HELLO, NEW YORK TIMES! Who is Poppy?
“Poppy is…an Android-themed pop star.”
If The New York Times had a digital assistant, it might sound like Poppy: The content would be less important than the autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) her voice generates, that “tingling sensation on the skin that typically begins on the scalp and moves down the back of the neck and upper spine,” as Wikipedia defines it. And yes, the assistant’s voice would “sound feminine.” Thus, the gender-specific pronouns.
She would sound like Siri or Alexa or Cortana or the nameless Google Assistant. She would supply information that is readily available. Her voice would have the faintest of computer-generated catches and a fetching computer stiffness. And it would generate the same ASMR effect as they do.
And as Poppy does…
Poppy is not a robot, not computer-generated. She’s a YouTube star. She’s a pop music star. She’s an internet pop phenomena. She’s also an actress who is diffcult to dislodge from her Android theme, but human nonetheless.
In her pop single, Bleach Blonde Baby, she sings, in her breathy monotone, “Being flawless every day, that’s my only skill.” Her long, straight blonde hair is immaculate; so is her make-up and the gloss on her full lips; and on her model-thin body, her expressive little-girl fashions hang as perfectly as though Poppy were a mannequin.
But Poppy is a human playing a robot.
That’s the point of Amanda Hess’ Critics Notebook article, The Rise of the Social Media Fembot, in The Times online on Feb. 4, 2018. Humans are merging with the technological world—not just adapting to it but taking on the aspects of the technological themselves, just as technology has produced increasingly persuasive simulacra of humans. We, tech interfaces with the human, and humans themselves imitate each other. Pinocchio wanted to be a real boy. Poppy wants to be a puppet.
Or a human playing a puppet. Lots of people want to see her do it: According to the article, Poppy’s videos, masterminded by her creator/handler/director Titanic “Not My Real Name” Sinclair, have had 257 million views. Why? Poppy herself suggests an answer: “Poppy’s world is a magical place… and it’s the most free part of the entire universe.” Maybe Poppy and Titanic are offering us an escape, an internet dream vacation, where nothing truly bothersome ever happens, and if it did, you just wouldn’t like it.
Titanic admits that Poppy can make even the pop-besotted uncomfortable at times. In an interview with NPR’s Scott Simon: “I think it’s fun to be uncomfortable sometimes—being able to have that kind of Goldilocks zone where you’re not too hot, not too cold with comfort is missing a lot. I think it motivates a lot of what we make.”
That discomfort is revelatory: Titanic and Poppy are making art, a splendid homage to Warhol that uses Japanese and Korean pop forms and attitudes, merging them with the fembots that Hess names in her article. Later on in the interview with Simon, Titanic observes, “We’re just a bunch of monkeys with big brains swiping on glowing rectangles.” Poppy is his way of showing that to us. Maybe.
But what if we really embraced it, that “magical place,” that “flawless” place, where we could go and escape the ugliness around us in “real” life, fight it with fashion and cosmetics. Hess observes that Kylie Jenner (and lots of other celebrities) uses Instagram and Snapchat constantly to update her image, push her cosmetics line, represent a specific representation of herself. And her affect is…blank. Hess quotes Chris Wallace of Interview magazine, who called Kylie (NOT Poppy) “sex-doll sanguine.” And she notes the similarity to the CGI fembots of recent science fiction films and TV series (Ex Machina, Westworld, Humans)—who only become dangerous when they develop minds of their own.
Minds of their own.
Here’s Warhol in a 1963 radio interview:
Q: “Do you think pop art could survive, let’s say, without PR people?”
A: “Oh, yeah.”
Q: “You do?”
A: “Well, because I think people who come to the exhibition understand it more. They don’t have to think. And they just sort of see things, and they like them, and they understand them easier. And I think people are getting to a point where they don’t want to think, and this is easier.”
Think how much more mediated the space we share is now. Poppy offers an escape— from thinking too deeply about things, from worrying. We’re living in the dystopia. We want to escape it.
Hello Google/Siri/Alexa! What is the relationship between “art” and “beauty”?
“I’m not sure. I have noticed that you’ve spent a lot of time hovering over Tolstoy’s What Is Art?, which demolishes any argument equating the two. Has that helped you get more friends or followers, clicks, likes, or shares? Are you a YouTube star yet? (I know the answer to that one!)”
Like Poppy, Lil Miquela is another YouTube sensation. Unlike Poppy, she’s computer-generated. My favorite line from her pop hit, Not Mine: “I’m just out here living my life.”
That’s because “here” and “living” and “my life” put me in a Goldilocks zone, not too real and not too virtual, and yet never “just right.” And that gives Poppy and me an autonomous sensory meridian response.