Pop Just Lost One of Its Most Exciting Architects
The Scottish producer Sophie, who died at age 34, created addictive sounds that seemed to live inside the listener’s head.
Updated at 11:56 a.m. ET on February 3, 2021.
Electronic music is old—1800s-old, earlier-than-Elvis old, old-enough-to-forget-it-needed-to-be-invented old. But it still sports the halo of newness because it still offers the possibility of creating tomorrow. In 1910, the Manifesto of Futurist Musicians laid out the idealistic (though fascism-linked) hope of early machine musicians: “The liberation of individual musical sensibility from all imitation or influence of the past.” Nearly a half century has passed since the chrome-y thump of Giorgio Moroder and Donna Summers’s “I Feel Love” made sex suddenly seem sci-fi. Jay-Z tried to proclaim the “Death of Auto-Tune” 12 years ago, and then watched as ear-teasing, cybernetic effects began to swallow the human voice even in country and folk.
Electronic music is old enough that Sophie Xeon, the 34-year-old pop genius from Scotland who died in an accident this past weekend, encountered it almost like you might encounter a family heirloom. (A publicist told The Atlantic that Sophie preferred not to use pronouns.) Sophie was about 10 years old when the artist’s father started bringing Sophie along to raves. Electronica was then a novel craze packing U.K. warehouses and fields, and Sophie’s dad believed that the ravers had discovered the future of music. Sophie shared his enthusiasm. While siblings played with friends, Sophie holed up with Kraftwerk and Orbital cassettes. Before even becoming a teenager, Sophie wanted to quit school and make electronic music.
That dream eventually came true: Sophie grew into one of the most important electronic producers of the past decade, recording music that conveyed the wonder the artist had felt back in childhood. Whether collaborating with stars such as Madonna, Charli XCX, and Vince Staples, or whether creating addictively trippy solo songs, Sophie’s work featured bright and bold noises, simple lyrics delivered in a high-pitched squeal, and a visceral sense of texture and surface. Listening to those songs feels like being knocked temporally backwards and forwards at once. You revert to a state in which the world feels new again—the state of a kid finding endless fascination in a tennis ball or cartoon jingle.
I remember feeling shock at the intensity of my own obsession with Sophie’s breakout single, 2013’s “Bipp.” It’s really just a pop song, with a happy voice trilling about having fun over a repetitive beat. But every sound seems pitched between the grids that most humans use to mark time, delineate musical tones, and maybe even structure reality. It’s like a song made entirely of the things you hear when turning between stations on a radio dial. A low and sinister rattling, like that of a Dumpster after being kicked, echoes throughout. Listening to the song reminded me of a desire, buried deep and long ignored, to eat pink and blue chalk.
Sophie hacked a listener’s brain like this by using idiosyncratic production techniques. Much of modern pop and dance music is made using libraries of noises that artists can arrange and manipulate. Those noises imitate or even come from real-world sources—but Sophie found that idea silly. “The language of electronic music shouldn’t still be referencing obsolete instruments like kick drum or clap,” the artist said in an interview with Elektronauts. “No one’s kicking or clapping. They don’t have to!” Instead, Sophie used equipment that worked like “a sculpture machine”—treating sound waves as clay—“not like a computer pretending to be a band from the ’70s or whatever.”
Maybe this approach explains how Sophie’s wholly unnatural solo music achieved a baffling sort of authenticity. Often, it felt as though the song itself was sentient and talking to you, about itself, from within your own skull. Yet the songwriting was unmistakably one creator’s vision. The brilliant singles collected for the 2015 EP Product riffed on the links—conceptual, linguistic, and actual—between taste, touch, drugs, love, and pop music. Pleasure was pleasure, sensation was everything, and Sophie was here to binge with us. If the songs’ hyperbolic aesthetics and Andy Warhol references sometimes seemed to mock the listener’s own lusts, their creator certainly didn’t seem judgmental. Yes, Sophie’s vibe was avant-garde, and yes, the artist’s identity was obscured from the public for a few years. Still, Sophie produced for blockbuster pop stars, flirted with the supposedly lowbrow EDM world, and lent a song to a McDonald’s ad.
Sophie’s full-length debut album, 2018’s Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides, revealed the spirit within the artist’s mysterious machines. The lead track, “It’s Okay to Cry,” was a work of unapologetic sentimentality featuring ’80s-ballad keyboards and Sophie’s whispered vocals. The lyrics expressed tender acceptance toward a loved one who had just revealed a secret; the video, in which Sophie finally appeared in person, arrived around the time when the artist publicly came out as transgender. The album then veered sharply: into BDSM-themed noise-pop, into meta-Madonna singalongs, into quivering atmospheric séances. Sophie was showing, in remarkably concrete fashion, how technology could assist with queer self-actualization. “Transness,” the artist told Paper, “is taking control to bring your body more in line with your soul and spirit.”
The shock of Sophie’s death emphasizes just how quickly and definitively the musician opened a whole lane of future music. The now-boiling new genre of hyperpop—which fuses electronic noise, pop sweetness, and rap verbosity—counts Sophie as a founder. Forward-looking music producers are inconsolable right now. But in a way, Sophie’s catalog feels unstuck in time: an element in the periodic table rather than a new formula. After the tragic news broke, I turned the lights down and put on “Heav3n Suspended,” a DJ set that Sophie had posted to YouTube last summer. The squiggling laser images on-screen matched the music: pure sounds moving by a logic knowable only to their creator, but with rhythm and beauty that we all can feel. Fall under Sophie’s spell and you can mistake yourself for being anyone, anywhere, at any time. Then the song ends and you’re in the only world you’ve ever known, with the reminder that it’s everyone else’s world too.