SOPHIE: 1986 – 2021

The electronic-music visionary and queer icon was an essential architect of hyperpop.

by
SOPHIE. Credit: Rovi.

SOPHIE, one of the most influential musicians of the 2010s and a figurehead of contemporary queer culture, has died at the age of 34 following an accident in Athens, Greece.

The artist first introduced to the world as Sophie Xeon was born in Glasgow in 1986. SOPHIE burned briefly but incandescently from 2013 to 2021, across a string of fêted singles, a handful of high-profile collaborations and one full-length solo album. In that truncated period of time, SOPHIE upended conventional notions of taste, stretched the limits of sound and bridged the realms of avant-garde, dance and pop like few others.

Unlike numerous visionaries across the sweep of musical history, distance is not needed to assess SOPHIE’s impact. SOPHIE’s anything-goes, everything-works approach to art was instrumental in forging one of the few truly new genres of the 21st century: a giddy, dayglo fantasia we have come to know as hyperpop.

Alongside artists such as Charli XCX, Oneohtrix Point Never, A.G. Cook and Caroline Polachek, SOPHIE’s embrace of mass commercialism, recycling of reviled aesthetics and playful winking at the absurd generated profound ripple effects through fashion and pop culture. It also confused the hell out of people. In this Internet-age empire, think of SOPHIE as Helen of Troy: the face that launched 1,000 think pieces.

In SOPHIE’s world, nothing could remain static; everything demanded to be pitch-shifted, modulated, turned inside-out or bounced off a potential contrasting element. SOPHIE’s fetishistic attraction to synthetic textures resulted in records that sound how everyday objects like slides, balloons, leather and latex feel: smooth, squeaky and wet. Fittingly for an artist who once conducted an interview with Sophia, the first humanoid to gain citizenship, SOPHIE assembled beats à la an architect using a 3D printer.

SOPHIE’s death not only robs the avant-garde of a true original, but robs the world of a highly visible transgender icon. Just like past boundary-breakers Sylvester and Arthur Russell, SOPHIE harnessed the future and used it to enliven the present. Here are five defining moments of SOPHIE’s career.

“Bipp”

While not SOPHIE’s debut, “Bipp” was the song that cracked open a Whole New World. Crash-landing into the public consciousness in summer 2013 – a time when SOPHIE was a faceless avatar that refused to engage with the press – critics initially approached this slab of elasticated dance-pop with one eyebrow quizzically raised. By the decade’s close, “Bipp” was celebrated by every publication worth their salt as a defining song of the period. It is to SOPHIE’s eternal credit that what felt confounding then feels positively trad now.

“Lemonade”

Owing to SOPHIE’s primary record label, Numbers, the artist was implicitly aligned with Montreal as well as Glasgow, twinned powerhouses of club music that gave the world Rustie, Jacques Greene and TNGHT (Hudson Mohawke and Lunice). “Lemonade,” from 2014, did little to dissuade this assumption – a greased-up trap banger that would flip North American crowds upside down within seconds of its frothing-bubble intro hitting the speakers. “Lemonade” went on to soundtrack a McDonald’s commercial and bagged SOPHIE production work for Madonna, signs of the artist’s ability to make paragons of mass production seem somehow rather cool.

Le1f
“Koi”

Co-signs from megastars turned heads – and we’ll wait patiently on the collaboration that Rihanna teased – but SOPHIE’s best work as a guest songwriter and producer often came from joining up with artists cut from a similar fringe-cloth. Shygirl, Arca and Le1f were all notable beneficiaries, with “Koi” the pick of the bunch. SOPHIE’s beat presents an obstacle course for the NYC rapper, who catches and rides a Zero-G rhythm that refuses to sit still. The result is a song as in tune with the sound of modern experimental rap as with the post-genre stew of deconstructed club music – no mean feat.

Just Like We Never Said Goodbye

Cheesy, ironic, guilty pleasure: These were all alien terms to SOPHIE, and if there’s a key takeaway from the musician’s catalog, it’s that they should be absent from your dictionary too. Case in point “...Goodbye,” the ultra-saccharine closer from SOPHIE’s singles compendium PRODUCT (and a sister to later single “Immaterial”). Alloying the sugariest melody from a late-’90s pop party to sky-scraping synths borrowed from an EDM anthem that never was, this fan favorite brilliantly bookmarks the First Age of SOPHIE.

Though the Second Age of SOPHIE was cut brutally short, we should be thankful that the revelatory OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES made it out in the artist’s lifetime. By the album’s release in 2018, SOPHIE had undergone a full metamorphosis, emerging from the shadows as an inspiration for those who sought identity between binary lines. “Is It Cold in the Water?” is the LP’s stop-you-in-your-tracks centerpiece, commuting pain, light and rebirth into a haunting torch song. The track soars so high it seems to breach the Earth’s atmosphere and stretch toward the heavens – an appropriately celestial elegy for the irrepressible dreamer who died while trying to get closer to the moon.

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