The stage was set for the world’s largest, wildest toddler: two giant birthday cakes and a dead-eyed teddy bear flanked rainbow-colored toy blocks spelling out CRY BABY. Two men in jumpers and fuzzy rabbit ears played haunting nursery-rhyme tunes on synthesizers and instruments behind the props. A wolf-human hybrid in a lab coat lurked somewhere.
Into this eerie scene bounced Melanie Martinez, out of an enormous crib, wearing a blue and yellow babydoll dress, hair like Cruella Deville, freckles painted on her cheeks as if she were a ragdoll. An excited, youthful Austin City Limits festival crowd eagerly sang along as Martinez, 21, from Queens, NY, launched into her theme song, “Cry Baby.”
They call you cry baby
But you don’t [expletive] care
Cry baby, cry baby
So you laugh through your tears
Martinez crooned and pranced for her peers — teens and young adults who relate to her concept album about the haunting elements of growing up and the hypocrisy of a pristine facade. (Tattoo-covered legs and a large nose ring appropriately contrasted with the childlike imagery of Martinez’s outfit and stage setup.)
“We’re gonna play my album,” the former contest on The Voice declared. And play the album she did, often with tracks in order.
On “Dollhouse,” the album’s second track and the second of the ACL set, Martinez makes it clear she is not singing of a perfect family or childhood but precisely the opposite — something pained, hidden, and at least a little twisted — a grotesque carnival version of what often lurks beneath real-life selfies and family photos.
Picture, picture, smile for the picture
Pose with your brother, won’t you be a good sister?
Everyone thinks that we’re perfect
Please don’t let them look through the curtains
Martinez connected well with her fans and her voice seemed strong enough for the pop material, but she lacked anything to do on stage besides skip back and forth. She needs a full band with which to connect. Midway through the set, the novelty was wearing off and fans were moving on to the next big draw.
It might’ve helped for Martinez to bring a slew of her devoted fans on stage for crowd favorites like “Soap,” “Sippy Cup,” “Carousel,” or especially “Pity Party,” with its Leslie Gore sample singalong, “It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to.”
Martinez has talent and a message that resonates with her audience, as well as creativity and entrepreneurial spirit (her self-directed, crowd-funded music videos are YouTube hits). The question is: what’s next after she outgrows her crib and sippy cup? A cover or two could have given a better sense of where Martinez sees herself heading after “Cry Baby.”