In many ways, Melanie Martinez’s “Cry Baby” is the pink of my childhood, reconceived. It’s an album bittersweet like the taste of strawberry shortcake and Country Time lemonade, each song named after the vestiges of youth—“Dollhouse,” “Training Wheels,” “Tag, you’re it.”
Like a candy apple dipped in a coating of naïveté, each track is a tribute to the ostensible simplicity of youth, but simultaneously tugs at the harsh realities of growing up. Embodying a child thrust prematurely into the woes of adulthood, Martinez sings of heartbreak, alcoholism, and infidelity to the soporific rhythms of a baby’s musical mobile, the metronomic winding of a jack-in-the-box, the bubbling sounds of a warm bath.
Each chapter of the album is a haunting dose of reality that is at once redolent of tea parties, dollhouses, and dress-up games gone wrong. A fairytale flipped upside down, “Cry Baby” is a chilling ode to the delusions of childhood set in the aftermath of a young girl’s birthday party. Sagging streamers and airless balloons haphazardly decorate the room. A half-eaten slice of cake sits idly on the folding table. The atmosphere is morose.
Likewise, the album’s storybook accompaniment details the dreamlike adventures of Martinez’s infantile alter ego in rhyming couplets as she experiences love, loss, and wrath, ultimately prevailing over the insecurities of girlhood and finding a voice of her own.
Listening to “Cry Baby” is like discovering your favorite stuffed animal at the bottom of a cardboard box in your bedroom closet, getting your ears pierced at Claire’s for the first time, or looking through your kindergarten yearbook hours before high school graduation. It’s wistful, and a little painful all the same.
With each listen, I continually relive the suppressed memories of my youth, from falling into a bush trying to ride a bike without training wheels “scared to take them off but they're so worn down,” to losing my favorite teddy bear in the park “you were comforting and quiet,” to running from boys during recess “you're the prince of the playground.”
Through “Mad Hatter,” I find myself back at the teacup ride in Disneyland, where for a single day each year, I’d live out my childhood dream of becoming a princess. Through “Carousel,” I’m transported back to the merry-go-round where I’d hold my mother’s hand tight. And through “Play Date,” I always reminisce about short-lived friendships that faded into the ether at the conclusion of elementary school.
But beyond the nostalgia it evokes, Martinez’s magnum opus is emotional catharsis cloaked in an unabashed celebration of femininity. It chronicles the most traumatic moments of being a woman by coloring them in a bold shade of pink, complete with the flamboyant glitter and sparkles of girlhood. Martinez is unapologetic as she croons to the beat of bubblegum pop synthesizers, unmasking the agony beneath the saccharine smiles of womanhood.
Like Nicki Minaj’s “Pink Friday” and Gwen Stefani’s “The Sweet Escape,” Martinez’s “Cry Baby” harnesses the sounds, smells, and symbols of girlhood to breathe life into the dynamic story of a young woman struggling to resist social conventions, to carve out her own image in a world full of rigid expectations.
But in “Cry Baby,” I see more than just Martinez’s alter ego growing into her own skin over the course of 16 chapters. I see a grueling process of self-discovery shared by a world of girls and women struggling to find their unique voices. I see bits and pieces of myself, or at least, who I used to be.
With the pacifying sounds of a childhood renewed, “Cry Baby” continually implores me to confront my demons that have hidden dormant for a decade beneath a façade of adulthood. It encourages me to come to terms with the shame of fateful quarrels with old friends, the regret of words unsaid on the playground, the frustration of childhood dreams shattered. It awakens me to finally face the monster under the bed.
—Meena Venkataramanan '21 is a Crimson News Editor in Adams House.
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