The line to see Poppy on Friday night wound down the pavement until the House of Blues was no longer in view. Normally, there’s a common theme to the people in the line. But this wasn’t the case for YouTube star Poppy’s crowd. There were parents with children next to newly anointed adults in prime millennial apparel of no matching colors. Gray hairs and no hair. It was odd, which ended up being the perfect match for a star like Poppy.
For those not quite familiar with Poppy, please take a moment to review an example of her short videos on YouTube.
That’s Poppy. The same Poppy that released a 10-minute video of her saying, “I’m Poppy.” The bizarre YouTube shorts made under the direction of Titanic Sinclair were created to promote Poppy as a new musical act to watch, and they did their job astoundingly well, each entry peaking with millions of views. The success of the video series led to multiple recordings and albums, the latest is Am I A Girl?, which is the focus of her new tour.
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Poppy’s opening act was Dallas-based LEV, which was a pleasant surprise to watch. The band members approached the stage quietly, almost apologetically, but from the first note roared to life with a synth rock/pop mix that was part bubblegum and part slightly more adult tasting bubblegum.
There was a fun, upbeat spirit to LEV’s music, a sound that would be at home in an '80s montage of trying on clothes. That description might seem critical, or tongue-in-cheek, but it’s very much the opposite. Her songs were, at their core, simple arrangements done well, and it created a comforting feeling. The idea of LEV featured on a star-adorned holographic Trapper Keeper would have been a reality in a different time. Granted, half the audience wouldn’t know what the hell a Trapper Keeper is.
Afterward, a 30-minute, off-and-on-again Poppy chant would rise and die based upon the crowd’s fledgling belief it would speed up the course of the evening. When the room went dark, a center screen flashing a distorted black-and-white Poppy symbol acted as a bug zapper, drawing the aimless in the space to buzz closer to the light. Poppy’s voice, as detached and distant as ever, echoed through the expectant, cheering bodies, accompanied by band members who were dressed up like Daryl Hannah in Blade Runner — black bodies punctuated with white faces and straw-like, blonde bobbed wigs.
The question was: What would Poppy actually sound like in person? Could the gimmick of her persona maintain an hour of entertainment? For her fans in attendance, it appeared yes. The presentation is not unlike her videos — almost robotic in presence. Not necessarily stiff, but rehearsed to a point of precision that left nothing to chance on the darkened stage that never allowed you a clear look at her.
Her music is very — Poppy — if that can be a proper description. The songs are bright but with a dark edge to them. Saccharine by design with fast, frenetic beats that tend to hit the same emotionless chord over and over. It is a living art presentation, and it can be visually interesting to look at, but the notes tend to sound the same. Poppy’s music suffers from the Bon Iver effect, whereas fans of the folk singer will be able to distinguish tracks. But for the uninitiated, the whole album sounds like one continuous song.
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No doubt when her presentation works, it’s incredibly effective in creating an uneasy foreboding. At one point, as a poison sign flashed behind her, Poppy stops to ask the crowd, “Do you love me? Do you trust me? Do you trust me with your life?”
She then proceeded to hand out cups filled with red liquid and asked everyone to drink. Those moments that rip a hole in pop star adoration are sinister fun and hard to forget, but then there’s an instance where she just played a video at one point with all band members offstage. Is that a statement? Is it lazy?
A Poppy concert is a series of conflicts that possibly make a whole statement. An expression of sexuality without ever a moment of explicitness. Malevolent without ever being overtly threatening. Being directly present onstage, but so deep in darkness, did you ever get a good look?
Is the audience clued in to an intended message, or is Poppy working on an Andy Kaufman level, telling a joke only for her to understand and others to interpret mistakenly? Is there any methodology to her persona’s words and actions, or is she just doing vaguely provocative things to project wisdom? No answers were available at House of Blues this night, no clearer determination on whether Poppy’s a satire of blind pop-culture allegiance, or another in a long line of aimless boundary pushers. But for $25 you could pre-order her new comic book.