Two years after her untimely passing, the legacy of SOPHIE burns bright among pop zealots, peers, and the girls and gays of music criticism. Her tragic and accidental death has prompted heartbroken stories and statements, warm remembrances, and dedicated songs and albums from collaborators including Charli XCX, Vince Staples, Flume, Caroline Polachek, and Rihanna. These tributes highlight some of the features that most distinguished Sophie Xeon (“SOPHIE”): an iconic ginger mane, a quiet disposition, a proclivity for the philosophical, and ease in the studio.
The Scottish producer’s 2018-released, sole full-length album, Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides, challenges conventions of sound, identity, and songwriting. It is the only longform explanation of an artist who hated explaining herself. It, among other things, takes seriously a question that has become a conservative meme meant to undermine trans rights—“What is a Woman?”—and argues that the answer is contextual and even immaterial.
While singular in their ways, both the album and the artist were creatures of their context. The early 2010s was the era of IDM (“intelligent dance music”) 2.0, an evolution from its ’90s origin. Simon Reynolds helpfully summarizes the differences for Pitchfork: 2.0 was multimedia, theory-based, more explicitly political, and created by an increasingly diverse series of voices. This music had the feel of an exhibit, rather than a simple listening experience. Innovation with and in digital technology gave the new generation a broader set of tools and a refreshed set of ideas.The links were clear in Sophie’s career; she drew particular inspiration from the IDM 1.0 duo Autechre, but she also embodied these differences. Having majored in physics and come up in the urban European music scene, SOPHIE was releasing a series of highly conceptual singles (cumulatively known as “PRODUCT”), including both a critically acclaimed song that would come to feel signature and noise music with the feeling of a shitpost, bemusing critics. The sound design was deconstructed and novel, somehow embracing both the dopamine rush of pop and the minimalism of a disciplined aesthete. The art for each single showed synthetic objects (mostly slides) against a stark white background, in the style of a brochure advertisement.
This was also a decade of rising poptimism. Spurned for decades by critics, pop was undergoing a revival and reclamation as a serious art form. Music critic Kelefa Sanneh had galvanized peers in 2004 when he inveighed against the prevailing critical approach and conventional wisdom of “rockism,” or “Rolling Stone disease,” which privileged music form as a proxy for quality. Rockism held that guitars were respectable instruments, synthesizers were not; and so on. Sanneh described rockism (fairly) as rife with bias, pretension, and cultural conservatism, connecting it to the reactionary impulses that killed disco.
These were favorable tailwinds for SOPHIE, who told Rolling Stone in 2015 that she was setting out to “use current technology… to make the brightest, most intense, engaging thing,” and rolled her eyes at pop that competed on the basis of emotional rawness. They were also favorable tailwinds for her contemporaries. Like IDM 1, the center of gravity was in Europe and the U.K. SOPHIE found common cause with English collaborators like A.G. Cook, who borrowed from the black MIDI music of Conlon Nancarrow, and Danny L. Harle, whose final project in school combined chamber instruments with the music of video game menus. They connected over a shared interest in avant-garde experimentation and mutual admiration. (Harle later said of SOPHIE’s influence on him: “You’re told this in any school of music…that you’ve got to make your ideas clear and concise. But no one says to make them so clear and so concise.”)
Women wrote and sang topline on most of Cook and Harle’s production, and SOPHIE had little public persona in this early era of her career, leading Grimes to famously accuse her and this emergent coterie—dubbed “PC Music” after Cook’s label—of hiding behind female avatars. Other critics wondered if the group’s music was an elaborate joke or satire. But the affinity and curiosity of mainstream figures (Diplo, Charli XCX, and soon the marketing team at McDonalds) began giving the movement access to a mainstream audience. And over time, partly with the release of Oil, it became clear that the intellectual approach was indeed deeply pro-pop and almost as deeply feminine. The PC Music philosophy was one of reclaimed instruments and ideas: pristine synths, emotive and intentionally simplistic lyrics, and (as I’ve described previously on Treble) provocative imagination of feminine desire and gratification. It dovetailed tightly with pop’s return—and celebrated it. The release of SOPHIE’s magnum opus was a particular turning point in public understanding.
