“My lips are stained/So is my brain/What’s a girl to do?”-“What’s a girl to do”, Cristina (1984)
I remember hearing that song for the first time when I was 19, in college. A friend gave me a compilation that featured the song, but I didn’t listen to it for months because something about the name Cristina made me assume it was some overtly sensitive singer-songwriter. I pre-judge most music more than I would like to admit. But when I finally listened I had one of those moments where you immediately replay the song, and then again, and again. It was infinitely catchy, but I felt for once that I was the girl in the song, not an object of desire, but the narrator of the story. The song is about feeling lost, but with a pretty solid "who cares" shrug attached. It's brilliant and still remains one of my favorite songs.
But who is Cristina? And why don’t we know her?
Cristina Monet was a Harvard drop-out, critic and writer who put out a few singles and two perfect pearls of albums between 1978-1984. Her career is always inexorably tied to her husband, founder of ZE records. Cristina was a hard artist to pigeonhole in the late seventies. Too cool and calculated to really be “punk”, too smart and tongue in cheek to ever really be a pop star. Before she had a chance to really explain herself, despite early praise she was ignored by pop-charts and considered too intellectual to be a real artiste. After two albums she was long forgotten.
Cristina is an artist who is dripping in irony, but there is nothing insincere about her music. Many of her songs, especially on her self-titled debut are introverted versions of songs known for their banality, turned into dark little nihilist statements. But the songs, buoyed by Kid Creole and Don Was’s early production work are really fantastic dance singles. If you don’t listen to the lyrics closely, you would have little problem dancing to them at a club. The lyrics are where most of Cristina’s charm is. One can hardly say she really sings. It’s all delivered with betty-boop coyness, and a strong sense of self-consciousness. Cristina mined pop culture from punk (Don’t Mutilate My Mink), to Weimar cabaret (The Ballad of Immoral Leanings), to fifties pop (Things Fall Apart),to disco (Disco Clone) but distinctly from the perspective of a modern woman. The women in Cristina’s songs are put-upon, but self-aware. Jaded, but charming.
In a 2004 article looking back on her work, Monet remarked “It never fit in any frame, and it still doesn't." But I disagree. Monet certainly didn’t fit in her time, because she was too dark, too self-referential. In a time where information is a free-for all and references of the past can become just as relevant now, with nostalgia at an all-time high, nothing is past limits of relevancy. Cristina dared to go to those dark places, even if it was delivered with a world-weary sigh. Cristina is an artist of my time.
Cristina was clearly a privileged woman: beautiful, educated and wealthy, but she has a strong sense of that background as she critiques the world around her in her music, like some distant voice-over track to everything she witnesses. It’s easy to feel distanced from your own life sometimes today. I can google myself and read a version of myself I wanted to show the world when I was 19. Find an old profile photo of myself when I was 15 and have a distinct snapshot of how I wanted the world to see myself, but not necessarily a picture of who I was. Somedays when I think about my presence online, I feel like I am watching a film of myself. Everything I create, I create knowing it becomes part of some greater picture. It is impossible to exist in a vacuum when creating art today.
Cristina’s music feels so of this moment, because she is so very self-aware. She acts as a social critic, while adopting references from others. These days, who wrote a song, or where someone came from still hold water, but not the way they used to. If this message feels real, the authenticity isn’t all that important. And today, the lines between artist, performer, musician and writer don’t hold the same weight they used to. The melding of art and pop has always existed, but there seems to be a real resurgence these days of musical artists tying themselves to the art world. And at this point, the way technology has broken down barriers between the worlds, it hardly seems revolutionary. Sometimes it can lead to really fantastic stuff, in the case of Kanye West, whose collaborations with George Condo, citing minimalism as an inspiration for Yeezus,. Or Beyonce’s references to academic feminism; sampling excerpts of Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche in “Flawless”.
But more often than not it results in sophomoric attempts to seem “high-minded” to the public, a self-congratulatory reminder to the artist that what they are making is “art” so it must be important. Lady Gaga’s ArtPop was a over-the top, half-baked concept album that desperately grasps to the art world. The amount of self-awareness in it is overwhelming to the point where it cancels out any merits of the music. Katy Perry is another artist who has collaborated with contemporary pop-artists, but a whipped cream bra hardly seems subversive when that’s the kind of blatant sexualization every female pop artist does. And on the less overt side, there’s Lana del Rey who has made a career out of camp references and over-the-top paeans to American culture, that in a rare instance, are so very over the top, she’s become camp herself. But the main reason these attempts don’t work is because they’re dripping in self-awareness and irony, without any cleverness at all.
But who can blame them? It’s a time when the old-rock concept of “authenticity” no longer holds water, because when technology enables anyone to become a pop-star now, it doesn’t matter how you get there. We live in a time where we can connect with anyone we want, all over the world, so why is there a pervasive feeling of emptiness all around us. We live in a world where capitalism has failed us, where art no longer exists in a vacuum, but all of these attempts to meld pop and art feel just as empty too. We bemoan the presence of irony in all pop, but it’s those artists who are most successful. We like our entertainment with a heavy dose of self-consciousness.
But there’s no one with half the wit or cleverness of Cristina in pop music today, and honestly it surprises me. It’s in this space, where I find myself relating more than ever to the music of Cristina. Here is someone who is fully aware of themselves, of their privilege, of their experiences, of the good and of the dark. What’s missing in a lot of pop today is self-awareness with a “wink”. Remaining self-referential without losing the bigger picture. And that’s what Cristina had. Why can’t we have smart pop? Why can’t we be self-aware without losing the heart? Cristina obviously isn’t the only artist like this, but there’s a reason she, and many similar pop artists, remain a footnote. I would love to see a future pop with the same cleverness and depth of an artist like Cristina.
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