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Sophie Showed Us the Future

The electronic music pioneer, who died at the age of 34 on Saturday, left an indelible mark and challenged people to rethink concepts of gender, identity, and sheer possibility

Getty Images/Ringer Illustration

In 2014, Dazed and Confused magazine asked electronic music trailblazer Sophie to interview Japanese pop star Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. Pamyu Pamyu, then 21, had amassed a cultlike following in Asia for her psychedelic viral hit “PonPonPon” and her morbid take on J-Pop. Sophie, meanwhile, had become established as a mysterious dance-pop critical darling. The discussion between the two was far from straightforward—Sophie brought an actual living octopus for Pamyu Pamyu to inspect—but Sophie was mostly interested in exploring Pamyu Pamyu’s process: her deconstruction of her genre, her juxtaposition of the grotesque and the beautiful, and her rejection of parody in the face of cold, hard reality.

One question, however, gave greater insight into the interviewer’s thinking than the subject’s. “What about music in 50 years’ time?” Sophie asked. “What do you think that might sound like?” That question—where music was headed and how the artists of today would shape it—was something of a guiding principle for Sophie, who died Saturday at age 34 after an accidental fall in Athens, Greece. But as the past decade showed, Sophie had already figured out the answer, at least in the near term, as the producer-songwriter’s brand of understated maximalism crept into pop music and inspired a booming microgenre and a legion of Gen Z bedroom auteurs. And Sophie’s impact extended beyond the borders of music—Sophie, a trans icon, challenged people to reimagine the concepts of gender, identity, and what the future itself could look like.

Sophie Xeon first became attracted to the promise of the future while growing up in Glasgow, after the teen’s father shared tapes of dance tracks along with a simple message: “This is going to be important for you.” Soon, Sophie began attending raves and developed an interest in creating art. A young Sophie also became immersed in photographer Nan Goldin’s work documenting the gay and transgender communities, as well as Matthew Barney’s gender-distorting Cremaster Cycle films. Music became something of a refuge for Sophie, who spent hours each day experimenting with songcraft. “I didn’t really have a best friend,” Sophie said in a 2018 interview with Lenny. “I had good friends, but music, I suppose, became my escape, like this friend I was looking for that was about the same stuff as me.”

Over the next decade, Sophie would join a Berlin dance-pop collective named Motherland, collaborate on performance-art pieces, and score a short film. A breakthrough, however, came a few years later, after Sophie began sending demos to the Scottish record label Numbers. One of the songs, “Bipp,” caught the attention of label co-owner Calum “Spencer” Morton, who told DJ Mag in 2019 that when he received the track, “he smiled for about a month.”

Released in 2013 at the height of the dubstep era—a time of weaponized synthesizers and hypermasculine EDM bros—“Bipp” drew influences from legendary electronic artists like Aphex Twin and newer innovators like Hudson Mohawke. But despite those forebears, “Bipp” was still wholly of itself. It’s exhilarating dance music that sounds as great on headphones as it does in the big room, as propulsive as it is restrained. Neither house nor techno, “Bipp” was built on kick drums and negative space and topped with a sugary, ping-ponging melody. Its message was radically empathetic: “I can make you feel better, if you let me,” goes the helium-pitched vocalist, a line that feels as comforting today as it did upon release. But most crucially, “Bipp” slinks along; it never explodes. While the drop had become synonymous with electronic music, “Bipp” offered something subtly revolutionary. The song did explode, however, in certain corners of the internet, landing at no. 17 in Pitchfork’s year-end list and topping XLR8R’s. “Simply put, there was nothing else in 2013 that sounded quite like ‘Bipp,’” Shawn Reynaldo wrote in the latter. That perhaps understates the track’s uniqueness: Like much of Sophie’s music, “Bipp” was made entirely of a sonic palette the musician synthesized and created from scratch using an Elektron Monomachine and Ableton Live. By definition, nothing else could sound quite like it, in any year.

While “Bipp” created an instant sensation, few had clues about Sophie’s identity. There was confusion as to whether Sophie was the singer on the track or the vocals were a sample. (The answer was neither: Former Motherland bandmate Marcella Dvsi lent her voice to “Bipp.”) The anonymity continued, largely by design, even as Sophie’s stature grew in the years after the breakout single. “Lemonade,” the follow-up to “Bipp,” eclipsed its predecessor in popularity and eventually landed in a McDonald’s commercial; Sophie then linked up with like-minded hyper-vibrant pop surrealists Charli XCX and PC Music, producing a handful of brilliant tracks. Around this time, Madonna, Nicki Minaj, and Diplo came calling for production work and, in 2017, Sophie collaborated with Vince Staples and Kendrick Lamar on the excellent “Yeah Right.” But Sophie still shunned the spotlight, deferring to guest singers, using a voice distorter to give interviews, and enlisting fellow performers as stand-ins for live performances. Before long, every mention of the name Sophie seemed to be accompanied by another word: “elusive”

Sophie had fun in the shadows, however. (Remember: the live octopus.) There was a playfulness to the early singles that separated them from the self-seriousness that infects most experimental electronic music. Songs like “Lemonade” and “Hard” were built around short phrases, and their artwork included computer-generated neon caterpillars and stray bits of tubing. They mixed bubble-gum pop and industrial influences, sounding overtly silly and intensely erotic all at once. But most descriptors were never befitting Sophie’s creations: Once asked about the music’s genre, the artist said “advertising.” Art as commerce was a concept Sophie parodied frequently. Most prominently—and controversially—Sophie coproduced the song “Hey QT” in 2014 to promote a fictional soft drink. But Sophie also took shots in other ways: a 2015 compilation of the “Bipp”-era tracks was titled Product. To market it, Sophie offered a $79 sex toy that came with a download of the project. Even the toy’s description seemed to be in jest: It was listed simply as a “silicon product” on Sophie’s website. Perhaps this one was instead overtly erotic and intensely silly.

