Thank you to Liv, Grace, Mark, Mel, and Zara for their insights.

Lilly Sayenga, Editorial Director

20 March 2023
In middle school, the utterance of “Melanie Martinez” usually elicited a hushed clamor amongst peers, the recognition of our shared enjoyment of forbidden media. For the uninitiated, Melanie Martinez was a buzzword, a moment, a mysterious symbol of subversion. She cursed! In bloomers! She sang about sons smoking cannabis while wearing doll makeup! Her live drummers were very serious men in fuzzy bunny hats! To thirteen year-old Lilly in 2016, Melanie Martinez was code for the underground, the dirty, the naughty: she was the pop princess of smut. They sang about topics only spoken of behind closed doors, kept in the walls of the dollhouse, things I was blissfully unaware of at the time but was soon to learn in my adolescence.

Now in my twenties, mentioning Melanie results in a different reaction: the embarrassed laugh, the bemused look of nostalgia, the remembrance of a phase, an era. The most logical explanation for this would likely be the passage of time: we grew up and out of Martinez’s pop-surrealist nightmare music. But I’m actually still very into that whole shtick, as are many of my friends. Try Nicole Dollanganger, whom I recently saw touted on Tumblr as a component of the “Melanie Martinez teenager to Nicole Dollanganger adult pipeline.” Try Lana Del Rey (though more Old Hollywood), try Jazmin Bean (though more hardcore), try Alice Glass (though more experimental). So what happened to Melanie? If she was such a massive part of the collective alt kid psyche, why did she disappear as we entered adulthood?

I revisited Martinez’s work in painstaking detail for this piece, and what I found all the more confounding is that they’re still a very talented artist. She put out a feature length film in 2019, for fuck’s sake! With an entire album in it! It’s called K-12 and follows the schooling of the titular alter ego of her first album, Crybaby. Did the movie basically have no plot above the level of a concept album, yes – but it looks STUNNING, so I’ll give it a pass. It’s clear that a ton of work went into the project, and Martinez’s dedication shows as writer, director, and starring actress. I would still argue, though, that the music is the most important part of this discussion. But in that too she delivers boppers, “Drama Club,” “Class Fight,” and “Strawberry Shortcake” being my favorites.

So where the hell is Melanie Martinez?

When I ask this question, I first want to clarify what I mean. I’m not asking where she’s been literally (she put out a 7-track EP in 2020 and is currently promoting a new album, which I’ll get to), but moreso metaphorically. What I’m really asking is: why does it seem like my friends are far less invested in Melanie’s music than we used to be? It doesn’t even matter that I felt less drawn to the EP, After School, because I liked K-12 – but at that point, I had already moved on.

I’ll take this moment to address the elephant in the article: the 2017 allegations of sexual assault leveled at her by former friend Timothy Heller. Despite 2017 being my Year of Melanie Obsession, I somehow didn’t hear about the whole thing until fairly recently. While I read that Martinez’s name was (pretty much?) cleared, I want to note that I would have taken the allegations seriously if I had heard about them at the time. Because I didn’t know it happened until later, though, it didn't influence my perception of her as an artist when I was a fan.

So I’ll continue my investigation: what happened? People stop listening to their favorite artists for all sorts of reasons, and when talking to my friends about Melanie Martinez, we all had our own. That said, I’d like to propose a new hypothesis: while the simple answer is that we grew out of her music, the mechanics of this maturation are not so cut-and-dry.

I know that sounds like some academic bullshit, so allow me to explain: a lot of the issues that Martinez sang about were thankfully not relevant to thirteen year-old Lilly. Thirteen year-old Lilly, as I said earlier, did not know or care about this stuff at the time. I think I even had to Google what ‘cannabis’ was after listening to “Dollhouse.” (Sorry to scare you, parents, but before you say she was a “bad influence,” consider that I’ve never touched drugs.)

As I matured and became less sheltered from the ills of society, Melanie’s subject matter became more pertinent to my life. It would make more sense to be a bigger fan because of that, since I would have gained a clearer and deeper connection to their lyrics.

And yet, that’s not what happened. I hit high school, and I stopped listening.

Friends and foes who knew me then will likely want to point out something I would rather ignore, but I’d rather out myself than chance having someone I haven’t spoken to in years do it for me. Dear readers, a crucial fact here – one that makes me cringe while scrolling through my camera roll – is that I, Lilly Sayenga, was preppy in my first year of high school. I confess! I, who have delivered to you multiple obnoxious tirades of rhetoric gatekeeping Goth and Punk! Lilly, who creates creepy-creepy music and drags herself on the floor in a bonnet and angel wings! (Now that I write that, I’m seeing my influences at work…) I come clean: I worshiped at the bygone feet of my namesake, Lilly Pulitzer, and fantasized about golf courses when I didn’t even golf. At least I wasn’t a Republican.

