There’s an enchanting duality about singer/writer/filmmaker Melanie Martinez that’s hard to qualify but is best represented by her choice in hair color, which isn’t really one choice- it’s her natural brunette on one side and blonde (sometimes tinted other hues) on the other. Dark and light, fragility versus strength, innocence versus menace- the contradictions in Martinez’s music, videos and most recently, cinematic ventures are part of her essence, and in a sea of reality show hopefuls, online influencers and would-be pop stars, it’s what has helped her stand out, first on Youtube, then on the reality competition The Voice, then on pop charts and movie screens, and soon, big arena stages.
In her directorial debut, K-12 she goes for a Beyonce Lemonade-style music movie that illustrates every track on her just-released record of the same name. Financed by Martinez’s label, Atlantic for $5-6 million, the film tells the story of Martinez’s alter-ego Cry Baby (no relation to Johnny Depp’s John Waters character). CB, clad in lilac lace, is a boarding school student with witchy powers who must navigate all the usual school dynamics – mean girls, unrequited crushes, terrible teachers and administrators, etc). Fernanda Guerrero’s whimsical production design backdrops a legion of gothic Lolita-styled girls and pretty boys, all of whom seem to have different hair styles every time a new scene (and hence new song) is presented on screen.
It’s a pastel daydream (well, nightmare in some scenes), conjuring Alice in Wonderland by way of Tim Burton, meaning it’s girly, innocent, bright and fairy tale-esque as well as creepy, campy and sultry. As Martinez tells us in Hollywood just before the film’s debut at the Cinerama Dome a couple of weeks ago, her goal with the project is more than eye candy. Real issues are tackled, including bullying, transphobia, sexism and most personal for her, the pressures of being in the spotlight and in the entertainment industry. She uses school and the grades we complete each year, as a metaphor for life.
“I was definitely bullied when I was in school. Being a young Latina, I didn’t have anyone that I looked at like a role model. I was this shy introverted quirky kind of unique person and I didn’t feel like I resonated with the whole ‘all Latinas have to be sexy’ thing,” the now 24-year-old recalls. “As I got older I realized even things like keeping my last name and making sure that people knew I was proud to be Puerto Rican and Dominican were important.”
In terms of how her message has resonated with young fans (her followings on social media are huge), Martinez says it’s about understanding what it’s like for each other. “We all just want to be loved and valued,” she says. “Since I first started writing music, my intention was [to] help someone else heal or feel, making my art a form of therapy… because it [music] was for me.”
Artists like Fiona Apple, Regina Spector and Bjork were huge for her as kid, she says. “Artists who put all of themselves into their music.”
Like the above performers Martinez’s lyrics and themes are as important as the music itself. She started writing poetry as a kid and taught herself guitar at 14 years old. After her season 3 Voice appearances (she was eliminated 5 weeks in) Martinez sought a record deal, but it proved challenging.
“The more independent labels were like, ‘oh you’re too mainstream,’ while the mainstream ones said, ‘you’re too indie,’ because I was just playing songs on guitar,” she says. “So I just focused on developing my sound, incorporating different kinds of music, getting more creative. “
She put out a song called “Dollhouse” independently and made a fan-funded video which did extremely well online, ultimately scoring her a deal with Atlantic Records. 2015’s Crybaby, was her first major label release, and the music was inspired by toy sounds and sounds that inspired her as a kid; “inner child” stuff as she describes it. The catchy cuts complimented her cute, girly image and unique vocal moxie earning her an even larger fan base.
But what probably put Martinez over the top, were the videos -13 in all- she made during that album cycle, all written and directed by her. Their online success and engagement is surely what gave Atlantic the confidence to shell out millions for her new movie, which is in fact, a long kaleidoscopic promo for the record and upcoming tour, which Martinez says will incorporate imagery from the movie. If so, expect a magical pink school bus (it was parked outside of the Dome during the premiere) on stage, and puppets, food fights, blue-skinned creatures, evil nurses, lots of pink foofy decor and clothing, and some decidedly gory/bloody moments too. The music that goes with it all ranges from catchy dance-pop to melodic/hypnotic balladry, notable contrasts that like everything Martinez does, play with duality of mood and tone, darkness and lightness.
Of course, the perpetually poetic Martinez describes her work best. It’s “like a cake,” she says. “You have the deep dark chocolate ganash, which is kind of like the themes and the lyrics- heavier darker things. Then the outside layer, which is like pink vanilla frosting with sprinkles. Ya know, that’s like the imagery. I like pairing the two, so creating the visuals, as in the film, I want to add anything I can to make that world larger, so people can really experience the story. “
Delving into dark realities and fiendish fantasy, musically and visually, Martinez’s spooky school motif is a hit with young fans for obvious reasons. As she grows and ultimately “graduates,” so too should her fanbase. And however sweet and yummy her world may seem on the outside, it’s safe to assume that inside, it’ll continue to have some bitter flavors that resonate too.
Martinez just posted the entirety of K-12 on her You Tube page as a gift to fans. It will be available to watch in its entirety now through Oct. 3, after which it will be available for purchased streaming. Click here to watch.