What do we ask of pop music? Part of the rising “poptimism” movement in the music criticism world is that pop music is unfairly criticized for being simple in its lyrics, construction, or theme. The reason this is considered unfair is that it is core to the idea of pop music that it should be instantly gratifying. That’s not to say pop music cannot be complex or deep on any of its levels – in fact, it is generally to the benefit of the music when it is – it is only saying that to criticize pop music for laying all its cards down on the table immediately is akin to criticizing a gritty east coast hip-hop album for lackluster vocals or a garage rock album for being too noisy. These are cornerstones and hallmarks for the genre. Of course, I don’t at all mean that everyone should like and appreciate pop. It is instantly gratifying and often simplisitic, and I can see how that would turn people off from a subjective standpoint. The main point here is that it is appropriate to analyze pop music the same way any other genre would be. Ultimately, pop music needs to be as instantly gratifying and enjoyable as possible. The best pop albums make the listener feel from the very first listen. There are sad pop albums, there are happy pop albums, and there are pop albums in between, but the best ones always emotionally engage its listener from the very first listen. That’s how the genre got its name. The music is “popular” because it is accessible.
I’d like to preface this review with an introduction to Poppy, because I feel that her music is much better consumed in context. Poppy is essentially a pastiche of a modern (or futuristic) manufactured, plastic pop-star. Her YouTube channel features not only music videos layered in intentional Illuminati and other strange visuals (like this), but also bizarre monologues about technology, the internet, pop music, and much more (like this). Poppy’s own announcement of her new album came in the form of this strange video. I find Poppy’s image and message fascinating in its absurdity and its lack of clarity, and I invite the reader to explore her channel. She has dozens of videos, and trying to pin down exactly what her message is in a brief way is impossible. Nonetheless, the themes of imitating disposable, plastic, and manufactured popstars (and even people) is persistent.
Enter Poppy.computer: one of the best pop albums of 2017. This is an album that wholly succeeds as a pop album. Poppy.computer is song after song of wonderfully catchy, diverse, and absolutely joyful pop music with subtle hints in the lyrics and instrumentals to its theme. It is a pop album that is strange and unique in a way that bolsters the overall effect of the album. It’s not resting on a false claim to complexity – it’s the most instantly gratifying album I’ve heard this year in a way that supports its overall theme. Outside of the intro and outro tracks which I feel have specific purposes in introducing and concluding the album, the other 9 tracks are simply perfect pop songs with catchy hooks and choruses, clever and climactic bridges, and overall diverse sounds. I couldn’t even reasonably pick a favorite song out of this bunch that I like the most. The opening synths from “Let’s Make a Video” are amazing, the duality and Grimes-like weirdness in “My Microphone” is great, and the huge, soaring synths in “Software Upgrade” just make that song sound massive. I mean this completely when I say every song here is pop gold. They’re fun as hell. Beyond that, each song is produced perfectly. These songs are clean-sounding, with beautiful synths, crisp drums, and precise effects. This production really allows Poppy to fill the role she creates for herself as a plastic artist.
I’m not going to dig deeply into this album and try to thrust fake deepness unto it in order to score points for the album, but I do feel like there are subtle and not-so-subtle hints in the lyrics and instrumentation that show that something is off here, and that the album still lives firmly in Poppy’s world. Line’s like
“Welcome to the new world, I’m your internet girl / Open up and you’ll see, everyone is happy” in “I’m Poppy” as the opening verse to the album, or the way she proffesses her love for her “laptop computer” in “Computer Boy” and claims the “technology is deep inside of me” in “Interweb” blend the line between manufactured pop-star and literally manufactured pop-star. Poppy over and over again attempts to blur her actual image as a human being and replaces it with a half-robot half-human type being. Her face is intentionally covered on the album cover. The opening track “I’m Poppy” is the noisiest and blurriest track of the bunch and mostly exists as an almost sarcastic repeated spelling of her name (as if the only way she can be defined is spelling her name over and over again). These are the little touches that push the album over the top for me, and there are way more here that are better discovered in the listener’s own adventure through this album.
Nonetheless, Poppy.computer checks all the musical boxes for a stellar pop album. At first listen, this collection of 11 songs are some of the most danceable, fun, and catchy pop songs I’ve heard in a long time. Beyond that, Poppy manages to establish this strange, surreal atmosphere where she not only makes her music sound like an uncanny mix of organic and synthetic, but she actually manages to reflect that theme of this album in her own self-image. This theme is cemented in by the final track “Pop Music”. It’s a hilariously satirical “from-the-heart-ballad” pop song with a cheesy acoustic guitar and a subtly self-deprecating story. Despite how it comes across on first listen, this is a song that cleverly insults pop music rather than praises it. Poppy describes pop music as something that is “hated” and only appreciated because people cannot help but find it catchy. After 10 consecutive songs where Poppy parades as a half-internet half-girl hybrid, she again sarcastically empathizes with the real pop-stars: “it’s hard to make it / Drive rich cars and live in some mansions / Still, have heart under all the fashion“. The image here of a pop girl that has fallen in love with her computer praising pop-stars for retaining their humanity is unmissable. Poppy herself even claims she is just “following the money”. “Pop Music” is essentially an ironic anti-poptimism closer that confirms the theme of the album. To be clear, this is not some grandiose or revolutionary theme about pop music or the music industry, but across the album as a whole Poppy has a lot to say about the interaction between people and music, the internet, and technology in the modern world. On top of just how enjoyable the tracks are to listen to, it’s a poignant and interesting theme.
The one semi-valid gripe that I have been reading about for this album is that, taken outside of context, the entire thing sounds vapid and shallow. Given that within Poppy’s context that quality is entirely necessary, I understand this complaint but I can’t justify it. In many ways, Poppy completely embodies vapidity. That’s why I provided context at the start of this review, and if you’re encouraged to listen to this album after reading it I would explore her YouTube channel and learn more about Poppy first. I understand that criticisms of this album will persist as a result of judging it completely in a vacuum, but I don’t listen to music in a vacuum. Poppy builds off the image she has already created just like any other artist, and I have no issue her using that image as a launchpad for the theme of this debut. (All things considered, I’d probably love this album if it was my first exposure to Poppy anyway).
I am sure that I’m going to have many people disagree with me after this one, but I can’t find a thing wrong with Poppy.computer. It’s songs are diverse, catchy, and fun. There’s not a single miss in its 11 tracks, and on top of that I think Poppy has done a great job of creating an overarching atmosphere and theme that explores the ongoing synthesis between people and their technology. I find that while its instantly gratifying nature is defended by the overall theme, it doesn’t feel like it has to be. The music itself is immensely enjoyable, and Poppy’s aesthetic is simply the icing on the cake. Poppy.computer is surprisingly an album of the year contender for me at this point, and it’s an absolute must-listen for pop fans.