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  • Writer's pictureMcKinzie Smith

Remembering SOPHIE

I’m not sure how to start off a piece like this, but I’ll start with the obvious: SOPHIE changed everything. For people who love pop music, who see the artistic, emotional, and liberatory potential within it, SOPHIE was the pioneer to a new future within the genre. SOPHIE’s minimalistic production style broke down pop to its basic elements, allowing us to consider exactly what it is about pop that made us fall in love with it in the first place.

So much of the pop music out there is schlock; polished lab goo written by trite business people who are more passionate about cashing royalty checks than crafting a worthwhile experience. Those of us who are passionate about it know that, even more acutely than the detractors of the genre who decry pop’s consumerist corruption. What those detractors fail to consider is that the campiness inherent in that polished, bubblegum music is exactly what drew us to it in the first place. It can make you feel like whoever you want to be, whether that’s a tragic actress like in Britney’s “Lucky” or the Italiana mobster namechecked in Grimes’ “Kill v. Maim.” The possibilities opened up by a great pop song are unlike any other feeling. The hooks are as addictive as the emotions they stir within us, making it a particularly potent genre for those looking for something more out of their daily lives.

What makes SOPHIE different from a pop producer like Max Martin is that these ideas, the consumerism and the escapism, became the explicit text of the work produced. In 2016, SOPHIE referred to the then-new compilation album of SOPHIE singles called Product as “advertising” music. At first listen, those songs sound more like textural nightmares than pop songs; balloons popping, soda fizzing, plastic thumping, metallic clashing. It isn’t until you sit with them that those synthetic sounds are realized as the perfect compliment to the idealistic, silly, sugary lyrics on top. SOPHIE songs have no pretence, they sound exactly like what they are. If Product is music for advertising (and it certainly was; “LEMONADE” soundtracked a McDonald’s commercial for, what else, their seasonal lemonade), then it won’t pretend that it isn’t. It is the sound of consumerism, fake plastic sheen and all, but, in choosing to be honest about what it is, it deconstructs the very nature of music made for wide consumption.

Perhaps that’s why SOPHIE’s music is, at first listen, so hard to take in. That’s what I thought when a friend of mine showed me “LEMONADE” in 2015. I was seventeen years old and just starting to re-appreciate pop music (thanks, Emotion) after an adolescence defined by indie and emo; a direct rebellion against a genre I considered to be devoid of personal value. “LEMONADE” was so far away from anything I’d ever listened to. Hyperpop and bubblegum bass weren’t even terms that existed yet, so what was I supposed to call it? It was distinctly pop (the “I got something to tell you” section of the song makes sure of that) and yet it managed to be more abrasive, more uncomfortable than any pop music I could think of. I shunned it, unsure what to do with it as my brain struggled to reconcile those sounds with the sugary silliness of the lyrics and vocals.

It wasn’t until a few months later that Charli XCX forced me to change my mind. The Vroom Vroom EP, a collaboration between Charli and SOPHIE, was exhilarating. I didn’t even have a driver’s license, but it made me feel like I could be the cute, sexy protagonist of “Vroom Vroom” with a lavender Lamborghini. That might sound funny, but the confidence that instills in a young person can be long-lasting; a continual source of strength and uplift during difficult times. All of these genres that had previously felt forbidden to me converged on one another to create something that I didn’t even know I wanted. Vroom Vroom was lightning in a bottle, a true highlight of both Charli and SOPHIE’s careers, and it exhibits what they both do best. In SOPHIE’s case, that’s crafting industrial beats with a bubblegum sheen. Something about this combo has really stuck with me and, apparently, thousands of other people too. Out of the work of SOPHIE and affiliate group PC Music has sprung whole new genres and sounds over just the past five years. It has trickled down into the garbled trap beats of 100 Gecs just as much as the glossy Y2K worship of Slayyyter.

SOPHIE worked with a wide range of collaborators. Up-and-comers in pop like Let’s Eat Grandma and Kim Petras, underground dance artists like Quay Dash and Shygirl, mainstream acts like Madonna and Vince Staples; SOPHIE’s touch has been everywhere, whether you were looking for it or not. Some of these collaborations, like Let’s Eat Grandma’s “Hot Pink” and Vince Staples’ “Yeah Right” feel like SOPHIE tracks through and through. Even if you didn’t know who SOPHIE was before hearing about SOPHIE’s passing, you knew SOPHIE’s sound through other means, be it that McDonald’s commercial in 2015 or through other artists. The relationships SOPHIE forged with musicians were as genuine as the music itself, allowing for collaborations that likely would have lasted indefinitely.

Musicians are far from the only people impacted by SOPHIE’s work, though. SOPHIE has been an icon in LGBTQ+ spaces for about as long as the Vroom Vroom EP has been out and this bond only strengthened when SOPHIE came out in 2018 as transgender. SOPHIE’s solo music had always focused on queer ideals and personal expression; from first single “BIPP” with lyrics like “Don't pretend, you know that you feel it / Try so hard, baby you can't conceal it / Whatever you feel inside,” SOPHIE hinted at a self that was just waiting to burst through. Instead of passive pop escapism involving highly idealized scenarios and characters, SOPHIE’s music encourages a more active kind of escapism. It asks us not who we want to be in this moment, but who we need to be to create a better future for ourselves and others. For SOPHIE’s largely queer fanbase, these ideas are a lifeline; they are the very concept of queer futurity embodied. In SOPHIE’s stead, PC Music and hyperpop have become safe spaces for marginalized people, much in the way disco and house were before it.

When listening to SOPHIE’s solo album OIL OF EVERY PERSON’S UN-INSIDES, I often find myself having an introspective experience. OOEPU was meant to be danced to, but never at the expense of vulnerability. “It’s Okay to Cry” is a slowly building ode to emotion and personal connection that draws attention to “the world inside you.” Much of the record is about love, sex, and personal identity. “Ponyboy,” like “HARD” and “VYZEE” before it, is explicitly kinky and sexually exploratory, refuting gendered expectations of sex roles, while “Infatuation” is a cry for love from someone you don’t even know yet (maybe even yourself). My favorite song on the record, “Immaterial,” is a bubblegum track about the literal immateriality of the self. It is joyful and euphoric, extolling the ecstasy present in choosing to be whatever you want. It’s easy to come away from the record feeling like you need to start living a truer version of yourself, whatever that looks like.

Immateriality, accepting that we are only who we say we are and letting ourselves change as we need to, is the heart of the record and it is the heart of SOPHIE as an artist. SOPHIE was an intensely private person, so SOPHIE’s music never centered the SOPHIE narrative, even when it was personal. It’s more outreaching than that, always allowing the listener to question the worlds around them and inside of them. Why does pop sound like it does? Why do we look and act as we do? And what can we do to change these things for the better? Life can be cruel, but it can be beautiful too. Nothing is permanent, especially not the self. I am working on accepting that an artist I cared about so much is no longer with us, as well as the ways in which SOPHIE’s music changed me, too. The latter is much more productive, even as I grieve the ways in which we all would have continued to grow with SOPHIE. PC Music/hyperpop/bubblegum bass/whatever we’re calling it now has had such a positive influence on my life and the lives of people all over the world. If not for SOPHIE, none of that would exist as it does. As sad as we are right now, the legacy left behind is one worth celebrating well into the future that SOPHIE carved for us.

McKinzie Smith is a former film student from Portland, OR. In her adolescence, she followed Fall Out Boy up and down the West Coast. She now considers herself very cool and normal and only a little bit emo. She now spends most of her time listening to Charli XCX in her kitchen and writing articles about things she likes.

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