The enigmatic singer spoke to Popdust about the creative process behind the "post-genre" sound of her latest record, I Disagree.
Despite introducing herself countless times in one of her first viral videos, the Internet spent 5 years trying to figure out who Poppy really was. The enigmatic singer, performance artist, graphic novelist, and church leader (born Moriah Pereira) has wielded ambiguity in savvy and eerie ways throughout her artistic career, creating a pastel-hued cult of mystery surrounding her multimedia Poppy project since 2015. Returning with a new "post-genre" sound that melds together shades of industrial rock, nu-metal, and ethereal hyper-pop, Poppy put out her third studio album, I Disagree, back in January. She's never been beholden to a singular sound or character, and her latest project showcases this ability to evolve as she expands her Poppy-verse to new dimensions in one of her most emboldened metamorphoses yet.
Take the music video for the album's title track, "I Disagree," which stars Poppy wreaking havoc at a roundtable of record label execs as she sings about apocalyptic ends and new beginnings. "We'll be safe and sound / when it all burns down," she chimes in a crystalline chorus amid a swarm of doomy guitar riffs before the shot closes on her overlooking a mass of flaming bodies. Despite the seemingly macabre visuals, this song—like many of the others on the album—is as much about asserting oneself against oppressive forces as it is about regrowth in the face of chaos. Out of the ashes is born a new version of Poppy, adding another layer to her evolving mythology.
On I Disagree, Poppy navigates between ethereal vocal passages before launching into thunderous, nu-metal breakdowns. This jolt in momentum can be dizzying at times but on the whole a lot of fun to listen to and definitely a refreshing break from the poptimism direction many singers are heading towards. Her alt and nu-metal influences are detectable enough: Rammstein, Marilyn Manson, and Nine Inch Nails, and even metalcore bands like Norma Jean come to mind. Poppy has been vocal about these influences in interviews, but she also prefers to refer to her latest record as "post-genre" rather than boxing it in as a "metal record." Her ability to navigate between different sounds and styles is an impressive showcase of range, which shouldn't be surprising coming from an artist who has in the past explored everything from synth-pop (on 2017's Poppy.Computer) to heady dark-pop on 2018's followup, Am I A Girl?
But one of the most compelling aspects of Poppy's career is that she'll never lift the veil too high. In an age when almost no personal detail of a celebrity is withheld from audiences, it can be refreshing to see a star who embraces these elements of spectacle, persona, and mystique. Like Marilyn Manson and David Bowie, Poppy is a master of world-building and theatrics. Though Poppy was once notorious for staying in character during interviews, she's since opened up to show her most human side yet.
Enter Poppy's uncanny valley corner of Youtube. Poppy's videos quickly made her an Internet sensation, garnering millions of views on videos like the "I'm Poppy" clip (which now has over 23 million views). She would go on to steadily release a slew of mesmerizing, often A.I.-esque videos that left people equal parts intrigued and freaked out. Is she a computer? A cult leader? The Warhol of Youtube? A surrealist performance artist pulling off an elaborate stunt to critique the pop machine? Well, as she already told us: She's Poppy.
Poppy began to shed her robo-humanoidism aesthetic on "X", the closer to her 2018 album, Am I A Girl? (the sonic embodiment of her former sugary-pop sound meeting a nu-metal sensibility). She also fleshed out these darker, moodier tendencies of Nine Inch Nails-esque rock on her 2019 EP, Choke, which was released on Diplo's Mad Decent label.
The Poppy mythology grew more entangled when she made a public statement parting ways with former collaborator Titanic Sinclair (real name: Corey Mixter), whom she was involved with in the Mars Argo lawsuit. The lawsuit is perhaps alluded to on the track "Anything Like Me," where Poppy sings fairly straight-forward lyrics such as, "I'm everything she never was / Now everyone's out for my blood" etcetera. Although Sinclair did contribute to the album and is credited on a few songs, Poppy's decision to sever ties reflects a new chapter in her artistic career, as she invariably moves towards more autonomy and control over her own sound and direction. She's also no longer working with some of the major labels that she's worked with in the past. Instead she put out I Disagree through the metal label Sumerian Records and is set to tour in support of Deftones in the summer of 2020.
I spoke to Poppy in February over the phone before she headed to perform her Boston show on the I Disagree tour. Read our conversation below.
POPDUST: So I know you're on tour right now. How has it been playing the new songs from I Disagree live?
POPPY: Great! I'm having a lot of fun, and I've been waiting to be able to do this because I have had a lot of the songs for a while, so it's great to finally be able to play it.
I saw that you've been playing a cover of the T.A.T.U song "All The Things She Said," which is incredible. What drew you to that song?
Thank you. That song has been a favorite of mine and I feel like it fit amongst the other songs very well.
In your own words, how would you describe the new sound on the album?
Well, I just call it post-genre, that's what I've been using. It's not any specific genre, as you can tell from the record, so I'd say that's the best descriptor.
