Isabelle was in a fury because someone at her workplace had handed her a pamphlet of what she called “dangerous literature.” She said it was all about mindfulness and being mindful.
Me: “Well, annoying, yes, but why is it dangerous?”
“Because it makes me want to punch someone in the face.”
I know exactly what she means. Indeed, you don’t need to have read “Politics and the English Language” twenty million times like I have to know that anyone who blathers on about how we need to ‘embrace happiness’ or ‘find our inner joy’ is actually expressing extreme mindlessness, not its opposite. Also, I should add, they have never had to deal with two 92 year olds every day like I do. Mindlessness is a curse, not a virtue, and 'twas ever thus. To quote Mr. O, “(our language) becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier to have foolish thoughts.”
There are a number of ways that today’s obsession with mindlessness expresses itself, but probably nowhere was it as evident in the performance Cato and I attended on Sunday night by an artist (“artist”) called (“called”) Poppy. I had never heard of her — “her” — but Cato asked me to get us tickets months and months ago, and it was at a small club in Berkeley, i.e, cheap, so I did so. A few weeks ago, the New York Times did an article on the so-called "rise of the social media fembot" discussing this artist in particular, and in addition, I got an email from some ticket resale agency asking me if I’d like to resell my tickets for a lot more money, so it didn’t really come as a HUGE surprise to see a line around the block of the Cornerstone Brewery and a big “Sold Out” sign on the door when we got there.
|that poppy. Cornerstone Brewery, 2/18/18|
It was interesting. Having been a rock critic since I was 17, I have hardly ever been to a show where I had less knowledge of the artist, the venue, or the scene than this, so it wasn’t just that I had no expectations, it was that even the New York Times article was unable to fully explain the very high concept thing that Poppy represents. I gathered that she is on the cutting edge of an obsession in pop culture with robots, or rather, fembots: perfect, robotic women. These are synecdoches of women -- like Siri, Alexa, sexdolls altered to look like models, and Kylie Jenner — who are expressionless, mindless, soulless, and meet our (“our”) every need. Oh joy.
So, Poppy is a pretend robot. In other words, she’s a woman (Moriah Pereira) who performs as if she were a fembot, in the midst of an irony-laden aesthetic that would attract two main types of people: adolescents, and pedophiles. She wears fluffy pale pink, white and baby blue mini skirts with feathers, a long perfect blond wig, and her songs are all electronic pop with lyrics about robot things like her computer boyfriend, love of the internet, nail polish, and oh yes, candy. Poppy’s music isn’t played on the radio, that would be too old fashioned. Instead, she has a popular YouTube station and a show on MTV, in which she does robot-y things like say her name (“I’m Poppy!”) or“I am empowered when I create high quality content on the internet,” for ten minutes straight, talks animatronically, and seems to be handled, or programmed, or whatever, by her d-jay/producer/”creator” Titanic.
Folded into the Poppy experience is a nod-nod-give-us-a-wink job/ at corporate sponsorship. She sponsors Doritos and Monster Energy Drink but does so in a way that makes it obvious she’s doing so, IE has giant pictures of herself eating or drinking them, as if this somehow subverts the action. To the college kids at the Poppy concert, this all seemed hilarious and extremely meta – they chanted “Monster Energy Drink” happily, and jumped around screaming “I’m Poppy” for the full 90 minute show. BTW, that 90 minutes consisted of 45 minutes of d-jayed music – the BarMitzvah mix, I called it, with songs like “Umbrella” and “A Thousand Miles” and “Mr. Blue Skies” (ELO is making a comeback, don’t you know) – and 40 minutes of the real-person Poppy pretending to be a robot by miming her songs over a back track and a video screen while two men dressed in tutus and Sia fright wigs danced around behind her. The videos, by the way, had extremely low-quality aesthetic values, they could have been made by middle schoolers, and this seemed to be part of the joke.
Most of the audience was college kids, but there were exceptions. Me, for example. And my daughter. Also, there was a fox-faced woman who arrived in an Uber SUV just as we were coming in, who was wearing a faux fur coat and Jimmy Choo ish shoes, and who looked like a Real Housewife of Orange County. She had a small boy in tow, and she immediately made her way up to the same corner of the balcony as I did (the obvious spot for old rock club hands who know where the perks are) and where she proceeded (unlike me) to bribe the security guard to let her son (and incidentally herself) onto the special/guest only balcony over the stage. I was standing right next to them so I heard the whole proceedings and it was amazing, and also successful, though the guard, to his credit, wouldn’t take the hundred bucks she offered him, he was perfectly satisfied with her smarming him. My daughter was watching it from a little ways away, and she texted me to ask what was going on, and when I explained, she said, ‘Well, I don’t think that’s fair, even if he is only ten. I would like to go to that balcony too.” Yup. That’s why security guards aren’t supposed to favor people. But that’s what world we live in. I texted her back. “Oh well, I bet she drives a Hummer.”
I forgot to mention that before Poppy came on, the club sound system played “Africa” by Toto on a tape loop – i.e. hundreds of times – and they did it after she left the stage too. Funny funny.
Maybe that’s what caused me to lose it. I do get the joke, I do get the meta-content, and I do get that, as the Times puts it, the fembot’s ideation of something ‘physically perfect but mentally deficient’ is but a stance, a way of critiquing technology, and music, and our role in popular culture; our desire to meld ourselves with perfection via social media and Instagram and so forth. Poppy herself could be seen as a clever and timely cross between Kim Kardashian and Laurie Anderson. But in the concert context, this outward display of mindlessness did not work for me. Because of course Poppy’s sound isn’t new or groundbreaking, it is dumb electronic pop. Nor was her look anything you haven’t seen before in a manga or anime; though Moriah Pereira certainly embodies the Sailor Moon body type better than almost anyone I’ve ever seen in person. The whole performance art aspect, being surrounded by very low-Rez cheesy looking videos, has been done before by Yung Lean, and the pretend-subversion of both the corporate world and the patriarchy, is just specious. No one subverts those things. All we can do is participate in them, hope to profit from them, and then feel totally filthy about it afterwards.
I think in the end, what disgusted me about the whole thing could be summed up by a single visual, that of a really creepy crazy old man with a mustache and a baseball cap who had planted himself in the front of the stage, where he could conveniently look up Poppy’s dress. He seemed to know every song, and he sang along and cheered with the crowd of teenagers through all the pop riffs – “Like a Virgin” and so on, blocking shorter people’s view and also, to my mind, creating a really unsafe space. It was astonishing what a blot on the landscape he was. Talk about not being mindful! His bodily presence was a constant reminder that what Poppy was/is all about is not computers, not cyberculture, not advertising, not even little girls who like fluffy pink dresses and cute songs about robots: it’s about men who use women’s bodies and their illusive promise of subservience to sell things – and even get us to buy in on it because it’s ha ha funny. And it’s not just us being ripped off, either. Poppy’s producer Titanic has already done this once, with an artist called Mars Argo.
Anyway, as with Isabelle's pamphlet, the whole shtick bordered on dangerous speech, because it made me feel like stabbing someone -- that guy up front, for beginners. Such toxicity! No wonder kids today reject gender and sexual norms...the way the patriarchy has evolved is just so gross. You know, the whole time I was a rock critic, I tried to guard against becoming that person who says things like, “Kids today!” Or, “That just sounds like noise!” Or, “Music in my day was so much better.” I try to be open to new things and if anything, I have been looking forward to the day when my daughter and her generation found some kind of sound or music that was either inexplicable or utterly offensive to me. But guess what? This isn't that. This is the crossover moment when I turn into a screaming old lady and just say it:
This is shit.