what is real?

Maybe Poppy’s Self-Aware Pop Music Is Too Self-Aware

Photo: Erika Goldring/Getty Images

“We could all really benefit from just giving people the benefit of the doubt.” That quote comes straight from the mouth of Titanic Sinclair — the ridiculously named producer–director–veritable Svengali figure born Corey Mixter who works with the 23-year-old pop star–YouTuber–oxygenated performance-art project Poppy, in an interview with Cosmopolitan that was just published. The sentiment drips with irony, considering that Sinclair and Poppy (born Moriah Rose Pereira) have spent the last two years crafting a postmodern hall-of-mirrors persona that the latter wears with seeming effortlessness.

Poppy and Sinclair’s work often draw comparisons to Andy Warhol (her manager, Nick Groff, directly name-checked the late artist and his frequent muse Edie Sedgwick to the Cut last year), but the meta-commentary embedded in their art more closely resembles that of Hipster Runoff, the late-2000s/early-2010s blog that adopted a heavily ironic (and, more often than not, misogynistic) pose while exploring the blurred lines between indie and celebrity culture at a point when both were at the verge of reaching total convergence.

“Do you ever think about followers?” Poppy asks in a 2017 video titled “Selena Gomez,” one of many bite-size clips piped into the feed of her 2 million-plus YouTube subscribers. “I wonder who has the most followers?” (at that time, it was Selena Gomez, on Instagram.) In a video from this past August titled “Should I Get Engaged?”, Poppy proposes the titular question before engaging in arched-eyebrow free-associating: “Justin Bieber is engaged. Justin Bieber will be getting married. Marriage? Justin Bieber. Ariana Grande. Who’s Justin Bieber engaged to?”

From a YouTuber perspective, Poppy’s highly mannered, ultracontrolled presentation — often soundtracked by a Twin Peaks–esque swarm of ambient drone — is brilliant in its self-preservation. You’ll never find Poppy in a Japanese forest gawking at dead bodies, or having her channel shut down due to allegations of child abuse; Poppy doesn’t do “off script,” and amid the problematic chaos that is and continues to be YouTuber culture, she’s as reliable of an antiseptic as Purell.

If Poppy’s heightened self-awareness seems somewhat singular amid her fellow YouTubers, nearly every single move she’s made thus far as a pop artist has carried clear and recent precedent. (And, yes, to be fair: I am certain her and Sinclair’s out-of-costume reply would be, “That’s the point!”) Her debut EP as That Poppy, 2016’s Bubblebath, was an unremarkable replication of various sounds bouncing around in pop, from reggae-tinged bounciness (fittingly, she’s signed to Diplo’s Mad Decent label) to “New Americana”–era Halsey. Following the bizarre ambient album 3:36 (Music to Sleep to), her proper 2017 debut Poppy.Computer was steeped in the vacuum-sealed electronic pop that postmodern pop-prankster collective PC Music so stridently made waves with in the mid-2010s.

The zippy synths and grating repetition of that album’s opening track, “I’m Poppy,” unmistakably apes PC Music “artist”–cum–energy drink QT’s 2014 single “Hey QT” — itself functioning as the same commentary on pop’s relationship with technology and capitalism that Poppy and Sinclair dutifully Cliffs Notes’d throughout Poppy.Computer’s ruminations on forgotten passwords and lovelorn odes to laptops. Much like PC Music’s own philosophical statements, Poppy and Sinclair’s methodology is obviousness (to wit: the closing song on Poppy.Computer is literally titled “Pop Music”). It follows, then, that the sound of Poppy’s sophomore effort Am I a Girl? is clearly indebted to one primary influence sussed out simply by noting the collaborator featured on the album’s penultimate track, “Play Destroy.”

Indeed, the slippery post-genre sound of Grimes looms large on Am I a Girl? — specifically, the particle-separator pop of her brilliant 2016 album Art Angels, which threw riff-tastic guitars and city-flattening bass lines in the mix with neon-lit trance motifs and swirling ambience in a way that only Grimes could. At times, Am I a Girl? sounds so much like Art Angels that it skirts the lines of total copyism; the airy, expansive framework of “Iconic” directly mirrors that album’s exhilarating title track, while the trashy guitars that rip through the album’s closing third (“Play Destroy” included) recall the intense void of “Scream,” as well as the headbanging moments that often accompanied the Art Angels tour.

That Poppy and Sinclair — along with producers and songwriters ranging from Kate Nash and Diplo to Sir Nolan (Nick Jonas, Selena Gomez) and Garibay (U2, Britney Spears) — have so ably replicated Grimes’s sound is perhaps the most interesting element of Am I a Girl? As Grimes’s sound has evolved over this decade, she’s been an artist often name-checked as an influence by critics discussing the sound of other female artists; when she started her Eerie Organization label in 2015 to release fellow Canadian artist Nicole Dollanganger’s You’re So Cool, a Pizzagate-esque conspiracy theory briefly took hold alleging that the two were the same person. But similar to Kanye West’s 2010’s output, there’s been no one to this point who’s actually sounded like Grimes — a testament both to her own Zeitgeist-capturing singularity, and to the degree of unoriginality that Am I a Girl? traffics in.

Poppy is not Grimes, which is a statement as obvious as, well, Poppy’s own lyrical obviousness. The latter often utilizes vivid flashes of imagery and expresses herself with just enough obliqueness that many were unaware her breakout 2011 single “Oblivion” was about assault and toxic masculinity, until she discussed the song in an interview a full year later. Poppy’s attempts at lyrical depth and social commentary — the latter of which are front and center throughout Am I a Girl? — are a bit more straightforward: “I dance like an aristocrat,” she lilts on the chorus to (you guessed it) “Aristocrat,” which cringingly invokes the “ghetto” and implores listeners to “Do it like only a poor kid can.” The Diplo-produced “Time Is Up” takes on climate change, kind of, as Poppy sings from the perspective of an AI-powered being outlasting the rest of us: “I will still survive when the plants have died / And the atmosphere is just a big hole.”

Then there’s the title track, which takes on the complicated feelings that come with breaking beyond the binaries when it comes to gender — bold territory, to be sure, for an artist who sneered “Boys aren’t even boys anymore” on “American Kids” and asked a paramour, “You are never in the mood / So come on baby, tell me, are you gay?” on Poppy.Computer’s “Software Upgrade.” “Don’t evaluate me as woman or man / It’s keeping me awake,” she sings over a pulsing beat, as hair-whipping guitars crash through onto the chorus: “Am I a girl? / Am I a boy? / What does that even mean? / I’m somewhere in-between.”

When hearing these lyrics, my initial urge was to take Poppy’s expression of nonbinary gender identity at face value, out of simple human empathy. Then, this quote from the aforementioned Cosmo interview caught my eye, in which writer Emily Tannenbaum asks the singer when she took interest in “questioning society’s gender constructs.” “When other celebrities started exploring it,” Poppy replies, a possible hat tip that the issue of gender and identity, which is under very real attack in this country right now, is but another trendy toy in Poppy’s postmodern playpen. I sincerely hope I’m wrong about that assertion, which casts Poppy’s stagy detachment in a disgustingly offensive new light and suggests that, like so much of Am I a Girl?, her digital-dreck performance-art pose isn’t nearly as interesting as it’s made out to be.

Maybe Poppy’s Self-Aware Pop Music Is Too Self-Aware