Poppy: What Does the Online Popstar’s Break into Metal Mean for Rock’s Future?

Given how a certain faction of metal fans often throw their toys out of the pram every time someone mentions Ghost in a metal forum, it’s surprising how understated the backlash to the emergence of YouTube-personality-turned-pop-star-turned-metal-artist Poppy in rock circles has been so far. Any related posts on metal blogs or Facebook groups have drawn the inevitable stream of enraged comments, of course, but as it turns out a metal act with a tendency for infectious pop hooks and irresistible melodies is no longer out-there enough to warrant any sort of truly significant backlash. It’s somewhat odd, given that despite how much a certain faction of metal fans love to brag about how different they are for liking a genre so removed from the perceived mainstream, they’re often comically averse to change or indeed growth.

Perhaps the scene’s general passivity to I Disagree is more a result of Poppy’s admittance that she’s never claimed to be a metal artist, or simply a result of any hype remaining largely within a younger demographic – hence the recent Kerrang! cover feature. Regardless, the barrage of hot takes is significantly less overwhelming this time around, and that’s generally a good sign for the future of metal and the acceptance of experimentation therein. Here’s hoping that means more genre-hopping releases going forward, because thus far pickings have been somewhat slim. So much so that those who find themselves infinitely fed up of metal’s oversaturation are occasionally overly keen to latch on to anyone incorporating metal into other genres – there is an argument to be made that such experimentation, whilst fuelled by admirable ambition, doesn’t always quite reach its full potential.

Within a wider genre that has existed for five decades, there’s certainly value in delivering something of good quality that there’s an existing, defined audience for. The likes of Power Trip – who all but perfected a subgenre over 30 years after its invention – are successful off the back of this very premise. But to truly make an impact in 2020 it pays to do something new, especially if the end product is true to yourself as a person and/or artist. No one can accuse Poppy of anything other than exactly that. Her music is born of her own tastes, and she approaches each genre with gleeful irreverence as her sound jumps from sweet early 2000s pop to Billie Eilish-esque dark electronics, then on to chugging guitars and chunky hardcore breakdowns.

The musician’s foray into heavier realms began in earnest on 2018’s Am I A Girl?, most notably on closer ‘X’ which bolted ‘60s-esque folk to snarling riffs with reckless abandon. Then last year she collaborated with Jason Aalon Butler’s rap-rock endeavour Fever 333 for a track that merged melodious pop with weighty, early Deftones riffing and gargantuan swooping synths. On I Disagree, however, the foray becomes a headfirst dive, with the singer leaning fully into the metal scene throughout. The album’s cover even features an image of the singer plastered with digitised corpsepaint, as if someone was merely playing around with Snapchat filters after stumbling across Lords Of Chaos online.

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Opener ‘Concrete’ jumps all over the shop, hinting at heaviness before launching into a segment of all-out J-pop, then bringing the riffs back for a tantalisingly short period of bedlam. Poppy knows exactly what she’s doing by kicking things off this way, and in laying out her madcap stall early on she isn’t exactly inviting the listener in so much as she is daring them to stick around. Such blasé faire songwriting is to be admired, and even the kvltiest of trve kvltists surely couldn’t help but admit that’s it’s a thrilling introduction. At the very least, it’s certainly countless times more ambitious than any excessively generic second-wave worshipping black metal act, the sort who emerge several decades too late with nothing new to offer and yet somehow find reverence amongst fans of a genre that prides itself on outsiderism and doing things differently.

In recent years it seems to have become a trend that those bold enough to actually merge metal with other styles are coming from outside the genre, be it King Gizzard And The Lizard Wizard’s triumphant psych-thrash behemoth Infest The Rat’s Nest or Birdmask creator Manuel Gagneux’s turn as spirituals X black metal mash-up project Zeal & Ardor. Poppy is another addition to this growing list, but in truth her metallic contributions are seldom more than skin-deep. Though the hefty riffs of ‘Concrete’ are thrilling in their surprise materialisation 30-seconds in, they would likely be written off as generic were they coming from an upcoming metalcore outfit, and the driving hard-rock verses of ‘Fill The Crown’ could easily be ripped from any odd Marilyn Manson track.

This is a common fault with such experiments. Issues’ blend of Justin Bieber-esque croons, R&B beats and metalcore riffs has never quite hit the heights it surely could, occasionally stepping dangerously close to nu-metal territory, and whilst Sleep Token’s post-rock and tech-metal-ridden chamber pop is frequently captivating, there is already a strong chance that three years in we’ve seen all that the project has to offer. Perhaps this niggling issue with such genre convergences is the inevitable result of a musician’s sound being stretched too thin, or perhaps it is simply the next hurdle to be cleared if we’re to make such experiments more commonplace.

This is a tad pessimistic though, for whilst I Disagree is not perfect, it is worthy of note simply as a bold undertaking from the most interesting of artists – one who doesn’t see genre boundaries as restrictions to be shattered so much as she does boring and outdated rules to be ignored entirely. A shape-shifting album capable of saccharine choruses, pulsing electro-pop and chunky hardcore (often all within a single track) may seem a surprising turn for a young internet personality-turned-musician, but anyone who’s fallen down Poppy’s rabbit-hole of a YouTube channel, which includes everything from interviews with potted plants to ten-minute recitals of her own name, likely won’t be all that surprised by I Disagree. Older generations often malign new technology for its influence on today’s youth, and perhaps Poppy’s sound is the result of an artist familiar with today’s fast-moving internet culture, where it’s easy to find yourself excited by something one minute and bored by it the next. Perhaps I Disagree will be forgotten by this time next week, but for all its faults, it’d be a shame if this interesting talking point doesn’t at least stick around long enough to inspire more artists to take such risks.

For more, click here to check out our recent list of “Astral Pop” designed for our readers.

Words: George Parr