Apr 11, 2016, 10:30am EDT
By Eliza Brooke
Get to know the budding pop star making strange internet art
Now that we live in an era of aspirational Instagramming and the solemn maintenance of “personal brands,” those who took to social networks of the mid-aughts with unfiltered enthusiasm have realized that shaping an internet presence is a careful balance between what you post and what you have the wisdom to withhold. Mostly the latter. Tom Hardy can keep filling his resume with Oscar-winning films, but we’ll never forget his MySpace.
In that regard, the newbie pop singer That Poppy has a firm handle on the art of becoming a character — on the internet and, increasingly, off it. A peroxide blonde with big brown eyes, her demeanor is sweet but alien, and though plenty of people are odd, she takes special care to obscure certain humanizing details about herself.
When we speak over the phone in early April, she tells me that she grew up dancing, that her father was a drummer in a band, that she moved to Los Angeles from Nashville three years ago to pursue her music career, but declines to give her legal name or age. (Some internet sources put the latter at 15.) Poppy’s persona isn’t larger-than-life so much as it is one hazy degree removed from reality. For the internet’s truth-seekers, that can be an uncomfortable thing.
“I don’t want people to talk about how old I am; I want them to talk about what I’m making,” she says, explaining her hesitation to share these biographical details. “People, especially nowadays, are so obsessed with knowing everything. They’ll have to invest their time in finding it.”
“People, especially nowadays, are so obsessed with knowing everything. They’ll have to invest their time in finding it.”
Instead, Poppy has provided her followers a four-song EP, “Bubblebath,” and a wealth of bizarre YouTube videos, which add a shadow of strangeness to her brightly addictive music. She started making them about a year ago with Titanic Sinclair, a 29-year-old director and musician she met in LA. Today, they’ve added nearly 50 uploads, all remarkably consistent in tone and aesthetic — remarkable because the first video, shot in Sinclair’s living room with no budget, was intended as a one-off thing.
That was a single take of Poppy eating cotton candy. In later videos, she irons a grilled cheese sandwich and reads the bible aloud for nearly 50 minutes. She says “I’m Poppy” over and over for 10 minutes. She splices together iterations of the line “I love my fans,” giving due roboticism to that ubiquitous celebrity soundbite. Poppy, who is cuteness incarnate in ruffled dresses and colorful barrettes, carries out all these odd tasks like they’re the most natural thing on earth. Her voice is little more than a whispery chirp.
You can spend a lot of time analyzing the videos — they’re definitely art, but how deep does the social commentary run? Am I missing out on the joke here? Is that the art? Is the intimacy of watching someone eat Pop Rocks the art? — but Poppy says she doesn’t like to over-explain them.
When I call him up, Sinclair describes the videos as a combination of Andy Warhol’s pop accessibility, David Lynch’s creepiness, and Tim Burton’s “zany comedic tone.” A Warhol-esque dedication to repetition, of speech and action, threads through his and Poppy’s work. Dull lighting gives the pastel pink and purple backgrounds a grayish, medical cast. Sinclair, in fact, used to make money filming videos for hospitals and corporations.
A Warhol-esque dedication to repetition, of speech and action, threads through [Titanic] and Poppy’s work.
Because you were probably wondering: Titanic Sinclair is not his birth name, either. He’s been using the alias for nearly 10 years, partly because he didn’t want to be tracked by Facebook and Twitter, partly out of long-term career planning and a prescient desire to be easily Googleable. Besides, nobody at a party forgets a tragic, literary name like Titanic Sinclair, not even in Los Angeles where young directors are slinking all over the place.
In Sinclair’s view, Poppy’s public persona adds a certain thrill to everyday life. “Everyone at the end of the day knows that Johnny Depp isn’t the Pirates of the Caribbean guy, but he’s more fun when he is. I like living in a world where you can have superheroes. It just makes life so much more exciting,” says Sinclair.
Instead of a cape and mask, Poppy’s superhero suit comprises big furs and pastel tights. “I don’t have a stylist right now,” she says. “It’s mostly just me seeing things that I like and reaching out to people.” She leans toward bright colors and brands like Giambattista Valli and MarryMe-Jimmy Paul, an Amsterdam-based label that specializes in candy-colored, often epically furry pieces.
To the iHeartRadio Music Awards, Poppy wore a pale turquoise dress puffed up in layers of semi-opaque poly organza. (Printed with eyeballs, also.) It’s the handiwork of the Nashville-based designer Macy Smith, who created the piece on a minuscule student budget nearly three years ago for her thesis collection at Pratt. Smith painted the dress fabric by hand, and did the same for a pair of matching tights. (Those she pulled over her own legs before proceeding to paint.) Poppy wore them to the awards show, too.
After I show my coworkers a handful of Poppy’s videos, Nicola messages me: “That Poppy is like Sad Art Girl Tumblr but through the lens of a peppy, pastel Teen Vogue editorial with a sniff of Lana Del Rey. Everything going on in her videos, on her Instagram, with her style with her speech, feels familiar, but I can’t put my finger on all the ingredients.”
She did put her finger on something: ambiguity is the point.
“I don’t want to put myself in a box. That’s like the worst thing you can do,” Poppy says. Her ideal response from viewers? “‘I don’t know how I feel about it yet.'”