Poppy is the Internet's Biggest New Popstar, But Is She Actually Real?
If you've spent any meaningful time down the digital rabbit hole recently, you'll be aware of two simple words: "I'm Poppy."
We've all been there: 2:30am, in bed, the glow of a phone screen bathing our faces in a cool, blue light from the chin up. "Just one more," you think, "Just one more, and then I'll go to sleep." That's when you find them – always in the early hours of the morning, always by accident: the weirdest videos on the internet. Thirty minutes of something dubbed "ASMR chiropractic adjustment", someone dancing naked to a techno remix of the Mortal Kombat theme, David Lynch cooking quinoa in the dark. Or, if you've spent any meaningful length of time down the digital rabbit hole recently, two simple yet extremely perplexing words: "I'm Poppy."
Trying to explain Poppy is like trying to explain the compounds of oxygen to a dog. Poppy is not there to be deciphered, Poppy just is. Looking like Luna Lovegood after a trip through Andy Warhol's Factory, Poppy is the sole star of a YouTube channel called That Poppy – a treasure trove of surreal sketches that all carry the same tropes: a young girl (Poppy) alone in a clinically off-white room, waxing philosophical in a tone that sounds like an alien reading a press release. With peroxide blonde hair and a voice that sounds like a Disney animal, Poppy's videos involve her performing odd tasks and delivering bite-size monologues that sound like rejected lines from the opening sequence of Gummo. In essence, they are Warhol's Screen Tests reinterpreted for a generation raised on Tumblr and Vaporwave, and combined, they have amassed views that run into the multi-millions.
The channel was created on October 6, 2011, with the first video arriving in November 2014 – a single take of Poppy eating candy floss. Since then it has amassed over 100 uploads, all featuring the same pastel-coloured borderline-ASMR aesthetic. In some videos, she grills a cheese sandwich with an iron, reads the bible aloud for almost an hour, and gives an interview to a mannequin called Charlotte. In another, she chats to a plant. Her most popular video is ten minutes of Poppy saying "I'm Poppy" over and over again, closely followed by another titled "Am I okay?" in which she delivers a series of disconnected questions and statements: "What would it be like if you could just restart?" "You need to stop worrying so much". On the homepage of her website, Poppy appears in a variety of stiff poses that land somewhere between Barbie and Christ, and in her shop you can buy an item called "This One" for $500 – the description reading: "That's a big one" – which is a gemstone in the shape of a tooth.
Poppy, it turns out, also happens to be one of the music industry's hottest tips for 2017. Earlier this month David Mogendorff – who works in artist content and services for YouTube and Google Play Music – told the Guardian, "Her vlogs are like social commentary, and touch on the anxieties of modern life... It's a really interesting way of communicating, personal but strange." The question is: Who is Poppy? Is it a joke? And if so, is she in on it? Are we?
Back in 2015, Island Records released her first single "Lowlife" under the name 'That Poppy'. A classic, catchy Jessie J-style pop tune with a massive build-up chorus, the track is hosted on a separate YouTube channel to her – let's call them "performances" – but retains all the same hallmarks: a minimalist setting, pastel clothing, surreal interjections whether it's a guy dressed as the devil or Poppy getting into a limo with her mates and taking a hit from an oxygen mask. Taken from her debut EP Bubblebath, "Lowlife" made it onto the Billboard charts and an edition of Now That's What I Call Music! in the US. Another track from the EP called "Money" was used in The Sims 4 and an episode of the TV series Scream. For now though, Poppy's level of fame lies in that obscure area where you either know everything about her or you have no fucking clue who she is. With a YouTube channel for each arm of her career, both of which do massive numbers ("Lowlife" has 7 million views), and a Snapchat series on the way through Comedy Central, Poppy is currently everywhere and nowhere.
It probably goes without saying that Poppy is a persona. We don't know much about the girl who plays her. Apparently she grew up in Nashville and moved to LA to pursue a music career, but she never reveals her legal name and instead of disclosing her age prefers to tell interviewers – referring to herself, in character, in third person – "Poppy does not identify with an age". Intentionally withholding humanising detail is a way of separating the artist from the art, creating a barrier of mystery. But the question presents itself, as it does when someone like Harry Styles uses silence as a marketing tactic: is keeping the veil down a form of privacy or commentary, or is it a way of deflecting the fact that there's nothing much there to begin with? "I don't want people to talk about how old I am; I want them to talk about what I'm making," Poppy told Racked in an interview last year. "People, especially nowadays, are so obsessed with knowing everything. They'll have to invest their time in finding it."
