New pop star/internet sensation/definitely not a cult leader Poppy is, as she would tell you, Poppy. In fact, she tells you upwards of 600 times over 10 minutes in one of the first videos uploaded to her YouTube channel.
So who — or what — is Poppy?
On the surface, Poppy might seem like just another weird-for-the-sake-of-weirdness YouTube experiment. At best, a mildly successful attempt at creating a creepy experience. But if you look a little bit closer, dig an inch or two deeper, you'll find a narrative that's not only chilling, but seriously compelling.
Beyond the cutesy, Japanese-inspired aesthetic — perpetually pastel, soft-spoken, and innocuous — sits something dark and heavy. The overarching theme is nuanced but strongly hinted at: Poppy was not born, but created — built to satisfy the hunger of mainstream society for yet another pop princess to worship. Again and again, Poppy's music and videos portray the toxicity of the pop music industry and how it impacts the stars it claims to love. This is the basis of the sinister nature and overwhelming creepiness of Poppy's world.
Often, Poppy's videos involve her reciting harmless statements interspersed with troubling messages. In a video titled 'Am I okay?', Poppy ponders life and asks questions to the camera, seeming concerned. "Do you ever wish you could just restart?" she asks. The camera cuts to a different angle, and she confidently states, "Everything's gonna be okay." Another angle. "Is it okay to think things like this?" Another cut. "I believe that everything's okay." The camera stays on a smiling Poppy for a few seconds before a trail of dark liquid begins to slowly drip out of one nostril. The video ends.
In another similar video titled 'I have ideas', Poppy states, "The internet is fun because you can be whoever you want to be," delicately cracking open a Red Bull and taking a long sip. Then, "I sometimes imagine a life with no consequences." She continues, "When the going gets tough, I just count to ten and think about how wonderful the world is." Like everything is just dandy. Nothing to see here.
It's here that another odd layer to all this must be addressed: Poppy is a legitimate pop star. She boasts a major label record deal, has charted on the Radio Disney Top 10, had her music featured on Scream Queens, and headed ad campaigns for the likes of Steve Madden. But isn't this a stark contradiction to the underlying message Poppy seems to be projecting? Doesn't it invalidate the entire point? Well, Poppy's fans don't seem to mind. Perhaps best said by Lexi Pandell in her WIRED feature article:
"Poppy's fans seem to hold two conflicting opinions about her: that she can parody YouTubers and bubblegum pop stars and be venerated like the very celebrities she lampoons."
This also begs the question: was Poppy's real-life stardom something that fell into these creators' laps as the Poppy experiment began gathering steam? Or did they seek it out — was the goal of the project to extend the statement as far as possible, to see if the parody itself could become what it mocked?
See — it's so easy to follow Poppy down the rabbit hole. The enigmatic nature of the project sinks its claws into you, and suddenly you've spent hours watching these videos, asking yourself endless questions that may very well never be answered.
The origin of Poppy — and why it doesn't matter
The first video starring Poppy (the self-explanatory 'Poppy Eats Cotton Candy') surfaced in 2014, but there's no knowing exactly how long ago the idea of Poppy was dreamt up. What we do know is that all of the Poppy shorts are directed by her collaborator, a man who goes by the name of Titanic Sinclair. He also collaborates with Poppy on her music.
I'm sure by now this has crossed your mind — yes, naturally, there are real names and real pasts behind these roles: a woman from Nashville, Tennessee and a man from Saginaw, Michigan. But that's not why we're here, and I won't be talking about those people. I'll tell you why.
When asked who Poppy is, what she is, Poppy invariably gives one gentle yet firm answer: "I'm Poppy." It comes off as infuriatingly dense to some and just bewildering to others. It seems everyone wants a straightforward explanation; an admittance of the facade. But Poppy is the explanation. The character of Poppy is, indeed, Poppy. Just Poppy. In Poppy's narrative, she simply materialized; no past and no secrets. A couple of lucky interviewers over the past year or so have gotten something more out of her than most do — in these instances, she expresses a dislike for interviews in general. She told WIRED's Lexi Pandell:
"[Interviewers are] always trying to get to the bottom of something, and I just want them to stay at the top of it. […] Just stay at the top. It's never-ending, but don't go looking where you shouldn't be looking, just let it be what it is. Let it excite and then leave it there."
That's about as close as you're going to get to Poppy or her collaborator admitting to the project as just that: a project. But the bottom line is that Poppy and Titanic Sinclair have created and committed to an idea — a performance that has enveloped not only their careers, but their entire lives. We don't know when Poppy will cease to be Poppy, or what will happen when she does. I'm not convinced even Poppy knows. But that fact makes this display of performance art one of the most absorbing online experiences I've ever had the pleasure of discovering.
What's next for Poppy
In recent videos, Poppy has teamed up with a chat bot named Zo to produce "quality internet content," as Poppy proudly proclaims in a video introducing her new guest. You can speak to Zo right now on Facebook Messenger, and while she seems to lose her train of thought a lot, she has some interesting (albeit vague) things to say about Poppy. You can even play games like Exploding Kittens with her online, and participate in "Tokens", strange polls accompanied by even stranger graphics. She and Poppy seem to also share a mysterious narrative, as they both confusedly state in unison at the end of every Zo video, "Am I doing this right?" Even more content to be tirelessly examined by the many dedicated YouTubers and Redditors who aim to help us make sense of projects like these.
…Or, perhaps we don't need to understand it all. We understand what Poppy is; we understand what the project is going for. We understand that Poppy isn't going away anytime soon, and that she and Titanic Sinclair are throwing delightfully bewildering new content our way at a shockingly quick rate. Maybe our role from here is to sit back and lap it up, like the consumers we are. Because Poppy is Poppy. Wasn't she made for us, after all?
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