The album’s first track and second single, “It’s Okay to Cry,” clarified SOPHIE’s identity. The music video was a camp blue and pink background. She appeared on camera, lip synching. The song described emotional vulnerability and new beginnings. It was coming out in every sense. “Cry” still feels ecstatic and liberatory. In its final minute, the vocals transition from SOPHIE’s own to the more nimble voice of musician Caila Thompson-Hannant (“Cecile Believe”), who handles the rest of the album’s topline capably. “Cry” launches a storyline that traces the course of Oil, a search for meaning and a reckoning with pain.
“Pony… boy,” Believe exclaims in a capella in “Ponyboy’s” pregnant first bar. In comes a screaming trap beat that sounds like an accident at the slide factory. This whiplash reversal in tone is characteristic of the genre at large and of Oil in particular: rapid oscillations between bliss and pain, highs and lows, minimalism and maximalism; an homage to the danger and freedom of the gay and trans experience. In “Ponyboy,” everything crunches, sharpened and tuned down to bassy frequencies.
“Faceshopping” only enriches this thrilling moment, propelling it to philosophy. The premise is captured in the circular wordplay: “My face is the front of shop/My face is the real shop front/My shop is the face I front/I’m real when I shop my face.” The verses of “Faceshopping” showcase the SOPHIE formula, offering provocative name-checks without narrative: “chemical release… synthesize the real…plastic surgery… social dialect…” Believe growls, barely recognizable under layers of vocal processing. Reality, commerce, and appearance are exposed as deeply interactive. “Faceshopping” is the Imperial March of the modern digital age, where your favorite people barter your affiliate sponsorship dollars for their face, and everyone has every incentive to look fantastic.
While “Faceshopping” sounds nightmarish, both the song and the album take a nuanced look at the possibilities. With the song’s bridge, the beat falls out and the album is again ecstatic. “So you must be the one I’ve seen in my dreams,” Believe croons over synths that ebb and sparkle. The writing here hints at the possibilities for self-actualization in the digital and the manipulable. What if our true self is known to us and our appearance just hasn’t caught up? In the age of all natural, what if the synthesized—the antidepressant, the vaccine, the GMO—can save a life? What if, sometimes, what’s manufactured is the realest thing?
After the thrills of the first three songs, Oil transitions into a sparser and more meditative mode. What follows lives more in treble clef and feels deeply experimental. It advances our hero’s journey, tracking the experience of coming out and coming to with a broadness that allows for personal reinterpretation. “Is it Cold In the Water” distributes an icy, deceptively rhythmic synth lead over a 4/4 pulse with no drum, transporting the listener to a fourth dimension, while Believe drips legato notes about “falling,” leaving home, fear in taking a leap. Her style on the chorus, which poses the titular question, approaches the operatic, backed by grand synth arpeggios. The song feels ethereal and arctic, like lifting off the Earth and floating around the Aurora Borealis.
“Infatuation” sees Believe crying out for the release of one’s true identity amid building instrumental tension. “Who are you, deep down?” she asks, insistent. This desire to inside-out oneself brings to life the album’s title, a celebration of one’s innermost identity and a mondegreen of a declaration of universal love—“I love every person’s insides.” (The artist chose it in a stoned fit of contrarianism.) Infatuation’s verses are elevated to childlike pitches—“you’re deadly, you’re heavenly,” Cecile sings. The song deploys absurdity to find tenderness.
Then, another inversion of tone arrives within the album’s ambient middle. “Not Okay” connects what sounds like a frightful episode of dissonance with a deconstruction of power pop, further etching the edges of Oil’s thesis statement. Words loop nonsensically (“try, try, try, try – girl!”) as stabbing, dark synths careen around the mix.
Finally, we arrive at “Pretending,” which Paul-Stretches the sentence “I was only pretending” to four minute ambient glory. SOPHIE plays creatively with harmonic elements such that the song feels like the arc of a journey—and its end, bringing us to the conclusion of the protagonist’s odyssey and into a new era of self-actualization. A motorcycle fizzles and starts, an engine taking us into the future, one journey beginning as another ends.
