SOPHIE Transcended Everything

SOPHIE’s music imagined the world as it should be rather than lamenting how it is. Photo: SOPHIE/YouTube

Culture is tension, a never-ending push and pull between forces of change and the forbidding rubber-band snap of stasis, familiarity, and conservatism. To move it in any meaningful capacity requires not just vision but a sterling resolve, because people fear the unknown and are suspicious, perhaps quite astutely, of the redrawing of the borders of society and what and whom we deem acceptable therein, since such a thing must come at the expense of a sliver of cultural hegemony for themselves. More seats at the table mean less pie for everyone. Around the world, societies teeter on the brink of true breakthrough, restrained by selfishness disguised as honoring tradition, ignorant to — or at least conveniently unacknowledging of — the truth that the people who invented our traditions weren’t thorough enough in their imagining of all of the many different kinds of people who would need rights and allowances. They hadn’t considered that women might want a say in their own governance, that Black people might quite like full-fledged citizenship, that homosexuals might want to have families, that one could have a different relationship to gender than their parents and come to want to be received in and defined by terms other than the ones parceled out to us at birth.

Tradition is rigid and exclusivist; the people who champion it now have devised a clever framing to mask this, waving off any move to make our world more accessible to more people as “identity politics.” If they understood the concept, they’d recognize that insulating oneself from change is an identity politics of its own, a cocoon of ideological precepts designed to nurture the self while keeping the other at bay. People frequently conceptualize identity as the list of bubbles one colors in while filling out a DMV form or a standardized test, the finite whos and whats that (presumably) cannot be changed, when, really, it is easier to understand as the sum of a person’s experiences and the unique sense of self derived from them. (The logic renders the conversation around the self mechanical and scientific, binary and simplistic, fostering preposterous dialogues like the decades-long “defense” of marriage as definitionally requiring the presence of one man and one woman or maniacal fixations on which bathrooms trans people use. Move this crowd an inch, and it sets up trenches elsewhere, fighting against the future as loud as ever.)

SOPHIE , the late Scottish singer-songwriter and producer who died at 34 after a terrible accident in Athens over the weekend, understood this and, perhaps frustratingly for some, had little interest in making concessions for people who didn’t. Asked by Paper in 2018 to parse the difference between the artist’s own experience as a trans woman who’d ultimately forgo all pronouns and the overarching world’s grappling with the subject of gender, SOPHIE offered: “It’s tradition. If you’re straight from the factory, your life should have a certain look and come with a certain short list of factors that you have to fulfill in your own way. But because of the body that you’re born into, it’s your obligation to satisfy as many of those as possible and that defines being successful.” Transness for SOPHIE, by contrast, was the idea that one’s path in life does not have to move on a predictive track and that the body ought to express that journey instead of being an anchor and arbiter of its course. Key to SOPHIE’s art is the understanding that identity is fluid and pliable, sometimes even immaterial to the ability to convey meaning through creation. Making music in the early 2010s without attaching a face or frame to it, SOPHIE weathered criticism from tastemakers accustomed to viewing artists through the lens of a narrative history. The rising mononymous star co-produced the PC Music touchstone “Hey QT,” an effervescent 2014 dance-pop single attributed to the imaginary pop star QT and framed as a soft-drink ad — it was quickly denounced as a puckish, disrespectful stunt, an act of crude ribbing of pop-music tropes by people who knew nothing about the intentions and origins of that music by deliberate design. (The heated debates between 2009 and 2014 about authenticity in music that sprang up around Rick Ross, Lana Del Rey, and PC Music are gauche in retrospect; we were witnessing the birth pains of a new approach to celebrity, one that emphasizes the now above the journey there. The more we get that being in public in any capacity necessitates artifice and performance, the sillier that fuss looks.) Asked by Billboard to commit to a specific genre, SOPHIE famously quipped “advertising,” but the juicier bit from that interview is the statement up front that autobiographical details were not required to grasp the music and that what SOPHIE wanted above all else was simply to make the listener’s body react.

