Poppy - Am I A Girl? (Review)

Martin_Canine POPPY
Am I A Girl?

You could call Poppy’s sophomore album (or third if you count her non-commercial instrumental avantgarde record 3:36 - Music To Sleep To, which I don’t) a near perfect pop album of the 2010s, but then, is Poppy really… pop? She’s as much pop as Scream is a slasher film and Sucker Punch is an action movie. They all master their respective genre better than most other works of their generation while at the same time being a razor sharp, critical comment on the very style they are. Poppy’s music sounds as if Britney Spears found back to form, or rather, as if her songwriters and producers who in the last ten years most violently destroyed her status as the foremost pop princess of her generation did. In a way, the role Poppy plays in her songs is quite similar to that of Spears’ earlier works, with the significant difference that she is fully self aware and uses the part she plays to satirize stardom and pop music stereotypes, giving her tracks a much deeper and more intelligent meta level.

Her previous effort, Poppy.Computer, addressed modern society’s addiction to technology with clever double entendres that on the surface had a certain resemblance of a 90s bubblegum dance’s way of depicting the cyberspace (“I fell in love with the man of the future / I’ve got a thing for my laptop computer”) or a teasy little pop number (“I caught you in my interweb / I caught you in my internet / Well, maybe I’m a spider / Or maybe I’m a fisherman”), but actually held a very sarcastic, sociocritical tone once you looked through her seemingly light hearted, naive and innocent appearance. The greatest trick Poppy pulls is to let you think she’s just another polished product of the pop music industry, when she’s in fact a very smart singer-songwriter that purposely chose pop as her genre to get her point across best. Of course, her mentor and partner in crime Titanic Sinclair also contributed his part.

Am I A Girl? is a bit more direct in its political and social commentary. In fact, on some songs, like the pollution themed Time is Up, it’s VERY direct, in contrast to the entirety of Poppy.Computer that worked very subliminally. While much of the criticism was dealt with Poppy playing the character she has issues with herself, this time she mostly talks to the listener. But you could argue that said directness may also be part of her take on pop music, which in the last years became a medium for statements, with artists such as Beyoncé, Lady Gaga or Katy Perry using their fame to address problems in an anthemic fashion. As the album title suggests, a recurring theme on the record is gender identity, with Poppy posing as a gender neutral figure that raises postmodern questions on what makes us female, male or something in between, and on the album’s only explicit song Chic Chick takes a role that’s traditionally male. We fortunately live in times in which our identity matters more than before, and in which we aren’t as forced to think in definitions as generations before us. Of course, Poppy also expands on her role as a media star. Songs like Iconic play with our inner desire to be a big trend setting star with lots of fans. During the lyrics, the person she sings to has anxieties of not being the perfect barbie doll they think they need to be, with Poppy telling them to "just put on some polish" and be the titular icon.

Musically, Am I A Girl? is much richer and more exciting than its predecessor. A touch of 80s synth pop and vaporwave make it light and smooth at parts, classily used flanger effects on her soft, angelic vocals push it slightly into futurepop territory. The tunes also have much more hit potential, with choruses of songs such as Iconic, Hard Feelings and Am I A Girl?, among others, leaving an instant impression that would put other current radio divas to shame. It makes perfect sense for Poppy to be the most flawless pop star that uses all aesthetics of modern mainstream music but with a higher than average quality, to deconstruct the entire genre. As Katy Perry’s Chained to the Rhythm showed last year, a self aware, intelligently written dance pop song can reach more people than a deliberately uber serious song. Poppy.Computer was a fine listen, but it lacked the sensation of an infectious earworm, something that Am I A Girl? has throughout. Still, between all the synth pop there’s a stronger rock influence on the compositions, going so far that the otherwise sugary album ends with a full blown hard rock song called X. But usually it only goes as far as to interpolate a few new wave sounds or electric guitars into the music, as can be heard on the album’s title track, whose disco rock sounds just like something out Lady Gaga’s Born This Way, in the same high quality, but with a touch of Kraftwerk thrown into it.

So to speak, Am I A Girl? may be both the perfect pop and anti-pop album of the year. There’s little doubt that Poppy, aided by a bunch of first class producers, masters the genre’s aesthetics so precisely she could easily play in the first league, while cleverly addressing and satirizing the superficial nature of fame and nonreflective, god-like worshipping by the fans that comes along with it. That makes the album a musically and lyrically appealing fodder for fans of electronic radio music who also like to take a critical look at pop culture.