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4 February 2021

SOPHIE’s playful, defiant music broke pop boundaires

The work of the pioneering electronic artist, who died last week aged 34, asked: why be one thing, when you can be anything you want?

By Skye Butchard

“I could be anything I want.” This is the gleeful, defiant lyric at the heart of “Immaterial”, one of SOPHIE’s most cherished songs. The late Scottish-born electronic artist was an expert at deconstructing pop forms and playfully piecing the bits back together. Here, Madonna’s “Material Girl” is inverted, stripped of the physical. The corporeal – our bodies – are tossed away entirely: “Without my legs or my hair/Without my genes or my blood/With no name and with no type of story/Where do I live?/Tell me, where do I exist?”

“Immaterial” instantly became a queer anthem when it was released in 2018, just months after SOPHIE publicly came out as a trans woman. It was destined to be played in sweaty basement nightclubs as much as in lonely, darkened bedrooms. The song was a personal document of transness, a means of “taking control to bring your body more in line with your soul and spirit so the two aren’t fighting against each other”, as SOPHIE put it in an interview. But it also continued SOPHIE’s incredible ability to break boundaries – the boundaries between pop and the underground, between sarcastic and sincere, between art and advert. Why be one thing, when you can be anything you want?

That limitless approach to creation was evident in SOPHIE’s first singles, especially through sound design. Just like a mind without a body, a SOPHIE track starts as a blank canvas. Software synthesisers are fine-tuned and manipulated to sound like tangible objects – fizzy drinks, rubber dolls, latex, sewer systems. The sounds on “Lemonade” and “Hard” are distinct: the former feels like being inside a spiked energy drink can that’s been shaken violently by a toddler; the latter is a cartoony, deadpan club banger that stretches and distorts its instruments into alien fetish gear and sheet metal. Both feel like a kind of magic. And, like the best magic, none of the joy is lost in knowing it’s a trick. A SOPHIE track proudly places the artifice front and centre, challenging the listener to consider the idea of “fake” as being positive. This notion was made both poignant and playfully sinister on “Faceshopping” years later.

This early collection of singles, released on Glasgow’s Numbers label, earned international acclaim and quickly established SOPHIE as one of the most exciting voices in music. The cult smash “BIPP”, the second single SOPHIE released, emerged from the underbelly of Glasgow clubs such as La Cheetah, and soon flew across the world at a rapid pace.

Before long, SOPHIE began a fruitful partnership with AG Cook at PC Music, a collective that also believed in the power of artifice to disrupt pop culture norms. The duo, along with the performance artist Hayden Frances Dunham, created QT, a popstar avatar who released just one song, which doubled as an advert for an energy drink that didn’t exist. It perfectly simulated shallow consumerism and tacky pop naivety.

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SOPHIE was a generous and skilled collaborator, able to embark on mutual transformations with every partner. Madonna, Vince Staples, Shygirl, Flume, Let’s Eat Grandma – figures from across the music spectrum came to SOPHIE when they wanted a bold direction change. SOPHIE collaborated with Charli XCX on her Vroom Vroom EP, marking a turning point for the English artist: it brought her not only a new sound, but a means of exerting greater agency over her work. SOPHIE’s influence is now all over the pop landscape: blockbuster producers such as Jack Antonoff (who has worked with Taylor Swift, Lorde and Lana Del Rey) and FINNEAS (best known as Billie Eilish’s older brother) have noted SOPHIE’s significance over the past few days. Independent pioneers including Loraine James and Iglooghost have, too.

Though not yet a household name, SOPHIE has made a powerful impact. It felt like just the beginning. The staggering 2018 debut album OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES received a Grammy nomination for Best Electronic album, hinting at a potential mainstream breakthrough to come – not that this was a priority. Up until that point, SOPHIE had communicated with us through vocal avatars, such as QT or Cecile Believe, whose incredible vocal contributions colour EVERY PEARL. The album’s first single, “It’s Okay to Cry”, was the first to feature SOPHIE’s own vocals. In the music video, SOPHIE stands, breasts proudly exposed, reaching out to the listener in an intense show of vulnerability. But this wasn’t all SOPHIE could do: the very next single, “Ponyboy”, is a menacing club track, and one of the brashest things the artist ever produced.

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A new song, “UNISIL”, released two days before SOPHIE’s death, is again unique, reconceptualising the acid synths and cold atmosphere of early intelligent dance music by dipping it in blood and lip-gloss. It pointed to a possible new era for the artist. To be assessing the legacy of such an inventive young musician feels wrong when it’s clear that many more decades of music should have been to come. But SOPHIE’s impact is already visible. 

Early writing about SOPHIE and PC Music spoke of the sound as existing in a virtual space, an uncanny version of our reality. When I saw SOPHIE live at Primavera Sound in 2019, surrounded by a sea of other fans, many of them queer outsiders, I understood that world was as real and important as any other version of reality.

[see also: Arlo Parks’s Collapsed in Sunbeams: compassionate, clear-sighted bedroom pop]

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