“Immaterial” is the only pop song on this pop album, and all the sweeter for it. Synth hits run parallel to a rounded kick drum. This isn’t an unexpected inversion like the rest, but the earned joy at the end of the journey—it’s putting one’s feet up. It sounds like the feeling of a first time in a queer space. “I can be anything I want,” Believe sings, “any form, any shape… I don’t even have to explain.” It also offers a rare, purely personal moment of songwriting: “I was just a lonely girl in the eyes of an inner child,” sings Believe earnestly, in vocals pitch-tuned within an inch of their life.
“Whole New World / Pretend World” closes the album with blasting synths brought to the very front of the mix. It extends the sonic concept of “Not Okay” but seems to expand its purview; suddenly the battleground is not one’s self but one’s society. Running nine minutes long, the song gradually descends from a raw energy into deep reverb and a returned dissonance, suggesting a balance of acceptance and resistance, and cleverly honoring the history of ambient music as an encore to the rave. Traces of Oil’s other songs glitter throughout, like references to body paragraphs in the conclusion of an essay. Screeches, whistles, and whirs round out the song, signaling further transformations underway.
The questions posed by Oil are profoundly deconstructive, overlapping with those of the poptimism debate while avoiding tediously familiar ground. These challenges are offered implicitly and explicitly. At a first level, SOPHIE’s use of an obscure but versatile synthesizer (the Monomachine) and her expert understanding of sound design gave her instruments that sounded like they were from “a parallel universe,” as Ly Hagan writes. A second level of inquiry challenges identity—“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?”, she asks on “Immaterial,” spinning the difficulty of defining womanhood and self as a liberating gift. And the songs themselves deconstruct pop, exaggerating its signal and stripping away its noise. SOPHIE’s production for others puts pop back together, offering another perspective on what could be on the radio.
In retrospect, poptimism may have confused as much as it elucidated—encouraging toxic standom, knowingly collapsing the distinction between “great art” and “guilty pleasure”, and directing credulous attention to projects that didn’t deserve it. SOPHIE’s work clarifies that yes, entertainment and pleasure are valid goals of art; but yes, artistic quality matters; and finally, pick up a synthesizer (or synthesize a guitar!) if you really want to put on a show.
In service of putting on that great show for everyone, the artist’s approach was distinctly egoless. People seeing SOPHIE live in the mid-2010s heard open experimentation with the beats that eventually became “Faceshopping” and “Ponyboy,” and fans of Vince Staples may notice Faceshopping’s parallels with his SOPHIE-produced Kendrick Lamar collaboration “Yeah Right.” According to Cook, SOPHIE dreamed of making all of her songs’ stems available to anyone online, usable and reusable. (She released a sample pack in 2015.) She saw an infinitely creative and collaborative ecosystem as the music industry’s best endgame. She was fascinated by the way prototypes spawned knock-offs (think “Cheap Thrills” and “Shape of You”) and nonjudgmental about the difference.
Music writers with any kind of institutional platform have the privilege and responsibility of directing attention, and almost unfailingly seek to help others replicate (or at least understand) whatever connection they’ve found to an artist or an idea. It’s a little selfish, and yet I can’t think of anything more worth doing. I have enough experience to know that SOPHIE’s music isn’t for everyone—it’s often cloying, aggressive, or minimal in grating ways. I’ve been asked to turn it off almost as many times as I’ve felt someone respond to it. And yet it is for everyone. It is liberatory. It’s earnest. It is deconstructive, yes – but it seeks to construct as well. It wants to offer you something: another view, a freedom.
SOPHIE’s work may return. Her brother and longtime collaborator Ben has hinted at a future, posthumous release. In either case, her premature death has broken hearts indelibly, as has the question of all she could have accomplished with decades’ more time. But, I’ve found, there’s more than enough legacy for critics and fans alike to reckon with and to keep her ideas alive. The album, the remix, the knock-off, the next best and brightest thing—it’s all her.
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