For the past nine years the enigmatic Los Angeles artist – who counts Grimes amongst her fans – has been uploading beguiling music videos that are as enticing as they are mysterious
Carl Wilson’s book Let’s Talk About Love examines Celine Dion's 1999 hit album of the same name. The conceit of the book is not Dion herself, but rather the intellectual boundaries within pop music regulated by taste. Dion is incredibly popular around the world, but she’s rarely treated as a ‘credible’ artist. During the 1998 Academy Awards, for example, the late Elliott Smith performed “Miss Misery”, a feral ballad from the Good Will Hunting soundtrack addressing depression and addiction, with only a guitar in hand; it was followed by Dion swooshing out in a cloud of stage fog, belting out the Titanic theme song. The binary of genuine-versus-contrived of course existed before and persisted after Dion, but Let’s Talk About Love argues that the internet manages to obscure this divide, allowing any artist to thrive with little scrutiny over their persona.
Wilson’s thesis can help explain the online phenomenon of Naomi Elizabeth. For the past nine years, the Los Angeles-based performer – age unknown – has been releasing music videos on three separate YouTube channels as well as her own Tumblr (last month, after a short hiatus, she uploaded her latest video, “When You Get The Best You’re Like Wow”). Though Elizabeth was (and to some extent still is) an obscure experimental artist in the chasms of YouTube, she now holds a dedicated fanbase, with her videos racking up over 300,000 views.
Most if not all of her fans reside on the irony-embracing microblogging platform Tumblr, where many of them will have first laid eyes on her thanks to a post by Canadian alt-pop musician Grimes. In the summer of 2015, Grimes posted Naomi Elizabeth’s music video “God Sent Me Here To Rock You All” to her personal Tumblr. In the lo-fi video, Elizabeth dances convulsively over scenes depicting relatively normal displays of office life and, later, wields a medieval sword outside said office. Immediately, users clasped onto the bemusing artist. “I trusted Grimes and I’m glad I did,” one user noted. “Eeriness, thy name is Naomi.”
Musically, the song is a mix of Venice Beach and Calabasas, equal parts experimental and glossy. It’s as if kitsch-pop maximalist SOPHIE was asked to cover late-era Celine Dion. Elizabeth sounds assertive with her wild octave leaps as she sings, repeatedly, “Hot like the tropics.” “This is one of the best songs ever written,” Grimes expressed, “she’s impossible to find which makes me more obsessed with her.”
It’s this spectral narrative that makes Elizabeth such an alluring character. In my attempt to organise an interview with her for this feature, I found the online hunt for contact details just as fascinating as the figure herself. Over six months I bounced from multiple identical blogs that were later revealed to be fan accounts to Pinterest-style meme sites. Her minimally-designed website lists a Google Voice inbox and the email to a snack food review site as her only contact details.
“I used to talk to every single person who contacted me online,” Elizabeth says over email when I finally do reach her, “then I crossed paths with some stalkers and creeps. I had to take them to court and get restraining orders against them, which was a lot of work and unpleasant.” The attention elevated massively after Grimes’ tumblr post, which for the most part Elizabeth disregards: “Sometimes a lot of people are talking about you and sometimes they aren’t, and I wish I could say it affected the bottom line of what I’m doing or thinking about… but it doesn’t really, haha.”
Enigma pop stars are nothing new, historically – it’s what Lady Gaga strived for, and later pulled back from. The fact that users of Tumblr, a platform notable for its semi-anonymity and fanbases gestured by cosplay and fanfiction, were quick to embrace a talent like Elizabeth is also to be expected. Instead, what makes Elizabeth so compelling is her delivery. “It’s Not Easy When You’re Me”, The oldest of her listed music videos, dates back to 2010 and fits the same vibe as later videos like “They Call Me White Chocolate”, where the tone is ambiguously jarring. There’s something off, but you can’t explain what – unlike, for example, Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On”, there are no contextual clues as to what emotions your brain should be switching to. Instead, we’re given Sleater-Kinney riffs and Elizabeth serenading in a tight box, “Do that dance.”
