Melanie Martinez does not want to talk about a certain television show today — or ever, really.
“OK, are we done?” she interjects impatiently, just as I’m starting to gush about how Season 3 of The Voice — on which Melanie made the top six semifinals when she was just 16 years old — was by far the best season in the singing show’s history, in large part because of Martinez’s gutsy, game-changing performances. “You’re talking an awful lot about The Voice…”
It’s understandable that the Gothic/indie chanteuse, now age 21, would like to put her Voice past behind her. She has accomplished so much since then. She’s a bona fide phenomenon. Her ambitious full-length debut, Cry Baby — a concept album of spooky, tinkling carnival-pop that has drawn comparisons to Lana Del Rey, Björk, and Lorde — has gone gold with hardly any radio play or traditional media promotion, and it’s on track to hit platinum status in a few weeks. She’s graced the cover of Alternative Press; her imaginative and haunting original music videos, conceived and often directed by Martinez herself, have racked up a combined 730 million YouTube views; she has played legitimate rock festivals like Lollapalooza, Voodoo, and Beach Goth (the latter on a bill featuring Patti Smith, James Blake, and Tricky); and she recently sold out a headlining show at Los Angeles’s 6,300-capacity Shrine Auditorium.
This interview even takes place as she phones from a car whisking her to a live-streamed New York City launch event for her Cry Baby Perfume Milk, the first fragrance to be released in association with a record label. Perhaps no other reality contestant besides Nashville Star alum Miranda Lambert has been so successful in breaking away from the reality-television machine.
But Martinez’s Voice past is worth bringing up, despite her testy objections, because, ironically — when The Voice has long come under fire for failing to launch and support a viable recording artist — Martinez is the show’s most successful alumnus. And she did it all on her own — and, later, with Atlantic Records, notably not The Voice’s associated record label, Republic — and on her own terms.
“It was kind of hard to feel comfortable in that sort of environment,” Martinez reluctantly says of her bittersweet 2012 stint on The Voice. “Just the whole thing in general was very foreign to me. It was definitely weird and uncomfortable, especially singing other people’s songs. I wanted to play my own original music.”
Shortly after leaving The Voice, Martinez did just that, springing into action with the fanciful and freaky video for “Dollhouse,” which has since racked up 92 million YouTube spins. “I just put out music that I felt was important to put out, and continued to push to make the videos and stuff that I wanted to make,” she says matter-of-factly. “I was hoping that I could do this without having people ask me to sing covers and stuff. I’m very grateful that I have been able to come this far after being on a show like The Voice, because that kind of stamps this ‘reality singer idol’ thing on artists. So I’m really grateful that I was able to continue to push my vision, and I’m happy that I get to do that now. It’s really exciting for me.”
Martinez’s latest vision, her most ambitious (and definitely most creepy and disturbing) yet, is the self-directed video for “Mrs. Potato Head,” a shocking, graphic, and grotesque protest against extreme plastic surgery and dieting. It’s an important and needed message for Martinez’s diehard fanbase of mostly teen and tween girls, adoring devotees that in an odd way bring to mind the fans that followed the fictional all-girl punk group in the 1982 cult flick Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains — impressionable girls who dress up like Martinez, often camp out overnight on the sidewalks outside her gigs, and hang on her every lyrical word. Girls who don’t even realize she was ever on a show called The Voice.
“I think maybe just them finding this idea of being who you want to be, not feeling pressured by society’s beauty standards” is what Martinez says when asked how she hopes to positively influence and galvanize her fans. “They just want to be themselves and want to express themselves and be super-creative. They just want to be themselves, and they feel like their environment doesn’t allow them to be themselves all the time, so they find comfort in going to the show and meeting other people that also feel the same way.”
However, Martinez stresses, “I stay away from the title of ‘role model.’ I want to be a more realistic role model — not a perfect Barbie role model. Like, I’m myself, and I’m not pretending to be perfect, ever. I don’t ever want people to think that I ever want to try to be perfect. I want to encourage people to be themselves and express themselves however they want.”
As for the fans who show up at her concerts in what is basically Melanie Martinez cosplay — two-toned Cruella de Vil wigs, oversized Sanrio-style hair bows, frilly Alice in Wonderland party frocks — Martinez laughingly confesses that she prefers it when “people are inspired by my style and are creating their own thing from it, instead of them dressing exactly like me! But it’s really flattering and fun and cool. Some of them are super-creative and inspiring, and they’re really good at doing crazy makeup and hair and fun stuff. It’s always exciting and fun to see at shows.”
Martinez’s own girlhood was a mostly happy one — ironic, considering the twisted-childhood aesthetic of her eerie electropop lullabies like “Sippy Cup,” “Alphabet Boy,” “Pity Party,” “Pacify Her,” and “Milk and Cookies” — with a family that nurtured her creativity and desire for self-expression from an early age.
“I loved writing poetry as a kid, and I loved singing, so I just kind of mixed both of them and I learned how to play guitar, which I just taught myself by looking at chord diagrams online,” she recalls, citing Fiona Apple, Cocorosie, and Neutral Milk Hotel as musical influences. “My parents were kind of strict, so I just stayed home a lot and spent most of the time painting, or taking photos and setting up photo shoots — just being creative in any way that I could, really.”
Years later, Martinez memorably appeared on national TV wearing an Etsy-esque frock screen-printed with her own original photographs, and the rest was pop history.
Now, after growing up in public on The Voice before finally getting the rare chance to share her true voice, Martinez is inspiring a new generation of young girls, and she has no trouble embracing and owning the F-word that some other mainstream female pop stars disappointingly avoid or disavow. “I think that any female who gets asked if she’s a feminist… it’s silly… it’s so interesting when people ask females if they’re a feminist. Of course every female wants to be equal! I believe everyone should be equal, and we should all love and support each other and express ourselves the way we want to express ourselves and be whoever we want. That’s my motto.”