The first thing to know about Poppy is that I'm Poppy. I am Poppy. Got it? Now say it out loud:
Three more times.
Good. This first section of the article has been brought to you by Doritos®.
That Poppy is a character born from a YouTube video project, and now a pop singer whose first album was released earlier this season under Mad Decent. The music has a glossy J-pop style—simple melodies over major key synths and little percussion to speak of—and Poppy's voice is doctored just enough to where you can listen without having to engage with her layered lyrical content (e.g. "I fell in love with the man of the future/I've got a thing for my laptop computer", or "Bath salts, start a cult, I'm so adult, that's my style").
The videos are more complicated: ethereal, creepy, hilarious, usually a minute or less. Poppy's generally presented in a medium-close shot against a uniform white backdrop, repeating some nonstarter phrase or following an abstract line of thought in voice-over over lingering synth music. Occasionally in her music videos, the light quality of her tunes and her visceral comedy come together to create a sort of Katy-Perry-on-nitrous-oxide effect.
But past who she is or what she does, if there's one thing you need to understand about Poppy it's that by trying to understand Poppy you've already lost the game. By clicking on and reading this article, you've played right into her hand. By writing this article, I have too.
To write or read about Poppy is to fall into her trap. The character is a logical mobius strip, where the satire comes by virtue of her becoming the thing being satirized. Her online advertising partnerships are both a source of revenue and her playing sellout. Every radio interview and artist profile works on two opposing levels, simultaneously: by publishing this piece, for example, I am at the same time promoting her work and part of it. "Oh Poppy, you are quite strange" I, the surface-level media writer would say, "Why do you have so many YouTube views? What makes Poppy, Poppy? Let's try to unpack this." The more I sound like a CBS morning anchor in the process, the more it feeds the game.
In this sense, it's not sufficient to know Poppy as a YouTube creator, comedian or singer. Poppy is a character existing simultaneously in a state of pop star and anti-pop star. The driving conflict of the project is more than just the videos, the songs, even the satire of internet culture—it's that the ultimate end to the whole joke can only be achieved by Poppy becoming that which she's criticizing: a real life pop star. The punchline is every billboard with her face on it, every single on the radio, every artist profile on a pop culture website (*wink*).
Fundamentally, the idea is all about isolating the normalized behaviors of internet culture and pop fandom, to reveal the inherent ridiculousness of it all. In some cases, that means constant repetition of a single phrase, or giving a Wikipedia-style take on a basic concept, until the original word or idea is stripped bare of all its original meaning.
Poppy herself is a Taylor Swift ad absurdum. Where pop stars exist in service of their public image, for Poppy there is nothing else. Her manufactured appearance goes past magazine cover model to a near-Aryan level of blonde-whiteness. She isn't just "robotic"—she will openly refer to herself as an artificial intelligence.
By way of example, remember that time Taylor Swift became a Knicks fan for a day to promote her new single? Here's a Poppy treatment:
Poppy likes sports—she likes all the sports, especially the ones you like! When girls like sports it means they're down to Earth. Poppy is down to Earth, and relatable. Poppy is just like you—yes, you! See? She's spinning a basketball. That's something people do...
The character design of Poppy and her partner (or "director") Titanic Sinclair are the highest rung of the satire. He plays the brains of the operation, whether being the leader of the cult of Poppy, or the one controlling the music boards at her concerts. In interviews he's allowed to speak frankly about the project and its intended commentary while Poppy remains studiously on pause until further commanded. The YouTube camera angles, which generally sit slightly above and tilted down at her head, seem approximately geared to Titanic's eye level. The two of them equally lean into their separate roles as subject and object, director and cattle, painter and painted. This is a basic idea—objectification—taken to a literal place. Men act and women appear. A pop star, of course, is all appearance. Poppy can never publicly break character: every facet of her presentation is entirely contrived.
Poppy's fans have a reputation for being cultish, but under these circumstances you'll be able to see why that's not actually the whole picture. If Poppy is as both a joke of a pop celebrity and a real pop celebrity, the only proper way to be her fan is to be both a real fan and an ironic play of a fan. When Poppy emerges onstage for her November show at Williamsburg Music Hall, the building goes up, because just as Poppy has her cake and eats it too, when a Poppy Seed (read: Bey Hive, Beliebers, etc...) shouts every lyric to 'Moshi Moshi', two things are happening at once: the ironic performance of the "fan" (You love Poppy. You worship Poppy. Poppy is your queen.), and the genuine fandom itself (you actually do love Poppy).
If anything, Poppy's fan base is much more diverse than you'd gather from the Reddit forums. In her audience 20-somethings stand beside middle-aged parents with young girls on their shoulders, and for all the beanie hats and plaid shirts there's also drag and cosplay. The people in front of me dance to everything, and the couple behind me stands watching quietly. I recognize a C-list actor from HBO in the back, and near the stage a woman who by her appearance I could swear must be Poppy's mom.
Charlotte (a mannequin, and Poppy's best frenemy) plays a half hour DJ set to open, after Titanic walks onstage to whisper something to her (and maybe clicks 'play' on their prearranged playlist). She really crushes it on the boards, too—for every new song, a unique clip plays on the on-stage screens, of her plastic hands dutifully adjusting pitch levels and spinning records. The track list runs the gambit from "Africa" by Toto to The Strokes, Akon and "Love Shack".
Poppy's performance is true to form, if not awkwardly unfitting for the setting. Every bouncy song and heavily choreographed dance seems prefigured for an arena crowd, despite being played in a room the size of a small lecture hall. At least half the fans are much more interested in the moments in between songs than the songs themselves. Every so often she makes sure we still love her by baiting a crowd roar. When the show ends and chants of encore start to emerge, Titanic reemerges to address the audience. "They don't want Poppy to do another song!" But, he then says, maybe she can...on one condition: everybody, on the count of three, shout "Monster Energy Drink!"
The after-show merchandise lines run three waves deep. Kids in the coat check line recount all the nuggets of comedy they spotted in her performance. 'Africa' by Toto is again playing over the speakers.
I'll leave with this: when Taylor Swift looks in the mirror, does she see her self, or her reflected image?
In its essence, Poppy is less an idea or even a robot than a presentation. Functionally, she's a 'Mother!'-style, lets say, hardware upgrade of Titanic's last muse, Mars Argo: even prettier, even beadier eyes, blonder hair and a softer voice.
Where her earliest videos were shot in front of pastel-colored backdrops, in more recent iterations her pale face is so made up in post- that it threatens to fade into the blank white backdrop. First and foremost in any video, song or picture is Poppy's perfect face. She is less I than imago: the mirror reflection, the picture, the pixels on your screen. Even in person at her concert, she hardly seems to really be there.
Magazine interviewers may giggle when Poppy refuses to publicly recognize her human identity, but I ask you: does anyone recognize Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta? What about Katheryn Elizabeth Hudson, or Onika Tanya Maraj?
This is the pop star as an emergent property: not an individual human but an arena performer, not for the fans but of the fans. Your attention, your love, your album downloads—Poppy literally wouldn't exist without you. You all, reading this article—you are Poppy. So please, this time recite it with me:
Now you're getting it.
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