SOPHIE’s Whole New World | A Tribute

Photo+from+SOPHIE%27s+album+cover+for+OIL+FOR+EVERY+PEARL%27S+UN-INSIDES+NON-STOP.

Photo from SOPHIE’s album cover for OIL FOR EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES NON-STOP.

Luke Adams, Host of Terminally Online

Sometime around 2014, I discovered SOPHIE the same way that many people would—a song called “BIPP” that had recently emerged out of the then-new PC Music scene. “BIPP” sounded like nothing I’d ever heard before, but what I was actually listening to was almost impossible to define at first. The song was a completely mutant piece of electronic music, led by SOPHIE’s iconic chipmunk vocals and plastic, stammering synths. SOPHIE had made pop in its purest form, delivered at such a high dose that it bounced back and became lethal. That was the exchange that SOPHIE had demanded of us, and it would remain the guiding principle for the rest of their career.

 

 

The picture began to form as SOPHIE released more singles, culminating into their 2015 compilation Product.HARD” sharpened snares into a weapon while balancing that intensity with a shimmering chorus and Vogue-rapped vocals. “L.O.V.E” attempted the seemingly impossible task of not just making a noisy pop song, but a pop song carved out of buzzing, digital noise. However, in spite of the otherworldly sonics, this was still exceedingly sugary music, displayed best by “LEMONADE,”a song so infectious it somehow ended up in a McDonald’s ad, despite revealing virtually no celebrity to speak of. The imagery of water slides in the singles had a clear context, displaying 2 to 3-minute thrill rides, sonic experiences that SOPHIE even compared to roller coasters. If not their best album, Product is definitely the tidiest summation of their sound, and the one I’d recommend the most.

 

 

SOPHIE’s work was so alien that a lot of people didn’t know how to process it at first. There were a lot of comments in the press that have now aged like milk, notably from Grimes, who claimed that it was “fucked up” for SOPHIE to appropriate a female moniker. However, the coup de grace came from The Fader, who claimed in a now-deleted article from 2014 that early PC Music merely used femininity as an aesthetic, even going so far as to accuse SOPHIE of “colonizing the female body.” Even though SOPHIE wouldn’t come out as transgender until a few years later, both of these comments still rely on an embarrassing amount of sexual essentialism not far apart from TERF rhetoric. As far as I’m concerned, SOPHIE’s chipmunked female vocals and robotic sexuality brought us some of the most distinctly queer aesthetics that the 2010s had to offer. If we’re speaking in terms of performances, SOPHIE’s were brilliant. As both Grimes and The Fader attempt to leech off of their legacy post-mortem, it helps to remember that there was a time when what they were doing felt legitimately dangerous to some people.

Their critics would turn out to be behind the curve, anyway. Over the next few years, SOPHIE would become the secret weapon of everyone from Madonna to Vince Staples. However, their most important and enduring production credit came on Charli XCX’s “Vroom Vroom.” In the long run, this would become one of the most important songs of the 2010s, but the bottom line is that it goes unbelievably fucking hard. SOPHIE had admirers, but Charli was the first artist to truly understand how to translate their vision into a coherent, bubbly pop song. Charli would soon become the new face of pop futurism, and from there, anything was possible. Take a look backstage during Charli’s Pop 2 London show, and you’ll find the children of the revolution; Rina Sawayama, Dorian Electra, Tommy Cash, Mykki Blanco and even PC Music head A.G. Cook can be seen next to Charli and SOPHIE themself. Everybody in that photo owes something to SOPHIE for fostering what has now become its own scene.

 

 

By the time that this scene had begun to work with the promethean fire that SOPHIE had brought down, SOPHIE had already begun to change. The video for 2017’s “It’s Okay To Cry” would give us SOPHIE’s first formal face reveal, coming with the announcement that they had formally come out as transgender (later choosing to abandon pronouns altogether). SOPHIE described this as a dissolving of expectations and even the disappearance of “traditional family models and structures of control.” This moment marked a shift where SOPHIE, already a prolific voice, had taken full control over their image and themself.

 

 

The destruction of all boundaries defined this final phase of their career, culminating in OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES, one of the most otherworldly electronic albums of all time. The true blue pop songs were even more evolved than on Product, but most of the record went into territory that nobody (not even SOPHIE themself) had dared to venture into. “Ponyboy” was a sonic nightmare—a simulated car crash of kink over something that’s not so much a bassline as it is an avalanche of sound. “Faceshopping”’ cut like a knife while vocalist Cecile Believe brought an image of identity crisis during the internet age (“My face is the front of the shop[…] “I’m real when I shop my face”). The most haunting song on the entire project (and my personal favorite) comes with “Is it Cold in the Water?” It’s a dirge where SOPHIE buries their fragile vocals under a wave of icy, almost EDM-like synths without any rhythm section to kick it into overdrive. It’s a perfect example of how SOPHIE operated without any rulebook but their own, and even regularly tossed that aside.

 

 

On Jan. 30, SOPHIE passed away, leaving a hole in the music world that everyone from disco legends to hyperpop sensations, rappers, superproducers, radio DJs, metalheads and more lamented. The world is now without their physical presence, which is devastating when considering how much more they could’ve changed with more time. This music altered the genome of everyone who heard it, like an alien virus out of a Ray Bradbury story. Now, we’re not just left with a new generation of disciples; this is SOPHIE’s world. Coming from the admission of someone who runs a radio show on online subcultures, almost nothing I play would have existed without those first Product singles. It truly is impossible to overstate their impact on both pop and indie music.

Earlier in their career, SOPHIE listed Gene Wilder’s “Pure Imagination” from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as a guiding influence. It’s not hard to imagine SOPHIE creating these songs as background music to some sort of candyland—something synthetic and sugary, but still richly textured enough to get lost in. SOPHIE brought us to a world that defied explanation, but which countless people have staked a claim in as their home. Now, they’ve been handed the keys to the factory, and it’s up to them to keep that flame lit.