On Sunday mornings my wife and I are like the couple in Up, sitting side by side in huge Ikea wing armchairs, reading frivolities on Twitter or Instagram while caffeinating to a level where we can face the real world. I’m in my customary repose with coffee in hand when she enters the room and makes a beeline for the Sonos. The internet-connected speaker can be controlled through an app, but it’s faster to push the button on the top to reactivate its last remembered state. What it unfailingly remembers, and what I have forgotten, is that the last person to use the Sonos was me. Instead of the expected comforting dialogue of Mario Rosenstock’s Sunday Roast on Today FM, there emerges the blaring wail of an air-raid siren. We both stare at the little black speaker, momentarily stunned.
Oh sweet holy fuck, it’s playing Concrete. It’s on the far side of the room. There’s no time. There’s no escaping the hole that I’m in. I have precisely twenty-five seconds to explain myself, or start making up the doghouse.
I know what it’s like to have my soul sucked out of my body
I finally know what it feels like to be dead
– Poppy, BLOODMONEY
My wife prides herself on her musical taste. She’s seen all the big bands live a decade before they were cool, back in her festival-going days – i.e. before she met me. She’s a huge fan of the old school (she’ll always crank up AC/DC or GnR to eleven), but the metal scene left her adrift after the hyphenated sub-genres (death, black, nu-) took over. I can’t blame her. But I’ve stayed loyal to metal even after all the extreme bands started to sound the same, continually adding chilli to their musical vindaloo far past the point where you can taste any other ingredient. Maybe once a year I discover a leftfield band that I fall in love with: ASIWYFA, Vola, Night Flight Orchestra, Kvelertak, Porcupine Tree, Babymetal… all united by one common denominator: they’re not really metal, not really.
And so it came to pass that I was eagerly awaiting the third Babymetal album. I had become obsessed with Brexit, to the detriment of my mental health, and Babymetal were one of the few things that kept me sane. They are catchy, at times brutally heavy, and inerrantly wholesome. They’re also an intimidating car-crash of musical genres. I could write an entire essay about Babymetal, but this one is not it.
While searching for Babymetal, I stumbled across an article on metalinjection.net that stated “Poppy is in a sense second-wave Babymetal”. Not being a fan of YouTube culture (I stand by my opinion that it has devolved into a cesspit of fruitcakes and incels), I had no idea who or what Poppy was. So began my crash course in the last half decade of internet history.
The first step in my education was to click on the embedded music video in the article. It was a happy little song called Concrete, and it melted my puny brain.
“What’s this?” she asks, suspiciously. Babymetal are still fresh in her memory.
“It’s Poppy,” I reply, autonomically tensing.
“Bury me six feet deep, bury me six feet deep,” whispers Poppy, a soft, fast beat thrumming underneath.
“Poppy is…” How to do justice to Poppy in ten seconds? “She’s strange, deeply strange. But in a good way.”
It was all I could wring out of my caffeine-deprived brain. Eloquence deserts me under pressure.
“Bury me six feet deep, cover me in concrete, turn me into a street.” The analogue siren has been replaced by an electronica counterpart. A seasoning of guitar crunch foreshadows.
“I quite like that,” she says, raising a Spocklike eyebrow.
Oh God, she’s not ready. Brace brace brace.
Godspeed to the radio star
Stop the beat when they take it too far
Don’t go blind from the stars in your eyes
Welcome to the new starting line
– Poppy, Sit/Stay
Who is Poppy? On one level, Poppy is a doll-like ingenue, the not-quite-human protagonist of dozens of YouTube shorts, most of them shot against a plain white background with limited props and no furniture. On another, “Poppy” is the real life nickname of the character’s softly-spoken and intensely guarded creator, singer-songwriter Moriah Pereira. But the line between the two Poppys has never been clear, thanks to Pereira’s Methodical commitment to maintaining character in public. Poppy is both Pereira and the mask behind which she hides.
Because Poppy is really a multimedia performance-art Project, insofar as anything in Poppy’s public existence can be termed “real”.
