SOPHIE Was the Greatest Sonic Architect of the Last Ten Years

The groundbreaking electronic musician was 34 when Chaos Theory took her life

SOPHIE (Art: Ron Hart)

The right SOPHIE obituary would be written in squeaks of PVC and latex, shaken sodas, zombie bubble wrap come back to life for vengeance; she liked her music to speak sound design first, words second.

Of course, the right SOPHIE obituary wouldn’t exist. One sound she hadn’t sculpted from scratch on her loyal Elektron Monomachine was thousands of hearts breaking at the news that the most gifted electronic musician of the last seven years fell to her death at 34 trying to catch a better view of Friday’s full moon.

As with Prince, the last musical death that wracked me this personally hard, associating SOPHIE with mortality is absurd. This was an artist who figured out how to escape a lot of things. When she first splashed internationally with her excellent second single “Bipp,” she crafted a classic-sounding floor-filler without any traditional sounds, including the untreated human voice, including drums. It zaps, bubbles and screeches like some fucked median between Einstürzende Neubauten and the Ohio Express. That’s the part everyone noticed right away; key lyric “I can make you feel better” didn’t have an obvious throughline until much later.

 

VIDEO: SOPHIE “Bipp”

From 2014 to 2018 though, SOPHIE’s work among her cuddly pop-terrorist friends in the PC Music collective made her the rightful heir to Aphex Twin: prankish, popwise deconstructions that made full use of the audio spectrum and emphasized tangibility to the point that she insisted her “Hey QT” team-up with PC Music honcho A.G. Cook was sung by a fizzy drink, not the model holding it. That wasn’t the only spectrum her music dominated. Its gender presentation was provocative and striking long before the auteur came out as transgender, proffering anonymous chipmunk voices singing warped commercial jingles on hyperactive ASMR pinball like “Lemonade,” which did eventually find its way into a McDonald’s commercial. SOPHIE released a “silicon product” in 2015: a curiously shaped, two-headed bedroom toy that exemplified the alien bounds of her ambitions. Sexually, she illustrated BDSM scenes on astonishing prints like “Hard” and “Ponyboy” in the language of industrial candy, jerking them through impossibly bright filters and hues to destabilize any lasting traces of gender entirely. 

Yet it’s some of the least mechanical fully synthesized music ever made. To say SOPHIE’s tracks moved isn’t to imply adherence to a groove or beat but that they catastrophically zinged around the room like a lost fly. Most of 2015’s breathtaking singles comp PRODUCT has more in common with Tex Avery cartoons than Detroit techno or house; only the clubby “Vyzee” has identifiable kick-snare-percussion and it competes for space with approximated squeals, whipcracks, and ripping duct tape. Teen Vogue once asked her what the most honest sound was, and SOPHIE replied, “a burp.”

When SOPHIE headlined PC Music’s one-of-a-kind Pop Cube event in 2015, the then-unreleased “L.O.V.E.” answered the question of what to expect: her set opener split the difference between a teakettle and sine-wave generator on the fritz for a good few minutes before the sizable crowd knew how it would be corralled into something resembling a tune. On record it remains her greatest triumph of audio innovation, a friendlier synthesis of white noise and pop than Aphex Twin’s own brain-breaker “Ventolin.” On PRODUCT it’s immediately followed by her other masterpiece, one that’s entirely just great songwriting: “Just Like We Never Said Goodbye,” with a melody recalibrated from, yes, Prince’s “When You Were Mine.” Part of great songwriting is arrangement and production, so it also brilliantly eschewed drums entirely while portamento-bent synths keep revving up in pitch and intensity like stoplight racecars.

By 2018 though, these fun studio games gave way to something bigger: SOPHIE wanted us to know who she was. Her proper album debut Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides was a hideous title and I didn’t love the music at first either; I was wrong, and happy to have been stretched. First she came out as trans, showed her face for the first time and sang in unison, in the “It’s Okay to Cry” video and single, which peaks with literal lightning over the finish. Gone were the glib word games like slapping “Bipp,” “Vyzee” or “MSMSMSM” onto a fully realized track. The blusterous “Whole New World” and the sugary “Immaterial” (a play on SOPHIE collaborator Madonna’s “Material Girls”) and the spiraling “Is It Cold in the Water?” and even that fucking album title all had an emotional context that struck a widespread chord like the singles comp released at the height of PC Music fatigue did not.

 

 

SOPHIE finally earned universal acclaim for an extended solo song cycle rather than piece-by-piece a couple times a year, Best New Music, and even an unexpected Grammy nom, one of the first ever for a trans artist. Considering how much less accessible the album was than PRODUCT — the six-minute drone “Pretending” could’ve fit onto the Knife’s Shaking the Habitual — its unchallenged success was all the more impressive. Of course, during this entire run, she had one of the most recognizable production signatures in the business if you came across it on the prechorus of Madonna’s “Bitch, I’m Madonna” before passing it to Diplo’s obvious contribution, or the subterranean pipe clangs on Vince Staples’ “Yeah Right,” or the incongruous drops that audibly transform Let’s Eat Grandma’s “Hot Pink” or Le1f’s “Koi.”

Two artists have spread the gospel of SOPHIE’s sonic inventions farther and wider than any other successor: Charli XCX, who came up in the early 2010s herself and did as much as anyone to fully integrate PC Music’s aesthetic into existing pop’s actual programming, while straddling the margins herself, and 100 gecs, who went deservedly viral for aping this more recently anointed “hyperpop” and branching out into metal, ska, and Fall Out Boy. There’s no replacement for the real thing, who was just getting started and was beginning to plan four album releases per year not long ago. But both have ensured her legacy and influence would go much farther than being a controversial blip in the pop timeline on the internet in 2014.

A wholehearted listen to her consistently engaging and wonderful music on PRODUCT and Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides won’t bring SOPHIE back after dying too young like far too many musicians and far too many trans women. But they’re warm, weird, and full messages she carved in the noises she wanted us to hear most. We now know she wasn’t using a woman’s name to cross gatekeepers like at least one of-the-time essay alleged, and that PC Music weren’t using pop’s name in vain. SOPHIE’s interest in exploring artifice was as deeply felt as anyone else who’s ever questioned their identity and the packaging it comes in. We now know that when this ironist, this sexual crusader, this studio adventurer relayed the message “I can make you feel better,” it was as sincere as her hooks, her studiocraft, her sensory spectacles. It’s okay to cry.

 

VIDEO: SOPHIE “Faceshopping”

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Ted Miller

Ted Miller is trying to collect the head of every Guns ‘n Roses’ guitarist for his rec room. He currently has three.

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