By Emily Waters
A drunken mother and an unfaithful father raise a corrupt, emotional mess of a little girl. Her druggie of a brother gets away with everything while she is shamed for her imperfection and sensitivity, as well as for wearing her heart on her sleeve. The bittersweet story of this girl becoming a woman and facing the tragedies in her life is powerfully captured in Melanie Martinez’s debut album, “Cry Baby,” which explores the cruelties that many of today’s young women face.
Martinez introduced her talents on the third season of NBC’s “The Voice,” in 2012. After being eliminated in the top six, she pursued an independent music career, releasing her first single “Doll House” in 2014. Within the next year she signed with Atlantic Records, released the EP “Doll House” and had her song “Carousel” featured in the promo for FX’s “American Horror Story: Freak Show.”
Inspired by, but not based on her own history of being bullied, “Cry Baby” begins with the title track, which introduces her unique childlike persona. “Doll House” fills us in about Cry Baby’s troubled family: “Mom, please wake up/ Dad’s with a slut, and your son is smoking cannabis.” The rest of the song narrates the family’s need to look like everything is okay to the world: “Places, places, get in your places/ Throw on your dress and put on your doll faces/Everyone thinks that we’re perfect/Please don’t let them look through the curtains.”
In “Soap,” Cry Baby finds herself in a verbally abusive relationship. “I’m tired of being careful, tiptoe, trying to keep the water warm,” she sings, echoing how many domestic abuse victims describe how they’re feeling. The album only gets darker with “Tag, You’re It,” on which Cry Baby is raped: “Running through the parking lot/He chased me and he wouldn’t stop/Tag, you’re it.”
“Eenie meenie miny mo,” she sings, “Catch a lady by her toes/If she screams, don’t let her go.” The lyrics are like a dull blade on the flesh. What is happening in the song is never explicitly spelled out, but it’s obvious what Cry Baby is experiencing.
All of these songs are sung from a childlike perspective. “Tag, You’re It” uses a popular children’s game to explain the feeling of panic that Cry Baby is experiencing. On “Mrs. Potato Head,” Martinez uses the classic children’s toy to characterize cosmetic surgery: “Oh Mrs. Potato Head tell me, is it true that pain is beauty?” she sings, addressing the role that conventional beauty standards play in women’s lives.
Martinez has said that children’s toys were part of her musical inspiration. Chimes and other such sounds make her alternative electric-pop unique. The chorus of “Soap” is followed by rhythmic bubbles popping up along with the beat. The intro of “Cry Baby” is made up of a doll repeatedly uttering “goo.” On “Sippy Cup,” we can make out the sound of liquid being poured. “Carousel” features the sound of a carnival accordion.
Martinez also uses warping in her music, lowering the pitch of her voice when she sings the dialog of the rapist in “Tag, You’re It” as well as in the beginning of “Soap” when she says, “Guess I better wash my mouth out with soap” for the first time. This sound mixing creates a darkly whimsical aesthetic. Ultimately, her childlike tonalities make a point about the lasting, heartbreaking effects that the harshness within our world can have on children.
While Melanie Martinez’s music definitely has some of the repetitive features so often found in today’s pop music, “Cry Baby” stands out with its bold perspective and unique sound. In discussing hardships that many people can relate to, the songs take the listener on an emotional rollercoaster. It is recommended that you strap on your seat belts.