In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
As a pure pop-chart phenomenon, goth was bigger than grunge. In the pre-Nevermind years of 1989 and 1990, British mope-rockers like the Cure, Depeche Mode, and Love & Rockets broke through to pop radio and landed bona fide top-10 hits in America. Billboard launched its Modern Rock chart in 1988, and many of the songs that first topped that chart belonged to acts with depressive tendencies and complicated hair: Siouxsie And The Banshees, the Psychedelic Furs, the Jesus And Mary Chain. And yet the most purely goth Hot 100 #1 hit of that whole stretch belonged to a 20-year-old Californian dance-pop singer who’d just finished up a three-season run on Kids Incorporated.
I may be overstating things here. Thematically, Madonna’s “Like A Prayer” is the most goth #1 hit of 1989, though it’s way too musically bubbly to qualify. Martika’s “Toy Soldiers” is, in a lot of ways, a fairly standard ’80s pop-rock dirge. But there are little things about “Toy Soldiers” — the churn of those power-chords, the twinkle of those keyboards, the near-mystical sadness in Martika’s voice — that nudge “Toy Soldiers” just slightly into the goth column, at least for me. Even the slight unreality of the kids’ choir on the chorus makes me think of the Lost Boys soundtrack, which is not a pure goth artifact but which is goth enough. If you squint your ears hard enough, “Toy Soldiers” is Batcave music.
Martika has said that she and her co-writer and producer Michael Jay had the idea for “Toy Soldiers” after she dragged him to a punk show at the Whisky in LA. In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Martika said, “It was a whole other scene from what Michael was used to, and I was into that scene.” Martika had a friend in a band called the Watch, and the Watch had a song called “Toy Soldiers.” (I can’t find anything about this band or this song online.) Jay didn’t understand the band, but he liked the title “Toy Soldiers,” and he decided to use it himself. Jay started coming up with a chorus in the parking lot outside the show. Martika and Jay finished their own “Toy Soldiers” the next day. So even if I’m stretching by saying that “Toy Soldiers” has anything to do with goth, the song definitely has some sense of underground music in its DNA.
Marta Marrero Martinez might’ve been drawn to the darkness, but she was a showbiz kid. The woman known professionally as Martika grew up in Glendale, California; her parents were Cuban immigrants. (The #1 song in America when Martika was born was the 5th Dimension’s “Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In.”) As a kid, Martika wanted to be an entertainer. When she was 12, she was cast as one of the orphanage kids in the Annie movie. From there, she joined a bunch of other kids in a theatrical troupe, and they did regular shows at the Roxy. That theatrical troupe became the basis for the syndicated TV musical Kids Incorporated. The show started airing in 1984, and Martika was one of the original cast members.
On Kids Incorporated, Martika played Gloria, the lead singer of a fictional group also called Kids Incorporated. Martika was older than most of the other kids on the show, and she made an impression on one important onlooker. Michael Jay, who’d written songs for people like Gloria Estefan and Stephanie Mills, had started up a publishing company. Jay’s sister was a production assistant on Kids Incorporated, and he watched Martika tape a scene while he was waiting to eat lunch with his sister. She introduced him to Martika’s mother, who was also her manager, and they started recording music together.
Martika left Kids Incorporated after three seasons, and she signed a deal with Columbia. At first, Martika wanted Jay to write all of her songs. But Jay was impressed by what she’d been writing in her notebooks, so they started writing together. Martika’s debut single, the freestyle-adjacent dance-pop jam “More Than You Know” came out late in 1988, and it peaked at #18 the next spring.
By the time “More Than You Know” reached its apex, Martika’s self-titled debut album was out, and she released “Toy Soldiers” as her second single. Martika is mostly a breezy, clubby lightweight teen-pop album, and “Toy Soldiers” stands out on it. “Toy Soldiers” sounds a bit like a heartbreak song, but Martika wrote the lyrics about a friend who was having problems with cocaine. Whether or not you know that, it’s clearly a sad song about a desperate situation. When you do know that, though, the lyrics become life-or-death: “How could I be so blind to this addiction?/ If I don’t stop, the next one’s gonna be me/ Only emptiness remains/ It replaces all, all the pain.”