Later talking over WhatsApp, I ask whether this was all an elaborate art project. “I used to be very invested in art as a paradigm, and I justified some of my behaviour as art,” she responds. “Now I’d say I’m more interested in joking around and not attributing any extra levels to it. But also, it doesn’t bother me to be sometimes joking and sometimes not.” For her audience, it’s hard not to read too much into the music. We can easily imbue a meta-narrative of a pop star being a visible performer and commodity like Lady Gaga’s apex The Fame Monster – except with the actual dedication to secrecy.
It’s a conversation that was handed over on a smooth, shiny baton to the musician Poppy (sometimes known as ‘That Poppy’), a California-based pop project of Moriah Pereira – age also unknown. New rave-leaning electropop and emotionally urgent synths make up a majority of Poppy’s music, while her aesthetic is one that can be described – as one YouTube commenter puts it – as ‘illuminati-core’. (For what it’s worth, there are actual conspiracy theories about Poppy’s origin.) In her videos, Poppy usually stands against a sterile white backdrop and performs Lynchian vignettes in an immediate and robotic voice, reminding us that she is indeed ‘Poppy’.
In the same way that Naomi Elizabeth communicates through misleading memes and humorous selfies, Poppy’s monologues are injected with preternatural connotations, constantly hinting or announcing that a shadowy group is controlling her. In one video, which has since been deleted, she instructs the viewers on how to load a handgun. It’s as she’s telling the audience they should not be enjoying this. Both Poppy and Elizabeth seem aware of the risks of the enigma, on losing a narrative that was never present in the first place, but Poppy differs to Elizabeth in that she feels intentionally left vacant. To become a vessel for audiences to project all manner of attitudes towards the genre or self is a volatile move, and a practice that periodically backfires on other performers. Abstracting the vague persona is one way around it.
All things considered, Elizabeth’s six-year-long project still remains a DIY artistic expression, with no clear monetary grabs or major label tie-ins which could serve as the reason for her longevity. For Poppy – who was signed to the major label Island Records – the parameters for her mystery and abstraction is set. It’s the same case for Who Is Fancy, a recently-signed project by Jake Hagood – the artist at first remained anonymous, deploying different actors to serve as his surrogate in a series of clever music videos for songs dealing with gender identity. But the actual question of ‘Who is Fancy?’ was answered when the artist was contractually obligated to perform on live television, ending the discussion on the necessity of a performer’s body.
Similarly PC Music, the assemblage of synthetic Y2K artists whose music register as pop in the most uncanny valley sense, also delight in the enigma as the music becomes more than a sonic experience when laced with tongue-in-cheek corporate imagery and slapstick humour. One of their most popular artists, Hannah Diamond, succeeds Elizabeth’s multi-platform approach on maximising her visibility without ever revealing anything substantial about herself personally. It highlights an audience’s desire for intimacy even with the knowledge of fabrication. It’s notable that after the label’s partnership with Columbia Records in 2015, there are still no sign of their artists veering out of their branded personas.
Naomi Elizabeth’s latest video “When You Got The Best You’re Like Wow” embodies much of her performance. The video loops over vanity shots of Elizabeth in her most spacious sounding track yet. “The concept of the song is the character of a very vapid person who has only a dim awareness of all the beautiful things that have accidentally happened to them,” she explains. “The bounties of life are automatically handed to them without any effort or intention. They realise that they should express gratitude, but it’s all very dim and confusing.”
Most people readily acknowledge the artifice of pop music, but rarely do we appreciate the immediate gratification we receive from it. Part of the acknowledgement is not feigning insincere vitriol when the veil is pulled – be it an artists reinventing themselves, an origin story being debunked, or Celine Dion breaking her meticulous composure on CNN after rightly defending looters post-Hurricane Katrina. Given these principles, performers like Naomi Elizabeth and Poppy not only celebrate the freedom of duality but the audience's hunger, not for authenticity in the traditional sense, but of the fake as real, of genuine pretence. The escapist origin of popular music is reinvigorated online then pushed to extremes through virality and memes until it reaches the very bottom of irony.
Being genuine in concept can reign more true than heavy-handed protractions of the ‘real you’ that artists like Miley Cyrus are attempting to pass. When I asked Elizabeth if her latest video was in any way autobiographical, she responded: “It’s all fiction. Real life is too boring.”