Poppy on Soft Sound Press - press photo credit Erika Astrid

The Overlooked Metamorphosis of Poppy’s Identity

If you were active on the Internet in 2015, it was difficult to browse YouTube without coming across the likeness of a certain blonde, monotone ingenue who had everyone worried about her nebulous cause. Poppy, whose YouTube channel consisted mostly of brief snippets of her standing against a pastel background, had amassed quite the cult following during her initial breakthrough during this year—a designation that many worried was, in fact, literal. 

The absurd, obtuse nature of her videos was enough to provoke suspicion about her intentions. Each monologue about seemingly innocuous subjects was delivered with a carefully modulated pace that, when complemented with a smile, seemed distinctly self-aggrandizing; she famously went viral for a video that featured her uttering her own name for nearly ten minutes, by which point it had turned to audible mush. The symbolism present in her videos was even more cause for concern: not only did she once post a near-fifty minute video comprised simply of her reading excerpts of the Bible, but the triangular motifs apparent in many of her videos suggested to many that she was intentionally provoking the presence of the Illuminati, a fear that dominated many similar conspiracy theories of the decade. Worse, many causal viewers feared she was being held against her will to make these videos endorsing sinister subtext, the lack of detail surrounding her true identity making the minor moral panic surrounding her character that much more severe.

In subsequent years, many profiles and thinkpieces appeared across the Internet, attempting to decipher the cryptic allure of her seemingly satirical work. By this point in Poppy’s career, she had managed to expand her artistry into the realm of pop music, releasing the viral single “Lowlife” in 2015, the video for which was similarly met with reactionary paranoia towards its blatantly satanic imagery. In an era in which musicians like Lil Nas X, Cardi B, and Megan Thee Stallion can and have deliberately baited moral panic in order to further their success, the bluntness of the “Lowlife” video reads as almost quaint in its desperate provocation. 

Nevertheless, the success of that lead single preceded the 2016 Bubblebath extended play, released under the moniker That Poppy, a twelve-minute collection of deliberately anemic pop mimicry (“Money” remains a highlight for this reason). With the project’s small package, Poppy managed to distill and subtly distort the trends of mid-2010s pop music into a cohesive whole, skewering limp pop reggae, Lorde-adjacent millennial disillusionment, and normalized interpersonal toxicity with just enough edge to remain convincing in its impersonation or conventional pop stardom. Most importantly, the Bubblebath EP, while often dated, again reinforced the idea of Poppy as a blank slate for audience projection, an idea central to the audiovisual satire that had clearly missed the majority of her audience during her initial exposure period.

With the increased coverage of Poppy’s multi-hyphenate ambition came a more intense probing of her personal life, the actress behind the gimmick. Fan scrutiny eventually revealed Poppy’s real name, Moriah Pereira, and the true reason why her Poppy persona had developed into such a confounding enigma: a man named Titanic Sinclair, who had previously collaborated on the short-loved Mars Argo pop project from a few years prior. Though Poppy did have some creative control in the development of her online content, it was clear that she was primarily a stand-in for Sinclair’s vision, an intensive project that, during its video heyday, would often involve shooting one video per day. The shady backstory of how quickly Sinclair’s involvement with other creative endeavors ended was the subject of fan skepticism, but this seemed to be no matter to fans: by the time a coherent narrative surrounding Poppy’s rise to niche Internet fandom had coalesced, so had a release date for her debut full-length album, Poppy.Computer, which broke in late 2017. 

