The Strange Saga Of Poppy, Surrealist YouTuber-Gone-Pop Star

On first glance, I just assumed Poppy was a spinoff of the PC Music crew. Big, dewey eyes, shiny blonde hair, surrealist half-smile — aesthetically she fit the bill of the hyper-feminine, ultra shiny personas that A.G. Cook and co. had concocted in an internet laboratory starting in 2013. But in terms of internet evolution, Poppy is a microgeneration behind PC’s clique. The first Poppy video appeared on the internet in 2014. In the clip, she wordlessly eats cotton candy with close mic’d ASMR affirmations of mmmm, wet lip-smacking, and finger-sucking. A year later, a ten-minute video of Poppy portrays her repeating the peppy introduction “I’m Poppy!” in varying intonations until the words simultaneous lose all meaning and morph into something else entirely.

In an NPR interview in 2017 titled “What Is Poppy?” when Scott Simon asks how Poppy, the character, is different from Moriah Rose Pereira — the human who plays her — she responds: “I don’t know who that is. I’m Poppy.” Similar to Cook’s man-behind-the-curtain godhead role in PC Music, Poppy’s presence was intrinsically tied with that of creative partner Titanic Sinclair, who was along for that NPR interview with her and speaks twice as much; it seemed she was a character they had created together.

In her music, she’s slightly more forthcoming, but far less consistent thematically. With an initial 2015 EP called Bubblebath under the artist name That Poppy released via Island Records, a 2017 full-length, Poppy.Computer, on Mad Decent, and this year’s release on a third label, I Disagree, out Friday through the LA-based progressive metal label Sumerian Records, Poppy has officially introduced three distinct musical identities to the world. That Poppy veered toward reggae-infused pop, Poppy.Computer leaned into a J-Pop aesthetic, and her latest is, well, pretty metal for a pop record.

For better or worse, this latest iteration is decidedly her best, possibly because on I Disagree, the surrealist former YouTuber is less concerned with the superiority-infused cultural commentary of a sentient technology persona and more committed to making songs that poke at the line between the physical world and the internet without enforcing the heavy-handedness of stilted, eternal role play. Or maybe it’s due to a very-recent split with Sinclair.

In 2018, Sinclair and Poppy were sued by his former romantic and creative partner, Brittany Sheets (aka Mars Argo), who claimed that Sinclair had not only stolen her artistic property by making YouTube videos with and creating the character of Poppy, but that she had also been subjected to “severe emotional and psychological abuse” by him. The suit listed Poppy as a “knowing accomplice” in that behavior. A few months later, the suit was dismissed in a mutually agreed upon settlement, but just a few weeks ago, in late December 2019, Poppy also made a public statement about separating herself from Sinclair, citing similar behavior that Sheets alleged as part of the reason for the split.

Her new label’s site includes the following quote: “In terms of doing what I wanted to in every element from start-to-finish, this feels like my first album. The narrative is really about destroying the things that try to destroy you.” In that sense, perhaps parting with Sinclair weeks before the album comes out is another savvy move in the Poppy machine, or perhaps it’s due to a real awakening. Either way, the label site itself still cites him as a collaborator on the record, and four of the ten songs were released last year, so it’s impossible to separate the album from him entirely.

Regardless, I Disagree sees Poppy taking a stand, mixing heavy, guitar riffs with her sparkling pop, and using her voice to speak instead of entertain. “You shouldn’t be anything like me,” she wails mid-album on “Anything Like Me,” an assertion that was implied before, but never explicitly stated. The title track, which is easily the album standout, could easily be read as a kiss off to her former collaborator, either a precursor to the impending split, or a subconscious yelp; sample lyrics include “I disagree with the way you keep preaching insanity,” and “I disagree with the way you continue to pressure me.” Later, amid screams mixed in with sing-song choruses and more wailing guitars for “Bite Your Teeth,” she sing-talks a mantra: “Don’t cry, keep on trying.”

These earnest, self-aware lyrical declarations are a far cry from the slyly vapid 2017 scripts, and sonically, tempo shifts between slower pop balladry and heavy, invasive walls of sound invoke comparisons to her former collaborator, Grimes, (who, it’s worth noting she also had a falling out with, although that’s not rare for Grimes either) and other vividly self-aware pop idealists like Purity Ring or Chromatics. “Pop is when you hear a song / And cannot help but sing along / It’s when you hate it but you still appreciate it,” Poppy sang in a faux-twee early track, “Pop Music.” But in that case, I Disagree no longer fits Poppy’s own definition, these songs are catchy not because they’re earworms, but because, for once, they contain genuine, human emotion — a force that’s always been more powerful than viral coy sarcasm.

I Disagree is out 1/10 via Sumerian Records. Get it here.