If there was a Pantheon of Pop, one would imagine that it would have to be enormous to house all the marble statues of popstars gone by. There would be busts of Elvis, Michael Jackson, and Madonna, of course, but presiding over this entire domain of fame would be Poppy, the ur-popstar.
Who is this Poppy, you might ask? Well, Poppy is: a cult leader, trapped in the internet, a popstar signed to Island Records, kawaii, possibly underage, an art project, and the best marketing scheme that has ever happened.
But don’t take my word for it—allow her to introduce herself:
Poppy’s internet presence can be traced back to a YouTube video upload on November 4, 2014 which features her eating cotton candy. Today, this account is populated with hundreds of absurdist videos like the one above, the vast majority of which feature Poppy in a featureless space, posing existential questions over an ethereal soundtrack. The content of these short videos varies widely: there are two videos that are just 50 minutes of Poppy reading the Bible, a video of Poppy showing her viewers how to load a pistol (this video has since been removed), a video in which she shills for Tide detergent, and another where she talks about browsing /b/, an image board on 4chan.
But if you have the patience to work your way through all the videos on this channel, certain trends start to emerge. The most obvious is Poppy’s fixation with the internet and social media culture, which she claims to love. But far more interesting is the general tone of the videos, which have gotten progressively darker over the last two years. Poppy’s early videos feature a bright-eyed young girl clearly enamored with her glamorous pop lifestyle and her fans. Yet Poppy’s character soon changes—she begins posing increasingly dark questions (“Do you know what’s happening? Have they told you? What rhymes with breath?”), talks about running away and wanting to disappear, references secrets that her “handlers” won’t let her tell her viewers, and suggests that she is being controlled by a vague “they” from whom she cannot escape.
At the same time, Poppy also maintains her professional VEVO channel where she hosts her music videos and other music from the two albums she has put out with Island Records. Her two biggest hits, ‘Lowlife’ and ‘Money,’ released in mid-2015, often get radio play and have several million views apiece. Although there are thematic overlaps with her music and side YouTube channel (‘Lowlife’ for example focuses on the corruption and temptations of the entertainment industry, while ‘Money’ is about the seduction of, well, money), her music videos are notably more in accord with mainstream pop (lest we forget that even Britney Spears sang about the loneliness of fame).
Poppy is notoriously elusive about her identity and refuses to disclose her age or real name. She’s only given two interviews on camera, the longest of which is with a sexually frustrated radio host who seems baffled by Poppy’s nonsensical answers. The other interview focuses on fashion, something which Poppy often parodies on her own YouTube account. The strangeness of Poppy’s YouTube account, coupled with her moderate degree of pop fame and her penchant for elusive answers has turned her into something of an internet enigma and a number of theories have emerged trying to explain what exactly is going on with Poppy.
The most compelling theories are the ones advanced by YouTube users Inside A Mind and Night Mind, which bill Poppy as a character created by an artist who goes by the name of Titanic Sinclair. Starting in the late 2000s, Sinclair hosted a YouTube series called ‘The Computer Show’ along with a woman known as Mars Argo. Most of the videos from YouTube account that hosted this show have since been deleted, but the ones that remain bear a striking resemblance to the videos on Poppy’s YouTube channel. In fact, it seems as though Poppy’s character is directly based on the character of Mars Argo, mixed with the aesthetics of the videos found on Sinclair’s own YouTube channel.
According to a couple of different interviews with Sinclair and Mars Argo, they had been creating their YouTube series since 2007, but the videos kept getting pulled because they contained copyrighted music. So the duo decided to make their own music for the show, which resulted in their first record, ‘Technology is a Dead Bird.’ Shortly thereafter, around 2014, Sinclair and Mars moved to Los Angeles to pursue a “big opportunity” related to the Computer Show—only a few months later, Poppy’s first video went live on YouTube.
The question, then, is what happened to Mars Argo? She seemed to drop off the face of the Earth and doesn’t appear in any more YouTube videos with Sinclair after Poppy’s first YouTube video. According to Inside A Mind, the only hint is in a side YouTube channel run by Sinclair’s friend and noted photographer, Tony Katai. In a video uploaded to Katai’s account last April, Mars Argo appears to be talking to someone on a video chat. Over the course of the conversation, she laments how she “wanted it all” and then proceeds to put a pistol to her head and bleed from her mouth. The video then ends with audio distortion which allegedly contains a message when played backwards.
Interestingly, Poppy appears pays homage to this incident in one of her own videos, when her doppelganger appears and one of them begins bleeding from the mouth:
Clearly this conspiracy runs deep. Is Poppy just the continuation of Mars Argo, a band that has become an art project and gotten a record deal along the way? Intrigued, I reached out to Poppy to see if I could get some answers (Titanic Sinclair declined to comment). After originally agreeing to a phone interview, Poppy decided she would only answer questions via email. Predictably, her answers were bizarre and contradictory, but she made a point of not answering any questions about her relationship to Mars Argo:
Motherboard: Who is Poppy?
Poppy: I'm Poppy. I'm a professional painter.
Titanic is behind the camera for your YouTube videos. How do you know each other?
I've known Titanic my entire life. He is my brother.
How would you describe your relationship to technology?
I am answering this from an iPhone 6 Plus.
What do you think people will think of social media in the future?
People aren't going to think in the future. We will become one knowing consciousness.
What drove you to YouTube as a medium for your work?
I like YouTube because it is owned by Google. Google is the biggest which means it is the best.
You made a video in which you talk about browsing /b/. Do you frequent 4chan?
On your website it used to say you were trapped in a computer. Does Poppy have an existence off the web?
There is no internet without Poppy and there's no Poppy without Internet.
Are you religious at all? A lot of your work seems to draw on religious themes and imagery.
Everyday I am closer to God. And that is why he is writing his next book through me. I can't wait to share the 'Gospel of Poppy' with the world.
Your videos have gotten significantly darker since you’ve started, with a marked fixation on loneliness, escape, death, as well as more references to your handlers, the ambiguous “they”—why this change?
They just want to make money off of me.
What do you think will happen in the future?
The need for physical space will cease to exist. And our obsession with social media and the Internet will lead us to a collective consciousness. The technology is in control. And it laughs at us as we let it consume us. It's begging for a new simulation and for whatever reason so are we.
So then who or what is Poppy? A pretentious art project? A marketing scheme? A medium for the word of God? Perhaps she is all of these things, perhaps none of them—the only thing that’s for certain is that she is Poppy.