As an album, Poppy.Computer achieved many of Poppy’s artistic aims with far more wit and originality than the material present in her videos. Much of the commentary on stardom in the Internet age remained relatively shallow—as is oft-suggested in her videos, on the album, Poppy is affirmed to be a blank slate whose identity is reaffirmed by whatever her audience perceives her to represent, a progression that, in the age of the twenty-four hour news cycle, proves evermore fleeting and unsustainable. However, not only do her idiosyncrasies translate much better to the less serious nature of pop song composition, the niche eccentricities that allowed Poppy to truly thrive in the Internet are much more colorful and thoughtful when given space to build a textured narrative. Many of the J-pop and bit-pop influences present in the album’s off-kilter, chirpy synth palette flatter Poppy’s admittedly limited vocal range, giving her coy sense of humor several opportunities to wink at more perceptive listeners with lyrical punchlines as she coos her self-fulfilling prophecies.

Yet with this apparent crystallization of Poppy’s musical intent, the next stage of her artistic evolution seemed vague. While promoting the album in 2018, Poppy encountered many promotional hitches: she had yet to achieve the viral novelty of her previous years on the platform, despite gaining traction for an autotuned cover of “Havana” by Camila Cabello posted to her YouTube channel; most worryingly, a premiere for a reality series entitled I’m Poppy was posted prior to being promptly scrapped afterwards. Even in spite of this lack of direction, Poppy proceeded for another album rollout, this time more sporadic and less clear in its intent. Nevertheless, hardly even a year after her debut, Poppy released the sophomore effort Am I a Girl?, a longer and more conceptual project that saw her “adapt” to the rise of influencer culture that had begun to firmly place its grasp on the Internet.

Am I a Girl? is a decidedly weaker effort than Poppy.Computer on nearly all fronts, erasing many of the eclectic details present in Poppy’s debut in favor of antiseptic, desaturated pop textures and interchangeable hooks; that Poppy and Titanic Sinclair had to rely on the washed-up producer Diplo to create the most genuinely eerie synthpop composition on the entire album with “Time is Up” is itself an indictment of its abundant monotony. Poppy’s satirical cracks gained no insight whatsoever in attempting to move away from the niche that broke her, and by structuring the album into a longer, three-act evolution, the hollowness present in her lyricism and vocal delivery read as that much more self-congratulatory (ironically, though, “Girls in Bikinis” remains Poppy’s most-streamed track on Spotify after achieving a bout of TikTok fame). What was most endemic of this jarring shift in focus was its bleak, seemingly incomplete ending, in which Poppy devolves into a supposed period of “transgression” in which she has betrayed her fanbase and her own fickle moral platitudes. 

The album did promise one intriguing development in her artistry, however: by the album’s final act, Poppy had implemented genuine metal textures into her pop compositions for the songs “Play Destroy,” a collaboration with Grimes, and “X,” the album’s closing track. Easily the album standouts, the sharp juxtaposition between Poppy’s sugary voice and the grinding metal riffs that accompanied her made the transition into corruption much more tolerable. It was with that genre pivot that Poppy segued into her next album, I Disagree, released in very early 2020 to a full immersion in a pop metal fusion. Though the initial melodic sweetness present in the album’s first half does display Poppy’s greatest strength in her metal pivot, that sharp contrast between the light and the heavy, the point in their utilization was to demonstrate how facile Poppy’s affirmations of her own purity had become. 

The project’s satirical impulses wear thin quickly, and by this point in Poppy’s career, it had become increasingly difficult to sympathize with Titanic Sinclair, who, in late 2018, was sued by former collaborator Mars Argo for maintaining an abusive relationship and ripping off her artistic direction in Poppy’s characterization. When combing his fraught relationship with Argo, as well as his history of callously provoking the outrage of his colleagues on social media, with the lyrical redundancy of I Disagree, which constantly reiterates broad condemnations of societal pressure to conform or be subject to punishment, and the project’s impression quickly sours. In retrospect, I Disagree is difficult to interpret as anything more meaningful than what it is: a man’s preemptive screed against shallow notions of “cancel culture” before he is eventually outed as the abuser whose fragile ego is only further suggested by such defensive art, positioning Poppy as the cover for his plausible deniability.

