Melanie Martinez has come a long way from her debut on The Voice, auditioning for the hit NBC series with Britney Spears’ “Toxic.” Her debut single “Dollhouse” would anchor an EP of the same name in 2014, and a year later, Martinez’s debut album Crybaby cracked the top 10 on the Billboard charts, with an RIAA Platinum certification following for the album proper in 2017. Her alt-pop stylings have earned critical and fan acclaim, and left fans wanting more from the Queens native.
September 6th saw the release of her staggering new project, K-12, an ambitious film telling the story of each song on the album of the same name, in a visual concept album with the singer herself starring as Crybaby. Described as an idealized, fairy tale version of Martinez, Crybaby is sent to a sleepaway school full of awful administrators, torturous teachers, and everything one sees and feels in school, but with a pastel, bubblegum backdrop fitting of the singer’s aesthetic. Don’t let the overt adorableness fool you, as the themes of peer pressure, young love, and eating disorders permeate the ninety minute runtime of the film, as Crybaby and her friends try to do what all youths hope to do: make it out of the education system alive.
(Author’s Note: For the purposes of this review, I will be using the songs from the album to frame the review, though I will be talking about the events of the film as they play out during each track.)
“Wheels on the Bus” opens the disc, with Crybaby singing about what she sees happening on the all too long bus ride to school. From a creepy bus driver to a mooning young man, the song takes a cutesy turn, with a darker, more mature edge to it as only Martinez can. Admittedly, the bit in the film with the line “‘Cuz Jason’s got his ass on the glass / And I hate him, driver, hit a bump fast” had me belly-laughing at the execution. In this and several other key moments, Crybaby’s eyes go black, signaling some sort of supernatural power within her triggering and causing some brand of mayhem. The track itself is catchy, mixing the old schoolyard tune with a subdued, trap-style beat and bass line.
“Class Fight” is the result of Crybaby and another girl arguing over a boy and taking it to physical lengths. For a song about fighting, it is a chilled out groove with a catchy refrain of “Daddy chimed in, go for the throat,” with the film highlighting the friendship between Angelita and Crybaby while they sit in detention. The on-screen fight is something to behold, especially when Crybaby’s powers come into play.
“The Principal” calls out the figureheads of any school building, and in the movie, the principal is seen drugging the students, making them happy and smiley and not wanting to leave anytime soon. There are some readings of this song that imply that the titular Principal is a certain Cheeto-hued commander-in-chief, but since Melanie is not known for getting political, we’ll set aside that commentary for another day. The transposition of “principal” and “principle” in the post-chorus is also a nice touch that adds a layer beyond just the ear or the eye.
“Show and Tell” is such a catchy song, and the message behind cancel culture and always being in the public eye is one that resonates in 2019. Here, Crybaby is forced to perform as a marionette for her classmates, with the chorus line “I’m on display for all you fuckers to see” showing just how thrilled she is to be there. Given recent controversies involving the singer, this song comes as one of the most honest and from-the-heart tracks of the album.
“Nurse’s Office” gives a very haunting set of visuals in the film, as Crybaby sings about faking sick to get out of school and go home. As Crybaby herself faces the would-be Joy via injection, she and her friends realize just how jacked up the situation is, and how they need to not just fake sick, but do something about the entire operation before they become lost in it forever.
Lyrically, “Drama Club” had me confused at first. “Is she really poking fun at the theater kids?” I thought to myself on my first listen. As it turns out, I fell into a pattern of only looking at the surface that has led to some of the scrutiny and criticism Martinez has suffered from. In the film, we see the Principal assigning Crybaby to a more domestic role in the school play, whereas she wants to play a strong, independent woman. She isn’t interested in the petty drama and the tired words of detractors, she just wants to make art and create, much as she has done with K-12.
“Strawberry Shortcake” is activism through music, as Martinez tackles the topic of sexual assault and the old adage “boys will be boys.” The literal cake in the movie during this song made me hungry, and then immediately dirty, given the message behind the song. It was a moment of “damn it, that’s missing the point and I know better.” It made me think, as an educator, of things like dress codes in schools, as well as the way young girls are sexualized, sometimes without us even realizing it.
Friendship doesn’t always last forever, as Crybaby finds out in “Lunchbox Friends.” This song is a middle finger to the fair weather, convenience sort of friends who will drop someone out of their lives at a moment’s notice as they need to. In the film, Crybaby does gain a real friend out of the scene, in the form of Magnolia. Even through all of the fake, all of the artificial and superficial, there is still good to be found.
While “Lunchbox Friends” mentions Barbie, it is in “Orange Juice” that the topics of body image, eating disorders, and body dysmorphia are handled. It is a sensitive set of topics for sure, but the way Martinez handles it in her music and in the film is so well-done. It also reminds us that we are our own worst critics, and tend to judge ourselves more harshly than anyone else ever will.
After the food fight that breaks out in the cafeteria comes “Detention,” which sees Crybaby forced to perform for her classmates once again. After failing to tow the line, punishment must follow, even if the punished feels justified in their actions. As someone who got a detention at the tail end of my eighth grade year for telling a girl off in English class, I could hear a lot of thirteen-year-old me in the lyrics, though now-twenty-three-year-old me realizes the error in the younger me’s ways. Bottling up feelings is never a good thing, and once it spills over, there’s only so much that can be done, as Crybaby finds out.
“Teacher’s Pet” is about as disturbing and unsettling as one would expect it to be. The lyrical content is frank, but it is effective at portraying a girl who is over being hailed as “special” by her abuser. Fortunately, the teacher in question gets what he has coming to him, as Angelita slaughters her would-be suitor with the assist by Crybaby. Coupled with “High School Sweethearts,” with its naive turn on puppy love and how absolute the thinking of young minds can be, the persona talking about how damaged they are, the tail end of this disc takes an especially dark twist.
“Recess” ends on something of a high note, after the last two uncomfortable tracks. Despite everything Melanie has accomplished, this current work notwithstanding, the hustle is never over. The work is never done. This track, mirroring advice given to Crybaby by her grandmother, reminds us to step back and take a minute as we need it.
For a first film and a second album, K-12 is a sonic treat and a visual feast. While I personally wish the visuals of the film had gotten a bit darker and bloodier, I also recognize that the pastel style is a trademark of Martinez’s. Taken on the whole, it is great to see Melanie back creating, after an extended absence. Now that she has tackled childhood and school, I have my guesses as to what her third album may deal with, but if it’s anything like her first two, I’m sure I will be content regardless.
You can watch the entire film below and buy K-12 today!