Melanie Martinez comeback
Artwork by Anna Boyle
After a four-year hiatus, singer-songwriter Melanie Martinez has released her sophomore album K-12. With this release, Martinez managed to not only craft a concept album but also direct and star in a full-length film of the same name. The film ties the album together and creates a portrait of a girl's development through school. Cry Baby, Martinez's character, navigates her way through school with her best friend, Angelita (Elita Harkov), and Angelic Spirit Guide, Lilith (Kimesha Campbell). Together, they overthrow the oppressive school principal's regime.
The album had been complete since 2017, but Martinez held off giving any peeks into her film or even a single from her album until this past summer. Retrospectively, it makes sense that she wanted to keep the album intact, so that they each contribute to the storyline, but there's no denying that her fans were anxiously wishing for at least a glimpse of her work.
Unfortunately, Martinez had more on her mind these past four years than directing this film and producing her album. In 2017, singer-songwriter and former friend Timothy Heller tweeted that Martinez raped her in Martinez's home. Despite the allegations, Martinez continued working on her album and film, releasing both on Sept. 5, 2019. The film incorporates themes such as racism, elitism, and negative societal pressures. Her previous album, Cry Baby, incorporated these topics in more subtle ways such as through casting choices. However, K-12 takes social commentary to a higher level. She manages to weave these topics in a way that does not feel forced or otherwise cheaply included for the sake of appearing socially aware.
In one scene in the first 15 minutes of the film, Henry, a black student, remains seated during the Pledge of Allegiance despite the teacher demanding that he "show some respect." "You hear that? 'Liberty and justice for all?' That's bullshit," he responds before school security forcibly removes him from the classroom.
Some of the racial elements were more subtle but appreciated nonetheless. As an Asian-American fan, the first thing I noticed was its portrayal of Asians in a classroom. It felt strange to realize that Asian schoolchildren were portrayed as just that: schoolchildren, not as some secluded whiz kids. Poking fun at stereotypes and those who take them seriously can be fun (I'm guilty of laughing at Asian nerds in films), but Martinez's decision did not go unnoticed.
LGBT+ discrimination also pops up again in K-12. Like racism, LGBT+ themes were also previously incorporated through casting but not overtly in Martinez's work. The film features a teacher transitioning and asking to be referred to as "Ms. Harper." Despite her passion for her job and her connection with her students, the principal says he cannot "permit [her] to influence the children with this ridiculous behavior" and proceeds to fire her with a "Mr. Harper, you're fired": a scenario many of us have heard about far too often. Martinez also welcomes the LGBT+ community in her casting, as seen in her casting Zion Moreno, a transgender model, as Fleur, a girl in the popular "it" group.
Martinez touches on sexism and rape culture yet again. In the seventh track, "Strawberry Shortcake," she jabs at how women are expected to "make sure [they're] pure" whereas "nobody told [boys] not to grab." The song is somewhat reminiscent of "Tag, You're It," a track from her first album. In its respective music video, a menacing wolf driving a white van follows Martinez around and kidnaps her. For "Strawberry Shortcake," Martinez is posed in a large Barbie dress cake where the boys stuff their faces with cake.
Unrealistic social pressures also make a comeback for K-12. Martinez's debut single, "Dollhouse," demonstrates the gilded glamor the media presents celebrities and influencers. "Mr. Potato Head," another track that was released in Martinez's first album, critiques plastic surgery and the expectation for women to conform to a narrow perception of beauty. In the film, Fleur conforms to how she believes she should appear and behave by closely emulating the queen bee, Kelly, and develops bulimia nervosa. "Orange Juice" then shows Martinez's perspective. She and Fleur exchange eyeballs so that Martinez can "give [Fleur her] set of eyes," paralleling the impact of body dysmorphia.
Although waiting four years for more music was absolute agony, Martinez did not disappoint. K-12 is a continuation of Cry Baby both conceptually and musically, yet it does not feel like a recycled version of the preceding album. The ending of the film for K-12 left on a bit of a cliffhanger, hinting at a potential addition to the story. Perhaps Martinez's fellow Cry Babies will have to wait another four years, but I feel safe in saying many of us are willing to wait even longer if it means another segment equally emotionally evocative.