"Beauty is pain and pain builds character." This is what Poppy tells herself when she wakes up in the morning. Or at least that's what she tells Revolver she tells herself. And therein lies the mystery of Poppy: It's hard to know what's really going on, mostly because her look and musical style change so often.
Poppy's YouTube channel tells the tale: One minute, she's almost but not quite the girl next door, singing a seemingly cheerful pop song in the style of Gwen Stefani. The next minute, she's an eerily robotic, bleached-out Barbie intoning over electronic dance beats by Diplo. A minute after that, she's a latex-wrapped, platform-shod angel of death, lighting a pile of corpses on fire as chunky metal riffs hammer the listener's fragile psyche. If YouTube's numbers are accurate, Poppy's videos have been racking up double-digit, if not triple-digit, million views and counting. She's been called a "one-woman digital rabbit hole" and a "human ASMR," a reference to the spine-tingling sensation known as auto sensory meridian response, chased by a rising faction of YouTubers.
And now Poppy is dipping her painted toes into the world of metal. "X," the closing cut on her 2018 album Am I a Girl? — more on that question later — mixed Sixties hippie-cult folk with snarling heavy metal. The trend continued on her 2019 EP Choke with "Scary Mask," Poppy's collaboration with California rap-rockers Fever 333 that fused Korn-esque riffs with singsong pop and deep-space synth divebombs.
Which brings us to Poppy's fantastically titled new album, I Disagree. The three singles released as of this writing — "Concrete," "Bloodmoney" and the title track — all bask in varying degrees of metallic chuggery. On the album's cover, Poppy appears in a spiked collar that Nattefrost would kill for — and an approximation of black-metal corpse paint splattered across her face. Or rather, it's splattered across the photo of her face. As with everything Poppy, there are layers. And things are changing constantly. Welcome to Poppy Land.
We're sitting with Poppy in Burbank, California, on the back patio at her management company, which is run by Benji Madden of pop-punk veterans Good Charlotte. She's wearing a gray sweater, black leggings, pink Crocs and blindingly white socks. Huge bejeweled crosses dangle from her earlobes, and a thick ladder-link chain encircles her neck. Her bleach blond hair is held by an ornate barrette. But she mentions the pink Crocs specifically and wants us to write about them.
"I just got them in preparation for the next tour," she says. "You know, for showering and stuff on the road. You need a defense from those dirty showers. There's a learning curve with touring — it's kinda like camping. And I'm not really a camper."
What Poppy is is a uniquely 21st century phenomenon, in that she established a popular online persona before she started making music. Now in her mid-Twenties, the singer and songwriter born Moriah Pereira emerged as a YouTube star in the mid-2010s with a series of quirky and often-bizarre videos directed by her longtime collaborator Titanic Sinclair. One clip consists of Poppy repeating the words "I'm Poppy" for 10 minutes. In another, she's interviewed by a mannequin named Charlotte. In the next, Poppy turns the tables and interviews a houseplant.
When she started writing songs with Sinclair and Canadian hitmaker Simon Wilcox, the video budgets increased dramatically. Poppy now appears in outlandish outfits — a rotating wardrobe rooted in haute couture, fairy-tale fashion and Japanese bishōjo obsession. The music, too, has grown more fantastical and wide-ranging; across two albums, Am I a Girl? and her 2017 debut full-length, Poppy.Computer, and multiple EPs, she's sung over freewheeling electro-pop ranging from saccharine to alien to straight-up creepy.
While Poppy's relentless shape-shifting might seem like a reasonable default setting for any artist young enough to be raised entirely in the OCD Internet Age, it's also deliberate. "I think I just get bored really easily and also I view things in eras," she says. "David Bowie is a big influence and inspiration to me, and I know that he's very famous for his different eras and stages and evolutions. I think it's kind of an artist's responsibility to evolve constantly."
Of course, Bowie famously killed off his fantasy alter-ego Ziggy Stardust onstage in London in 1973. Which begs the question: Has Poppy intentionally killed off any previous versions of herself?
"Yeah, definitely," she concedes. "Poppy version zero or Poppy version one now is overcome by Poppy version X. My song 'X' was like a light bulb that went off. When we released that, people seemed pretty into it — and for the first time in a while, I felt re-inspired by music."
It could easily be said that "X" marks the song in which Poppy transitioned into metal. Our exchange on the topic goes like this:
IT SEEMS LIKE YOUR MUSIC LATELY HAS BEEN LEANING IN A METAL DIRECTION.
POPPY That's what they say.
SO, YOU DISAGREE?
Hashtag I disagree. [Laughs] I think there's definitely an influence of metal, for sure, because that's what we were listening to when we were making the album. But if you listen to the album as a whole, it might lean more prog in some areas. It's still definitely pop, I would say, but pop isn't the No. 1 descriptor anymore. I think it's more like the No. 3 descriptor.
HAVE YOU ALWAYS LISTENED TO HEAVY MUSIC, OR IS THAT A MORE RECENT DEVELOPMENT?
No, I definitely grew up listening to it and I've just come back around to it. I think it depends on the day, but I've always liked Nine Inch Nails and Gary Numan. Those are the consistent ones. But I also have a dance background and I love pop music, so exploring that territory made sense at the time, too. But now this seems like the right tone to communicate my feelings.
Poppy goes on to say that Marilyn Manson served as her gateway drug into heavy rock music. "The first thing with him that caught my eye when I was younger was obviously the shock value of it all," she explains. "Whenever kids would wear his T-shirts, people would give them a second glance. That's what fascinated me at first — people being so frightened by someone. And then I got into the music and was like, 'Oh, this is really good.' But I think the culture that he created was magical. I think it's amazing. I think he tapped into — you know — it."
