Confession time: yours truly had a major crush on the pop singer Martika. She first came to fame as one of the stars of Kids Incorporated. At fifteen, I was a bit too proud to admit I’d fallen for a teen pop star. Images to uphold, you know. Though it was common for teen stars to delve into the music industry, often with dreadful results. (Tina Yothers, anybody?) In Martika’s case, the crossover wasn’t much of a surprise—nor was it a stretch, as Martika had already gained experience on stage with the Broadway smash Annie.
How, then, does Martika hold up, nearly three decades later? Truth is, it isn’t bad. The album’s biggest hit was “Toy Soldiers,” a powerful ballad about peer pressure that is unique in its arrangement, featuring a children’s chorus that includes future stars Fergie and Jennifer Love Hewitt. Even more interesting was the song not only garnered pop airplay, but it also made headway in alternative radio; I heard it more than once in the playlist of once-powerful Dallas alt-rock radio station 94.5 KDGE.
“Toy Stories” is an anomaly, though, as the rest of Martika is standard teen pop fare. None of it is particularly bad; sure, her take on “I Feel The Earth Move” and “See If I Care” have arrangements that instantly scream “1988!” What redeems the album—especially on scorchers “More Than You Know” and “Alibis”—is Martika’s powerful voice, one that overcomes music that might sound downright pedestrian in the hands of less able singers. Also worth noting is B-Side “Exchange of Heart,” which abandons the peppy, upbeat album’s sound for a mid-tempo R&B groove that sounds much more apropos for Martika’s vocal range. Even more interesting are the Spanish versions of singles “I Feel The Earth Move” and “More Than You Know,” both adding a grit missing in the English versions.
Sadly, Martika’s career wouldn’t quite launch—partially due to changing times, and partially due to a decision to work with Prince, against the protestations of her record label. The resulting album, Martika’s Kitchen, was an even better album than the otherwise excellent Martika, and its title track was a hit, but thanks to grunge and record label politics, the record never received a fair shake, and she quietly slipped into obscurity. Though she quietly continues to make music, she never reached the heights she deserved. Martika highlights just what the world missed out on, and is an enjoyable slice of pop from a young woman who deserved the world.