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Poppy Makes a Case for a New Kind of Artificial Pop Star

6 minute read

When Poppy says she’s from the Internet, you believe her. She doesn’t seem quite like a human being, even when you’re sitting directly across from her: her eyes are wide and doll-like, her posture fixed, her sentences often delivered in a distant third-person. It’s a testament to how committed she is to her persona, which helped her build a fanbase millions strong for her work as an enigmatic YouTube star, pop singer and de facto cult leader.

Her persona brings up questions: Who was she before she was Poppy? Is that even important? Is she a celebrity, a performance artist, a pop star or something else entirely?

“I don’t know if I am any of the other three things, but—I’ll always be Poppy,” she responds, ever opaque, in a voice that is as feather-light and sugar-sweet as cotton candy. Cotton candy, as it happens, helped kick off her fame: in 2014, a video appeared online of the platinum-coiffed ingenue placidly eating a ream of the pink stuff in silence. Over 400 videos later, Poppy has now released two bona fide albums. Her latest, Am I a Girl, dropped on Halloween.

The title speaks to her soul searching: her gender identity became a puzzle to her, she says, “when other celebrities started questioning their gender.” It’s also a wink at her proximity to the realm of the uncanny valley; the Barbie-like qualities of her images and videos online, often framed against a stark white background, are jarringly sterile. Yet unlike other digitally-native artist projects, like the AI character Lil Miquela or the virtual rockers Gorillaz, Poppy is flesh and blood. You have to wonder if her existence is a meta-commentary on the pop-star industrial complex, an experiment in 21st-century fame or just an inside joke, albeit one that’s racked up millions of song streams and hundreds of millions of video views.

Not that Poppy seems bothered by questions of her authenticity. Working with her creative partner and director Titanic Sinclair out of Los Angeles, and signed to DJ and producer Diplo’s Mad Decent record label, Poppy has evolved from a strange video art concept to a celebrity of real status. Am I A Girl sees her exploring futuristic pop and what she calls “nu-Poppy” or “Poppymetal,” like on her collaboration with cult favorite Grimes, “Play Destroy.” This album follows her first, 2017’s Poppy.Computer, which she says was “telling the story of my videos on YouTube.” But that one was for the fans, while this one is for a broader audience.

On songs like “Time Is Up,” Poppy tells her origin story over bright synth production. The song is all bubblegum beats, but Poppy has a dark side too: “In the sterile place where they made me, I woke up alone/ Dizzy from the programming, have I been wiped again?” she asks. “Am I your prisoner or your deliverer?” She also has some nihilistic advice for the rest of us: “Human history, pollution and overcrowded cities, that’s your legacy/ But don’t look so depressed, you’ll soon be nothingness.”

That dissonance—the sweetness of delivery mixed with the bitterness of the message—is central to Poppy’s musical philosophy, and why she loves pop in particular. “You can communicate a sad message or perplexing message through happy chords or a happy melody, and I hope to have the listener pose more questions in their life,” she says, “as opposed to going along with the everyday and what’s being pushed on them.” The questions she’d like us to focus on are straight out of sci-fi: “Do you think that there is more out there in the world? Do you think we’re being programmed? Do you think that living on the planet makes sense?” she asks.

Despite her downcast lyrics, though, in person Poppy is upbeat. “I just want to give my fans a place to go where they can be free and nobody will judge them, because life is more interesting when you’re looking at it from the outside,” she says. “I don’t think you need to be on the outside looking in; I think you should enjoy the outside.”

To help build that “outsider” bond, Poppy has created a space for followers to “worship” her: Poppy.Church, an invite-only online community that’s over 25,000 members strong. There are plans in the works for “PopCoin,” a currency for the church, and also for a physical space in L.A. where her devotees can gather. If anyone feels at home with new forms of connection, it makes sense that it’s Poppy, who remains both inscrutable and highly accessible, a pop presence custom-crafted for the tech-forward fan. She even pioneered a virtual meet-and-greet experience during her first tour.

About her fans: Poppy’s appeal is broad, from kids who want to emulate her doll-like mannerisms to adults fascinated by the ASMR qualities of her voice. Crowds at her shows span demographics. “I’m doing something that fascinates all these age groups,” she reflects. While her intentions may remain murky, the response is easier to parse: viewers, particularly young women, may see everything that’s thrust at them online as an ideal—bleached hair, plasticine skin, boilerplate pop perfection—solidified in the form of Poppy, turning the fake into the real. To fans, there’s a form of digital-age comfort in her strangeness. She’s a computer-generated goddess for those who want her to be, or an empty Internet vessel for others; a YouTube genius, but also a gimmick. It’s just two sides of the same coin.

In an age in which perceived authenticity in celebrities often rules the day, Poppy’s commitment to her character and embrace of facade feels radical. But pop stars were always a manufactured commodity. By revealing how artificial it all is, she’s showing us something real.

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Write to Raisa Bruner at raisa.bruner@time.com