The Project (Poppy pronounces it with a capital P) launched in late 2014 with a dialogue-free ASMR video in which Poppy softly consumes candyfloss. Poppy was signed to Island Records on the strength of her lo-fi (and now deleted) early material, and the new videos, directed by her partner in crime Titanic Sinclair (another pseudonym, real name Corey Mixter), were partly a promotional vehicle for her mainstream music career, partly a window into a glacially-paced, Lynchian bubble universe where everything is sweet and innocent yet often darkly suggestive.
Despite recording two albums worth of material for Island, only one single (2015’s Everybody Wants to Be Poppy) and a four-track EP (2016’s Bubblebath) were officially published, although most of the lost tracks were eventually leaked online. Her early material is bubblegum pop with a damaged, personal edge. A few of Poppy’s earlier shorts poke fun at her relationship with her label, cutting off just before she is about to reveal the release date of her phantom album. Poppy and Island finally parted ways over Bubblebath’s royalties.
Poppy found a more receptive home at a minor label, Mad Decent, for whom she recorded two albums – all the while producing copious surreal YouTube shorts that fertilised a devoted fan following, known as Poppyseeds. The first album, poppy.computer (a real URL that still works) is written mainly from the point of view of Poppy as an outsider to humanity looking in. It consists of sparsely-produced, chiptune-laden electronica that allows her dryly satirical lyrics to take centre stage (as one commenter described her, “razorblades hidden in candyfloss”). Rolling Stone declared it one of the 20 best pop albums of 2017, and her android-like alter ego became a minor celebrity.
Her second full length, 2018’s Am I a Girl?, is more adventurous stylistically, and features collaborations with other celebrity artists such as Mad Decent’s owner Diplo, and Grimes. These two tracks are some of the album’s highlights, together with the more guitar-driven entries such as the title track, co-written with regular collaborator Chris Greatti. It emerged that Poppy and her co-conspirators had been closet metalheads the whole time, and their personal tastes were starting to leak through.
On the eve of release, undisclosed issues blocked one of the tracks from being included on the finished album. Poppy and Sinclair rushed back to the studio with Greatti and producer Zakk Cervini, and abandoned all caution. Five days later, they had not only written and recorded a replacement final track for the album, but had shot a music video featuring Greatti’s band Blame Candy in disguise. The result, a whimsical, disjointed confection that pinballs between hair metal and tie-dye folk, was given no meaningful title; it is known only as “X”.
X was a roaring success, and became a staple of her live concerts. What nobody foresaw was that X would become definitive of the entire Project. A door had been opened, a passage into another reality, and X was not the only thing that had come through.
The first catastrophic gear change arrives. Over the top metal guitars and percussion have suddenly replaced the brooding electronica. “Oh, I don’t like that,” she says, appreciation evaporating like Sunday morning mist. My lack of musical taste has been sadly reconfirmed. She shakes her head and gives me A Look.
“Chewy chewy, yummy yummy yummy,” sings Poppy harmonically, overtrackingly, disconcertingly.
Having lost interest entirely, she exits to open the blind in the front room.
“Sharp and pointy, yummy yummy yummy…”
The rollercoaster has crested and there’s nothing to do now but hang on.
I wear my scary mask when I’m afraid I don’t belong.
You can’t read my brain until it’s off, not comin’ off, not comin’ off.
– Poppy, Scary Mask
The Project stood on the threshold of something other, something barely comprehensible. There were just two things holding it back: the label, and the lawsuit.
Poppy’s time at Mad Decent Records was over. She would later publicly accuse the label of dysfunctionality, but first she had to get out of her contract. That’s easy enough on paper: just turn in the bare minimum effort required and don’t look back. Yet artistically Poppy would not compromise. The result was 2019’s five-track experimental EP, Choke. It is an assortment of Poppy at the top of her eclectic game, from the thumping, atonal hard electronica of Voicemail to the deceptively soft scifi lyricism of Meat (the greatest vegan manifesto ever written), all fecund with existential dread. But it is the single Scary Mask that stands out, as both a personal statement and as a declaration of musical intent.
