Artist Spotlight courtesy of LongIslandMediumIcedTea
Everyone has long days. Heavy, tired days punctuated by trying and often failing to fall asleep. It was on a day like this that I made a chance discovery. It was hiding under the covers, fiddling with radio stations when a woman’s voice surrounded by kitschy, eccentric noise came on. Her voice was loud and clear through the static and I recognized the song as “Is That All There Is.” The original version, as sung by Peggy Lee, sounds like a weary woman slowly gaining strength in her words. This woman sounded different, frail but like she also couldn’t give less of a shit what anyone thought of her. This woman was Cristina.
Picture a French noblewoman with a penchant for dirty jokes and put her in No-Wave scene of 80’s New York. The result is something like Cristina, a one-hit wonder who released two albums before retreating from the spotlight. Active for only six years, 1978-1984, she attracted controversy as well as a cultish following in a short span of time.
Cristina Monet-Palaci was born on January 2, 1959. The daughter of a French psychoanalyst father and an oft-remarried American novelist/playwright/illustrator mother, her life was marked by eccentricity from the start. Parts of her upbringing seem pre-cut for the kind of erudite glamor she exuded as an artist. When she turned her 8, her parents paid a designer to create a Madame de Pompadour gown for her. As an adult, she recalled the anecdote dryly, “I looked like Toulouse-Latrice in drag.” A sense of humor and a love of theatrics marked her as a singer/pop-star from the start. Not exactly musical, these became Cristina’s strengths in addition to her decadent lyricism. If anything, she was a parallel universe Madonna.
Cristina started out at Harvard but quickly dropped out due to quasi-intellectual boredom. Nonetheless, she found a job reviewing theater for the Village Voice. She was young and bright and attracted attention easily. Her beginnings in the music came through marriage. Her husband was Michael Zilkha, an English heir the Mothercare retail chain fortune. Zilkha began ZE Records with a friend, Michel Esteban. Initially, Cristina had to be persuaded to record her first song: Disco Clone. The song had been written by a friend of Cristina’s from Harvard, Ronald Melrose.
Disco Clone, in addition to being the first song Cristina lent her talent to, was also her first and last moderate hit. Cristina used her breathiest voice, somewhere between singing and sighing, to sing “Now nobody has to dance alone!” The premise of the song, that clubs have begun using clones of beautiful women to dance with patrons, allowed Cristina to show off her theatricality at its finest. The sweeping orchestra combined with Cristina’s girlish delivery contrast each other. The version above features a young, uncredited Kevin Kline trying to seduce Cristina.
Disco Clone was enough of a hit that producer August Darnell decided to release a whole album with Cristina, the eclectic Cristina (1980), which was later reissued as Doll in A Box in 2004. The album was released to positive reception, albeit with little fanfare.
Cristina couldn’t belt like Whitney Houston, nor did she have Dolly Parton’s remarkably controlled voice technique. What she did have was a playful, girlish quality to her voice.
Here, in Mama Mia, her voice is ear candy. Sugary, reedy and slightly mischevious. The refrain repeats “Mama’s in love, Mama’s in love again” and the slightly more soulful chorus, backs her up. The song is joyous, and even sexy, as both electronic and orchestral songs surround Cristina and her chorus.
Of course, as mentioned before, Cristina quickly ran into controversy. Her cover of “Is That All There Is?” updated the lyrics to have a more cynical, lurid sound. She describes “bored looking bankers dancing with beautiful models” and an explicit BDSM relationship. A peculiar sound the original writers, Leiber and Stoller, did not care for. The pair sued Cristina, and for years, “Is That All There Is?” was never played on radio stations or issued for purchase.
Until now, of course. And the track is among her darkest work, and again Cristina doesn’t quite sing so much as drawl.
Despite the controversy, Cristina continued singing and eventually released a second album, Sleep it Off, again under Zilkha’s ZE Records. The beats are heavier, the lyrics more decadent and the sound more sophisticated. The cover, pictured at the beginning, was designed by Jean-Paul Gode, a year before he used the same design for Grace Jones’s A Slave To Rhythm.
Again, the album opened to positive reviews but little financial success. Her own explanation of the theme reveals why critics and fans alike have a fondness for the album, “In the sixties, people survived on political idealism. In the seventies, there was this obsession with ‘lifestyle’ – women’s lib or a new religion, sex, and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll or a macrobiotic diet. Something was always THE ANSWER. In the eighties, people are into power and money and narcissism because they don’t know what else to believe in. I don’t think the album has a cynical take on this. I guess I just believe that whatever’s going on, trying to exist is a pretty trying business. Life knocks you down, all you can do is get back up, brush yourself off, cry a little, laugh a little and keep going.”
In “Don’t Mutilate My Mink,” Cristina puts on a haughty air in her voice, which seems to be fighting against the layered guitars like a current. She sings, ‘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.’
Cristina ended her career shortly after Sleep It Off didn’t sell and packed her bags to head to Texas for a life of domesticity. Eventually, she divorced Zilkha and returned to her small, eccentric New York circle of friends.
Cristina’s style is reminiscent of later artists such Kimbra and Santigold, with her eccentric vocals and heavily layered instrumentals. And Lana Del Rey’s descriptions of immoral decadence peak out in Cristina’s droll lyrics. Yet, she never achieved much beyond later cult success, be it because her music was understood and underappreciated. She sounds intellectual, haughty, wealthy and just pink.
Richard Strange’s memoir Strange: Punks and Drunks, Flicks and Kick (2004), describes Cristina as “elegant, intelligent, beautiful and the wittiest girl I have ever met. In a sassier, zestier, brighter, funnier world, Cristina would have been Madonna.” And maybe that’s true. In the meantime, her music is far more widely available than ever before.