In “K12”, her sophomore album, Melanie Martinez offers her commentary on the society we live in. Her visuals are airy, interspersed with pleasing pastel color schemes, but her lyrics and music resonate darker, rejecting certain accepted norms of our world that she finds unacceptable and creeping ever towards the sinister.
“Strawberry Shortcake”, the seventh track on the album, is an absolute triumph — it’s blunt representation of an ideology that has long upheld misogyny and objectification and the consequences of such behavior on young women, coupled with Martinez’s decision to throw it back in society’s face make the song the highlight of the album. “Got sent home to change ’cause my skirt is too short” describes an experience that nearly every school-age girl has had at least once, and the shame that comes with that? It’s damaging; a fact which the artist does an excellent job of expressing. “It’s my fault, it’s my fault ’cause I put icing on top”, she sings in the chorus, linking the metaphor to the true criticism at hand. Quickly though, she calls attention to the hypocrisy resting in that line with “That’s my bad, that’s my bad, no one taught them not to grab”.
Martinez’s debut album, titled “Crybaby”, was released in 2015. Her use of a childlike aesthetic and a fictionalized persona that screamed innocence, while singing about topics that strayed far from the latter was unique to Martinez herself, and “Crybaby” was named platinum in 2017. The duration of time that passed between her debut’s release and “K12” raised some questions about her career, but when Martinez returned, she returned not only with several new songs, but a feature-length film based off of her second album, too.
The film, which shares its name with the album, paints the complete picture of Martinez paints in “K12”. Besides the equally dreamlike and terrifying setting, the film adds a visual component to every song, one that adds to the songs that don’t necessarily need it, and completes those that do. The ninety-six minute movie offers commentary on the socio-political climate of today and on long-standing problems. Examples in the film include a scene in which an African-American student who chooses not to recite the pledge of allegiance and is dragged from the room by large figures with masks, a transgender teacher woman who is fired for transitioning, and the use of pink outfits for girls and blue for boys in an exploration of our society’s often-strict gender expectations.
The songs in K12 are often explicit, but this shouldn’t detract from the listener’s experience. Society is offensive, Martinez seems to suggest, and her lyrics don’t shy away from using offensive language right back in a successful attempt to shine a glaring spotlight on our cracks and flaws.
“You always hide behind your Wizard of Oz disguise” Martinez sings in “Drama Club”. She refuses to stick to a prescribed role and get tangled up in the drama that school – and life beyond that – often brings to us, resulting in a satirical song with a tone chock full of disdain. Beneath the more obvious metaphor at play in this track, though, is a message about authenticity that is so precious in a world where it can be hard to show ourselves to others as we are.
“Lunchbox Friends” tackles fake friends and the distressing difficulty of making genuine relationships and finding people that you can rely on to stand by your side, while “Orange Juice” leads us back towards the effects of beauty standards on young adults, resulting in a twisted sense of body image and eating disorders. One particularly striking line in the slow, melancholy track has Martinez wishing that “I could give you my set of eyes, ’cause I know your eyes ain’t working” and reminding the listener that “Your body is imperfectly perfect”. In “Detention”, Melanie likens the pretense of “being alright” to “detention”.
The artist’s messages can sometimes be hard to decipher or get lost in the anecdotes she provides. “Class Fight” is a good example of this, as, without the film, it is difficult to separate the narration at play from the message Martinez is attempting to provide. Similarly, “Nurse’s Office” feels harder to pin down as well, but in the end, broader stories like these may make for an even more universal takeaway.
The album is as wild of a ride as the school system (and society) can be, but it would be hard to find a single person who could not find some inkling of personal truth in Martinez’s lyrics. The upbeat electronic music behind her vocals, the versatility of her voice, and the juxtaposition of such innocence with such potential darkness all serve to cement “K12” as a truly great album.