Pop is dead. Thom Yorke even declared it over a decade ago so it must be true, right? Well, since the so-called death of pop, many of the peripheral artists have returned to the critically dismissed genre, and not ironically. Since 2013, SOPHIE has released a series of bubblegum anthems and mind-bending beats to arouse a serious thirst for the most-sugary lemonade. Unfortunately, her hyper-pop approach, overloaded with pop motifs, unrelenting beats, and unabashedly autotuned vocals, is often defined as parody. Much like SOPHIE’s contemporaries from the label PC Music, her genuine appreciation and advancement of pop music is often dismissed by the age-old criticism of pop music as the culture industry.
SOPHIE’s debut album OIL OF EVERY PEARL’s UN-INSIDES definitively ends her misperceived role as a pop satirist. While the album maintains her hyper-pop approach, it is also boldly unreticent and too endearing to allude to any parodic meanings. In SOPHIE’s most intimate work yet, she subverts pop motifs into the catchiest form of self-assertion, reminding us all of why pop music still matters. She proves that pop music can be used to push the voices of the marginalized into the dominant culture.
Prior to OIL, SOPHIE has managed to stay relatively faceless. She has somehow kept a low profile while garnering a large online following, much critical acclaim, and even a collaboration with Madonna. As SOPHIE has avoided most interviews, the public has attempted to decode her artistic intentions without guidance, sometimes leading to confused interpretations.
On OIL, SOPHIE wholly reclaims the discussion of her music and directs it with concise words. The album’s opening track “It’s Okay to Cry” breaks her anonymity and becomes the official introduction to the women behind the music. In a revealing fashion, she strips down her typically hectic sound productions to share a more personal vocal ballad. Only accompanied by a soft, glittering instrumental and no percussions, SOPHIE’s vocals ring loud and focused.
In the same effect, the music video for “It’s Okay to Cry” presents a continuous shot that stares directly at SOPHIE. In this unwavering spotlight, she confidently bares her face and chest, while tenderly singing her most fragile lyrics — “I can see the truth through all the lies… Just know you’ve got nothing to hide”. With these words and the accompanying visuals, SOPHIE begins to share her unheard story as a transgender woman. Hence, the album begins with what may be the most important song of her entire discography.
While “It’s Okay to Cry” presents a touching, memorable start to OIL, afterward the album immediately returns to SOPHIE’s signature hard-hitting blend of pop, electro, and disco. “Ponyboy” cranks the volume to 10, and seductively chants about pony play. As SOPHIE discloses her fantasies, a guttural bass and a collection of aural whips create a striking exhibition of synthesis that would please any sound fetishists. Thereafter, “Faceshopping” continues where “Ponyboy” sonically left off, and what “It’s Okay to Cry” conceptually started. Harsh, metallic synths are paired with a calm voice that proudly lists: “Hydroponic skin, Chemical release, Synthesize the real, Plastic surgery”. Shortly after, the soft voice transitions into a striking vocal solo that sings over an ’80s disco interlude.
It is in these moments of disruption and transition that OIL becomes a reflection of SOPHIE. She is strong, radical, and more, but as she prefaces in the opening song, it’s also ok to cry. Accordingly, the two electro bangers are followed by an exploration into the less structured side of music. “Is It Cold in the Water?” wanders into a haunting synthscape, in which Cecile Believe’s ghostly vocals overcome an engulfing trauma. “Infatuation” also features Cecile Believe, using her tantalizing voice to sing a ballad about obsessions. “Not Okay” chaotically builds with disco-inspired synths, teasing an explosive release that never manifests. “Pretending” drones and slowly burns into a majestic flame that burns pretty and harsh.
The middle of OIL veers left field, but all the experimentation somehow culminates into “Immaterial”, the true epitome of pop music. This bubblegum anthem immediately jumps off with a sugarcoated hook that will take over the minds of both pop lovers and haters. The gang vocals chant, “Im-ma-ma-material, immaterial”, enticing listeners to join in a catchy celebration of nihility. In the bridge, SOPHIE further declares “I can’t be held down”, pitch shifting the vocals, freely traveling up, down, and everywhere in between. SOPHIE proclaims complete control over her identity in the most joyous tone, in pop music’s kitschiest form.
Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides reminds us why pop music became popular music in the first place. Its catchy melodies, sing-along capabilities, and relatability provide a far-reaching cultural tool. To SOPHIE, loudness and repetitiveness are tools to stimulate the most primal reactions and to sing the catchiest expression of self. In this manner, pop music is being advanced, and it should be understood as something more complex than commercial and superficial. OIL exaggerates pop motifs not to reiterate their flaws or hypocrisies (we don’t need satire to recognize this), but rather to intensify and reimagine its function. SOPHIE proves that pop music can be used to share marginalized expressions in a dominant way. The discourse of transgender identity, fetish subcultures, or unspoken traumas can be assertively shared through pop music and pop culture.