A month after her death, we retrace the musical path of an artist who left an indelible mark in the history of contemporary pop

The untimely death of an artist always brings a feeling of loss for what would have been, or created, if this had not happened. That’s the case when it has been released the news of SOPHIE’s death, which occurred following an accidental fall, last January 30, 2021.

This event hit so hard on her fans and the wider music community. It is getting really clear that in recent years SOPHIE has become a cultural icon, not only for her music but also for what she represented for fans and artists of the LGBTQIA+ community.

We have to note that her career was still in its early days (officially we have only an album and a collection of singles entirely released in her name) and her demise cut off a potential that will remain unexpressed.

Many discussions around SOPHIE, relate to the loss that her death brings with it, concern the role she had in being part of a musical and artistic current. She tried, for the first time in years of nostalgic waves and widespread retro-mania, to re-imagine the future, creating that sense of shock in that absence that Mark Fisher identified in most of the 21st century’s music.

For sure, we can say that SOPHIE has been an artist that questioned the concept of hauntology as Fisher described it. Whether we want to call it anti-hauntology or accelerationist current of electronic music, what is certain is that SOPHIE has helped to bring within the mainstream a breath of fresh and innovative air. Especially in the light of her death, it is undeniable that SOPHIE’s music has created speeches and opened discussions. At the same time, she left an indelible mark within the contemporary pop scene, appreciated by both the mainstream public and by listeners more niche.

What I actually would like to focus on is the contribution to pop music that SOPHIE has made with its production. She was an artist that with her work has managed to enhance very clearly the ability of music to describe and mirror the present. The HD sound and materiality of her productions are perfect soundtracks for the times we are living in.

Originally from Glasgow, based in Los Angeles, SOPHIE, initially hidden behind anonymity, debuted in 2013 with singles Nothing More to Say, and BIPP. These singles define immediately what will become the key features of her style. The first one is a pop-house track very club-oriented, and the second is a crazy rally of hyper-digital synths, in which a speeded-up voice (her voice?) invites the listener to let go and enter into her world (However you feeling/I can make you feel better). BIPP is the track that brought SOPHIE closer to a wider audience, and in hindsight, it is evident that at the beginning of her career she was very aware of the trajectory of her sound. The singles released in that period will be collected in the compilation PRODUCT (2015).

At the beginning of her career, she collaborated with PC Music artists, an avant-pop label known for exploring similar sounds already in the first 2010s. In 2014, alongside the founder A.G. Cook, she participated in the project HEY QT as co-producer. In HEY QT, american artist and performer Hayden Frances Dunham gives voice and body creating an imaginary pop-star born to promote a fictitious energy drink. The result was a music video used also as advertisement of the hypothetical drink, in a project that played with the corporate aesthetics at the edge of music and art.

HEY QT works on an ultra-pop imaginary, focusing on plastic sounds and brand aesthetics. It is not by chance that, in one of the first interviews given, when she was asked to classify what genre of music she makes, she answers “advertising”. This then becomes true in the next single Lemonade, a track used in a Mcdonald’s web spot that advertises, in fact, a lemonade.

HEY QT and Lemonade are great examples of how SOPHIE used a hyper-pop aesthetic to penetrate the mainstream. Moreover, she claimed in a conversation with Sasha Geffen published on Vulture in 2017: “An experimental idea doesn’t have to be separated from a mainstream context. The really exciting thing is when those two things are together. That’s where you can get real change”.

Her choice to move within the mainstream was clear and conscious, proving to be an artist who knew exactly what she was doing: “I think being completely authentic about the time you live in, is something that I would view as a career-long objective”. SOPHIE totally denies the tendency of cultural niches to shut themselves away, instead embracing the aesthetics of late capitalism to make them her own and reach a wider audience.

At a time when her identity was still hidden in anonymity, she was active as a producer for most of her career. Many of the most fascinating traits of her music, in fact, can be seen distinguished in her productions and collaborations with other artists. Above all, SOPHIE has proven to live up to her ambitions, moving skillfully among different genres and keeping her sound in certain singularity.

Vroom Vroom is also the single that pulls the entire EP, in which a ghetto-house bassline intro leaves room for a hyper-minimal trap beat. In Vroom Vroom SOPHIE rewrote the rules of the game, taking the hyper-pop of the 2010s to a later level. The materiality of this sound at the time was almost unique, bringing something new to the mainstream sound of the past years.

