Melanie Martinez is Telling Teen Girls a New Story

“‘Cause I don’t give a fuck about you anyways!”

A sea of 12- to 17-year-old girls sing the line in unison as a young woman wearing a classic and remarkably non-revealing pink dress skips back and forth across the stage. She is who they’ve all come to see: 21-year-old Melanie Martinez, a breakout contestant from the 2012 season of The Voice who remained largely unknown until her music began to go viral after the release of her debut EP Crybaby late last year.

Photo courtesy of DeShaun Craddock and licensed under Creative Commons 3.0.
Photo courtesy of DeShaun Craddock and licensed under Creative Commons 3.0.

The venue is filled to capacity. The show is sold out. I am there with my nieces, who are 12 and 14; a few months ago, they gave away their One Direction posters and dropped Meghan Trainor’s “Dear Future Husband” to the bottom of their playlists after deciding, along with the majority of their friends, that Martinez is it. (And the feminist in me is rejoicing that I finally like the music they’re into.)

The stage is set with a menagerie of larger-than-life childhood objects—a giant crib, a mobile, teddy bears, building blocks—rendered uncanny by the dark context of the music. Many of the tunes on the Crybaby album—an intricate song-cycle that Martinez plays in order according to the album at every concert—give voice to themes like sexual coercion, substance-addicted family members, mental illness, eating disorders and the numbing superficialities of suburban life.

I almost can’t believe these girls are choosing this over the hackneyed, glitzy “hey baby don’t you want me” fare that is out there in bucketfuls and aggressively marketed to their demographic—but they are. Tonight at least.

Martinez’s songs are catchy, but I find nothing clichéd or superficial in them. Most of the lyrics deal with the struggles of growing up female, with astoundingly little evocation of the “getting-and-keeping-a-guy” fixation that the likes of Seventeen magazine (and much of pop culture overall) try desperately to convince young women should be their key concern. The songs that are primarily about romantic relationships—”Play Date” and “Carousel,” for instance—are not sugar-coated. Instead, they capture the complex and often excruciating nuances of sexual coming-of-age.

“All the makeup in the world won’t make you less insecure…” Martinez exquisitely intones leading up to the chorus of her hit single, “Sippy Cup.” I feel the advertisers cringe—this is the opposite of what these girls are supposed to believe! This song is a narrative sequel to the one that immediately precedes it, “Dollhouse.” Watching the audience’s solemn yet joyful reactions, I realize that, in the course of calling out beauty-obsession and familial dysfunction veiled by the white picket fence of middle-class normalcy, these songs provide a longed-for recognition of hidden trauma and the often inexpressible emotions that accompany it.

“D-O-L-L  H-O-U-S-E,” the titular song’s chorus spells out letter-by-letter. “I see things that nobody else sees.” The girls evidently relate to this feeling of seeing and knowing things that cannot be spoken. I think of what feminist psychologist Carol Gilligan identified decades ago as the silent “underground” of female adolescence, and how little our culture has done in the intervening years to understand and validate girls’ experiences. Martinez’s music seems to fill that gap.

The crowd’s response is cathartic, and many in the audience scream in a way associated with uproars over “boy bands” from the Beatles to Big Time Rush—except tonight, it’s a girl they are screaming for.

Martinez’s vocals range from a sweet, sing-songy whisper to a controlled, soul-piercing croon, and the instrumentation is multi-layered electronica, energetic in its eerieness. There’s a bit of sampling and borrowing from 1960s soul-pop/girl groups—the chorus of Leslie Gore’s “It’s My Party” features in Martinez’s “Pity Party,” for example. Her visual self-presentation is colorfully gothic with a retro twist, and while her appearance is traditionally feminine, it shouts defiance rather than conformity to conventional “beauty” standards. She has two male backup musicians on stage wearing what look like footy pajamas and teddy-bear ears. No hyper-masculine tropes here!

Next up is “Alphabet Boy,” perhaps the spunkiest musical manifesto against mansplaining I’ve heard:

If you dangle that diploma and I deck you, don’t be surprised

I know my ABCs, yet you keep teaching me

…You think you’re smarter than me with all your bad poetry

Fuck all your ABCs, alphabet boy.

I catch myself singing along with the couple of thousand girls, a few boys, and handful of other parent-aged people in the crowd. All the four-letter words in Martinez’s songs create an appealing contrast with her mellifluous and sometimes little-girlish voice. “Watch me get big now,” she adds, “Little Alphabet boy.”

I’m hooked.

Does Martinez explicitly identify as a feminist? It looks like we’ll have to wait to find out. One thing is certain, however: the tale told on her album culminates in self-acceptance and empowerment. She told Billboard in an interview last fall:

“Towards the end of the album, Cry Baby [her musical persona] evolves into someone who’s very comfortable in her skin, and I can definitely say that I have had the same kind of change within myself. I’m a lot less insecure, and I have embraced a lot of the things that I hated about myself before.”

Although she doesn’t aspire to be a role model, millions of girls now know her musical story of increasing confidence by heart—and see themselves reflected in it.

Martinez’s Crybaby tour will be in full swing for most of the summer, and she is at work on a second studio album, due out later this year.

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Lisa Barca is an honors faculty fellow at Barrett, The Honors College at Arizona State University. Her writing has appeared in numerous anthologies as well as in peer-reviewed journals.  She has recently been selected as a regular invited lecturer for Arizona Humanities, presenting her research on gender and the media around the state.