Anyway. I mention this because it very likely had something to do with the closure of my Melanie Phase. I left wearing a Dollar Store bowler hat every day in middle school for a Catholic school uniform. Why did I do that? I may have been in denial at the time, but looking back it’s pretty obvious: my classmates bullied the shit out of me, and all I wanted was a couple more friends. I abandoned the alternative for what I thought would make people like me. What’s hilarious about this whole situation is that it turned out no one in my high school was preppy, so I still didn’t make any real friends. Even after I grew out of those interests, the damage was done, so I had a shitty time regardless.


By my senior year, I was ready to burn the place down, and I returned to my authentic form. Alternative music, fashion, and subculture once more became a part of my identity, and I revisited old artists while introducing myself to new ones. I occasionally listened to Melanie Martinez, but more so out of nostalgia than legitimate fandom.

It wasn’t until recently that I turned to my middle school comfort album, Crybaby, and realized just how much it shaped my persona. I may have been a bowler hat-wearing, self-described “eclectic fashionista” in middle school, but I share more similarities to Martinez now as an adult: I’m a potty-mouthed pop-surrealist enjoyer with a baby arm choker and a penchant for the macabre.

But in talking to my friends who were fans, I realized that I wasn’t the only one who grew into being an “alt adult”: that is, we all still identify as alternative now that we’re in college. Many of us have kept similar interests to our middle school selves, though of course we have all branched off and evolved (one is a former emo turned k-pop connoisseur, another goes to underground indie shows every month, and I have my scary industrial stuff.) So the question stands: how did we grow out of Melanie Martinez’s music if we’re not all that different from who we were when we were younger?

I think to answer this, I need to address the second elephant in the article (yes, I’m curating a whole zoo today): her childlike aesthetic. Some of my friends cited their discomfort with Martinez’s use of juvenile imagery in accompaniment with her dark subject matter, noting that they became more upset by it as they matured. One found the juxtaposition between the innocence of infanthood and adult themes to be in bad taste, while another argued that it was the likening of femininity to childhood that perpetuated the infantilization of women.

While I understand these criticisms, I do think that it’s a bit of an ‘eye of the beholder’ situation: if her use of childhood imagery is being read as sexual, I think that’s more to do with the fact that she’s a grown woman than any explicit ways in which she employs it. I get it, though. TikTok bullshit like the “coquette” aesthetic has made life a living hell for all of us through its use of youthful ultra femininity as a means of romanticizing mental illness and malnourishment. But lumping artists like Martinez into it doesn’t seem fair since her discography– i.e. “Sippy Cup” and “Orange Juice”– critiques these issues. Reclaiming ultra femininity, especially through the lens of childhood, can nonetheless seem concerning. At the same time, I think this is largely due to its demonization in the first place.

I essentially interpret Melanie’s aesthetic as a vehicle for social commentary: Wrapped up in the bubblegum babyland is the dark disenchantment of adulthood, one that appeared at once alluring and forbidding to my middle school self. Even her hair, always split-dyed black and various pastels, fascinated me. But now that I’m in adulthood, I can confirm that it sucks. While I of course get nostalgic for Simpler Times, I don’t feel as much of a need to resort to their aesthetics to ease the pain of daily life. Though I do enjoy a good vintage stuffed animal, it’s not childhood specifically that I seek the juxtaposition to – it’s softness with darkness. As I grew older I searched for harsher antidotes, falling down the Goth/industrial pipeline of sad-angry-screamy-wistful music. It’s a different approach to adulthood, one that suits me more now that I’m of age.

What I’ve really done, then, is find a different niche. I no longer need the ‘softness’ of young girlhood to cope with the harsh reality of growing up, but that of old ladyhood to cope with the harsh reality of death.

I have my little fascinations, and Melanie has hers.

I’m looking forward to seeing where Portals, her album planned for release on March 31st, will lead fans. Mysterious YouTube promo snippets have emerged alleging that Crybaby is dead, and a pink, four-eyed creature is here to take her place. The pastels remain, but it’s clear that the artist is shifting her aesthetic visions to new, unexplored territory. I don’t think the song teasers are much of a departure from Martinez’s previous discography (and I wasn’t too impressed by lead single “DEATH”). But she has my attention, which after all this time is impressive in itself.

So I suppose I should thank Melanie for all that she did for my middle school self – her music may have made the horrors of life more palpable, but they were ultimately  more tameable once it was my time to confront them. Melanie helped introduce thirteen year-old Lilly to the woes of the world in an accessible, candy-colored package. Now I’m pissed off and wanna roll around in a nightgown and stompers, damn it! While part of me wishes that their fucked-up music didn’t have to exist in the first place, overall I’m grateful that it does. If Melanie Martinez can keep helping tweens find their way, then I think she’s done her job.

As for those of you who remember the effect she had on us – hi! I hope you’re doing okay.