Any preconceptions of what a SOPHIE show might entail will be shattered within seconds of her set beginning. That’s something I learned on Tuesday night, as I saw the elusive producer perform the first of two sold out shows at the resurrected nightclub spot Fabric in London.
Barely a year in to a career that has seen her come out from behind her DJ decks to be seen as a front-facing star with a penchant for manipulated, challenging pop music, she’s earned herself a reputation as an unmissable live artist. I’d heard rumours from her show back at Heaven in March: an album showcase of sorts that twisted the DNA of a live pop performance into something that managed to feel vulnerable, freeing and intimidating all at the same time; recognisable and yet unlike anything you’ve ever heard before.
Before she dropped her debut LP, the remarkable Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-insides (which I urge you to listen to if you haven’t already), shows like her Heaven performance were the only markers we had of the artistry that was still to come. She might have been around for a few years now (her EP ‘PRODUCT’ is still a mind-fuck of a Fans who caught that show heard pre-released singles, album tracks in advance, and a smattering of unreleased cuts.
Perhaps those who’d purchased tickets for her first big London dates since then were expecting the same: to witness the year’s most complex, audacious and – for many – impenetrable pop albums in all of its live glory. But SOPHIE, it seems, dislikes the comfort blanket of familiarity. This is the same artist who spent years discussing her songs as if they were mere commodities to be packaged up and presented to an audience, in many ways void of emotion. It’s why she said yes to allowing McDonald’s to use her track Lemonade in their adverts. She was fucking up the notion of integrity in a way that redefined it in her own terms. That’s why so many people – particularly queer people who love her subversive, idiosyncratic take on the shaping of identity – love her.
If ‘unpredictable’ and ‘boundary pushing’ are practically synonyms for your stage name, then you have the right to run wild and do whatever the fuck you want when it comes to your live show – and so that’s what SOPHIE did. Her Fabric show saw her deliver ‘VIP’ mixes of the songs most familiar to her layman audience: tiny slices of familiar sound effects, looped detached vocal samples layered over beats nobody knew. It was like a masterclass in fucking with an audience in a way that captured you in a dangerously strong grip. Seas of people – I won’t lie, me included – were anticipating to go batshit crazy over a ‘press play’ version of their favourite album track, but it never came. Instead, this masterful live performer delivered something different; something you’ve probably never seen before and will never witness again.
It was, for all intents and purposes, a grinding, sensual and arresting electro-pop art show anyway. Two dancers – Tzef Montana (SOPHIE’s girlfriend) and Raya Martigny – turn the entire thing into a sexed up aerobic exercise class, carrying car tyres across the stage and jolting their limbs and rolling their muscles to SOPHIE’s ubiquitous squeaks and sonic hallmarks. The only songs performed in their entirety would’ve been familiar to her most loyal followers and nobody else: a new mix of her unreleased stan favourites ‘It’s Your Life‘ and ‘Take Me to Dubai‘. Long story short, if you’ve rushed your way through an essential playlist of her most streamed songs on Spotify on the way to a show, your efforts to learn any of the words were fruitless.
Which, when you think of it in the context of SOPHIE’s music, is kind of refreshing. With club-friendly, glossy and grinding electro-pop, how might the experience of hearing any old DJ and hearing SOPHIE herself drop a banger like ‘Immaterial‘ in a set differ?
It poses a really fascinating question about the contract between performer and audience: when a consumer pays money to see their favourite artist perform live, does the artist owe the consumer anything? Should a pop star be forced to churn out songs they’ve played a thousand times before – or have no interest in playing – purely because their fans are expecting it?
It’s an argument that changes depending on the artist you’re discussing, but poses an interesting question when we discuss it in the context of pop artists in particular. When you’re seen as a straight-laced ‘artist’ – you know, your Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, traditional ‘hetty man with a guitar’ vibe – you have the creative freedom to play the songs you want without warranting backlash from fans. But if your music is in any way construed as pure commodity – we’re talking 99% of the pop artists in the world today – to skip out fan favourites is considered a breaking of the live concert code. If you paid through the nose to see a Lady Gaga gig, you better believe her fans are expecting a knockout rendition of ‘Bad Romance’ or will be leaving disappointed. In many ways, I think, that’s the same argument many of SOPHIE’s fans will have in their heads: if you have the sugar rush pop numbers that fans can dance to and hold dear to your hearts, why wouldn’t you drop them at a show in which everybody would be happy to hear it?
But with that, we’re forgetting something. We’re forgetting just how much SOPHIE is blurring those pop boundaries; straddling a world of art and product that nobody but she has the right to make decisions in. After all, we don’t love SOPHIE for her reliable nature and stonking chart records – her divisiveness is a major part of her brilliance. Instead, we love her for ability to fuck so intensely with the world around her to the point that her vision and intentions barely make sense any more. That cacophony of on-the-spot creation, of subversive showmanship, is what makes seeing her live so special, and what keeps it so interesting for us, the spectator.
So next time you pay money to see SOPHIE, know that you’re entering into a contract unlike any other you’ve signed the dotted line on so far. What you’re about to witness might fuck with your head, incense you or leave you feeling a near sexual level of euphoria. All of those combined are just part of the fun.