Friday 7 September 2018

The Question in Bodies #18: I'd Love to Tell You, But You Aren't Ready for the Truth

Poppy (2014-present)

Poppy, if you don't know, is a pop star. Poppy is a fictional character, with a storyline of sorts. Poppy's most recent single, “Time Is Up”, begins with Poppy more or less declaring herself something other than human.
In the factory
In the sterile place where they made me
I woke up alone
Dizzy from the programming
Have I been wiped again?
Oh my God, I don't even know
Over the next three minutes, she declares herself a harbinger of the extinction of humanity over a four to the floor backing of the whitest techno, courtesy of collaborator Diplo. I mean, in terms of actual quality and cultural importance, it's pretty much the 21st century version of Zager and Evans’s “In the Year 2525”, but it's also the most Poppy thing ever.
The song casts Poppy as an artificial entity, inhuman and impassive but also incredulous, as if realising for the first time what she is and what she means. She tells us she will be the last being standing when the human race has wiped itself out. In the video, Poppy, a figure of blonde perfection –with that shiny, straight gynoid hair and not quite unblinking gaze that casts her as other than human – feeds pills to kneeling hipsters whose faces become obscured by binary code.

When we looked at Demon Seed, I made the observation that artificial intelligence in that film looks like a YouTube atheist, but it seems that our posthuman poster child in fact looks like a very different sort of YouTuber.

People like me who talk about media – people who aren't really journalists, just people with opinions and an outlet to share it – often spend so much time talking about film and TV that we can often completely ignore YouTube as a medium. Parental prohibitions taken into account, nearly every kid I know between the ages of 11 and 18 watches YouTube as much as if not more than TV, and almost exclusively watches TV via one on-demand outlet or another. Broadcast TV is more or less dead among the rising generation of kids, the post-millennial ones who don't even have a convenient name tag yet.
What YouTube has become is one of the things that makes me realise the inescapable truth of mortality. The simple fact that so much of it baffles me is definitive proof that the world of the new will close its doors before me, as it inevitably does for everyone. When Poppy sings about the extinction of preceding generations of humans, I can't help but realise with a chill that my generation is not among the projected survivors.

YouTube isn't TV. That's hardly an obscure statement, but we spend so much time approaching it like it's TV that we often fail to see how different the rules are. But the simple fact that crowdsourced content begins on a more or less even playing field with the corporate variety and the frankly nightmarish mashups created by glitchy AI is itself worth whole books, and the way in which those three strands are utterly different is again worth much more space than I'm prepared to devote here. (Like, does watching TV on YouTube count as watching TV? I don't think so, but even being in a place to consider that question is a phenomenon that you could totally get a PhD out of).

There are things on YouTube that couldn't ever be on TV, and while, if you squint and flex your imagination really hard, you could just about imagine Anita Sarkeesian or Dan Olson (Folding Ideas) delivering their lectures on pop-semiotics as segments on other people’s very niche TV shows, there are swathes of successful YouTubers whose content is unique to the platform. In his Song Challenge series, Andrew Huang writes and performs songs, and the subject, style and form of each one is dictated by the comments of his subscribers on the preceding video (my kids love "Pink Fluffy Unicorns Dancing on Rainbows" (11 November 2010)); occasionally he'll also talk about the technical craft of songwriting itself. My younger son, the Golden-Haired Youth, watches UnspeakableGaming and Moosecraft nearly every day (and would every day if we let him), and while there's some variety in those channels, both revolve around people simply having fun playing Minecraft. And then there's React To, where kids, or teens or old folks react to things members of other generations like, including one where kids react to Poppy, Poppy reacts to kids reacting to Poppy (and keep this one to watch after reading, because it perfectly nails her persona), the kids reacting to Poppy reacting to the kids reacting to Poppy, and Poppy answering (sort of) the kids' questions.