One thing we do know is that behind the scenes there is – as is so often the case with these sensations – a man. All of That Poppy's videos are directed by Titanic Sinclair (also an alias), whose own YouTube channel is filled with videos extremely similar to Poppy's – him alone in a room eating a crisp or giving advice on how to be happy. His bio reads, "Hi, I'm Titanic Sinclair". Before his foray into Weird YouTube, Titanic Sinclair was one half of a music duo called Mars Argo – Mars Argo being the alias of the woman he was performing with. For the most part the songs are structured like commercial indie-pop in the vain of She & Him, with Argo parodying the genre's fondness for incredibly coy frontpeople and Sinclair taking a background seat to the performance, rarely appearing on screen in any of their videos. In an interview from mid-2014, Sinclair described the project as "a form of internet theatre that's meant to be satirical and complex". Now, their YouTube channel is pretty much empty. Shortly after the duo parted ways, Poppy showed up.
For some, this will raise the same sort of issues PC Music did when it first emerged. Some argued the label was a conceptual art project birthed partly in response to a faceless British electronic scene. Others argued it was "pure, contemptuous parody" orchestrated by "people with a deep disdain for pop". Were they mocking all that is superficial and hedonistic in mainstream music by exaggerating its characteristics, or were they just reinforcing it? Was their collective silence on the matter alluring or infuriating? Both in spite and because of these questions, PC Music became a point of fascination, racking up plays in the millions and landing a cacophony of deals with major labels and big brands. On top of that, they were frequently pulled up for being a label helmed by men capitalising heavily on women's voices, faces and names within a music industry that struggles to include women in the first place. Is the first thing you think of when you think of PC Music not the hyper-glossy pictures of Hannah Diamond, or the fictional QT poised with her very real energy drink? As Daisy Jones wrote for Noisey last year, PC Music was criticised for being "led by a middle-class white dude who appropriated femininity in the name of irony, epitomising a kind of eye roll-inducing art school conceptualism that felt suspiciously like a joke that nobody else was in on." Could the same be said of Poppy and Titanic Sinclair?
The answer, vaguely, is yes. But when so much information about the artist in question is held back, it's impossible to say for sure without having a conversation about agency – about how much the girl behind the character is involved the character she is playing. Poppy has been in character for the majority of the few interviews she has given (including, weirdly, one with Sam Pepper), only really pulling back the curtain for an interview with #GIRLTALK where she speaks, in a completely different (i.e. her natural) voice about her style, music career and the pressures of publicity. Which brings us back to her record deal.
If you look at some of the biggest acts to break over the last five to ten years – Justin Bieber, 5 Seconds of Summer, Halsey – it's no wonder major labels are now scouting online, essentially picking up people who are already successful with the aim of transforming their view count into streams and sales. It makes a little less sense that a major label would pick up someone who is mostly known for making Lynchian sketches explaining what gravity is, whose only public foray into music has been teaching viewers how to play "the P chord" and covering a Mac Demarco song, with the intent of turning her into a pop sensation. Still, whether you find Poppy charming or vacuous, something about her robo-Pamyu Pamyu vibe is resonating with hundreds and thousands of people, and in an industry run by numbers that gives her as good a shot as any at reaching the upper-echelons. Whether her mystery will carry her to the top or act as a bridge to something more sincere remains to be seen. The way things are going, it wouldn't be a surprise if pure fantasy and escapism ends up carrying just as much currency as the Kardashian brand of open-diary-like documentation, if not more.
Poppy is the pastel colour trend and the deep web, she is confessional writing and she is postmodernism, she comes off as both extremely intimate and completely removed – she is "Samantha" from Spike Jonze' Her with added visuals. The appeal rests on something that's hard to put your finger on; something weird and abstract and evocative of the way we now balance our lives and personalities online and off. She may not be a household name yet, but at the moment it's just fascinating to watch people become fascinated with a girl about whom we have hardly any concrete facts, doing things that can't be rationally explained, and presenting us with the kind of questions you would type into Yahoo Answers after blazing for five hours. Whether that fascination can transform itself into a legitimate pop career remains to be seen, but as Poppy said herself: "People, especially nowadays, are so obsessed with knowing everything. They'll have to invest their time in finding it." So far that's exactly what everyone who comes across her feels compelled to do, but the really interesting part will be what happens when we get answers.
Follow Emma on Twitter.