How SOPHIE used music to build a whole new world

SOPHIE was an artist who demonstrated that art is not only a source of aesthetic pleasure, but also of revolutionary power. On Jan. 30, Scottish producer SOPHIE unexpectedly passed away at the age of 34, but the artist’s work continues to not only reshape electronic and pop music, but how we understand ourselves, too.

SOPHIE built a reputation as a pioneer of a bold new wave of electronic music often referred to as PC Music or hyperpop. SOPHIE’s sound is simultaneously harsh but pleasant, often toeing the line between avant-garde and pop. Not long after the 2013 single “BIPP,” SOPHIE’s name was featured on production credits for artists like Charli XCX, Madonna, and Vince Staples. In 2017, SOPHIE was cemented as a legend of electronic music with the release of the artist’s first and only studio album, Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides.

SOPHIE’s signature sound design was unique in the truest sense of the word—no one had ever heard anything quite like it. Synthesizing every sound from scratch, SOPHIE became known for transmuting the tactile into the sonic, creating sounds reminiscent of latex, rubber, metal, elastic, water, and even bubbles. The highly unorthodox sounds and structure of SOPHIE’s music challenged the conventions of pop music. The use of harsh and unusual textures in pop songs forced listeners to reconsider what pop music, and even music at all, could sound like. It confronted the formal conventions created by a system controlled by mostly white, cis-heterosexual men. In doing so, SOPHIE upended the ideological basis of pop music, and made room for a new era of music, liberated from the cultural hegemony of the past.

For much of SOPHIE’s career, the artist’s true identity had remained a mystery, a name without a face. It was not until the release of the music video for It’s Okay to Cry,” that SOPHIE came out as a trans woman. With this in mind, SOPHIE’s music shows its true meaning as a trans-liberationist work.

One of the main themes of Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides is identity and transformation. The lyrical content of the album could even be read as the story of transformation, beginning with self-acceptance, dealing with the anxiety and reluctance of undergoing a transition, until emerging from the waters of uncertainty as a new person: Yourself.

Yet, artifice factored into SOPHIE’s discography as much as authenticity did. The tactile sounds and squeaky, high-pitched vocals evoked a sense of fakeness. Even the visual aesthetics, like the covers of the Product singles and SOPHIE’s outfits, make use of plastic. In “Faceshopping,” Cecile Believe (who performs on several other tracks) sings, “I’m real when I shop my face,” referencing the Photoshopping one might do to a picture of oneself, suggesting one could be just as real when they “shop their face.” SOPHIE presented listeners with radical new ideas on what constitutes legitimate identity, especially in a world where so much of identity is dependent upon appearance and conformity. SOPHIE used music to take aim at the concept of artificiality as a pejorative, highly repressive worldview. The abrasive and innovative sound acted as a sort of mind tenderizer, smashing away subconscious preconceptions of what is good and natural, and leaving in their place a politics of radical freedom to self-expression.

SOPHIE’s music was not just different for the sake of being different, but was a revolutionary weapon against the establishment that would see violence done upon many queer people. On Oil’s final track, “Whole New World/Pretend World,” SOPHIE boldly charges into the future, chanting as if at a protest, urging listeners to build a “Whole New World” with the ideas in the track as its foundation. SOPHIE wanted to take listeners into the future, and although the artist will not be there to see it, SOPHIE’s impact will be felt for years to come.

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