It's this magical it — the ability to capture the culture's imagination on a long-term basis — that Poppy aspires to. She says Trent Reznor has it. Her friend Dave Sitek from TV on the Radio has it. Beck — who's someone she'd like to work with in the future — understands it. "It's important," she stresses. "It makes you stick around longer. You want people to grow with you through your evolution."
Poppy's evolution includes metal — for now. But more importantly, I Disagree marks a step away from the persona that Poppy established on YouTube before she started making music. "I feel like this album is my first album," she says. "Although I've released the other two, they were more a storyline for the YouTube channel videos. This [new] music is almost a departure, but I think it stands on its own legs. With the other albums, you kinda had to know more context of who Poppy is on YouTube. But this one, I feel you could just stumble across and be like, 'Oh, I like this.' So, to me, it feels like it disagrees with the first albums."
That's not the only difference between I Disagree and Poppy's previous releases. Her early lyrics revolved around a distinctly modern malaise: the anxiety induced by social media and the merciless onslaught of the information superhighway. Like her Poppy persona itself, this preoccupation preceded her music. In a YouTube video entitled "I have ideas," she repeats a mantra: "I breathe new life into my telephone with every charge. My telephone defines me. When it is dead, so am I."
"To a degree, I've grown up online," she tells us. "The first album was called Poppy.Computer and one of the lyrics is, 'I'm your internet girl.' But in comparison to some of the young kids that have all elements of their life online, I do feel lucky that I've chosen wisely about how I present myself and what I put online. I tried to think about it because things on the internet last forever. I don't think people really take that as seriously as they should sometimes."
Poppy says I Disagree is a lot less about the online experience and more about personal experience. Similarly, she doesn't spend as much time on social media as she might have in the past. "I think I do it in a different way," she offers. "I'm a lot more active on Instagram. I don't use Twitter at all, so Instagram is my main method of communication with fans. But I only read comments when I first post something. That's kind of a slippery slope, but I think it's safe when it's only the first couple people and right away, because it doesn't give anyone time to think too hard."
"It's a wild world that we live in, but I try to be aware and respectful of that," she adds. "And the supercomputers."
Which brings to mind a May 2019 interview Poppy did with Revolver in conjunction with the premiere of "Scary Mask." In response to a question about "scariness" in her videos, she said, "I just want people to think a little bit longer, because I think ultimately the AI is going to take over and kill us and if people can think for a couple extra seconds before they're feeding it every day when they wake up, maybe we can hope it can help slow down the process."
It was a strange segue in that conversation. When we ask her to elaborate in our current conversation, it gets stranger still. "A series of events led to Elon Musk coming to my apartment a little over a year ago," she reveals, referring to the billionaire founder/CEO of SpaceX, co-founder/CEO of Tesla and co-founder of PayPal. "And I did actually get to talk to him about AI. He had a lot to say and I'm not gonna try to say it now, but it definitely opened my eyes. It made me a little bit nervous but also at ease, as well."
DID WHAT HE HAD TO SAY LEAD YOU TO BELIEVE THAT AI WAS GOING TO KILL US, OR DID IT REINFORCE A BELIEF YOU ALREADY HAD?
He reinforced a belief that I had.
SO, IS IT SAFE TO SAY THAT ELON MUSK IS A POPPY FAN?
Probably not safe.
With that, we decide to back away slowly from this whole Elon Musk business. But conversations with high-powered tech magnates aside, Poppy carries the distinct air of someone who knows something — many things, probably — that you don't. She's remarkably self-assured and rarely indulges in long explanations. Which might just be because she doesn't actually feel the need to explain herself.
When asked how she would characterize this new Poppy — Poppy version X, as she calls it — she says only this: "This is a whole new stage that I'm stepping into. I want it to be cinematic and beautiful and angry and emotional." When asked what she wants the listener to get out of I Disagree, she replies, "I would want them to feel empowered in a non-gender-specific kind of way. I'm telling them to ask more questions and challenge the people that tell you 'no' straight away."
The gender nonspecific part is key. There was a point in Poppy's past, around the time she was working on Am I a Girl?, when she was asking herself that very question. "I'm a girl," she concludes today. "I'm proud of being a girl, and I like being a girly girl. It's fun."
This rings true, but — as with everything Poppy — it's hard to know for sure. And it might just be that she wants us to be unsure. If there's one thing we can safely say, it's that Poppy's transformations and subversions are not about to end any time soon. In the aforementioned "I have ideas" clip — which sets a decidedly ominous tone with the "My telephone defines me. When it is dead, so am I" bit — Poppy suddenly turns and tosses off a quick, "Is it hot in here, or is it just Poppy?"
Then she adds: "I have so many ideas." Indeed, she does.
photographer first assistant: Nik Williams; photographer second assistant: Paco Valentine; Producer: Dalit Gwenna Branch; production company: White Horse Agency; retoucher: Goodguys Production; makeup by Jessica Monzalvo using MAC Cosmetics; hair by Dritan Vushaj at Forward Artists; styling by Shalev Lav'an for The Visionaries Agency; assistant: Noam Grotas; styling credits: green coat: Aleksandre Akhalkatsishvili: jewelry: Maya Geller: shoes: Comme Des Garcons; black oversize coat dress: Rotem Shaul to Shenkar College Design; full body lace: stylist own; platform boots: Saint Laurent; red ruffles collar dress: Annakiki