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We’re All SOPHIE’s Children Now

​It was thrilling to think of where SOPHIE was going to take us next after having deconstructed both club music and pop. But even without her here to lead us, the tenacity and impactfulness of her bold body of work can guide us.

Unlike the early to mid-2010s tendencies within club music towards maximalism or cinematic bombast, these tunes were composed, generally from scratch, with a concision that allowed them to go down smooth only to rupture like pop rocks into new sensations as they worked their way through your system. Even odder for the usually stern dancefloor genre was the music’s joie de vivre, its unique sense of humor and playfulness. Unlike other recent jocular fads like electroclash, which dished into camp nostalgia for its licks and kicks, SOPHIE’s sound was conceptualized within the parameters of a whole new world of post-internet living. It probed into the abstract hyperlinked relationships between the crass and cultured, the commercial and avant-garde, the quotidian and absurd. From here, she pulled out mutant hybrids that did not wail like Cronenbergian nightmares (such as they do in her close peer Arca’s work) but were ripe with agency, zest, and self-awareness.

It was this that earned SOPHIE space as a kind of fairy godmother figure for the burgeoning PC Music label and as a pioneer of the music that would retroactively be dubbed hyperpop (a combination of avant-garde electronics and its cheesiest fringes: happy hardcore, Eurodance, J-Pop, et al.). It turned out that transforming SOPHIE’s niche sounds into a kind of future pop involved only a few minor tweaks, and she launched a prototype along with PC Music founder A.G. Cook in QT. Although QT only ever put out one single, the project created a massive stir.

“Hey QT” was not only an ebullient, infectious call-and-response pop song directly from the heart of the zeitgeist, but it was also an advertisement for an energy drink called DrinkQT, which was initially fictitious but soon manufactured and distributed at QT performances. At those shows, actress Hayden Francess Dunham lip-synched the song as Quinn Thomas, aka QT, a living mascot for DrinkQT. The project’s presence in the popular consciousness and its vanguard music video lead to a long tail of YouTube-based musical projects (Poppy, Ayesha Erotica, Naomi Elizabeth) that seemed to exist mainly as proof of concept for a larger idea or theory.

This kind of high-concept performance art became part and parcel of the PC Music set, whose theatrics, antics, and sonics blended critiques of the total domination of late capitalism over the lives of its inhabitants with a seeming embrace of it. PC Music and their close proxy SOPHIE were creating a soundtrack in the mid-2010s for a new mental and political environment by diving further into the total, strangulating control grip of hyper-consumption, commodified sociality, and casual, almost banal, exploitation, to identify potential pathways to escape from it. It was a satire of naked marketing artifice.

However, they presented their aspirational future-commercial cuts in such plasticine, utopian light that they became uncanny simulacrums of the original, incorporating actual product placement alongside imaginary ones, disaffection alongside genuine passion, and tawdry pop cliches alongside innovative hyper pop alchemy. It frustrated many because it wasn’t clear who the manipulator was or if it was all some elaborate ruse. Still, the act of urging participants to question intention perhaps forced many to see how all-encompassing the corporate colonization of music and broader social experiences had become.

As such, SOPHIE did not a priori reject assimilation into the machinations of late capitalism. When McDonald’s approached her to use her song “Lemonade” in an ad promoting said drink, she jumped at the opportunity to bring the track to a new audience. Not least of the appeal had to be the song’s transgressive sexual allusions to piss-drinking seeping into the corporate chain’s mass marketing schema, a motif so obvious that sketch comedy writers basically ripped it off for an Inside Amy Schumer bit. But SOPHIE also understood that refusing a deal with the devil wouldn’t cede any power on behalf of the devil. It would just reward the ego and deny an opportunity to embed a moment of cognitive dissonance into the frontline.

“An experimental idea doesn’t have to be separated from a mainstream context,” she told Sasha Geffen in 2017. “The really exciting thing is where those two things are together. That’s where you can get real change.” Not everyone took this commercial turn nor the ironic pop utopianism lightly. PC Music faced hostility from parts of the listening public still hung up on fussy ideas of the counterculture as itself some kind of active resistance, rather than just another device in the branding toolkit. But PC Music and SOPHIE’s ideas, supported by theory-rich projects such as the concurrent DiS Magazine and yet just as inspired by the lowbrow awkward humor of Tim and Eric, eventually won the day as their sounds and ideas crept into the periphery of mainstream music.

Through her productions, SOPHIE’s startling dynamics touched a variety of above-ground names like Madonna, Nicki Minaj, Lil Yachty, Vince Staples, Camila Cabello, Cupcakke, Tove Lo, and Charli XCX. She did this through forging connections to these artists and bringing them up to speed, rather than compromising her integrity. She delighted in incorporating her avant-garde sound ideas into the backdrop of daily life, contributing exclusives to video games like Cyberpunk 2077 or The Sims 4 expansion pack and adorning the massive screens behind Louis Vuitton’s fashion week runway. When she finally emerged with her own and, sadly, only full-length LP, 2018’s Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides, it was towering, tactile, intense, visionary, wild, and startlingly accessible, spanning ballads (“It’s Okay to Cry”) to deep ambient interludes (“Pretending”) to throbbing bangers as heavy as any death metal track (“Faceshopping”, “Whole New World/Pretend World”).

Arguably, SOPHIE’s work did more to open doors and decentralize power in the music business through sheer mastery of the form than all of the keyboard warriors once contesting against her supposed appropriation combined. Pop and electronic music’s vanguard in 2021 exists largely in SOPHIE’s shadow. Influence is certainly not the only or even the best metric to judge an artist’s output. But in SOPHIE’s case, she has forged entire ecosystems within music, art, and other virtual spaces that continue to sprout and ferment their own new ideas. Certainly, TikTok’s passion for obscure DIY future pop and queer-friendly theatrics owes a good deal to her, as the popularity of the SOPHIE-produced “Vroom Vroom” by Charli XCX on the platform can attest. Queer artists and women dominate critical year-end charts and crisscross gleefully from mainstream productions to more personal work without losing their sense of adventure.

It was thrilling to think of where SOPHIE was going to take us next after having deconstructed both club music and pop. But even without her here to lead us, the tenacity and impactfulness of her bold body of work can guide us. As one Twitter user put it upon hearing of SOPHIE’s passing, “What I got from her work wasn’t just an affirmation that I’m a ‘real’ woman or that I’m ‘valid’, it was a permission to endlessly change and customize and de-construct and rebuild myself in as many iterations and combinations as I see fit.”

This is essentially the story of progress itself, ever-changing and adjusting to an infinitely expanding horizon without waiting for the staid old world to validate it. SOPHIE’s final act was to reach out for the full moon, to chase that one last uncolonized spot beyond. In interviews, she was constantly weary of the present but excited for the future. It’s heartbreaking that she won’t be around to witness the future she played such a vital role in creating. But we’re all SOPHIE’s children now and the future is ours.

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