A few years later, SOPHIE would abandon invisibility and anonymity abruptly — as though they had only been a means to an end that no longer served the artist — in the vibrant, revealing video for the twinkling, moving “It’s Okay to Cry,” which introduced the world to SOPHIE’s face and voice. Officially coming out as trans, SOPHIE quieted terrible, presumptuous accusations of appropriating womanhood and crass point-blank questions about how one chooses to define one’s own identity. You could argue SOPHIE had long been communicating all of this in the music in the tension between beauty and horror and between sounds you might consider to be typically feminine and masculine. To that end, “Faceshopping” — whose abrasive metallic scraping gives way to operatic coos and whose video warps, deflates, and slices a mock-up of the singer’s face — is just as core to SOPHIE’s work as the cinematic reveal of “It’s Okay to Cry.” Together, they seem to say, “Here I am, since you care, which you shouldn’t.” The artist always seemed more interested in tearing down the walls encircling pop music and bridging arty, conceptual, experimental music with the glossy mainstream than analyzing the reasons for wanting to do it (though, if you piece together the bits of directness about a younger SOPHIE’s tastes, revealed in the few interviews left behind, it all tracks as that of a child who grew up in the orbit of U.K. rave, got into sci-fi and groundbreaking multimedia art like Matthew Barney’s The Cremaster Cycle, then married it all to a love of pop and pop culture). You need only to scan the wide-ranging list of notable admirers who offered remembrances throughout the weekend to gauge SOPHIE’s success in that experiment: SoCal gangsta rapper Vince Staples paid his respects, as did funk veteran Nile Rodgers, trans YouTube vlogger ContraPoints, RuPaul’s Drag Race winner Aquaria, pop producers Benny Blanco and Jack Antonoff, queer, nonbinary artists Arca and Shamir Bailey, and many more.

SOPHIE’s short but potent catalogue molded sound with intention. The singles collected in the 2015 debut, cheekily (or perhaps not?) titled Product, showcased an attention to texture normally reserved for esoteric projects like Autechre or Matmos, applying this noise to a pop framework. “Lemonade” is like Nicki Minaj’s “Beez in the Trap” on shrooms, an oddball rhythm assembled from the sounds of popping bubbles that’s thrown into chaos in the end, giving the listener the sensation of bouncing around inside a soda can that someone has unexpectedly shaken up. “Bipp” employs abrasive synths as percussion as the vocal sweetly promises an end to your inner struggles, a sentiment echoed throughout 2018’s Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides (think “I love every person’s insides”), where being at peace in one’s interior world is more important than whatever the exterior packaging looks like. (This is maybe oversimplifying Oil, a mesmerizing and unpredictable album full of clever subversions and inversions, whose bedroom banger “Ponyboy” sounds like a Minotaur on the loose and whose expression of trans personhood is often as profoundly simple as it is in the lyrics of “Immaterial”: “You could be me, and I could be you / Always the same and never the same / Day by day, life after life.” SOPHIE’s music imagined the world as it should be rather than lamenting how it is. As necessary as it is to spotlight the oppression, abuse, and murder of queer and trans people in the shadow of cis straight power structures that have whiled away the 21st century fumbling the ball on injustices visited on minority groups, it is also nice to vanish into a pocket universe where you aren’t the other, and you don’t have to justify your existence to people who hadn’t given it much thought before, and you’re just receiving healing art from someone who quietly gets it.)

Producing for other artists, SOPHIE gave collaborators some of the best sounds of their careers. On Charli XCX’s Number 1 Angel, “Roll With Me” sails synths through the mix like lasers as loud finger snaps punctuate, keeping time, the end result resembling the tuneful but jarring sounds of an arcade. On “Hot Pink,” the production weaponizes the serenity of U.K. pop duo Let’s Eat Grandma’s voices with a powerfully heavy drop as they smirk in acknowledgment of how hard it hits. “Bitch I’m Madonna,” which SOPHIE produced with Diplo, applied the forceful commercialism and jittery sonics of “Hey QT” to the voice and iconography of Madonna, gifting the pop lifer a fresh “Hot 100” placement over 30 years after her first appearance on the chart. On Staples’s Big Fish Theory, an album a number of hip-hop heads dismissed straight away as too interested in EDM, SOPHIE contributed to “Yeah Right” and “SAMO,” whose lumbering pace, sinister synths, and disorienting voice manipulation seem present in the soil from which modern hip-hop gems like Erica Banks’s “Buss It” are sprouting. SOPHIE knew SOPHIE’S place and SOPHIE’s purpose. The artist came to shake things up and did not fuck around. The impact on pop is demonstrable, from the endless possibilities of the slippery, savvy genre-hopping of Rina Sawayama to the sensory overload of 100 gecs records and beyond. Losing a light like that is crushing. SOPHIE’s blend of technical excellence, childlike wonder, and ideological clarity were evidence of a generational talent. We won’t soon see a match, but we can enjoy a world forever changed by the work — and pledge to be less loutish the next time genius enters the room.

SOPHIE Transcended Everything