(I showed my kids some Poppy videos: all three of them reacted with, "Ugh, that's weird! Make it stop!" with genuine unease and revulsion. Which is about the only thing they've agreed on for like weeks.)
I asked the Golden-Haired Youth, who is at the time of writing a few weeks short of his tenth birthday, what he thought the differences are between YouTube and television, and frankly he's got a better grasp of those differences than the WJEC A Level Media Studies Textbook. It's just people being themselves, he said, and on TV you don't get the like and share buttons (and all right, he conceded, you get the like button on Netflix, but it's not the same), and the way YouTube shows you other videos that it thinks you might like isn't like TV. You don't get people who make hundreds of videos about how to make slime on TV – and all right, you might have got a segment in an episode of Blue Peter about making the stuff, but that's hardly the same as having a following like Karina Garcia has grown from just demonstrating home-made slime recipes for kids (which my daughter adores).

Of course, there's the darker side of YouTube, the way that corporate entities monetise the aforementioned hordes of pube-chinned and behatted neoreactionary YouTube atheists (or YouPubes, as I like to think of them), and the Nazis and conspiracy theorists, and the way that bots are churning out utterly messed up and creepy videos supposedly for children. It's not an entirely safe place, YouTube. But it's its own thing. It has changed the way we do media.

All of this is pretty long winded, but it’s important to get this context into a discussion of Poppy, because as a narrative construct, Poppy is manifestly not an artefact of television or film; Poppy is of Youtube, and she personifies the intersection between community content, corporate exploitation of the medium and the glitchy bots trying to fool you that they're human. Poppy is reactive to the viewing public in a direct, swift way, and Poppy’s narrative has developed in symbiosis with her viewers’ comments, reactions, and reply videos. Poppy could not exist without YouTube.
In the vast majority of her videos, Poppy is placed in front of a white background and either speaks directly to camera or to a space in the middle distance. She talks in a low voice, pitched with a deliberately girlish register, about subjects like fame, and stardom, and living in Los Angeles, and friendship, and happiness. Something about Poppy is deliberately off-kilter, and although the character has developed and has become harder and stranger over time, you can see this right from the beginning.

The oldest video on her channel is just her eating candyfloss (“Poppy Eats Cotton Candy” (4 November 2014)), but the video that still defines the strangeness of the character, and the one with which she is most often associated, is “I’m Poppy” (6 January 2015), in which Poppy appears in a variety of closeups saying “I’m Poppy” half a dozen or so times, looped for ten solid minutes, with no variations or deviations. Later on she did the same with a solemn injunction to delete your Facebook (“Delete Your Facebook” (23 January 2016)), and the anguished question of why “they” won’t listen (“why wont they listen” [sic] (9 June 2016)).

Poppy’s glitchy-bot-pretending-to-be-human performance, her Plastic Mona Lisa composure, never really wavers. Even her anguish is plastic. And yet, without breaking the character, she manages to cover the YouTube gamut: an insincere apology for things we don't even know she's apologising for (“My Apology” (11 April 2017), the anguish that she might somehow not be the complete package (“What Percentage am I?” (16 September 2016)), the terror that no one might be watching (“Where Did Everyone Go” (2 October 2016)) and the mechanical nature of self grooming for the camera (“I Will Apply the Makeup” (21 February 2017)). A synth-voiced mannequin named Charlotte interviews Poppy several times, and each time the stilted, empty nature of the marketing interview becomes more absurd, more hilarious, and more sinister (“Charlotte Interviews Poppy” (26 March 2015); “Charlotte Interviews Poppy” (14 July 2015); “Charlotte Interviews Poppy” (12 August 2016)).
Poppy hits the starting point of existentialism, the part that happens when you're consumed with confusion and dread about how awful and stupid existence is, without the thoughtful stuff that follows because screw those guys, which every generation since the 1940s at least has tackled in some way: she is a Millennial (OK, yes, I said “Millennial”) version of it, a recognition that “authenticity” is authentically impossible. In “What Rhymes with Breath” (12 September 2016), Poppy delivers another collection of platitudes about how great “YouTube dot com” is, and how she loves computers, and the Internet, and how exciting it all is, and then, out of nowhere, she says, in the same Plastic Mona Lisa register, “What rhymes with breath? That's all I have to say. Bye.” And then she walks off the screen.