X’s Greatti and Cervini were back on board, with Blame Candy again in disguise as the gimp-suited Icky Babies. The Icky Babies were officially introduced to the outside world via a sequence of unnerving shorts on YouTube, and would spend the rest of the year on loan to Poppy as her touring band.
Poppy’s bafflingly addictive channel was fast approaching half a billion cumulative views (yes, billion with a B), and becoming increasingly dark in both demeanour and palette. Gone were the featureless white cycloramas and childlike delivery in favour of darkly coloured and eventually black backgrounds punctuated only by strip lighting, and long slow-blinking gazes down the camera. The video for Voicemail saw Poppy wearing black sclera contacts in extreme close up. Long time fans began to express unease about the direction the Project was taking them. Poppy ignored them all.
If X had been happenstance, Scary Mask was possession with intent. With an instantly addictive guitar riff by Fever 333’s Stephen Harrison, and chanted, shouted, screamed vocals from Poppy herself, it was unapologetically Metal. The surrounding four tracks were the culmination of Poppy’s previous existence; this was a premonition.
“Goodbye Mad Decent forever,” Poppy would later recall. She defended her abrupt reinvention by analogy with Bowie’s assassination of Ziggy Stardust. Sinclair went one step further and directly compared Poppy’s genius to that of Bowie himself.
But by the time that Poppy was playing chicken with her entire fanbase, it had become apparent that all was not perfect within the Project. Poppy had infamously fallen out with Grimes during their collaboration (Poppy accused Grimes of bullying, Grimes called the Project a toxic environment) but this could be easily waved aside as a clash of artistic personalities. Brittany Sheets was not so easily dismissed.
Sheets had been the front-woman to Titanic Sinclair in his previous project Mars Argo, and she accused him of abusive behaviour. She also accused Sinclair and Poppy of plagiarism, and sued them both. Pereira broke character in public for the first time to issue a statement denouncing the claims against her and accusing Sheets of the most personal betrayal. Pereira herself was an abuse survivor, and feared that Sheets was using that knowledge against her.
The plagiarism charges were dismissed, but the abuse charge was settled out of court. Suspicions around Sinclair’s behaviour hung unresolved over the Project.
In the summer of 2019, Poppy signed to the progressive-metal label Sumerian Records, hired monochrome supremo Jesse Draxler to completely reconstruct her imagery, and announced her forthcoming third album, I Disagree. Poppy version 1 became Poppy X. And the first single from the new album was to be the eldritch horror that had accompanied X and Scary Mask across the threshold of reality, the ungodly creation that Poppy had been nurturing in her back pocket while she shed the chrysalis of Mad Decent.
The first single would be Concrete.
She’s standing in the doorway with her jaw on the floor. Nobody expects eight grinding bars of sludge metalcore to suddenly appear in the middle of a jaunty, upbeat chorus. And like a whip it changes direction again, slowing right down to the placidity of a mountain lake.
Concrete pulls so many mood, genre, and temporal handbrake turns in its brief runtime it could give a woodpecker whiplash. Sit there and smile, Gallagher. You’re doomed.
You can be anyone you want to be
You can be free, you can be free
You can live happily, just turn the key
We can be free, just come with me
– Poppy, Fill the Crown
I sat speechless in my chair for an ice age. What was this abomination that I had just witnessed? Was it a joke? Was it even music? Why did I enjoy it? Who the hell is Poppy?
Finding the answers would take me to the far corners of the internet, to obsessive fandom sites and unmoderated comment sections, absent the health warnings that should really accompany such things. I still feel dirty. Despite being a child of the internet, Poppy despises Wikipedia.
One train of discussion was always there, running back through the boards and sites right to the birth of the Project, and it was this: Is Titanic Sinclair a sinister manipulator? Or is that just another layer of the fiction?
