Melanie Martinez provokes discussion with ‘Cry Baby’

Jessie Colston | Contributing Writer

You could tell Melanie Martinez was touring to support her first album as she paced back and forth on the Off Broadway stage this past Saturday. For starters, she was trotting along in front of huge, illuminated alphabet blocks that spelled out the name of the album, “Cry Baby,” but what is perhaps more revealing was the young artist’s seeming unease.

While she’s a seasoned and usually confident performer—she was on season three of “The Voice,” after all—she seemed unnerved by the intimate crowd of die-hard fans, who were inclined to shout compliments like “You’re so perfect!” that sounded more like expectations or projections when screamed at the top of their lungs. Although she seemed to warm up as the show went on, Martinez’s mood could be most accurately described as pensive.

Singer and songwriter Melanie Martinez performs at Off Broadway on Oct. 10. Martinez, a Long Island, New York native, released her debut album, “Cry Baby,” on Aug. 14.Jessie Colston | Student Life

Singer and songwriter Melanie Martinez performs at Off Broadway on Oct. 10. Martinez, a Long Island, New York native, released her debut album, “Cry Baby,” on Aug. 14.

And on “Cry Baby,” there’s a lot to think about. The concept album, released in August, details the story of an over-emotional young girl (called Crybaby) encountering obstacles, including a troubled family life, betrayal, low self-esteem and mental illness. With titles like “Dollhouse,” “Training Wheels” and “Sippy Cup,” Martinez’s fascination with the aesthetic of childhood is the center of the album and makes for some poignant metaphors.

“Mrs. Potato Head,” for instance, is a tirade against using cosmetic surgery to cover up insecurities, comparing a woman who’s undergone the procedure to the children’s toy. “Cry Baby” is indeed a sweeping, thorough narrative she has described as a “fairy tale,” but there are two songs in particular that captured my attention: “Tag, You’re It” and “Mad Hatter.”

The first of the two details Crybaby being kidnapped by a wolf and heavily hints to her having been sexually assaulted through lines like, “Grabbed my hand, pushed me down/Took the words right out my mouth” and “Little bit of poison in me/I can taste your skin in my teeth.”

It’s unknown whether Martinez herself is a victim of sexual assault—she’s said that she had a perfect childhood—but that’s certainly up for interpretation. Recently, there has been criticism by sexual assault victims against the use of assault as a plot or characterization device in media that doesn’t otherwise need to include it.

While Melanie is profiting off of the commodity of a fictional story of assault, victims are living through a trauma that is largely misunderstood, partially due to its portrayal in the media. Real stories and information about sexual assault can be clouded out by their more famous and catchy cousins. Musicians and songwriters tell stories of traumatizing events all the time—but when is it not their story to tell?

MelanieMartinez2Jessie Colston | Student Life

“Mad Hatter” is the final chapter in Crybaby’s story, wherein she comes to terms with her over-emotional state. Crybaby describes herself as “nuts,” “mad,” “psycho” and declares that “all the best people are crazy.”

There is an inarguable stigma against mental illness in today’s society, but there is also stigma within the mental illness community itself against individuals with less common and more psychoactive disorders. Anxiety, depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are more understood and therefore more accepted than schizophrenia, dissociative identity disorder and personality disorders. It is these extremely stigmatized illnesses that are more akin to what used to be known as “psychosis,” from which the insult “psycho” is derived. While accepting and embracing what makes you “crazy” may empower some with mental illnesses, use of outdated terms and the perpetuation of stereotypes of “insane” people could also cause harm. There is inequity in how we speak about and treat different types of mental illness that is often ignored when mental illnesses are treated as a homogenous issue.

This is where I am divided in my feelings toward Martinez and “Cry Baby,” as I find it difficult to resolve the issue of empowerment and empathy versus exploitation and trivialization. No matter who wrote it, a victim of sexual assault may find comfort in hearing a song that portrays their trauma, while another victim may feel as if their trauma was co-opted without being truly understood. It’s also worth noting that Crybaby kills her kidnapper on “Milk and Cookies,” an escape from the issue that could be a comforting image to victims, although one that is possibly damaging in its lack of realism.

Likewise, those who have been insulted because of a mental illness may find it empowering to reclaim the terms primarily used against them, while some may feel uncomfortable with people now proudly using terms to describe themselves that harm, limit and stigmatize those with more psychoactive illnesses.

If there were other skeptics in the room at Off Broadway this Saturday, I didn’t notice them. From what I could see, Martinez’s music is obviously impacting young girls in a positive way, and I hope that she is able to internalize some of their screams of praise that she seemed to shrug off. “Cry Baby” is a commendably ambitious effort, and Melanie Martinez is only going up from here.

  • Solange

    Thank you for bringing some of the more troubling aspects of Martinez’s work to the forefront. Many of the lyrics in Martinez’s songs are troubling and triggering, and
    should be cause for dialogue and communication, not glorification for
    being “cool and edgy.” There is a strong link between early childhood trauma and mental illness, and also many people who were abused as children do not realize it until much later in life because they have repressed the memories. It is very possible that Martinez could have suffered early childhood trauma, and she may not even consciously know. I don’t know if this 20something year old has the cognizance to understand her motivation for using this subject matter, or the sense of responsibility to understand that she may be triggering others. Even the visual impact of Martinez’s “persona” is troubling, as it capitalizes on and overtly sexualizes early childhood trauma. There are photos of Martinez with only her crotch surrounded by baby dolls, and those of her wearing lingerie while sucking on a pacifier, a tear painted on her cheek.These are not empowering images, and the fact that this is being glamorized and accepted without being discussed in the context of early childhood trauma is disturbing. And I believe this silence around this issue completely minimizes the impact on early childhood abuse survivors, and perpetuates a culture where pedophilia is acceptable. It should be concerning to us that so many young people see themselves in her music, and find early childhood trauma, abduction, mental illness, and medication as part of growing older. If music is therapy, then Martinez has released a lot with this album … but without any true communication about its subject mater, or a path towards healing and recovery, I’m not sure where Martinez is going, or where she is leading those who follow her.