The world was SOPHIE’s plaything. The musician eluded both genre and gender, manipulating both with distinct self-awareness and humor. When asked by Billboard what kind of music the artist made, SOPHIE replied with “advertising.” It’s a simple answer full of interpretation, and all of them would be correct.
As the heartbreaking news of SOPHIE’s death was confirmed this weekend, the tributes started flooding in. For both those familiar and unfamiliar with the musician’s relatively niche brand of bubblegum pop infused with harsh synths and disorienting layers of bass rumbles and water-drop sound effects, it was overwhelming and surprising to see how far the artist’s influence reached.
SOPHIE was a tinkerer. It started from a young age, being exposed to dance-music cassettes the producer-songwriter’s father would play in the car. By the age of 10, after receiving a keyboard as a gift, SOPHIE asked if it was okay to drop out of school to pursue music full time. Of course, the then-aspiring producer’s parents refused, but SOPHIE’s intense fascination with the individual components of electronic music and the works of influential artists Nan Goldin and Amanda Lepore laid the groundwork for the artist’s idiomatic approach to the genre. In an interview with Lenny Letter in 2018, SOPHIE said, “I would be on my own a lot of the time, doing music. It was an escapism thing … I didn’t really have a best friend. I had good friends, but music, I suppose, became my escape, like this friend I was looking for that was about the same stuff as me. It takes a while, as you might know, to find your people.”
SOPHIE’s groundbreaking deconstruction of electronic music and pop reached an international audience in 2013. It started with “Bipp”, a sonic explosion of jittery, high-pitched vocals that teeter the line of artificiality combined with vortex-like synths. Critics were immediately enamored with SOPHIE’s fresh take on the electronic pop genre, often finding it easier to use metaphors instead of comparison. It was difficult to tell what was ironic and what wasn’t, and SOPHIE wanted it that way.
Despite being a product of the Internet, with SOPHIE being born in the mid-’80s, the musician had seen enough of how quickly technology and the Internet changed from privileges to accessible resources. In 1985, a year before SOPHIE was born, it was estimated that 13% of households in the United Kingdom had a computer in their home. By 2001, that number increased to 49%, steadily growing each year. SOPHIE toyed with the limits of hyper-consumerism and technology in all aspects of life.
“Hey QT”, a collaboration with PC Music creator A.G. Cook and performance artist QT, was described by The Guardian as “the first hipster novelty single.” Using over-saturated, futuristic visuals; electronically manipulated vocals provided by an unnamed singer; and a sweet-yet-sinister message of feeling someone not physically there, it was revealed to be an advertisement for the fictitious QT energy drink with added Beats by Dre product placement.
While SOPHIE’s solo work was not as brazen in intent as “Hey QT”, it still shared many similarities. If QT was commentary on the manufactured pop star for profit, SOPHIE was a commentary on the entitlement and commodification of pop as a whole. From 2013 to 2017, the artist refused to do any public appearances or phone interviews, instead relying on written communication, vocal manipulation when possible, and recruiting other singers to don the SOPHIE persona on songs, almost like a more meta version of fellow all-caps legend MF DOOM. This was not enough for people, and both fans and the media began to speculate. Think pieces began coming in about the disturbing concept of “female appropriation,” particularly the infamous FADER article that has since been deleted, which accuses A.G Cook and SOPHIE of “colonizing the female body and using it as an instrument for projecting their own agenda.” It was a pervasive belief that began underscoring a lot of criticism for the growing hyperpop and PC music movement that failed to recognize the harmful, transphobic, and sexist stereotypes the same criticism claimed to push back against.
SOPHIE’s exploration of gender, particularly femininity, challenged the very foundation that most people’s understanding was based upon. The high-pitched vocal manipulation harkens back to the mystery of pop stars’ real voices, like Britney Spears’ signature baby-like drawl that has persisted throughout her career as it was believed she would sell more albums. SOPHIE’s manipulation of the voice was at times over-exaggerated, like the artist’s aforementioned love for Nan Goldin’s documentation of New York’s drag queen and club kid community, and it was also very loving. SOPHIE’s work was punctuated by a childlike innocence and ambiguous intent, creating a blank canvas for gender to be explored, reconstructed, and destroyed. It didn’t matter what you sound like entering SOPHIE’s studio or how you identified. With the help of technology, everyone could sound the same with a click of the slider.
In late 2017, SOPHIE reemerged with “It’s Okay to Cry”, and there was finally a face to the name. With that came the confirmation in press interviews that SOPHIE was transgender. In an interview with Teen Vogue in reference to the intense speculation and accusations of SOPHIE’s identity prior to coming out publicly, the producer said, “Looking back, I think my intentions have been clear, but misinterpreted … so now I want to join the conversation.”
The song itself and its accompanying visual evokes euphoria with a swelling, twinkling synth that never reaches a proper resolution, a possible reference to the expansive world SOPHIE envisioned for everyone that is free of pain and open to endless interpretation. It also created the less prevalent dialogue of allowing oneself to mourn what they missed before discovering themselves and embracing the overwhelming emotions that come with showing such vulnerability.
Around this time, the popularity of trans pop artists such as Kim Petras and 100 Gecs exploded onto the scene further redefining the boundaries of pop music, and SOPHIE’s influence was heard across genres around the world. The musician’s contributions to hip-hop were lesser known but just as significant, producing for Vince Staples’ “Yeah Right” and “SAMO” off of his avant-garde album, Big Fish Theory, which was heavily inspired by the same influences that run through SOPHIE’s work like techno and house music. SOPHIE also worked with LGBT+ hip-hop and RnB artists such as Mykki Blanco, Le1f, and shygirl, as well as mainstream pop stars such as Madonna and Charli XCX. SOPHIE’s footprints are found everywhere from Rico Nasty to Injury Reserve to Megan Thee Stallion. It is a testament to the ground zero that SOPHIE’s music was built upon and the endless possibilities that come with the lack of limitations.
At its core, SOPHIE and the network of musicians surrounding the artist are united by the importance of community and collaboration. It is reliant upon supporting one another to allow for resources to be shared and risks to be taken, identities to be explored and sounds to rework, infinite subgenres to be made and conventionalities to be dismantled. It’s about staying as intensely true to oneself as possible, which SOPHIE did effortlessly and humbly. SOPHIE was the soundtrack to the future, and the world the visionary created will continue to develop in memory.