Sasha Geffen on SOPHIE
SOPHIE BELONGED TO THE FUTURE. At the last SOPHIE concert I attended, the central item on the merch table was a black T-shirt with white lettering. LIVE IN PERSON! SOPHIE LA000010302017, it announced. Four zeroes ahead of the date, four powers of ten for us to expand into, millennia upon millennia still unwritten. That was the music’s promise—that we would all make it out, that we would spill not just past this present moment, but into the untold expanses of time yet to come. Now those of us who loved what SOPHIE did must chart a future without SOPHIE, reconstructing our worlds around an abyssal loss. Without its orbital center, SOPHIE’s universe of sound spins askew. SOPHIE died in Athens while trying to look at the first full moon of the year. Pink, swollen, massive: Alone, it filled the sky.
Born in Glasgow, SOPHIE began making solo work in London in 2010. Glossy dance tracks soon bloomed into pop songs whose tightly processed, pitched-up voices and bright, tactile syntheses became the musician’s signature. In a 2013 Dazed interview, published just a few months before the breakthrough single “BIPP” began its electric course, SOPHIE announced the project’s forward vector. “I’d like my music to be the antithesis of nostalgia—sensual, an assault on the senses. Nothing that reminds you of the past, just what you’re feeling right now.”
On a granular level, SOPHIE’s music concerns itself with the thrill of unexpected textures colliding in startling ways. Each component vies for attention—the rubbery, lubricated tones in the foreground; the looming, aerated bass in back; the gasping, gleeful voices that dart and shiver around the edges of the scene. SOPHIE laced surprise at the microscopic level, beat by beat, into pop songs’ reliable repetition. The words and melody repeat, but the instrumentation keeps mutating, a combination of stasis and flux designed to maximize dopamine. SOPHIE inscribed the thesis of “BIPP” across its lyrical surface: “I can make you feel better.”
Throughout SOPHIE’s body of work—the first string of singles, compiled on 2015’s Product; the longer-form, narratively oriented 2018 album Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides; the numerous remixes and collaborations—SOPHIE studied the alchemy of pleasure. When a song sends a frisson through the body, where does that ecstasy originate? In which particular sounds and combinations do people delight, and why?
SOPHIE loved Autechre and twisted sound out of an Elektron Monomachine because the British duo, whose sculptural approach to noisemaking buttresses SOPHIE’s work, had used one first. But the seeds of SOPHIE’s music also appear in songs that have more of a life in the world, pouring out of car windows, frothing up dance floors, hovering, vaporized, in the perfume sections of department stores. In interviews, SOPHIE pointed to techno, house, disco, and R&B as roots, their playfulness, humor, and optimism funneling into SOPHIE’s own. Donna Summer’s 1977 disco single “I Feel Love,” with its Giorgio Moroder Moog pulses and vocal layers, is a clear ancestor. I hear antecedents in future-minded hip-hop and R&B from the ’80s, ’90s, and 2000s, too, in the work of producers like Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Tricky Stewart, and Kevin “She’kspere” Briggs. In the 2002 Brandy song “What About Us?” produced by Darkchild, there’s a moment when the singer’s pitched-up voice plumes behind a naturalistic vocal. It happens only once. Many of the vocals in SOPHIE’s songs sound like that flourish, but extended—giddy, carbonated, luminous.
SOPHIE extracted accents, the minuscule points in a song that inspire disproportionate delight, and inflated them until they framed a whole environment. Much of SOPHIE’s music features abundant negative space, which clarifies the contours of these sounds. In the precision of their synthesis, they feel synesthetically real—not the noise of simulated instruments or impressionistic vehicles for melody but tangible objects summoned from nonmusical contexts: an overinflated rubber ball suddenly punctured; a metal pipe thwacking against a rusty grate; bubbles popping in a vat of viscous liquid. These songs are all propulsion, yet so few of them rest on drums. The beat in one of SOPHIE’s most astonishing productions, the Quay Dash song “Queen of This Shit,” suggests two giant balloons rubbing against each other and generating static electricity, the sensual illusion complementing the rapper’s focused, sibilant flow. The sounds crash into my ears, and my body believes in their sources, no matter how absurd or unlikely—a winking trompe l’oreille.
