Culture

Who is ‘That Poppy’? Pop Occultism Meets New Media Celebrity Critique

“I’m Poppy,” her YouTube intro video repeats. For ten minutes. “That Poppy” is an enigmatic internet celebrity, singer, and songwriter based out of LA. She is best known for her short, experimental, often times bizarre YouTube videos that started back in 2014. They’ve been described as avant-garde. Poppy’s bright, bubbly image—she describes herself as “kawaii”—is contrasted with her monotone voice and a blank, nearly robotic gaze. Her interviews and guest appearances remain in-character. Her videos are difficult to explain, but they often involve talking about inane things, like an alien in a science fiction story trying to convince some humans that its not from another world. “I’m a singer and living on a planet makes sense to me,” she says in one video with a smile. Even the seemingly innocuous videos are oftentimes disrupted by spontaneous statements like, “dive into the center of your mind,” or strange, unsettling background music reminiscent of a David Lynch film.



In one video, Poppy reads from the Bible for forty minutes. There are two parts to the video, and no explanation. In yet another, more recent video, Poppy explains the basics of sacred geometry. These and other videos, like her “Lowlife” music video—which features Poppy in a Baphomet pose, with her hands in an “as above, so below” position, and Satan eating a banana—have convinced some occult bloggers and conspiracy theorists that she is an agent of the illuminati, or under the control of some dark and powerful forces. Some people even wonder about her safety.

So who is she, really? And do these conspiracy theories hold any weight? Well, firstly, we don’t really know. Secondly, no, they don’t. Poppy is an art project—one of the most successful in recent, new media history to be sure, with a lot to say about our culture—but nothing more than that.

 

Human After All

“Please electrify me 

Power my batteries. 

I need your energy…”

Poppy’s persona is a collaboration between her and Poppy’s producer-director, Titanic Sinclair. Poppy created her YouTube account back in 2011, but didn’t upload anything until 2014. Most of her videos before that date have been removed, but we do know she used to be known as “Moriah Poppy.” Originally from Nashville, Tennessee, she moved to Los Angeles to pursue her music career. That’s where she met Titanic Sinclair and started making YouTube videos. Her EP, “Bubblebath,” was released in 2016.

Sinclair has described the project as a creative combination of Andy Warhol’s pop accessibility, David Lynch’s eerie surrealism, Tim Burton’s zany visuals. That’s certainly true.

As mentioned earlier, Poppy describes her style as “kawaii” and mentions J-pop as one of her influences. You can see how her persona borrows elements from the “vocaloid,” Japanese designed singing programs with their own personas. Hatsune Miku, for instance, has reached the celebrity status of a pop star. In all respects, she is a real pop star, even if she isn’t a real person. With the helpful technology of holograms, Hatsune Miku is magically brought to life on stage—like an ancient theurgic rite of statue animation—and even goes on tour. Electronic media continues to blur what it means to be human. Our Hollywood icons, after all, are larger than life. More than any individual can be. So why not let our computers do the work for us? Like the vocaloids, Poppy’s persona conjures a mythological being who seems born from the internet. In the song above, she asks her fans to empower her, “electrify me…I need your energy.” In an earlier article, I explored how “synchromysticism,” or the belief that things we do online might have a kind of magical significance to the outside world, requires collective belief. One can’t help but wonder if the Poppy art project is tapping into that, too.

Poppy is also something like the personas put on by Daft Punk. Despite the fact that the two artists are “human after all,” they playfully explore the relationship human beings have with technology. Art reflects life, and so as our lives are becoming digital, our pop stars can critically explore that strangely cyborg reality with us. Human becoming machine, machine becoming human—and the strange, transcendental virtual space inherited by us through the net.

This is where we can start to unpack some of the themes Poppy’s videos explore.

 

YouTube’s Uncanny Valley

You’ve already seen a few of them. They’re the kind of videos you’d find at 3 AM, when you should be sleeping. “Deep YouTube,” as it’s called. You know the kind. The weird videos that make you feel like you shouldn’t be watching them. The embrace a kind of liminality more akin to one’s dreaming state. Sinclair’s creative direction has embraced this liminality with a kind of subtle brilliance, and, as he mentions, Andy Warhol’s  pop accessibility comes into play. Many of Poppy’s videos reach nearly a million views.

For example, here’s Poppy’s first upload, where she eats cotton candy.

The video, “I love the internet so much” has Poppy making inane statements about the internet. Her lines are delivered so flatly, so matter-of-factly, you get the sense that the video is mocking our often times robotic attachment, and attention, to smart phones and social networks.