But that anonymity and detachment made it all the more shocking—and exponentially more powerful—when Sophie released the self-directed video for “It’s Okay to Cry” in 2017. It was the first song to feature the artist prominently as a singer, while the visuals showed Sophie’s face and body, both starkly exposed. Despite being years into a successful music career, “It’s Okay” served as a proper introduction. “I hope you don’t take this the wrong way / But I think your inside is your best side,” Sophie sings against a green-screen backdrop that shifts from clear skies to storms and back again. Despite the second-person pronouns, the lyrics play like a personal declaration: In the years before the song, Sophie was frequently misgendered by the press and attacked for “feminine appropriation.” Fellow futuristic pop icon Grimes once piled on, telling The Guardian two years before “It’s Okay” that “It’s really fucked up to call yourself Sophie and pretend you’re a girl when you’re a male producer [and] there are so few female producers.” Grimes would later say she apologized directly, while Sophie never publicly addressed the comments. But Sophie did say that releasing “It’s Okay to Cry” was both a challenge and a sign of growing comfort: “Initially I was quite all right with letting the music speak for itself, but then the problem is, people start filling in the gaps for you.”

“It’s Okay to Cry” would lead off Sophie’s debut album, 2018’s Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides, one of the great avant-garde pop albums of the 21st century and now, tragically, the only proper Sophie full-length released before Saturday’s accident. Oil, which was nominated for Best Dance/Electronic Album at the 2019 Grammys, is a natural evolution of the early singles: a mix of chaotic anthems and deeply earnest ethereal ballads, with subjects ranging from the fear of change (“Is It Cold in the Water?”) to yearning (“Infatuation”), to BDSM fantasies (“Ponyboy” is overtly and intensely erotic, and none of those words do its video justice).

With a face now accompanying the songs, Sophie’s music took on added resonance. At an earlier time, a song like “Faceshopping” may have come off as dystopian cosplay, but with more context, it stands more clearly as a deconstruction of self. A similar moment comes on Oil’s best moment: on “Immaterial,” which subverts the Madonna classic by calling out to “immaterial boys” and “immaterial girls,” the singer shouts, “I could be anything I want!” The song’s centerpiece verse imagines a world beyond the corporeal:

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?

Those are open-ended questions with unknowable answers, but Sophie had ideas. The artist, who did not use pronouns, told Paper magazine in 2018 that transness meant “taking control to bring your body more in line with your soul and spirit so the two aren’t fighting against each other and struggling to survive. … It means you’re not a mother or a father—you’re an individual who’s looking at the world and feeling the world.” Words like those and the approach to songs like “Immaterial’’ resonated with the fan base. Writer Sasha Geffen, who profiled Sophie in 2017 and detailed the musician’s impact in a book last year, said on Saturday, “I keep thinking about how SOPHIE had no use whatsoever for the usual beats of ‘coming out’ ‘identification’ etc just direct communication of complex interior experiences to other people who would get it.”

As news of Sophie’s death spread, tributes poured in from all corners of the music world, from FKA Twigs to Zane Lowe to Bill Callahan to Nile Rodgers to, yes, even Grimes. One of the more telling ones came from someone significantly younger than most of those industry luminaries, however: Finneas, the production whiz kid best known for his work with his younger sister, Billie Eilish, said he was “consistently inspired” by Sophie and awed by the music’s production. No one would mistake a Finneas composition for Sophie, but it’s hard to imagine his and Billie’s brand of dark electro-pop existing in 2021 had Sophie not laid the groundwork. The sphere of influence is almost infinite.

In recent months, the term “hyperpop” has gone from music-crit jargon to the name of a legit subgenre, an umbrella term for brick-walled, squelching songs made by Rina Sawayama, Slayyyter, and most notably, 100 gecs. It’s influenced by trap and emo and sometimes nu-metal, but at its core, hyperpop brings an absurdist approach to pop music, hollowing out the parent genre’s innards and wearing it like a knee-high latex boot covered in glitter. In other words, it’s influenced by the music Sophie started making a decade ago. And at hyperpop’s very best—say, 100 gecs’ “Hand Crushed by a Mallet”—it sounds precisely like Sophie’s future.

The year after the Dazed and Confused discussion, Sophie spoke with a Travel Almanac writer who presumably didn’t bring a live octopus to the interview, but nonetheless flipped the topic Sophie put before Pamyu Pamyu back on the artist: What may music sound like in 50 years? Sophie didn’t have a grand idea: “My only answer can be ‘absolutely mind-blowing.’ Imagine playing someone in the ’60s a totally synthetic EDM track. They could not possibly begin to comprehend the sound.”

There’s no way to predict what music will be in 2070—as Pamyu Pamyu predicted, there will presumably be fewer guitars, but will there even be musicians? Will all sounds be constructed from scratch synthetically? How will we juxtapose the grotesque with the beautiful? Where will we live? Where will we exist? The answers are yet to come. What’s important to remember today is that Sophie was the one asking the questions.