In 2015, at the age of 20, she unveiled her first full-length project, Cry Baby, based on a persona that pays homage to her sensitivity as a child. Four years later, Martinez’s directorial debut is a whimsical, highly dramatized version of school life, filled with pastels, magic, oversized hair bows and babydoll dresses. In K-12, Martinez portrays the titular character featured on her debut album, Cry Baby: a sensitive girl with magical powers who’s sent to a disturbing sleepaway school, where she must fight off bullying from students being mind-controlled and the school's patriarchal landscape.
Throughout the film, Cry Baby and her classmates must encounter racial and gender discrimination, bullying and generally toxic people. K-12 ultimately serves as a visual metaphor for how the world shapes us during the most primitive years of our lives.
Inspired by Martinez being told how to dress growing up so as not to “give boys the wrong idea,” the track “Strawberry Shortcake” narrates a scene in the film where Cry Baby portrays a topless, Marie Antoinette-like figure sitting atop a giant strawberry shortcake. While poised in the dessert, terrifying, pointy-toothed boys crawl toward the cake and begin taking pieces off to eat. “It's representative of how [a female] body is looked at by society,” Martinez says of the scene. “[The body] is moreso being looked at as a dessert instead of a work of art that should be respected and valued.”
Martinez later creates a visually-striking ballet with the song “Nurse’s Office,” which features a set of flame-haired nurses who have captured Cry Baby and her friend Angelita. Choreographed by Brian Friedman, the evil nurses band around the girls, drugging and restraining them, and using their stretchers as props to dance around the room. “I think [the scene] gives you a great understanding of how villainous [the nurses] are, which was a goal of mine,” says the singer.
But one of the most memorable scenes in the film for Martinez highlights the importance of feminine hygiene products: Angelita gets her period and Cry Baby tries to get her a tampon from a dispenser in a rose-colored bathroom, but there aren't any left. Her only option? Using toilet paper as a makeshift tampon. Martinez believes it’s a standout scene, because “there's the conversation about having tampons and how they should be free while also talking about the chemicals that are in those products that can be harmful to the body.”
The music of K-12 is representative of Martinez’s growth the last few years. She says she’s become “more balanced as a human, emotionally and mentally.” Her Cry Baby album scored an impressive debut at No. 6 on the Billboard 200, and as its sales steadily increased, Martinez’s recording career became solidified, and she began focusing on her next ambitious project.
Martinez hopes to focus on “only giving energy to things that make me happy, as opposed to putting energy towards things that don't.” She also hopes that K-12 contains a message that extends beyond her fan base. “Even though there was the intention to help people heal if they resonate with it, it was really an outlet to express creatively or tell a story,” she explains.
“I really just wanted to make something that was thrilling to watch from beginning to end that would capture your attention and not leave you bored,” she continues. While the ending of K-12 is (non-spoiler) open to interpretation, Martinez suggests that there will likely be some type of closure to the story of K-12: she already has her next two albums and films planned out.
A version of this article originally appeared in the Aug. 24 issue of Billboard.