(Spoilers: the first thing you think of that rhymes with breath is the correct answer.)

Her videos are often nonsequiturs like these, or make no sense in ways designed to make you wonder if there is an underlying sense.
Poppy: Life is a rollercoaster. I think that’s funny. If you think about it long enough, time isn’t exactly linear. It’s more of a transparent cube with light shining through it. I’m boring, you’re boring, everybody is boring. I’m thankful for my friends, and this photograph of me.”
“Everybody is Boring” (11 August 2015)
Relatively early on, people began to wonder if Poppy was a Satanist, or in a cult, or being exploited, or if there was something wrong with her, if there was something more to the underlying unease that pervades her work beyond theatre.

She answers the phone and says to it, “I’m sorry. My phone is not plugged in.” (“My Phone is Not Plugged In” (3 December 2014)). She talks to a pot plant (“A Plant” (1 August 2016)), or develops a strange, co-dependent relationship with Charlotte, who bitches about her behind her back, develops an addiction and even ends up physically attacking Poppy on screen (there are loads of Charlotte videos, but take for example “I Was Worried” (16 May 2017)). In later videos, hints are made that Poppy is not human.

But of course she isn’t. She was always just a character, and as a fiction she is not human by definition: in “Happy Birthday to Poppy” (31 December 2015) Poppy refers to her birthday as her “creation date”, the date she was made, not born, and however you frame that, you’re supposed to see her as a construct.

At the time of writing, Poppy has 357 videos online, and by the time this essay gets to the general public, there will be at least a couple more.

(What all this means by the way is that when this essay winds up in a book, I have no doubt it's going to be the one that requires the most updating.)
And if you watch all the videos chronologically (pro tip: don’t try to do it in one go as I did – it's not exactly as harrowing as Salò, but it's a pretty queasy experience nonetheless), you can see patterns in the development, responses to the waves of opinion surrounding her from the Internet. And the more that the internet started wondering if there was something wrong with Poppy, the more Poppy began to hint that something was wrong with Poppy.

Videos have appeared that suggest that Poppy is in some sort of distress, or that she is being exploited, or abused, or brainwashed, or programmed. In “Am I Okay?” (15 June 2016), one of the most chillingly hilarious (or hilariously chilling) videos on the whole channel, she embarks on a circular and increasingly desperate monologue about how it would be great to reboot like a computer, and how everything will be fine; in the last second or two of the video, her nose begins to bleed.

I remember years ago, as a kid, reading a short story about a little girl who got a job in an advert on TV, and the horror was how the camera stole her life, so that while on screen she was bright and full of life, off screen she became nothing more than a husk, a hollowed out zombie, because the screen was all that mattered. And this is more or less what Poppy is deliberately or accidentally expressing (and incidentally if you have a copy of the book that story came from, or know what it was called, please let me know). And I'm not discounting that it could be accidental, that Poppy and her collaborator/writer/director Titanic Sinclair are just amusing themselves with art, but then what you want to say and what you wind up actually saying and what people interpret you as saying are three different things, and you rarely get more than two the same, as much as you might wish otherwise.

And, perversely, the more advanced Poppy's singing career has got, the more Poppy has doubled down on the dread-infused posthuman posterchild.

