SOPHIE’s Beautiful Music Hoped for a World Freed From Gender
The commanding electronic musician, who died Saturday, sketched out a world unconstrained by any bodies at all.
SOPHIE was an optimist, and she made me one too.
The Scottish producer died in Athens, Greece, around 4 a.m. Saturday at the age of 34, according to a statement from the record labels Transgressive and Future Classic: “True to her spirituality she had climbed up to watch the full moon and accidentally slipped and fell.” The death is a deep loss for pop music.
SOPHIE (government name: Sophie Xeon; artist name styled in all caps) sketched out worlds unconstrained by gender—or any bodies at all. A representative told Pitchfork the musician used no pronouns—neither the gendered he/she nor the nonbinary them.
SOPHIE cut a figure like Willy Wonka, erecting wondrous worlds within music and making us all feel like we had won a golden ticket to tour a vast, glassy imagination. SOPHIE winked at us all the while. And SOPHIE made exceptional music.
“Immaterial,” a song from the 2018 album Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides, reads like a SOPHIE manifesto: “I could be anything I want / Immaterial boys, immaterial girls / Anyhow, anywhere, any place, anyone that I want / Im-ma-ma-material, immaterial.” The record was nominated for a Grammy for Best Dance/Electronic Album.
Though SOPHIE did not wholesale invent the genre within a genre of “Hyperpop,” the artist was a pioneer of the “ebullient electro-maximalism,” as described by a Spotify data scientist in a recent interview with The New York Times. It is a burgeoning niche that includes SOPHIE, SOPHIE’s own starting point PC Music, several high-profile transgender artists, and 15-year-old trailblazers. The curators of Spotify’s Hyperpop playlist paid tribute to SOPHIE not long after news of the producer’s death broke by adding several SOPHIE songs to the list along with a broken heart emoji. SOPHIE was one of their foremost forebears.
SOPHIE drew the future with bouncy, oversaturated sounds synthesized from scratch rather than sampling. Like the artist’s lyrics, the gleeful instrumentation and production invited us to imagine a shinier, better tomorrow. The laborious process belied the ease and apparent artificiality of the songs themselves, and the resulting music seemed to reflect the sheen of a screen and the whiplash experience of the internet—the giddy, romance-novel excitement of “Like We Never Said Goodbye” and the grim, kinky pounding of “Ponyboy.” There is both a sweetness and a Berlin-club darkness to the chiming synths and abrasive bass of “Hard.”
SOPHIE described SOPHIE’s genre as “advertising” to Billboard not long before “Lemonade,” a breakout 2014 hit, soundtracked a commercial for McDonald’s lemonade. In 2015, Red Bull Music Academy sponsored Pop Cube, a touring PC Music showcase that included SOPHIE. Attendees could buy $20 cans of QT, an energy drink born of the sugary SOPHIE collab “Hey QT.” When I tried it, QT tasted like Red Bull, though the artists insisted it was not Red Bull in interviews. The sound of the show was industrial euphoria. I found it unforgettable.
This unstable unseriousness was not unlike a 2016 RuPaul quip: “I want to sell you some beer and shampoo and I need you to stick with what you are so I’ll know how to market it to you. Drag is the opposite. Drag says, ‘Identity is a joke.’”
Gene Wilder improvised Wonka’s famous introductory somersault. His reasoning: “I knew that from that time on no one would know if I was lying or telling the truth.”
A 2015 Pitchfork essay, “PC Music, Hipster Runoff and the Year of the Internet Hangover,” expressed skepticism that the sound of SOPHIE and other similar musicians could amount to anything when the early, hopeful internet had so soured in the hands of corporations and political interests.
“Fully ‘getting’ PC Music relies on the spectator’s awareness of the artists’ winking performance of Web 1.0 zeal in a Web 2.0 world,” wrote critic Meaghan Garvey. “They subvert nothing, nor do they add anything to the discussion beyond noise. They merely reflect the flat, bright, incessant, corporatized banalities of the current age, with all the insight and nuance of clickbait.”
The answer came as SOPHIE’s music evolved from 2015’s Product EP to 2018’s Pearl. SOPHIE incorporated the corporeal SOPHIE into the music. The artist came out as transgender in a 2018 interview with Paper, posed for the cover of Pearl facing the camera straight-on, used SOPHIE’s own vocals to make songs, and created and starred in a music video for the first time. Though the music uses obviously unnatural sounds, its point is not a tautological one alerting the listener of its fakeness. In Pearl, SOPHIE made and argued for a world where SOPHIE could exist freely, a world freed from gender.
“There’s a huge amount of work to be done socially, culturally. There’s a huge gap between where we are now and where I imagine we could be. The places that our imaginations can take us are so far away from what we’re presented with a lot of the time, so I can’t get too excited about anything happening now. I’m really excited about what should be happening in the future,” SOPHIE said in a 2018 interview with the YouTube channel Arte Tracks.
The excitement for that future is what SOPHIE brought to devoted listeners. SOPHIE as a persona seemed to emerge from the future and create music that fused high-pitched hope for days to come with the caustic unhappiness of the present. The producer’s adoration for pop music’s least natural elements is a philosophical 360-degree turn. It swivels from the original, boring earnestness of the mainstream into the ironic, surveying the contrarian viewpoint until it returns to a laughing desire for the original object—synthetic sound.
The attitude and production resonated with artists from Madonna (“Bitch I’m Madonna”) and Charli XCX (“Vroom Vroom”) to Vince Staples and Kendrick Lamar (“Samo,” “Yeah Right”).
“I’d rather collaborate with my friends who are whatever gender they please, or have very fluid ideas about gender,” the artist told Paper in 2018. “I view the people that I work with, girls and boys and people who identify as whatever gender they please, as strong individuals.”
In the same interview, SOPHIE said of transgender identity, “Transness is taking control to bring your body more in line with your soul and spirit... It means there’s no longer an expectation based on the body you were born into, or how your life should play out and how it should end.” SOPHIE prefaced one description of transgender identity with “on this earth”—identity to the artist was a reconciliation between the body and the ethereal essence of the self, but in a better world would not force them to fight in the first place.
“God is Trans,” SOPHIE said.
SOPHIE declared a philosophical stance on making pop music in a 2015 Rolling Stone interview: “I think all pop music should be about who can make the loudest, brightest thing. That, to me, is an interesting challenge, musically and artistically. And I think it’s a very valid challenge—just as valid as who can be the most raw emotionally. I don’t know why that is prioritized by a lot of people as something that’s more valuable. The challenge I’m interested in being part of is who can use current technology, current images and people, to make the brightest, most intense, engaging thing.”
SOPHIE’s vision, SOPHIE’s trademark layering of saccharine sounds over banging noise, was absurdist. If we’re standing on a glass floor above a long fall into meaninglessness, we may as well dance to SOPHIE on it. There is little to lose. The music advocates for something while acknowledging the silliness of championing anything. Might as well do it, then, if nothing matters and everything is fake? SOPHIE’s pursuit, as the producer said in interviews, was not a gag but rather deeply serious. One must imagine SOPHIE happy and intent on creation.