Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Favorites: May 2017

Favorites is a monthly feature that offers up quick thoughts on media, both new and old, that I've recently enjoyed for the first time.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Falling down the strange, brilliant Poppy rabbit hole

Remember lonelygirl15?  If you're around my age, you're probably old enough to be aware of it even if you didn't actively follow it.  For the uninitiated, lonelygirl15 was a popular YouTube channel that started around 2006 as a series of vlogs by a girl named Bree that slowly began to reveal itself to be weirder and weirder, as it gave hints of her family belonging to a cult and fans began noticing some inconsistencies in her videos.  After a few months, the channel was exposed as a hoax, but those months in the dark were a landmark of mid-period internet history, as it was one of the first examples of people collectively obsessing over something the way that we seem to with every TV show and meme that pops up today. Of course, that also represented a pivot for internet culture, the point at which we all became too savvy to ever fall for something like that again.  But we've been graced with what the modern version of that would look like in the form of Poppy.

Here's the rundown for those who aren't aware of this phenomenon: Poppy is the face of the YouTube channel That Poppy, where she posts short videos (usually between 20 and 90 seconds) that feature her doing and saying a collection of bizarre and unsettling things.  In one video, she starts off by saying that she has so many ideas, and begins to list a bunch of random and unconnected phrases.  In another, she wishes she could just disappear and then proceeds to do just that.  These little videos started in late 2014 and many were just weird in a funny and goofy way, but as time has gone on they've gotten darker and are being released at an increasingly frequent rate.  Nobody thinks this is real, but that hasn't stopped people from getting invested in where it's going anyway.

If you were to stumble on one of these videos in isolation, it just feels like a strange piece of internet detritus, the product of some odd girl who has too much time on her hands.  But when taken as a whole, you can see the channel for what it really is: a brilliant, complex satire of social media and celebrity culture.  Though it's never explicitly stated, after a while you can catch what she and co-creator/director Titanic Sinclair are going for.  (Sinclair was also a part of Mars Argo, a less successful pre-Poppy music/video project that was aimed at parodying the same things.  But that's a rabbit hole for another time.)  Many of Poppy's videos are ridiculous spins on what celebrities and Youtubers do: she shills for products, she posts clickbait, she tries to be relatable, she apologizes for making a video in her pajamas even though she still looks glamorous.

But the most common satirical theme of That Poppy is her excessive need for validation, masked by her love of her fans.  The artist-patron relationship is something we usually see as pure and beautiful.  Poppy reimagines that dynamic as something more hollow and sinister, two engines fueling each other but never truly getting anything out of it.  Through her videos, we're allowed a glimpse into "her world," but there's always a computer screen that stands between us.  And though she constantly talks about how much she loves her fans, it's usually paired with the reminder to like and subscribe.  Her channel is a portrait of a young woman trapped, not just by the confines of her monochrome set but in the Sisyphean quest for a satisfying amount of adoration and recognition.

None of what is being said is particularly unique, sure.  Go to any college and you'll find some freshman with a Fight Club poster on his dorm room wall decrying the falseness of fame.  But the style in which Poppy's videos are delivered is what makes them so special.  Like David Lynch meets Dadaism meets terrifying ASMR, the videos often code their real points so deeply that it allows for another layer of just taking in the odd, off-kilter experience.  Their formal techniques include recurring phrases, a spooky organ score, audio that disorients you by being slightly off-sync, and Poppy eerily facing something unknown off to the side of the camera.  Over the course of its run, the channel has built upon that style too, progressing from the pastel colors that characterized the early videos to the washed out white of the more recent ones.  And through those minor shifts, they've been able to tap into so many emotions from such strange angles.  It's weird, funny, disturbing, but most of all, there's a deep underlying sadness to it.

Because of their abstract nature, the videos have become party to an intense amount of fan speculation.  If you look at the comment section of each one, you'll see numerous threads trying to parse what's going on in the video, what it could be trying to say, and how it fits into the larger narrative of the project.  People have theorized that she's a robot, a member of a cult (which she hilariously denied in her most cultish video), and even being controlled by the Illuminati.

Perhaps, then, Poppy is also commenting on the kind of Lost and Westworld wormhole of fan engagement that dominates a large part of the internet.  After all, the pacing of the "narrative" almost seems like a troll itself.  There are times when things feel like they're coming to a head and everything is finally going to go bugnuts insane, only for it to press on the brakes and recede back to its baseline level of disturbing, like last year when she began glitching out and having nosebleeds, only for that thread to seemingly get dropped after a while.  It leaves you to wonder, "Is there any endgame?  Will we be strung along forever"?

It's so fascinating and enticing the lengths to which the project goes to enshroud itself in mystery.  We know almost nothing about Poppy herself -- her real name and life are never discussed, her age is unknown ("Poppy does not identify with an age," she replies when asked), and in all of her interviews and public footage she performs in character.  If you really want to find out her real identity, you can do so through some minor sleuthing, but revealing it here would ruin the fun a little bit.  Poppy is best when she's just Poppy.

One bit of information I buried the lede on -- which just makes all of this even more brain-melting -- is that Poppy has a genuine pop career as an artist signed to Island Records.  And here's the thing...her music is pretty great.  There's nothing particularly innovative about something like her biggest song, "Lowlife", which has the reggae-inflected pop vibe that you'd hear from Gwen Stefani back when she was a thing, but it's the best possible version of that.  And lest you think her talent is just a product of studio processing, there's the video of her singing an acoustic version of her song "Everybody Wants to Be Poppy," which displays just how forceful and magnetic her natural voice is.  But my favorite work of hers is a cover of Mac Demarco's "My Kind of Woman."  It's everything great about Poppy in a nutshell, as she transforms the original version into something that's deeply melancholic and enigmatic.

Does the fact that she's an actual pop artist undercut her YouTube persona, which is all about digging at celebrity culture?  Maybe, but there's evidence that her music is just another arm of this labyrinthine artistic statement.  On the surface this is just your standard catchy pop, but some of the lyrics could be read as a subversive commentary on this type of music as well.  In a certain light, her song "Everybody Wants to Be Poppy" could be about our gradual descent into monogenre, as bands and artists of all creeds bend towards a pop sound.  Then there's "American Kids," which you can see as slyly making fun of people who try to gain cred by showing disdain for and distancing themselves from their own generation.  In many ways, she's reminiscent of how Das Racist made rap exciting in a new way for me around the turn of the decade, as she makes fun of the tropes of pop music while still having enough winking respect for it to churn out a terrific example of the genre.

In fact, Poppy's actual music might be the most brilliant part of this whole endeavor.  She's got the talent and the look to be a bonafide star, but if she didn't have the gimmick of her outre YouTube channel, hardly anybody would even be aware of her (and knowledge of the real person's background lends credence to that theory).  On top of the myriad layers of her existence is the idea that cuts the most: that our culture today often values narrative and so many other distractions over genuine quality.  Are her YouTube videos just an empty viral plot to boost her music career?  If you look at it cynically, you could arrive at this conclusion.  But that doesn't take away from the ideas that it makes us think about.  In the form of That Poppy, she and Titanic Sinclair have created something that could mean everything and nothing at the same time, that could be an important statement or just more fodder for the content disposal machine.  I can't think of anything more 2017 than that.