances (1981), the tepid follow-up to Broken English). And Cristina’s cover of Prince’s “When You Were Mine” is superior to Cyndi Lauper’s.
Cristina’s venomous, spikily funny satirical lyrics work as wry poetry already, but then she enunciates them in an alienated, deadpan can't-be-bothered snarl (she has “resting bitch voice”, occasionally punctuated with a Johnny Rotten sneer). Here’s a sampling of her wit and wisdom: “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?” from "What’s A Girl to Do?" is as lacerating as anything found on Lydia Lunch’s 1980 death kitten magnum opus Queen of Siam. “Don't tell me that I'm frigid / Don't try to make me think / I'll do just fine without you / Don’t mutilate my mink” from “Don’t Mutilate My Mink” (which I’d argue is Cristina’s punk masterpiece. In their tribute to her, The Guardian newspaper describes it as sounding like Audrey Hepburn fronting the Sex Pistols). And on “Things Fall Apart” Cristina pithily condenses the end of a relationship into two lines: “And then one day he said, “I can’t stand in your way - it’s wrong.” “Way of what?” I asked, but he was gone.”
In closing: how did Cristina not become a major star in the eighties? She had it all! Talent, beauty, mystique, wit, an utterly original pop vision. But let's embrace her now. Cristina’s jagged, anxious music is the perfect soundtrack for our current situation.
/ Sadly, there's almost no trace of Cristina on YouTube and what's there is in grainy poor quality. Here is her 1984 video for "Ticket to the Tropics." You can see her version of The Beatles' "Drive My Car" here./