“Toy Soldiers” was only the third song that Martika ever wrote. At the time, she told the Associated Press, “It was the first time I got the nerve to write about something that was scary for me to talk about.” She also made it clear that she was singing about a particular person, though she never said who that person was: “He can’t listen to it. It gives him the chills. He says it affects him too much. He knows it’s about him. He loves it. He thinks it’s a beautiful song, but when he listens to my record, he skips over that.”
Martika’s debut album chases an early-Madonna vibe, and “Toy Soldiers” definitely owes a lot to Madonna ballads like “Live To Tell.” The song is slow and spacey, and it leaves Martika’s voice at the center of everything. The production is pure ’80s, with synth-glimmers and echoing drums and an obligatory wailing guitar solo, but it never crowds out Martika’s voice. It’s also got a big, dramatic chorus, with a kids’ choir lending extra tragic pathos. In putting together that choir, Martika brought in her Kids Incorporated castmates. One of the castmates who sang backup on the song, Stacy “Fergie” Ferguson, will eventually appear in this column. (Fergie Ferg is in that Kids Incorporated video up above.) But Martika didn’t record her vocal with her castmates in the room. Instead, she sang her part late at night, in a studio full of candles.
“Toy Soldiers” is a solidly constructed song, but the best thing about it is Martika’s lead vocal. She growls the song in a lower register, and she holds the center of the song long before it reaches its climax and she gets to cut loose with the ad-libbed howls. There’s hunger and urgency in her voice, and maybe that’s because she’s singing words that she’d written. Without offering up many specific lyrics about her situation, she communicates the idea that she’s in a heavy place. She never sounds like a showbiz kid. She sounds like a real singer.
On the strength of “Toy Soldiers,” Martika went gold. Her next single, an OK dance-pop cover of Carole King’s “I Feel The Earth Move,” peaked at #25 later in 1989. A couple of years later, Martika made it back into the top 10 one more time. For the lead single of her second album, 1991’s Martika’s Kitchen, Martika worked with Prince. Martika and Prince wrote “Love… Thy Will Be Done” together, with Prince basing the music on a prayer that Martika had written. The track, which may or may not sample the Cocteau Twins, is misty and solemn and lovely, and it peaked at #10. (It’s a 9.)
By the time she released that second album, Martika had gotten back into acting, doing a six-episode arc on Wiseguy. After that, though, she didn’t act again for years. Prince worked on multiple songs on Martika’s Kitchen, but the album still bricked, and Martika mostly disappeared from music afterwards. In the early ’00s, Martika and her husband Michael Mozart formed a gothy duo called Oppera, and they self-released a couple of albums. (Michael Mozart has his own pop-star past. In 1990, recording under the name Nikki, he reached #21 with his song “Notice Me.”) At some point during Oppera’s lifespan, Martika started calling herself Vida Edit, and Mozart started using the name Michael Daemon. I love that shit.
These days, Martika occasionally shows up on the nostalgia circuit — mostly in Australia, where “Love… Thy Will Be Done” was a #1 hit. Her pop career was a quick blip. Anytime someone has a big success out of the gate and then disappears, I wonder if something terrible happened. I hope not. I hope she just realized that the pop-music business was no place for a goth and that she got out while the getting was good.
BONUS BEATS: Eminem built his self-produced confessional 2005 single “Like Toy Soldiers” around a sample of “Toy Soldiers.” Here’s the video:
(“Like Toy Soldiers” peaked at #34. Eminem will eventually appear in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the fuzzy alt-rock “Toy Soldiers” cover that Silversun Pickups released in 2020:
(Silversun Pickups’ highest-charting single, 2009’s “Panic Switch,” peaked at #92.)