When you started out creating I Disagree, did your vision for the album retain its shape throughout the process or did it go through a few different evolutions as you went along?
I just went into the process with an open mind, and I wanted to make an album with no rules, and I think we did that, and that's I Disagree. No rules.
In interviews you've mentioned that this album has a lot of different sonic influences, from Marilyn Manson to Trent Reznor to Madonna. What kinds of bands did you like to listen to growing up?
Nine Inch Nails, Gary Numan, No Doubt, Blondie: I was very drawn to all of them.
I wanted to ask you about the song "BLOODMONEY" and the themes you explore on that surrounding religion. Throughout your career as Poppy, I've noticed that, while your sound grows with each album, these themes surrounding religion and/or devotion continue to crop up. Are you attracted to the aesthetic or visual elements surrounding religion?
I think some religion is fascinating, but [I] also think that people can follow blindly without asking questions. I think any religion needs to be questioned at times, and I think it's fascinating to analyze, but I don't subscribe to any one in particular.
Can you expand on what you were hoping to explore on "Bloodmoney"?
It's about hypocritical people that are a different way behind the curtain [and] which things are a lot darker behind the scenes and behind the curtain, so that's what I'm expressing.
Speaking of addressing people, the video for "I Disagree" seems to have a pretty clear message towards the established music industry. What kinds of changes would you like to see within the music industry?
That's definitely a complex question, but I don't think there's a ton that can be done in the immediate future because certain people are in positions of power that won't let ideas come through. But I think whenever you mix art and business, there's going to be compromise, and I just feel fortunate that I'm in this position where I don't need to compromise.
While making I Disagree, did you feel like you were in a position where you had more control over what you were creating?
Yeah, absolutely. It was shown to industry people after it was completed, so at that point I didn't take into account anyone's opinion because it was already done. So I did have complete control over it.
"Nothing I Need" appears to preach a kind of minimalism within a pretty sonically maximalist album. Is that something you intended?
It serves more as an interlude on the album. I wouldn't say it was intentional that it was minimal, but it allows the listener a second to breathe, because it is a lot of information as an album as a whole. The message is just being okay with being okay, and it doesn't mean settling by any means; it just means you're accepting things for what they are and things that end...you're okay with it. You're okay with starting over, and maybe things you thought you always wanted are actually things you don't need.
With this new chapter, do you ever feel like you are leaving behind your previous Poppy persona or perhaps evolving into a completely different person?
Evolution. I wouldn't say I'm leaving anything behind, because I think if I was to stay consistently the same it would be really boring, and I get bored really easily.
In terms of what's next on the horizon, I saw that you have another graphic novel coming out. Can you tell me a bit about that and how you got into that medium?
Yeah, I have been always drawn to it, and it just felt like the right time when we launched Genesis I, my graphic novel that came out before my first release. And yeah, I'm really excited for Poppy's Inferno because it comes out in July, and it'll have an album that you can play along while you read it.
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Bandcamp is waiving revenue shares today, and you should support POC artists.
Today is another Bandcamp Friday, meaning until midnight tonight, the platform will be waiving revenue shares and letting artists take 100 percent of profits.
Now more than ever, as Black Lives Matter protests occur around the world, it's extremely important to lift marginalized voices. The music industry has repeatedly erased Black voices throughout history, despite the fact that most mainstream genres were invented by Black people.
“Now you can tell the truth and stop playing a part in my being exploited by a whole ass APP worldwide without my permission,” Jahkara Smith wrote.
"If the men find out we can shapeshift, they're going to tell the church."
That's one of Jahkara Smith's most memorable lines from her most well-known YouTube video titled "Contouring 101," which today has over 4.4 million views. "I don't know if you put your contouring on before the rest of your makeup or after the rest of your makeup, but it doesn't matter; because men are stupid," she quips in a mid-Atlantic accent. Her popularity defied expectations, The Mary Sue noted, "because three of the worst things you can be online are: a woman, brown, and loud." Similar features in The New York Times, The Daily Beast, Allure, and Refinery29 praised her cutting commentary on the patriarchy, sexism, and racism, given while mocking the very forum she was using: beauty tutorials, which by their nature prop up an industry that's mostly run by white women and neglects women of color (despite the fact that black women spend up to nine times more on beauty and haircare than white women).
In 2018, she told The Mary Sue, "For whatever reason, I feel like I'm running out of time, or people will forget about me, and I won't have the same opportunities again. That kind of stuff." But at 21 years old, Smith, AKA Sailor J on YouTube, felt that she'd captured a moment to bring attention to society's ethnocentric beauty standards and the patriarchal implications that a woman only cares about beauty products in order to attract a man. "Men cannot know that we wear makeup. It will all be over for all of us. The universe will stop. Reproduction will cease," Smith says at the opening of her first makeup tutorial, titled "Getting a Man 101," which has accrued over 2.2 million views. The point, she says while beating her face aggressively with a beauty blender: "If you don't look like a white beauty blogger, it's over for you." To date, she maintains nearly 500,000 subscribers despite the fact that she no longer posts on her channel.