The tactile essence of her productions is one of the aspects that deserve more attention. SOPHIE’s beats are all characterized by an intrinsic materiality that gives a certain three-dimensionality to the sound. The metallic taste we can feel in Vroom Vroom beats or in her single Hard is something that directly involves the bodies of listeners, driving in a dose of euphoria that makes these tracks ideal for a rush of MDMA. Lyra Pramuk, who is one of her greatest current admirers, described this in a reflection published on Pitchfork, saying “…Sophie understood that so well. That everything can be material. […] There’s this animism to it, like inanimate materials coming to life and doing things of their own accord”.

The identity of SOPHIE came out only in 2017, when she published the video It’s Okay to Cry , the first of the singles that will then go to compose her album. It’s Okay to Cry is a dreamy ballad that presents herself for the first time to an audience. As well as being the moment when her name comes out of the anonymity and mystery that permeated her figure, the single signed her first official vocal performance. A vocal performance initially semi-whispered, a soft vibration that accompanies the song until its climax in which it becomes real singing.

The release of this video is obviously not random. An anonymity that lasted a few years is broken with a video consisting of a fixed close-up of a transgender woman. In 2018, she commented that the presence of her body was no longer something she had to fight against but a necessary tool, also aware of the communicative potential of the audiovisual medium. “The pop-music video is one of the most powerful communication tools we have. Most people have access to a phone, and you can click a video and absorb it in three minutes. If it’s potent enough, you can take in the message or have some sort of experience in multiple dimensions, the music with the image”, she declares in another interview.
Another video that accompanied the release of her album was Faceshopping, an epileptic post-rave excursion regarding the construction of identity in digital times (My face is the front to shop/my face is the real shopfront/my face is the front to shop/I’m real when I shop my face).

Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Sides photoshoot, Art Direction by Eric Wrenn, Photography by Charlotte Wales

SOPHIE’s language, voice, tonality, and the ensemble of components of her work, create a series of very important meanings for the trans and queer community. The removal of gender boundaries in all the communication systems of her music is so central that her words regarding these issues are not officially many. So, she only expressed in some interviews where she was explicitly asked to address them. Moreover, I think SOPHIE was very skilled in the noble practice of letting the art speak for itself, which presupposes a great power of communication.
Lyra Pramuk recently noticed that SOPHIE’s language itself, with its signifiers, is characterized by elements moving beyond the traditional tonalities with which contemporary music is culturally codified. SOPHIE’s sound design escapes the traditional 12-tone system, “a musical embodiment of transness […] for many (BIPOC artists), escaping the 12-tone system is literally a way to Side-step cultural hegemony”.

Her debut album, Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-sides, was released in June 2018, and is and will remain the best evidence of SOPHIE’s creative force. It was received positively by international critics, and it is an album that in only nine tracks perfectly collects the variety of shades of her work up to that time. It’s an album in which pop is touched, modified, becoming malleable material, steeped in futurism, moving between post-rave, hi-tech electronics and ambient. The first three tracks are singles she published before the release (It’s Okay to Cry, Ponyboy and Faceshopping), while the central ones, including clichés reinterpreted in a futuristic key (Immaterial girl) and ultra HD sound design (Pretending), follow the album to the final track Whole new world/Pretend World.  

SOPHIE performs at Mojave Tent during the 2019 Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival on April 19, 2019 in Indio, California (Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Coachella)

Thus how SOPHIE used her voice, in this album specifically, directly involves the interaction between human and non-human, putting it within the contemporary framework of continuous coexistence with new technologies. The voice in music is an independent field, inevitably soaked with human spirit, and when an extra-human component is added in it, new horizons of meaning are created. For example, the wide use of auto-tune in contemporary rap music, as Ivan Carozzi wrote, “…is successful and seductive because it evokes the reality of a process still obscure, uncertain, that is, the digital becoming of our identity”. In the same way, the pitched, modified, and transformed voice of SOPHIE tells us a lot about the interaction between human and digital in terms of how we interact and negotiate our identities within an entirely virtual space.

Whole new world/Pretend World, last track of the album, can be considered as milestone of her work in the years to come. Nine minutes of post-rave chaos where human and extra-human, aesthetic and extra-aesthetic are mixed. At the same time, voice and sound become the vehicle of a wonderful feeling of shock that is jointly an invitation to embrace the new utopian world.

To conclude, Fisher reported the loss of the circuit between experimental, avant-garde, and pop, but the music of artists like SOPHIE is keeping this circuit alive, showing that it is still among us. Certainly if pop music is a symbolic space creating identities, and the voice is an instrument comprising a variety of meanings and functions, as a medium able to carry these meanings into specific time and context, SOPHIE was a star whose light guided contemporary pop in new ways, within the dark and fascinating object we call ‘present’.