Remembering SOPHIE’s Radical Futurism

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The revolutionary artist helped change the landscape of pop music as we know it.

SOPHIE
SOPHIE, photo by Renata Raksha

From the very beginning, SOPHIE came bearing something radical and new: a sound that had not been heard before, and a vision that peered up out of the present moment, periscope-like, in search of the unknown. SOPHIE knew that the future is fragile: It’s not just that so many Tomorrowland fantasies turn to kitsch but that the very idea of musical futurism, once so central to pop and the avant-garde alike, has become a relic. Culture’s ability to see past the horizon has become increasingly eclipsed by its addiction to the past. But SOPHIE, who died on Saturday, January 30, at the age of 34, was not afflicted with that myopia.

Across a string of singles, a handful of collaborations, and one staggering album, the music of the Scottish-born artist combined pop instincts, uncompromisingly experimental musical ideas, formidable programming chops, and a self-presentation that was at once mischievous and movingly guileless. The result was a body of work that was essentially hopeful, like a roadmap to a better world in which to be vulnerable was, ironically, synonymous with becoming indestructible. That SOPHIE died from an accidental fall in Athens, Greece, having attempted to climb to a higher vantage point in order to view the full moon, is an ending that feels as surreal as modern myth.

SOPHIE, who preferred not to use gendered or nonbinary pronouns, appeared in 2012 with “Nothing More to Say,” a sparkling take on club pop. But it was the following year’s “BIPP,” a single for Scotland’s Numbers label, that would establish the head-spinning newness of SOPHIE’s sound. The song remains as breathtaking now as it was then. It sounds like a bouncy castle full of thumbtacks, giddily irresistible and faintly dangerous, full of pitch-bent synths that simulate the light-headed feeling of coming up on ecstasy. The lead vocal is like ’80s freestyle music on helium; pipsqueak backing shouts lend to the cartoonish air. The hyper-digital synths share a similar approach to maximalist peers like Rustie and Hudson Mohawke, but where their productions jammed the stereo field, “BIPP” takes place against a backdrop of empty space, like a bouquet of fluorescent bungee cords snapping in a vacuum.

SOPHIE was developing a new tonal language. In a 2012 interview with Bomb Magazine, SOPHIE described that this music should offer “the same sort of high-thrill three-minute ride as a theme park roller coaster. Where it spins you upside down, dips you in water, flashes strobe lights at you, takes you on a slow incline to the peak, and then drops you vertically down a smokey tunnel, then stops with a jerk, and your hair is all messed up, and some people feel sick, and others are laughing—then you buy a key ring.” SOPHIE’s music may have shared stylistic DNA with dubstep, electro, and house, but the production had a visceral, tactile quality all its own. It felt as much sculptural as musical, and the sound design—those earthshaking bass jolts and sky-piercing mercury bolts—was nothing short of otherworldly, not obviously analog or digital in origin, but some third, exploratory thing.

SOPHIE’s signature was not limited to this hyperkinetic palette; the songs’ pitched-up vocals played fast and loose with pop’s expressive capabilities. On 2014’s “LEMONADE,” they were frisky and borderline nonsensical; on “HARD,” they were aggressively flirtatious. (“Latex gloves, smack so hard/PVC, I get so hard/Platform shoes kick so hard/Ponytail, yank so hard”—it’s safe to say that chipmunk vocals have never sounded quite so sexy as they did here.) But the most powerful lyrics could be strikingly sincere. The main hook of “BIPP”—“I can make you feel better/If you let me”—could have been taken as a sly come-on. Heard another way, it offers a shoulder to cry on.

 

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