By James Mercadante
In the wake of what seemed like a lifetime, Melanie Martinez has finally unveiled the world she has been hiding from the public for approximately four years. She evinces the pure attentiveness she has embedded within this project, which was undeniably worth the wait.
On Sept. 6, Martinez returned with her sophomore album and visual feature film, “K-12,” a bright, pastel paradise occupied with the most dismal, underlying meanings. The 90-minute musical film and album, written and directed by Martinez, can almost act as two separate entities, but are both relative to each other.
After being a contestant on “The Voice” and releasing her debut album, “Crybaby,” in 2015, Martinez enraptured thousands with her ability to sing such dark, dense lyrics with her soft, silky voice, emulating a child-like nature. This helped her create her musical persona, Crybaby, who is essentially a child with an advanced knowledge of life’s darkest aspects.
“K-12” recounts the narrative of Crybaby’s coming-of-age and Martinez utilizes a sleepaway school as a condensed representation of life itself.
The film grapples with a myriad of discourses, such as eating disorders, the politics of hair, transgender rights, bullying, the demand for free tampons, how we teach boys consent, how one does not need to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance and how everyone is deserving of love. And yes, Martinez does not shy away from the brutal truths.
Although most of her messages are clear, it almost renders the plot a little messy. However, if she’s attempting to represent life, then the disorder is suiting.
The film exhibits pleasant surprises, such as synchronized choreography, beautiful costume designs, impressive special effects and the most beautiful scenery. The sensory overload in each scene is overwhelming and takes time to digest, yet it’s extremely profound.
Aside from the film, the album itself is a captivating body of work. Listeners can distinguish the growth Martinez has endured through these past four years. Instead of the hard-hitting production seen in her previous album, “K-12” contains songs with lighter electronic beats and relaxed melodies. Yet, her voice remains to still be as haunting as it is comforting.
Combining the album with the feature film, Martinez has constructed the most mature and intense form of expression with images and allegories that entice analysis.
“The Principal” is one song that has a crucial discourse, which is about confronting those who are in a position of power. In other words, she is talking to white, heterosexual older men. She compares them to the school’s principal, one who is in charge of all operations.
Martinez is surrounded by a diverse group of women in the film during this song, varying in skin-color and body types, who assert these authoritative figures are “Shooting at the angels while claiming you’re the good guy / All you want is cash and hype.”
Another song that demands attention is “Show and Tell,” where Martinez discusses her experience with being in the public eye. In the film, she is a puppet on strings controlled by the teacher, who represents the higher-ups in the industry.
The classmates applaud with animalistic mannerisms and eerie expressions, which reflect audiences who always demand Martinez to satisfy and be the artist they envision her to be. She sings, “Buy and sell / Like I’m a product to society / Art don’t sell / Unless you’ve fucked every authority,” which converses about the dangers of consumerism and its damages on morality.
She also conveys meanings about life that are relative to school. “Strawberry Shortcake” displays unfair educational systems that force young girls to cover up for the sake of boys’ temptations, instead of reversing that mentality from boys.
Martinez suggests, “Instead of making me feel bad for the body I got / Just teach him to keep it in his pants and tell him to stop,” while topless in a skirt made out of cake and boys taking bites without her consent.
Throughout the multiple meanings and visuals present in this project, I can tell you what “K-12” is not. It is not an attempt to gain audiences through flashy costumes, generic pop tunes or visuals that focused on how attractive the artist looks.
“K-12” is really what a lot of pop artists today fail to create — art.