Which is possibly the most perverse thing, because Poppy is of course here for the pop music. But for her the persona is everything. And while very early on it became apparent that the YouTube videos were supposed to be a marketing tool for the pop music, in a lot of ways the tail wags the dog, since the inhuman, or perhaps ahuman, nature of Poppy as a construct, a fiction, a character, bleeds into the music. The most common critique of Poppy’s music in reviews is that it’s not nearly as interesting as the videos, but that’s not true. Pretty much every song she has is an extension of her persona, and is often just as playful, and strange, and off kilter as her YouTube channel.
Everybody wants to be Poppy, Poppy
Everybody wants to be

All the people all around wanna know
What to look like, what to think, where to go
But I don't know, I don't know
I don't know what to think anymore, no

I'm not here to tell you what to say or be
Why is everybody just like me

Poppy doesn’t sing about making love to a man, she wants to make love to a computer (“Computer Boy” (19 May 2017)). Even though she sings some ridiculously, and hilariously, suggestive things (“I want your floppy disk to be my hard drive”) Poppy isn't sexualised. She wears latex fetishwear as much as she wears frilly dresses; but her Plastic Mona Lisa perfection does not ever signify sexual availability (take "Me Getting Ready" (14 May 2017) for example, where she's in a skintight latex dress, and yet completely avoids sexualised behaviours and framings). Poppy is not a sex object. She is in some ways framed as a tool to achieve wealth and fame, even while her personality and sexuality is subsumed, hidden.

The correct way to be a Barbie is to be loaded with the signifiers of feminine sexuality and at the same time sexless. This is why Barbie is seen as OK for kids, and so few people take seriously objections (and completely reasonable objections) to Barbie. No one does Barbie as strictly correctly as Poppy, and while the merchandise is there – there has been a Cult of Poppy jumpsuit, a cult ring, T-shirts, a Gospel of Poppy book – I think that maybe one day there needs to be a Poppy Doll. Or maybe there doesn't. We already have all the Poppy dolls we need. And as we've established, kids know the difference between a toy and a person, and even kids who like Barbie unconsciously know that turning a person into a Barbie is somehow wrong. I think that's why so many kids find Poppy not just unpleasant, but completely unbearable.

But the Plastic Mona Lisa persona has a point. Poppy is an attempt to become famous without the side conditions of becoming famous, to become wealthy without having to sign your name on the bank account.
If money can’t buy happiness then why is it so fabulous?
Poppy solves the problem of fame by ceasing to be a person. In “Time Is Up”, Poppy is the transhuman harbinger of the aeon. She is the end of everything. And she wakes up to bring in the Apocalypse removing electrodes from her temples, aware of having been wiped and programmed like a machine, but dizzy like a human wiped and programmed to be a machine. She's fit for the obsolescence of humanity because her personhood is gone. She's a null entry, an unperson. Because of course she is, she's a fictional character, and fictions aren't people. She's a bit like the fictional characters in Flann O’Brien’s novel At Swim-Two-Birds, who rise up to conspire against their author, without ever ceasing to be fictions.

Poppy is a fiction, but she is a very strictly curated one. We’ve had fictional characters launch fairly successful pop careers before, but I’m having trouble thinking of fictional personas with real world pop careers quite like Poppy. I mean, she’s not like The Wombles or the Archies, children’s characters making novelty singles. The Banana Splitz maybe had the anonymity, but again, that’s music for kids, and more importantly, no one was ever in any illusion about them actually playing those instruments, and it literally didn’t matter who was in the costumes. You could say that Poppy is a little bit more like Ziggy Stardust or the Thin White Duke, but at no point were we in any doubt that those two characters were David Bowie playing a character on stage. Hannah Montana (2006-2011) is closer still: she’s got a narrative and records were produced under her name. But in her TV show Miley Cyrus’s name is the first thing to appear after the title. Hannah Montana was by comparison clumsy, too trapped in the language of TV. Miley Cyrus, forced to play a character playing a character, evidently hated it. And of course only the character in the middle got to be secret.