“I breathe new life into my telephone with every charge… My telephone defines me. When it is dead, so am I!” She repeats this line twice in this video.

In this unnerving clip, Poppy asks her fans to “repeat after me,” and “listen closely,” all while her lipstick begins to change colors.

“How much do you love Poppy?” She leaves room for you to answer. “Say it again.”

“They have taken control,” for instance, features Poppy standing with a blank expression and a psychedelic shirt. “You will pledge allegiance to Poppy… You will do whatever Poppy says,” The narrator states. “Feel Poppy’s love flow through you… Feel the pulse of the internet as we become one.” The video ends with the narrator stating that the “programming is complete.”

In another video, “the beginning of infinity,” Poppy asks if her fans love her and will do anything she asks.

It gets weirder. In this one Poppy asks her fans: “Do you ever think about God?” Most of the video is silent. The lingering, uncomfortable silence after the question pushes the viewer’s mind into accidental contemplation. “It’s really weird,” she says at the end. Yes, it is.

There are over a hundred videos—too many to analyze in one sitting. Let’s get to the heart of what Poppy is doing here.

 

Technodelics, Lynchean Surrealism, and Critiquing New Media Culture

There’s so much happening here. As with any artistic project, its expressive capacity escapes definition. But I can comment on a few themes that make themselves very prevalent.

First of all, let’s get the conspiracy theories out of the way. The running motif in Hollywood, of young celebrity females being taken up by dark, mind-controlling cult forces—South Park even made a gag out of this in one episode with Britney Spears—is taken on quite consciously by Sinclair and Poppy. Many of the videos allude to NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) practices. They suggest that Poppy is being programmed, or mind-controlled, against her own will.

Sinclair is using this motif intentionally to play with one of the common cultural ideas about celebrity culture. In her music video, “Lowlife,” Poppy is seemingly under the control of mysterious old men in suits. The Devil character is a nod to the “Satanic Panic” of the 70s and 80s, where fears about demonic cults where running high.

The idea that celebrities have their personality and image controlled—often contorted—to fit the icon and diminish the real person is certainly a critique we can take away from these videos. Illuminati cults and the like merely inflate it to a level of mythological proportions. The strange, mind-control infused psychedelia present in Poppy’s videos harkens back to the very real LSD experiments by the CIA, and, more recently, bring to mind the avant-garde science fiction film Beyond the Black Rainbow, which thematically fits right in here. They harken back to the fever dreams of the 60s and the 70s where paranoid cult conspiracies intermingled with pharmacological forays into psychedelics and mystical experience.

Many of Poppy’s music videos are satirical, like “Money,” where she blatantly sings about how great money and consumerism is. “If money can’t buy happiness, then why is it so fabulous?” She asks with a blank stare.

Sinclair has also made these videos an opportunity to explore the liminal, existential states of modern digital life. Can there be a transcendental state produced online, with our magnificent, glowing, screens? Poppy, as a “the internet girl,” explores this question, inviting her fans to connect with her in a “future paradise,” which appears to plays with the idea of Poppy’s fans belonging to a mystical, internet cult. Technology is magical in Poppy’s videos; it promises connection, belonging. But like most of Poppy’s videos, there’s always a level of existential malaise surrounding that glamorous promise.

Poppy is consistently satirizing how we in the millennial generation find self-worth and meaning through social media connection. “My telephone defines me. When it is dead, so am I!” The cult-like, roboticized aspects of Poppy’s persona also speaks to our own robot-like attachment and identification with our mediated selves. Especially when it comes to the droves of internet fandom.

 

“I’m not a cult leader and I’m not in a cult.”

The biggest clue we have about Poppy’s origins is probably Sinclair’s previous art project, “Mars Argo.” Sinclair allegedly moved to LA after receiving a “big opportunity.” Shortly after, the Poppy art project was born.

What’s interesting is how similar Mars Argo was to Poppy videos. Take this one for example.

Sinclair has stated that he was creatively fascinated by celebrity culture in LA. You can see how that interest was channeled into the Poppy videos. He also has his own channel, over here, and continues to make very weird videos. He is also well aware of creating the cultish themes in Poppy videos, but his upload, “I AM NOT A CULT LEADER” probably did little to convince fans otherwise.

Regardless, “That Poppy” creatively tunes into the joys, ecstasies, and existential terrors that contemporary culture wrestles with in its relationship with technology. Poppy is like the vocaloid, seemingly more than human—alien, or perhaps even A.I.—reflecting back our own merging with technology, our yearning for transcendence and meaning as we connect across the net, haplessly addicted, yet ever capable of reaching towards the liminal.

 

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