Sure enough, shortly before the release of I Disagree, Poppy released an official statement alleging Titanic Sinclair of sustained abuse throughout their collaboration, a dynamic that resembled the partnership between he and Mars Argo that had previously tainted his reputation. Sinclair’s name was then scrapped from their previous video content, rendering any sign of potential collaboration going forward thoroughly off the table. Poppy continued to release music and video content after I Disagree, but material that was more lighthearted, like numerous makeup tutorials and even a small Christmas-themed extended play.

The first real sign of a new creative step forward finally came with the release of a video accompaniment to the song “Her,” which would later be revealed as the first single from her next album, Flux. The video was much more minimal and less persona-driven than her previous work—not only had the metal sound of her music been calmed into a more straightforward alternative rock bent, the video itself was a brief stop-motion animated narrative, depicting a series of machines created and replaced to perform for a nameless ruler.

The video was clearly intended to focus more on lyrics than provocative theatrics, and the content of the song itself clearly had some grievances to share: in the first verse alone, Poppy narrates, “Say she’s adored / Call her a whore / Then pick her up / Throw her on the floor.” Foreshadowing what was to come, on September 24th, 2021, Flux was released in full, and, as its lead single suggested, the project is a significant departure from Poppy’s usual oeuvre—one that shows impressive amounts of promise for her career free from the control of her abusive former partner.

With the opening title track, the album begins in the midst of a frenzied, sputtering grudge, the sounds of fractured glitches growing louder as drums begin to accompany them in the mix, a deliberately discordant percussive arrangement that only stabilizes upon the introduction of a surging guitar riff. Yet Poppy allows her anger to simmer, cooing the song’s verse in a hushed, elusive tone buried beneath the sonic grind of the track. Within the track’s first verse, she admits, “My body is fluid / ‘Cause I’ve been through it all / Chewed up and used, it’s / Cut into pieces to feed them all.” Even while being blunt in what is clearly a moment of reclamation, Poppy still remains aware that her online avatar has become integrally woven into her identity, to the point that even the most sincere of emotions orchestrated in the project could be interpreted as a simple extension of her character’s arc, merely manufactured and commodified to make a satirical point. The song lasts for five minutes, and Poppy vows to make it a bold reassertion of power, bursting into the song’s climatic bridge screaming, “I won’t fear what I don’t know / You gotta flux and flow, flow, flow.”

From there, Poppy makes her anger towards her abuser, the man who forced her to contort her personhood into his image, unrelenting in its clarity. She declares anthems for the person she found herself becoming at his hands; “So Mean” finds herself confronting her tendency to lash out towards others when the source of her disillusionment was not yet clear to her. This shift in self-perception is also reflected in the album’s production. Instead of the previous metal textures she had embraced on previous albums, the palette of Flux hues closer to an intersection of the melodic side of alternative rock and the current revivalist wave of pop punk, made no more evident than in the production credits across the album from Justin Meldal-Johnsen, a producer most well-known for contributing to Paramore’s two most recent albums.

The shift doesn’t remotely disempower Poppy. If anything, this pairing suits her even more than her harsher previous efforts, allowing her gliding voice to stabilize crunchy guitar riffs. This is an even further complement to what has always been the greatest strength of Poppy’s metal work, the juxtaposition of her sweeter, girlish vocal timbre with tight riffage, Meldal-Johnsen’s compositional steadfastness anchoring the songs to become undeniable earworms. Some of the missteps present in Meldal-Johnsen’s earlier work do appear in Flux as well: in attempting to create a more lush, spacious musical atmosphere, Poppy’s voice is often shoved into the back of the mix. Though this decision is understandable—Poppy’s vocal range is much less malleable than a belter like Hayley Williams—the choice renders her cathartic words nearly inaudible, and thus, in the context of the song’s gradual crescendos, less effective.