Through these conjured objects, SOPHIE excavated the implicit movements of thought, the apertures through which sensory perception constitutes reality. SOPHIE investigated consciousness as deeply as Clarice Lispector or John Ashbery, but through pop music—which SOPHIE considered the ideal substrate for entertaining its mysteries—rather than written language. The irreducible “I” at the center of experience; the quick, invisible responses that flicker across a body to signal pleasure or pain; those barely perceptible cognitive orchestrations that determine who comes into conflict with whom and who is able to commune—these were SOPHIE’s subjects. SOPHIE took them seriously, but also playfully, knowing that in focusing too intently on the objects of one’s curiosity one can smother them.
It’s not only in the self but in the other that reality opens and allows formerly ambiguous desires to crystallize.
Colorful renderings of playground equipment splash across the white covers of SOPHIE’s early singles. They signal, on a basic level, that listening to SOPHIE’s music is fun and also frightening, in the way a tall slide can be frightening and then thrilling when you’re young. SOPHIE spoke about returning the listener to certain aspects of childhood—not for nostalgia’s sake, not to replay the past as it was, but to restore the openness and flexibility of the mind before it petrifies within a social role.
Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides, the only album SOPHIE released, plunges deeply into the questions of selfhood and communication raised by the artist’s prior work. Its palette bleeds past the tight, truncated sound of singles like “BIPP,” creating expanses lusher than those plastic slides in voids. Voices issuing from SOPHIE and guest performers Cecile Believe and Banoffee wind around one another and split apart, pitched up and pitched down, continuous and then atomized. The album attends to the dissolution and reconstruction of the self, the abandonment of one’s predetermined life path and the discovery of freer ways of being with those who have also jettisoned their stories. It’s not only trans people who quit their preprogrammed sequence and start over, but it’s through this music that I began to understand transness as an incomparable gift, a vantage from which prohibitive assumptions about human relationality begin to curl away.
In the middle of Oil, on a song called “Is It Cold in the Water?,” Believe sings the titular line in a sterling head voice, reaching, searching, wondering if rending the familiar in favor of the unknown would be worth it. The question hangs over reality as it’s rent. The world floats in fragments, and in between the fragments space appears. Whoever is doing the asking, that obliterated “I,” starts to take form again as the album progresses—only in a new shape, interior and surface in harmony.
How do we extend our bodies into tools available to us, not to dilute or distort ourselves with but to allow us to become more ourselves? How does the “I” cry out of biomechanical collage? SOPHIE saw digital technology as indispensable to the creation of new, livable selves and new, livable worlds. But SOPHIE’s music also rejects the figure of the singular technological auteur isolated by genius. The worlds SOPHIE synthesized are designed to be populous, cocreated by many. The closing track and rallying cry of Oil, “Whole New World/Pretend World,” layers vocal tracks to simulate a crowd, each member demanding the fulfillment of the title’s promise: “I looked into your eyes / I thought that I could see a whole new world (whole! new! world!).” It’s not only in the self but in the other that reality opens and allows formerly ambiguous desires to crystallize. I see you and you see me and we see each other seeing each other, and in this way we view the real in parallax. We draw it into three dimensions, our passions mingling, feeding each other and growing stronger.
SOPHIE’s music makes it possible to believe in a world where we all survive and are free. At times, this other place seems fully formed, hiding just beyond the veil of simulated sound. Is there a way there? They are countless. All we need to do is soften ourselves enough to seek them.
Sasha Geffen lives in Colorado and is the author of Glitter Up the Dark: How Pop Music Broke the Binary (University of Texas Press, 2020).