With her hair evenly split between the colors pink and black, Melanie Martinez debuted in 2015 with her solo debut album Cry Baby and became well-known for her babyish persona, especially among teenage audiences. I believe that “Dollhouse,” in which she used her adolescent style to contrast the put-together image of a family and the dysfunctional reality underneath, showed that she had at least had some potential, and “Pity Party” remains my favorite song of hers, probably because the abandonment at the song’s center is all too familiar for me. Nevertheless, her “Cute and Psycho” shtick was not strong enough to sustain a whole album. Outside of “Dollhouse” and “Pity Party,” the two standout singles, most of her songs seemed to be taking childhood concepts and adding an occasional swear word to give them an incongruous, mature edge. The other songs on Cry Baby were not insightful like “Dollhouse” or visceral like “Pity Party.”
With that being said, Cry Baby was far from the worst album I’d ever heard, and I was decidedly ambivalent on it. After all, Martinez’s biggest failing was just putting too much emphasis on her lolita fashion, and the songs might have been bland but were pleasant to listen to.
After touring and releasing music videos for her songs on Cry Baby, Martinez was hit with sexual assault allegations from a former friend named Timothy Heller. With the allegations taking a toll on her public image, Martinez, after releasing a passive-aggressive response to Heller’s claims in a song titled “Piggyback,” kept a low profile in the music industry.
Now, two years later, she came back with the album K-12 this September. September is known to be the “back to school” month, and K-12 refers to the primary and secondary school levels in the American school system.
I went into K-12 with tempered expectations. In spite of how many years it has been since the release of Cry Baby, I was not looking forward to hearing the same shtick from Martinez again, but I decided to look into it anyways. Maybe Martinez finally came up with another song as worthy as “Pity Party,” for the school-themed title and tracklist suggested some level of conceptuality. Maybe it would be worth a listen, I thought.
K-12 is not completely “0/10” worthless, but I personally did not like a single track on this album. Listening to it from beginning to end was excruciating, and the album’s rare redeeming qualities were still mired down by poor delivery of even poorer themes found in her lyrics and musical style. I am not sure I could pick a least favorite song, but a handful of finalists all find different ways to make me regret listening to this album.
The album is quite long, filled with 13 different songs. After listening to them a couple times, I found recurring themes that I believe to be the reasons why the album feels subpar:
1. Most people would be able to guess what the songs are about by titles alone. For example, the song “Drama Club” is about conflict, or “drama” that takes place among people, and how pointless it is. To add, “Class Fight” is about an argument that occurs between two female students because of their shared romantic feelings for a boy. And yet, Martinez found a way to take nearly every one of these song topics and find the most abhorrent take on them possible. “Drama Club” scrutinizes audiences who are offended by her musical style notorious for romanticizing children and mental illnesses, and “Class Fight” encourages the listener to “go for the throat,” or to attack someone at his or her weakest point if the listener feels the slightest bit of resentment. In the worst cases, the connection isn’t even apparent until you listen to the song and find out the title is a footnote in a song about a much less pleasant topic. Particularly, I will never be able to look at a juice box the same way again after listening to “Orange Juice,” which I found to be an insult towards those with bulimia.
Some can argue that Martinez is bringing light to unspoken topics and terrible issues that people are afraid to bring up. Though she is bold in her endeavors to do so, Martinez unfortunately shows one fatal flaw:
2. Martinez has nothing insightful, clever, or notable to say about the topics she sings about. The album’s formula, which becomes very apparent very quickly, is making songs with innocuous school-related titles, and then (surprise!) unveiling a more repulsive topic. The songs in this album, regrettably, stop at their subversion. They don’t use the subversion to say anything about the issues but that they just exist.
To this album’s dubious credit, however, not every song’s concept is a trainwreck. “Strawberry Shortcake,” a song expressing the need for body positivity in today’s society, and “Detention,” a reproval towards the dismissal of mental illnesses, do have decent messages at their core, which proves this album wasn’t doomed from the start. But even those are weighed down by:
3. The sexualization of pre-pubescent imagery. This has long been a criticism about Martinez, but to her credit, she mostly dodged it in Cry Baby. But in this album, she dives right into the most questionable conclusion of her shtick: mixing her childlike persona and sexual content. The most prominent example is her song “Teacher’s Pet,” which discusses sexual relationships between students and teachers. As obvious the title was to me, I felt extremely uncomfortable listening to the song, especially since the lyrics were written from the perspective of an innocent student who wants to know why is she so “special” yet kept a “secret.”
I’m sure those who enjoy Martinez’s music would find a way to reconcile this. Maybe to say it’s shedding new light on issues of childhood by framing them in an adult lens, or vice versa.
Others might also claim that lyrical quality is just one element, and there are other components to a good song. To those arguments, I say:
4. The childlike and “adult” elements of Martinez’s music have never felt more disjointed than they do in K-12. As mentioned in the second point, the inclusion of these anachronistic elements does not add any kind of additional perspective or wisdom to her adolescent topics. Worse than being disjointed, the addition of these elements feel like Martinez is trying to be “edgy” and failing just as any teenager with the same goal. Profanities are thrown in with no rhyme or reason as if simply to fill up space. Song topics and chosen with no motivation other than to shock the listener.
5. Even more than the lyrics, The instrumentation is dry and largely forgettable. Occasionally the backing music on this album is obnoxious, such as when the song “Wheels on the Bus” uses the same tune of its famous namesake. For most of the time, the typical electro-pop with trap beats that does nothing to command attention riddles the songs. When the instrumental isn’t compelling on its own, the listener will turn to lyrics for redeeming qualities. In this case, as we have already established, this is not a good thing: the lyrics are uninspired and are mostly lamentations about issues in the world, dropping a couple curse words so Martinez could sound like a tough cookie.
Again, to the album’s dubious credit, “High School Sweethearts,” which would be my favorite song if I had to choose one, had a classy instrumental, sounding more like contemporary R&B than the electro-pop that influences the rest of the album. Give this instrumental to a good singer, and it could have been a great song. Regrettably, not only is Martinez not a good singer, but she also fills this song with one-sided, possessive demands on her significant other without a hint of self-awareness.
K-12 is not only my least favorite album of the year, but it also might be my least favorite album of the decade. It represents far worse than Martinez’s shtick no longer being able to carry her career: it is the worst possible version of her entire image, realized and made into an album. I find K-12 to be childish and pretentious, but perhaps to her fans, particularly her demographic of tween and teenage girls, Martinez’s infantile execution could be a hit or miss.