Poppy was adamant that she and Sinclair were equal co-authors of the Project, but fandom began to eat itself regardless. Poppy obsession begat obsession, at all times wryly observed by the Poppy behind the mask, leading the Poppy character to satirise her own following. Speculation about Poppy being in a cult, fed intentionally by imagery in her earliest videos, led to Poppy declaring that she was not in a cult (while blatantly suggesting otherwise), followed by selling merchandise that declared the wearer was not in a cult, followed by Poppy actually STARTING HER OWN CULT.
This was all catnip to the Poppyseeds. Poppy wasn’t performance art, it was a lab experiment in which the audience were the rats. Perhaps everyone was in on the joke, but some gave a very convincing impression of having lost the plot along the way. Wasn’t it all just a harmless internet distraction?
But the abuse allegations against Sinclair didn’t seem harmless. They smelled different. I teetered on obsession myself. Was fandom enabling an abusive relationship? Was I complicit? Should I disengage, stop listening to the music? Or should I take any of it seriously at all? Should I just shut up and listen? No matter what Sinclair may or may not have done, surely he was no monster. Poppy the performance satirist who eats poorly-researched interviewers for snacks was no victim. I gradually lost all sense of perspective and proportion.
Then in early December, Poppy fired Sinclair from both the Project and her life. She explained that she had endured his abusive behaviour just as Mars Argo had before her. She was in a better place now, and she was happy.
Why was I filled with joy and relief? I didn’t know these people. I will probably never meet Moriah Pereira or Corey Mixter or Brittany Sheets, the ordinary, flawed human beings behind the pseudonyms. I will never be Poppy’s friend. Why am I so invested in her life? Was I happy for her, or for me?
But Poppy herself holds the answer. She is a satire on the very cult of celebrity that had consumed her, her fans, and then me. In her own words, everybody wears a mask to protect ourselves from the world. Poppy happens to have a scary mask that is also Poppy, but in that sense she is no different to anyone else. The Poppy that I know is her mask, her character, and I know her like I know Jean Luc Picard or Wednesday Addams. She is entirely real, for a given value of “real”. I have just written an entire essay about her, and me, that may be true for a given value of “true”. I lost myself in the infinite recursion of self-reference and forgot for a while that she was the wrong Poppy.
In an interview with Loudwire, Poppy discussed her dreams for the future. They involve blood cannons, explosions and sparkles. She sounds exactly like my eight year old niece. Maybe Poppy is the only sane person in an insane world, a Wednesday Addams in Chanel. And it occurs to me that if my nieces grew up to be anything like Poppy (or Wednesday Addams) I’d be the proudest uncle alive. At Christmas dinner my brother mentions that they have recently become metal-curious. I namedrop Poppy. It’s never too early to plant a Seed.
“I need the taste of young blood in my teeth,” croons Poppy over a harmony bright like California sunshine. And without warning the metal guitars and full-speed pounding percussion are back. We aren’t even at the two minute mark yet. Concrete is 3 minutes and 20 seconds of triple-distilled batshit, and there’s no way to fully prepare another person for it. It cannot be adequately described, only experienced.
She’s staring at the speaker again, a strange look on her face. It’s the exact same expression she had when she tried oysters for the first time.
“Watch me while I sleep for eternity,” Poppy implores in her disingenuously breathy Nashville.
“I… I like this. I REALLY like this.”
I can’t tell which one of us is more astonished.
Everyone told me that it would get better
But every day feels exactly the same
– Poppy, Sick of the Sun
I worked from home for the first few days of the year, because I had a stinking throat infection. The day before release I saw that I Disagree was listed on Deezer with the unreleased tracks greyed out. I added it to my favourites in anticipation, and listened to the permissible singles via the Sonos while eating my lunch alone at the dining table. The following morning I primed my phone to download the full album so I could listen to it on the train while I made my first journey into the city of the new decade.
