Music

SOPHIE’s Music Was Completely Artificial and Utterly Real

The artist, who died Saturday, leaves behind a staggering legacy of 21st century pop.

INDIO, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 19: SOPHIE performs at Mojave Tent during the 2019 Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival on April 19, 2019 in Indio, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Coachella)
SOPHIE performs at the 2019 Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival. Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

The electronic producer SOPHIE died in Athens after an accident on Saturday, an immense loss to the world of music and the trans community. SOPHIE, who was 34, created a wide-ranging—but still too small—body of work that includes high-profile collaborations with artists like Madonna, Charli XCX, Vince Staples, and many others. But SOPHIE also leaves a solo legacy rivaling any other producer of 21st century music—both for its influence and its sheer creative bravado.

Originally from Glasgow, SOPHIE first emerged as an anonymous character in the milieu of hyper-real U.K. electronic pop most closely associated with the PC Music label: music calibrated to such candy-sweetness as to reveal the hollowness of said pop. But SOPHIE quickly became one of electronic music’s most essential voices with singles like 2013’s “BIPP,” a fully formed vision of what futurist pop could be. With a cutesy, chirping vocal backed by a skeleton of warped pops and industrial bass, “BIPP” is textbook SOPHIE: pop music as non-Newtonian fluid, a tactile but slippery surface, able to mold itself around a listeners’ perceptions. When I listen to “BIPP,” I hear a fun, happy song concealing something terribly sad, but I couldn’t for the life of me tell you why.

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SOPHIE’s early singles were collected in the 2015 compilation PRODUCT, along with some new tracks that broadened the artist’s template like “VYZEE,” a twisted bubblegum ode to going a bit too far on a night out. But its final track, “JUST LIKE WE NEVER SAID GOODBYE,” a tranced-out torch song combining the overwhelming falsity of electronic pop with human longing, would signal SOPHIE’s next move. It’s pop music at the height of all its contradictions: completely artificial and utterly real.

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For SOPHIE, that metaphor applied not only to music, however, but to the concept of identity as a whole. SOPHIE re-emerged in 2018 with the masterpiece OIL OF EVERY PEARL’s UN-INSIDES, an album that explored SOPHIE’s fascination with surface and a newly public identity as a trans person. (SOPHIE preferred not to use gendered or nonbinary pronouns.) In “Faceshopping,” SOPHIE argues that one’s true identity is whatever they create for themselves, be it through Photoshop, plastic surgery, or any other mode. For SOPHIE, the surface isn’t artificial; if you master it, it’s the realest part of you. As the song says: “My shop is the face I front, I’m real when I shop my face”.

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OIL OF EVERY PEARL’s UN-INSIDES is an incredibly diverse record, with “Ponyboy,” an all-time great S&M-themed banger; “Immaterial,” a gleaming celebration of self-conception; “Pretending,” a droning industrial piece; and “Whole New World/Pretend World, a paranoid alarm call. But the most shocking moment on the record is the first one, its lead single: “It’s Okay to Cry.” Besides being the artist’s first-ever singing credit, the video was also SOPHIE’s official coming out party. It’s a twinkling power ballad with a soft vocal, and little of the heaviness associated with SOPHIE’s past work. It was puzzling at the time. Here was the most avant-garde artist on the planet coming out with the uncoolest thing possible, a simply beautiful, sincere song about forgiveness and self-kindness. The taste-obsessed electronic music scene was genuinely scandalized. But now, on the day of SOPHIE’s death, it seems like the only song for the moment. SOPHIE had limitless potential, and so much more to show the world as both an artist and an advocate. SOPHIE’s death is an incredible loss. It’s OK to cry.

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