Remembering SOPHIE, Who Looked and Sounded Like the Future

By the early 2010s, pop music had forgotten how to embody the future. This, at least, was the view of Mark Fisher, the British critic and theorist who thought the cultural output of the early 21st century was defined by the persistence of the past. “It doesn’t feel like the future,” he wrote in Ghosts of My Life, an anthology dedicated to the search for lost futures in art. “Or, alternatively, it doesn’t feel as if the 21st century has started yet.” The electronic-music producer SOPHIE, who died on Saturday after an accidental fall from a rooftop in Athens, Greece, will be remembered for having the artistic courage and foresight to challenge that insight.

The Scottish artist, who worked with Madonna, Charlie XCX, Lady Gaga, and Vince Staples in addition to releasing the groundbreaking, Grammy-nominated 2018 album Oil of Every Person’s Un-Insides, managed to be both a leader of electronic music’s avant-garde and a pleasure-seeker among pop stars. SOPHIE’s music challenged the entrenched elitism of “good taste,” dissolved the boundary between underground and mainstream, and innovated with a unique dance-pop sound through which young, queer music fans could find themselves reflected as never before. By mimicking slides, whistles, soft drinks, or balloons to conceptual extremes, SOPHIE songs often evoked the world’s best birthday party, or the sound of joy trying to outdo itself.

Combining endorphined pop maximalism, tensile club-music forms and atom-splitting sound design, Oil Of Every Person’s Un-Insides cast themes of artifice and authenticity as yet more sculptural matter to be reshaped, remoulded, reconsidered. SOPHIE’s work was notable for emulating the synthetic stretch and ping of latex, PVC and silicone. (A 2015 compilation, Product, came with an object resembling a sex toy, a gesture to the music’s erotic potential.) But it was precisely through this interaction with the material world that the music spoke directly to modern human experience, from the spoils of single-click shopping to cosmetic affirmations of self.

It’s easy to forget the hostility with which these ideas were once received. Confronted with counterfeit DJ names (Kane West) and songs inspired by fictional energy drinks (“Hey QT”), music critics in the mid-’10s were baffled by the unserious sound and aesthetic of SOPHIE and PC Music, the label, run by AG Cook, with whom the Scottish artist was closely aligned. Was it a wind-up? Guerilla marketing? Few seemed sure of anything except their strong opinions — PC Music inspired delight in some and disgust in others, but rarely indifference.

In hindsight, the principle behind these provocations was possibly twofold — accepting consumerism and other supposed markers of shallowness as a feature rather than a flaw, and searching for joy within that realisation. Having once described the genre of records like “Hard” and “Elle” as “advertising,” SOPHIE confounded what appeared to be insincerity by placing another single, “Lemonade,” in a McDonald’s ad.

Meanwhile, an even deeper sense of mystery surrounded SOPHIE. Interviews were rare. Stand-ins performed in the artist’s place at gigs. SOPHIE’s gender identity was unspecified. (At the request of SOPHIE’s representatives, GQ has refrained from identifying SOPHIE with gendered or nonbinary pronouns.) To a New York Times journalist, SOPHIE explained that the name was chosen because “It tastes good and it’s like moisturiser.”

In 2017, when SOPHIE released “It’s OK To Cry,” the accompanying video showed SOPHIE living as a trans woman. It reframed the artist’s evasion of publicity not as shtick but as a way to protect a deliberative journey towards self-discovery on one’s own terms. SOPHIE sometimes expressed doubt about being labelled by an identity that would, for some, precede artistry or personhood. But SOPHIE also cared deeply for a devoted queer following who drew strength from such a visibly admired public figure.

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