The previously released singles are front-loaded. Concrete is first up, a Pullmannian declaration of war on music itself. The title track next, a marginally more conventional excoriation of institutional power, equal parts hard groove and shock rock, with a melodic bridge that would give the Beach Boys diabetes. It continues in the same vein, every track a singular amalgam of ingredients that have no earthly business working together, like chilli chocolate, salted caramel, shepherds pie trifle. A diamond-studded choker iced with an inch and a half of fondant. Candyfloss hidden in razorblades.
It’s hard to believe that there are only three musicians on the entire album. Surely that had to be Brian May on the guitar just there? Wasn’t that Marilyn Manson on guest vocals? According to Poppy it’s just herself, Greatti and Cervini, the hard-boiled yolk of a sprawling Project that nobody can now deny is entirely Poppy’s.
My mind is awash with thoughts; I must bail it out or drown in them.
Is it a perfect album? It wears its inspirations heavily in places and some parts of the insanity are glued together more thoroughly than others. But to even ask the question misses the point entirely. If Poppy’s teachings mean anything, it is that the pursuit of external perfection is empty. If Poppy had wanted to make the perfect album she would have stuck with satirical electronica, fine tuned it to nanometre precision, mined out the one seam for years until nothing new was left to do or say. That path held nothing for her; she crossed the threshold instead.
I Disagree is so much better than perfect: it’s revolutionary. Music didn’t understand Poppy, so Poppy left music at the kerb. The only comparison that comes to mind, and it is a woefully insufficient one, is Faith no More’s Angel Dust. No other modern artist (not even Babymetal) has so gleefully and wantonly struck out at right angles to the train tracks of conventional thought.
New material dominates the back half as I thread the purblind city dawn. Trap beat with clanking bassline in 15/8, simples! Would you like backtracking with that? A nonsense recital that must be googled to extract substance, first singsong then in chant, topped with a larynx-shredding eternity of No! screamed over filthy guitar sludge. She out-calculates Meshuggah, she out-grinds Slipknot, she out-harmonises the Carpenters. It’s as if the whole tortured paradox of existence has chosen her minuscule frame within which to manifest itself. MOAR COWBELL.
When the Concrete reprise layers itself under the epic closing bars of the slow-burning final track Don’t Go Outside, it’s so glorious that I find myself sobbing in the street. That’s not supposed to happen. None of this was supposed to happen. This is the album that the world never dreamed it needed, made by an artist who nobody suspected was capable.
Nobody except her devoted Poppyseeds of course, of whom I am now one. I listen to it again on the way home. I listen to it again in bed. It loses none of its power in the repetition. I really should listen to something else.
But why? In listening to music that kicks me in the gut and reminds me that I exist, am I not doing what I love? I won’t listen to it on repeat for the rest of my life; the novelty will wear off soon enough. If Poppy the idea hamster keeps producing material at her current rate, she’ll have a fresher, better album out long before I tire of this one. In the meantime why deny myself? Why deny me? I’m exactly the kind of soft fool who stands dumbstruck on the edge of John Rogerson’s Quay in the falling mist, weeping because he’s forgotten how long it’s been since a piece of music drained him so thoroughly. I slip my own scary mask for a few knotted breaths, and it feels good.
I love Poppy, and the Sonos remembers.
“Poppy, Poppy, Poppy, Poppy,” chant the simulated crowd as Poppy prepares herself for Concrete’s final, joyous shift into four-wheel drive. We’re about to summit peak cowbell.
“So is Poppy the girl, or is Poppy the band?”
I explain, desperately trying not to sound unhinged. I know more about Poppy than a 45 year old man should feel comfortable admitting to. By the end of the third track, the heart-pounding, sample-driven industrial rage anthem BLOODMONEY, a new Poppyseed has germinated.
“I think [REDACTED] might like this…”
The Project snares fresh meat. I’m taken back to the place where it began, a dialogue-free ASMR video in which a razorblade softly consumes candyfloss. The future is contained in the past, if you have eyes to see.
A short while later, [REDACTED] texts back:
I googled Poppy and I’m scared.
You should be.