I’ll always remember how lucky I was to see SOPHIE perform. It was on a school night of my first year of university. My best friend’s orange hair glowed under the hazy Brooklyn sky with his hand in mine, the fingerless fishnet gloves scratching my palm as we ran for the doors.
In short, it was safe. And SOPHIE was the catalyst.
It was devastating, then, to learn this weekend that the hugely influential musician and producer had died in Athens after a tragic fall while taking a photograph of the moon (in a statement, SOPHIE’s team requested that pronouns not be used in reference to the trans artist), leaving countless fans such as myself bereft.
SOPHIE evaded genre and characterisation but – as a pioneer of PC Music, the collective created in the early 2010s by frequent collaborator A.G. Cook – was nonetheless responsible for refining and popularising electronic pop music. The music combined bubblegum pop, techno and experimental electronic to create an overwhelming onslaught of pitched-up vocals layered over unrecognisable synths and dainty sound effects that sound like glitter sprayed over a twisted reinterpretation of consumerism, popular culture and femininity.
Much of SOPHIE’s work bore almost no frame of reference, which is what made the artist’s music so groundbreaking and influential. Without SOPHIE, there would be no hyper-pop pioneers such as 100 gecs or even the glitchy electronic production rising in K-Pop. SOPHIE’s work with acclaimed musicians such as Vince Staples, Charli XCX, Madonna and Arca expanded the producer’s vision to new audiences, pushing collaborators to their experimental limits.
There was always an element of mystery around SOPHIE’s biography – besides the fact that the artist was born in Glasgow in 1986, there’s not much information available – but for all its glossiness, the music was radically vulnerable and reflective of who the performer was.
With all joy comes tragedy, something queer people are used to. Just look at the Brooklyn streets that my friends and I traversed for that SOPHIE show. The spirits of our elders and ancestors permeate the gentrified New York air as you pass what’s left of the gay bars and sex shops. Nightclubs have become churches and gyms. The elements have since washed away the blood of gay and trans activists from the pavement. Long after the AIDS crisis, my mother still received phone calls of old club kid friends succumbing to the virus until the phone stopped ringing.
For young millennials and Gen-Z-ers, there is sadly no nostalgia for these sacred institutions because we never experienced them. Instead, we continued the tradition of crowning queer icons. Technology developed, Yahoo Groups and blogging collectives turning into Facebook Groups and subreddits. The malleability of a digital identity made the internet a safer place to find each other. It was our dancefloor, and SOPHIE understood that.
In 2013, just before websites such as Tumblr and Soundcloud started to lose steam, SOPHIE’s timeless single ‘Bipp’ heralded the arrival of a huge new talent. Its sickly-sweet synths sat atop sticky sound effects evocative of an assembly line – was the music meant to be ironic? Was it a comment on over-produced and hyper-feminine early 2000s pop music? Perhaps, but the hopeful lyrics (“However you’re feeling, I can make you feel better / Whatever you’re thinking, I can make it all clearer”) also invited us to build very real fantasies around them.
In 2017, one year before that fateful night in Brooklyn, SOPHIE came out as transgender via the video for ‘It’s Okay to Cry’, removing the veil of anonymity in the most inspiring way possible. The track was more subdued than the producer’s previous work, featuring a swelling synth and keyboard loop punctuated with glitches. It was our ‘Free’ by Ultra Nate and Diana Ross’s ‘I’m Coming Out’, queer anthems about celebrating yourself. In SOPHIE’s case, though, there was a hint of melancholy; permission to mourn what you’ve missed and lost in the journey to self-acceptance. Now, of course, the song has a new meaning.
It may have been unfair of me to see so much of myself in SOPHIE. We were both raised by ravers (the musician did reveal that in a Lenny Letter interview in 2018): my mum had stacks of CDs from club DJs, introducing me to the house music of Danny Tenaglia and Masters at Work. I heard that same fixation in each watery sound effect synth meticulously layered into SOPHIE’s work. Here was a musician who deconstructed electronic music like a child popping the limbs off their dolls, before putting those limbs back in the wrong places to create something fascinating and grotesque.
It feels strange to mourn someone you’ve never met. Many young queers such as myself feel as though we know some artists through their lyrics and personas. We craft communities around people as safe spaces from the harsh outside world. Yet there is guilt that comes with mourning a stranger. LGBT+ people are intensely aware of our mortality, whether by illness or violence. For transgender people specifically, the risk of death increases significantly.
I have asked myself if in grief at SOPHIE’s passing was really sadness at losing who I made the artist out to be. Along with many fans, I placed SOPHIE on an untouchable pedestal as an angel, an icon and a blank canvas for our trauma, thoughts and dreams. Yet that does not mean we also didn’t see this exceptional talent as human.
On the contrary, it’s what made the artist so special. One of my favourite SOPHIE songs, ‘Just Like We Never Said Goodbye’, from 2015’s compilation album ‘Product’, tells the story of reuniting with a long lost love after a failed teenage relationship. It perfectly captures the childlike euphoria of first love, a feeling almost anyone can relate to. SOPHIE’s music transcended gender, sexuality and genre to create its own sonic universe with endless possibilities. These songs are overwhelming collages of sound to find bits of yourself in, and which you can take with you.
SOPHIE inspired and mobilised so many trans people to explore their creativity through networks created by songs such as ‘It’s Okay To Cry’. That influence is evident in the outpouring of personal accounts from fans sharing their work in social media tributes, and can be found in the successes of Kim Petras and 100 Gecs, fellow trans experimental pop musicians. Sophie was proud, provocative and revolutionary both in and out of music.
I can’t say that I knew SOPHIE, but I got to know many people influenced by the artist’s music, which remains scattered in the hearts of millions. On behalf of those people: thank you, Sophie. We will look to the moon and think of you.