Music and gender: Melanie Martinez embraces and plays with gender tropes
Melanie Martinez is twenty years old. Each side of her hair is dyed a different color, often pink and black. Her lips are regularly painted dark purple or blue, her hair adorned with bows. She has tattoos of hearts, cartoon animals and toys covering her arms. She's an artist. She's a crybaby.
Martinez began on “The Voice” in 2012, gaining notoriety for her original takes on hits like “Toxic” by Britney Spears and “Cough Syrup” by Young the Giant. Though she didn’t win the competition, Martinez received a contract from Atlantic Records. Since then, she has exploded, and on her first full-length album, she exudes artistry and personal ingenuity.
Cry Baby was released in August. As mentioned on her website, the soundscape plays largely on Martinez’s fascination with vintage toys and the influence of her father’s interest in old-school hip hop. Tracks like “Carousel” relate the music to the lyrics, using carnivalesque melodies and robust beats to launch listeners into the setting of the narrative. Martinez uses trance tones, playful pings and hip-hop beats to craft her sound. With ominous undertones, the fantastical and whimsical instrumentation compliments her dark and satirical lyricism.
Spanning sixteen songs, Cry Baby, a beast of an album, tackles Martinez’s emotional past. It’s a conceptual album, and it uses both vocal and lyrical cues to spin listeners a tale of a young life gone awry. Prominent subject matter includes substance abuse, adultery, body image and isolation. Martinez creates an alter ego, Cry Baby, to play out the fantasies created through her music. Much like Marina and the Diamonds and her Electra Heart persona, Cry Baby is featured in all of the music videos for the album. The constancy of theme and character push the album’s narrative from a purely musical and lyrical experience to a visual representation of Martinez’s artistry. She tells a story, but she obfuscates what is fact and what is fiction. The storyline revolves around Martinez’s childhood label of a "crybaby," how she was deemed overly emotional by her peers and, consequently, how she thought it to be true. Rather than shying away from this taunt, she embraces it.
Martinez’s acceptance of her emotions empowers her. By outing herself as an intrinsically emotional being, she takes away the ability of others to bash her for it — her lack of stoicism is a sign of strength. She owns her insecurity and, through its ownership, is able to come to terms with herself and invite listeners to do the same. Cry Baby is complexly, painfully honest and writing if off as nothing more than emotional pop drivel isn’t an option. Martinez’s agency over her own emotional state allows her to express her traditionally feminine characteristics without falling into the stereotype. She’s open about her relationship with her mind, showing that even things with sweet exteriors may only be a coating for serious underlying issues.
Martinez takes the trope of the sensationally emotional woman and throws in her own kink. Her hyperbolic use of femininity paired with her cynical lyricism creates a persona unlike any female figure currently in the mainstream. She always wears makeup and has her hair done, but her makeup is dark and her hair is unnatural. Her girly, frilly attire is dainty, yet it's somewhat off-putting when worn by a grown woman. When simplistic, singing of carnivals and birthday parties is innocent. But it becomes perverse with the addition of adult metaphors. Cry Baby plays with society’s emotional standards and sheds light onto the power of the self-controlled, self-aware woman.