The scene at the recent Poppy concert at the U Street Music Hall in Washington, D.C.

The Strange and Devoted Cult of YouTube Star Poppy

The lights went out at 8:45 p.m. on a recent Friday night at the U Street Music Hall in Washington, D.C. The tightly-packed, 500 person capacity venue instantly erupted into a cult-like chant: “Poppy! Poppy! Poppy!” To anyone on the outside, this would seem like just another concert. But to the devoted fan base behind internet superstar Poppy, this was a cathartic experience.

Poppy became an internet sensation in 2015 when she started uploading strange videos to her YouTube channel. The videos, directed by Los Angeles-based director Titanic Sinclair, featured the brightly lit, platinum blonde-haired Poppy looking directly at the camera. She gave her imaginary audience a bright smile while making odd statements about social media, popular culture, politics, and other subjects relevant to her internet-based fanbase. Her videos, noted for their elements of surrealism and camp, quickly gained millions of views.

At the same time, she began a music career. After releasing an ambient electronic album, she signed to major label Island Records and released the EP “Bubblebath,” featuring the major hit single “Lowlife.” Her stint on Island was short-lived, however. Soon after, she moved to Mad Decent, a label owned by electronic musician Diplo. On Mad Decent, she released her debut album, “Poppy.Computer,”in 2017. The album focused on one general theme: satirizing celebrities and popular culture with upbeat pop music. The following year, she released her second album, “Am I a Girl?”which flirted with both concepts of gender expression and heavy metal.

            But in 2019, Poppy’s creative direction took a huge turn. She cut ties with Sinclair, alleging mental and emotional abuse. As such, her ongoing web series of strange videos mostly stopped. However, her music career would only thrive. She moved to Sumerian Records, a label well known for featuring heavy metal artists, and announced her third album, “I Disagree.”The album released last month to both critical acclaim and shock from both her own fans and the wider music audience. The album fuses industrial sounds, akin to Nine Inch Nails and New Order, with nu metal riffs that would be right at home on a Slipknot or Korn album.

            But what would any album be without a tour? Poppy quickly announced the I Disagree Tour. Still ongoing, the tour is making its way through North America before heading for several sold out United Kingdom shows in March.

            On Feb. 8, the tour came to Washington, D.C. Fans coming to the sold-out show had to wait in a very slow-moving line, heading down a narrow staircase into the basement that is the U Street Music Hall. Most people had not even made it into the venue before the opening act, electronic music duo VOWWS, began their set.

            When Poppy’s set began, the crowd went ballistic, shouting along to every word as Poppy sang “Concrete,” the lead single from “I Disagree.”One might not have expected Poppy to shout lyrics such as “bury me six feet deep, cover me in concrete, turn me into a street,” but she’s shown, time and time again, that she gives little regard to her audience’s expectations. Throughout the set, she had little interaction with the crowd, which very much fit the cryptic personality she assumed online.

Her setlist consisted of the entirety of the “I Disagree”album, as well as “Scary Mask,” a song released last year on the EP “Choke,” featuring Grammy-nominated metal band The Fever 333. She also performed the last three songs from “Am I a Girl?,”which were the album’s heavier tracks. For good measure, she threw in “All The Things She Said,” a cover song originally by the Russian electro-pop duo t.A.T.u.

            Many fans in the crowd were mesmerized by her energized performance, such as Tessa Williams. “I really don’t listen to metal, so it was really different. But I’ve been a huge Poppy stan since the beginning, so anything she makes is perfection. It was just such a cool show to see!” Williams said.

            Another fan, Ben Thomas, was equally impressed. “It was sorta what I expected of Poppy, you know, after listening to the album. But it was still a really cool show. Tons of energy, tons of enthusiasm. Everyone in the crowd knew all the words, which is always great, because you feel more connected to the music when you know the lyrics. Yeah, she put on a really great performance,” Thomas said.

            Even people not at the show are fully aware of Poppy’s lavish and cryptic persona. Such is the case with Christopher Switzer, a sophomore here at Frederick Community College. “I’ve seen quite a few of her videos,” Switzer said. “And, they’re certainly interesting, I guess you could say. I’m certainly not surprised that she made a metal album. It fits her personality pretty well.”

            Poppy is not pushing on the brakes any time soon. Later this year, she will release her second graphic novel, “Poppy’s Inferno,”and a soundtrack album to go along with it, “Music to Scream To.” After the I DisagreeTour concludes, she’ll be embarking on a summer tour with headlined metal bands Gojira and Deftones.

            Anyone that has seen Poppy’s videos already knows that she is an unpredictable force to be reckoned with on the internet. If anyone somehow has not been made aware of her existence yet, her success is only growing, so it may only be a matter of time. If one thing is certain, no one but her knows what is coming next.

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