Cristina Monet Zilkha, the singer and arts critic who died on Wednesday at the age of 61, was a missing link in pop music history. Her death was announced in a post from Michel Esteban, the co-founder of her longtime label, ZE.
She released two albums as Cristina in the early 1980s, was a pioneer in blending the artsiness and attitude of punk with the joyful energy of disco and pop. Upon their release, her records were largely unheard beyond the circles of extraordinarily cool downtown types. But when 1980's Doll in the Box and 1984's Sleep It Off were reissued in 2004, it was apparent to her new listeners that this music had helped pave the way for the massive successes of her contemporaries, like Madonna and Cyndi Lauper, and anticipated the rise of confrontational but danceable alt-pop acts such as Garbage, Le Tigre, Peaches, Chicks On Speed, Ladytron and M.I.A. in the late '90s and early 2000s.
Cristina's small body of work was released on the ultra-hip label ZE Records, which also put out music by influential post-punk artists Kid Creole and the Coconuts, James Chance, and Lizz Mercier Descloux. The label was co-founded by her partner and eventual husband, the British-born Michael Zilkha, who persuaded Cristina to record her debut single, "Disco Clone," as a lark — but she ended up elevating the material, filtering it through an ironic sensibility informed by her interest in camp and theater.
"This being 1978, he thought he would cash in on disco," she told Time Out New York in 2004. "But I thought it was so bad that it could be a Brechtian pastiche." (This was fully intended as a sort of compliment – she held Bertolt Brecht's Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny in high regard, and would later adapt his "Zuhälter Ballade" as "Ballad of Immoral Earnings" on her second album.) Within a year she had also recorded similarly tongue-in-cheek versions of The Beatles' "Drive My Car" and Peggy Lee's morbid classic "Is That All There Is?"
But Cristina hit her stride when she began writing her own material, first with Kid Creole mastermind August Darnell for her self-titled debut, then with producer Don Was, on Sleep It Off. Her music with Darnell was lush and ecstatic, an exaggeratedly posh version of disco filled out with the sort of busy Latin rhythms that were Darnell's specialty. "Mama Mia," the album's highlight, is a fizzy delight that opens with a memorable image that both highlights and undercuts the glamour implied by the music – "a long tall bottle of champagne and a chocolate ice cream cake."
Sleep It Off, recorded at the peak of the new wave boom, embraced the aesthetics of glossy, peppy '80s pop while retaining her sardonic tone. The proto-electroclash album opener, "What's A Girl to Do," contrasts an extremely perky melody and bright arrangement with Cristina's bleak tale, sung from the perspective of a filthy, hedonistic and drug-addled young party girl with a theatrically flat and abrasively adenoidal tone that recalls the Sex Pistols' Johnny Rotten.
The album also foregrounded her gift for sharp and vivid lyrics. "The Lie of Love," a hazy ballad she co-wrote with Barry Reynolds, condenses the detail of a literary novel about a loveless marriage, between two rich-but-miserable people, into four minutes of bitter cynicism and listless ennui. "She's passive on pills, he's vicious on booze," she sings, with a tone of pensive resignation. Many of Cristina's songs highlighted the emptiness at the center of wealthy decadence with a snarky glee, but "The Lie of Love" plays this theme as more of a tragedy. She didn't like these characters, but she certainly pitied them.
Cristina retired from music not long after Sleep It Off was released in 1984, partly out of a sense of guilt, feeling as though her husband had bought her a career (though she did contribute vocals to the producer Ursula 1000's single "Urgent/Anxious" in 2006). In the second half of her life she focused on her critical writing, being a mother and coping with what she told Time Out New York was a debilitating "MS-like ailment."