Nonetheless, Poppy’s thematic journey across Flux remains intact. After the first third of the album sees her righteously vengeful, she begins to embark on self-recognition, growing more intimate and open to the possibility of surrounding herself with others who see her for the person she is rather than the character. “On the Level,” despite its lyrical roteness, finds additional strength in the relief expressed in having found someone with whom a genuine understanding is shared, a display of Poppy wrenching her capacity for romance back into her own hands. “Hysteria” follows suit in allowing herself to be forgiven for acting out in ways she was conditioned to repress, its more pensive, deliberating synth work simmering to a point of clarity in one of the album’s more immediate ballads. Within this context, “Her” is even more personal, showing a rare moment of full autonomy, a self-actualization that hopefully acknowledges hurt—and the subsequent—healing that is still to be felt.

And hurt it does. The final three songs on Flux are all ballads, the energy required to sustain Poppy’s aggrieved bruisings having dispersed into a more meditative core. The instrumental oscillations of “Bloom” prove jarring, but even it manages to skirt cliche, as Poppy makes her name literal in vowing to perform the titular process in a manner akin to a flower. The most affecting of these final cuts is the well-timed album closer, “Never Find My Place,” which begins with a spare acoustic guitar line and faint vocals, slowly growing more confident as Poppy’s affirmations become more attainable to her, picking up the accompaniment of a chugging guitar riff and even the signature screams of the album’s earlier title track to fully bring the album to a state of emotional symmetry. 

Even more than before, Poppy seems to have made peace with the emotional repair she will continue to experience out of necessity to herself: where “Flux” clawed its way to self-assurance through more anthemic one-liners, “Never Find My Place” is much more precise in its details, citing that “it’s been five years tonight” in revealing the traumatic anniversary that prompts the song’s pain. More than ever, the closer demonstrates its narrator clearly recognizing the possibility that she might not ever find her place—whether that be in terms of her artistry and her personal life—now that she is free to make that choice, but that, even in spite of that uncertainty, that lack of turmoil that preceded it will allow her to approach her newfound state of evolution with the clarity needed to make it authentic.

As a coherent album statement, Flux stands in a state similar to that of its title, intentionally so, and, as a result, is expectedly flawed. Meldal-Johnsen’s aforementioned production shortfalls can destabilize its legitimate power, causing the album’s balladry, in particular, to heed towards sleepiness that renders its most personal moments a bit less effective. Some traces of Poppy’s less refined, more binaristic writing style remain somewhat evident here too, as she details her poetry in broad strokes and occasionally hackneyed lyrical devices. However, as a bridge point between Poppy’s musically inconsistent past and her more self-defined future, the album is remarkably tight, catchy, and unscathing in its pointed examinations in how the abuse she faced in the past affects her in the present, and how she forces herself to use it as a form of motivation simply to preserve her own will.

Flux is also, more than any other element that defines the album’s crucial existence, Poppy’s most personal project in her catalogue. She has not forsaken the video aspect of her work, still continuing to release short-form content, though this time depicting herself as a brunette, whose miniature narratives make use of more transitional symbolism (barren landscapes, lone spotlights, kisses blown). Even if she continues to embody a character created by a man her audience now knows to have mistreated her, Flux is the first entire body of work of hers in which she is not used as a mouthpiece for an obnoxious man’s self-congratulatory, ill-conceived commentary.

The album itself recognizes the gravitas of Poppy reclaiming her musical identity as a tool that is now hers and hers alone to leverage. It is a project of reckoning, but more importantly, a statement of what could emerge from Poppy’s creative freedom, its more diverse sounds and lyrical subjects taking shape to set the foundation for an even more colourful and experimental career. It is her best project because it is the most genuine, allowing her to express her artistic arsenal without requiring a barrier of disbelief from a prospective audience, asking sincerely to share an affirming space and enduring a meaningful period of emotional growth. From Poppy, Flux is a relief, not just in assuring fans that she is no longer in a discomforting situation, but that she has stabilized her music career to a point of control that only promises expansion. To quote Poppy’s own words, I’m getting to know her, but not of her anger—you won’t recognize her if you encountered.

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