I suppose that the closest analogue to Poppy I can think of is Banksy, but of course it’s easier to be Banksy, since Poppy has a face, and while up until recently Poppy has been entirely anonymous, that’s itself a pretty odd thing. It’s not like there are people who didn’t know who she was, or that she’d even been in pop groups by her “real” name, if you knew where to look. But for years, Poppy did not publicly break character, even occasionally doing interviews without ever really ceasing to be Poppy: in fact, if it weren't for a currently active lawsuit against her and Titanic Sinclair by Sinclair’s previous collaborator, who herself had taken on the pseudonym Mars Argo, neither Poppy nor Sinclair might ever have publicly owned that they're characters played by Moriah Pereira and Corey Mixter respectively. And the simple fact of how irrelevant and anticlimactic their real names are just shows the success of the Poppy enterprise to some extent. No one cares who those people are: Poppy the cyborg ingenue and her effete and slightly sinister Svengali, Titanic Sinclair, however, they’re characters to conjure with.
At any rate there's no intention of unmasking. You could interpret recent video “The Game is Over” (12 August 2018), in which she wears a delicate mask, says “The game is over,” takes the mask off, and then puts it right back on again, as a pretty direct expression of intention there. 

I won't venture an opinion on that lawsuit itself, since it's sordid, and painful, and alleges terrible things, particularly about Mixter, other than to mention that in the public statement Pereira made in response to the case, she herself made reference to her hiding her identity because of “legally documented trauma”.

I have no right whatsoever to speculate on what that might be. But it's really fascinating how so many of the jokes and references in her videos are about various forms of abusive relationships, corporate and personal.

Poppy is shown as brainwashed and complicit in the act of brainwashing (“They Have Taken Control” (8/8/2016); “Charlotte Interviews Poppy” (12/8/2016)). Poppy makes it plain she is in a cult in the act of denying it (“I Am Not In A Cult” (27/2/2017)). Poppy is in some undefined trouble with an undefined “they” (“I Got in Trouble Today” (23/5/2017)): “They didn’t want me to tell you I got in trouble, but I’m in trouble.”
How do you make jokes about abuse? Well, it’s complex, isn’t it? But one of the reasons I find the Poppy videos so compelling is that Poppy and Titanic Sinclair, as much as they’re probably just posting things that they find funny in response to the weird reactions and wild theories they get – Poppy is a Satanist, one theory goes; Poppy is an Illuminati slave, goes another – clearly understand the push-pull of an abusive relationship, however it’s framed (and that’s all that religious brainwashing is, in the end – it’s an abusive relationship). They know what it’s like. They get that it’s attractive and maybe even glamorous, and addictive, and hard to escape, and hard to want to escape, and at the same time painful and toxic and soul-crushing. They understand trauma.

Watching half a dozen Poppy videos in one go (or in my case, 357 in a row) is oddly like eating a packet of Twinkies, the way the artificial sugar cream coats the inside of your mouth with a weirdly powdery deposit and the overpowering sweetness leaves a chemical aftertaste and the suspicion that you might have poisoned yourself, or laid yourself open for cancer years down the line.

Playing at dysfunction can itself seem pretty dysfunctional; laughing at abuse, and reenacting traumatic situations for laughs, albeit bleak, hysterical laughs, opens up all sorts of uncomfortable questions – consider that Louis CK returned to stand up shortly after being disgraced for some pretty gross acts of sexual harassment, and how he in his first show on his return included a rape joke, and how horrible even writing that is. There's a necessary context when you're making (black) comedy from the appearance of trauma, and Pereira’s extraordinary disclosure in that statement I mentioned puts Poppy's videos into a somewhat different context.

Sometimes you laugh about abuse because laughing is your only reasonable option.
(That's really honestly what the closed captions say.)
It’s starting to feel that trauma and what it does to you are pretty much all I write about at the moment, or at least that thoughts about trauma are mainly what I’m getting from these media. But then, that’s what identity horror is predicated on, isn’t it? It’s all trauma. Being in an abusive relationship, whether institutional – political, religious, workplace, place of education or imprisonment or whatever – or personal, with a friend, a family member or a lover, changes you. These are complex traumas.

And Poppy personifies the everyday traumas of the Internet, the anxieties of social media. Poppy is not necessarily the future, but she is definitely the present. And right now, she's getting to be omnipresent.