On TikTok, however, her videos have seen somewhat of a resurgence in popularity, with her online persona "sailorj" being used over 4.3 million times as a hashtag. The mostly Gen-Z–but increasingly millennial–platform is a hybrid of SnapChat and Vine, between video diary and sketch comedy, with users posting dance trends, challenges, tirades, or political commentary. At some point, the audio clips from several of Smith's videos were uploaded to the platform, where millions of users have lip synced to her satire–and to Smith, they're all "f*cking thieves."
YouTube “Sailor J"
In January 2020, Smith made it clear that she doesn't approve of any of her content being appropriated by TikTok users. "Absolutely no one on TikTok or any other platform has my permission to strip this video for any audio or visual purposes," she posted. When responses ranged from solidarity and promises to inform TikTokers of her wishes to criticism that she should be thankful for the publicity, she added, "And no, I'm not grateful that people are stealing because I don't make videos for the sake of having other people like them/me."
TikTok is, as Wired described, "a copyright law nightmare." In many ways, the platform is designed for plagiarizing. With its participatory nature allowing users to respond to other videos or re-use the audio, it exists in a murky space of fair use and monetization. "TikTok isn't offering a new service and then scrambling to monetize it, it's cashing in on a culture other platforms frown upon," writes Wired. "The appeal (sometimes problematically) is in appropriating something that doesn't belong to you and tweaking it until it's your own—an infinite cycle of remixes of remixes, just like a meme." As a musically-driven platform (TikTok acquired the short-lived app musical.ly, after all), the company has partnered with record companies to license existing music, as well as new music from debuting artists for a low fee.
But while lip syncing to the app's library of licensed music avoids (for the most part) dicey copyright problems, millions of videos use sound from other creators. The problem with using Sailor J's material is that, as she pointed out to one commenter, she never uploaded her content onto TikTok–which means her material is completely outside of the company's terms and services. One reason TikTok gets away with encouraging lip syncing and monetizing meme culture is the way it sets out its terms, from protecting TikTok's own branded material to establishing 23 rules for "Your Access to and Use of Our Services," as well as extensive descriptions of User-Generated Content. Namely, if a creator has a TikTok account, then their material is free to use by other TikTok creators: "Users of the Services may also extract all or any portion of User Content created by another user to produce additional User Content, including collaborative User Content with other users, that combine and intersperse User Content generated by more than one user."
So what can Smith do about her unwitting and exploitative TikTok popularity? She can send TikTok a take-down request due to copyright infringement; in 2019, the company apparently received 3,345 such notices, according to their first ever Transparency Report. They say they complied with 85% of requests to remove content. "Now you can tell the truth and stop playing a part in my being exploited by a whole ass APP worldwide without my permission," Smith says in the comments to her contouring video. The YouTuber-turned-actress (and former Air Force servicewoman) has joined the cast of AMC's horror drama NOS4A2 and starred in season two of Hulu's Into the Dark. She doesn't have time to create content for her YouTube channel anymore, but the problems with being an influencer have only intensified with social media crossover.
"Makeup is a form of appropriation as well," she told The New York Times in 2018. Playing with identity and changing one's form is a fundamental aspect of the beauty industry, one that's often manipulated to exploit people's vanity, insecurities, and desire to slip into someone else's skin, if only under a chemical layer. Speaking on the intense backlash she'd received from her social critiques in her parodies, she said, "I don't want those kinds of people watching me anyway. The problem with YouTube is you almost can't be yourself if you want to make it career-wise." Now, with over 500 million users and 1.5 billion downloads, TikTok's estimated worth crossed $75 billion in 2018, making its owner, ByteDance, the most valuable privately held company in the world. With more than 1 billion videos viewed every day, hardly anyone online is really being themselves. But therein lies the appeal of lip syncing: someone pretending to be someone they're not, but in such a kitschy way that it's not inauthentic–it's mocking inauthenticity. Quartz calls this a delicious form of "cognitive dissonance" that's "unapologetically cheesy" while showcasing that "identity can be unapologetically fluid." Most pointedly, in an age when we're still fumbling our attempts to be inclusive but not overly corrective, reigning in cancel culture while still policing instances of cultural appropriation, lip syncing content "strikes an upbeat, nearly utopian chord of free lending and borrowing."
While that opens the terrain of creative property to play with while we're home on a sick day (just as Smith was when she filmed her first video in under an hour on a whim), content based on fluid play-acting means that original creators are more of an afterthought than ever, as users confuse content that's public to mean it's copyright-free. But, appropriately, TikTok's Terms and Services also includes this warning: "You acknowledge and agree that when you view content provided by others on the Services, you are doing so at your own risk."
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