RETROSPECTIVE: SOPHIE, An Icon of Liberation
Remembering Electronica's Greatest
My one good ex introduced me to SOPHIE. It was August 2018 and I was on a long car ride, so I obviously needed something new to listen to. He sent me ‘Ponyboy’. I hit play.
Sophie Xeon's songs hold a raw ferocity within them that is almost impossible to describe; they are constantly mutating, explosive entities. Merciless bass for maximum dom power, this artist stood as an entirely unique figure in the current musical landscape, tackling everything from experimental electronica to mainstream pop, and even delving into the occasional hip-hop beat. The producer's death signifies an incalculable loss to the world of music in general.
SOPHIE's talent is clear as I relisten to 'Ponyboy' two and a half years after our first sonic encounter. Today it feels as new, as fierce, as absolutely electrifying as it did when it first came out. I recalled myself sitting in my family car, four hours to go before we reached our destination, thanking my ex for the recommendation as 'Ponyboy' screeched to a halt. What else, I wondered, was this DJ capable of?
Then ‘Faceshopping’ started playing, and I was hooked. What a track. Its distorted vocals, mechanical beats, and sampled construction noises trap its listeners in a audio factory, a soundscape so intricately layered you just cannot escape it. But it’s the song’s lyrics that truly resonated with me, lyrics I understood as a succinct look at identity, appearance, and make-up. As Cecile Believe sings:
My face is the front of shop.
My face is the real shop front.
My shop is the face I front.
I’m real when I shop my face. ['Faceshopping']
Looking back now, I was far too uninformed about trans issues as a cisgender 19-year-old to fully grasp the meaning of this track, but I clung to the idea of the ‘real’. SOPHIE’s lyrics reflected and expanded on a lot of the thinking I had been doing about what it meant to look and feel truly myself. In my case, feeling ‘real’ meant not only unlearning the "not like other girls" mentality that had made me believe caring about my appearance was stupid and shallow for most of my teens, but learning to celebrate myself, to experiment with how I looked and dressed, to reclaim my right to feel shamelessly, unapologetically hot. I channelled these efforts into a new Instagram account dedicated not to visual art (as my public Insta was) but to me, my face, and being aesthetically myself. The bio? "My face is the front of shop." As silly as it sounds, the line became a vindication to me, a warning that said: "I'm done hiding, so either get ready to see a lot more of me, or get out!"
I realise now that this is far from what others took from the song, particularly in its greater significance for the trans community, and I cringe a little for it. But the fact remains that, even if it stemmed from a bad reading of the song, listening to 'Faceshopping' played a large role in my journey to reclaiming my confidence, and SOPHIE quickly earned a special place in my heart.
During that singular, revelatory car ride, I listened to the rest of Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides twice, as well as every single SOPHIE released as a part of their compilation project PRODUCT. I didn’t know SOPHIE was trans at the time, nor did I know all that much about what being trans involved. Initially, learning about this artist's identity was just an interesting fact, an 'oh that's cool!' moment before carrying on with my day. But as I gradually became more cognisant of trans people's experiences - from friends, media figures and academia - the more Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides began to expand before me.
SOPHIE’s music is queer, beautifully and confidently so. It is new, bold, smart, unrestrained: everything queerness is and has always been. So, in time, it became absolutely clear to me what thousands of trans and enby folks had realised long ago: Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides is an intelligent, intricate, revelatory trans text, so much so that I decided to write about it for one of my Year 3 university exams. “The fact that electronica evokes the idea of inorganic production is what makes it the perfect vehicle for transgender DJ SOPHIE to confront neoliberal narratives of ‘passing,’” I wrote, a fancy, syllabus-appropriate way of alluding to the questions this album asks: What does it mean to have a body? To exist as a gendered being? To pass?
And so I turned back to Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides, two years after that fateful car trip, to analyze it not as piece void of its transness, but more as a manifesto: the synthetic production of electronica put to a political use. Thanks to the unrelenting mental, physical, and emotional work of trans creators and educators, a cis woman like myself was finally able to grasp at a more nuanced interpretation of what ‘Faceshopping’ really is: a tough, unrelenting song about gender policing, invasive medical interventions, and the demands made of trans people, and especially trans women, to be accepted by society.
The song’s construction-like instrumentals, themselves an amalgamation of samples walking a thin line between "real music" and noise, are coupled with lyrics like "Hydroponic skin," "Plastic surgery," and "Social dialect" to play with the idea of a synthetic, purchased, and performed - albeit real - body. But we are still left with the question of what being ‘real’ even is. What does it mean to be really yourself in your own body? At 19, I answered this question through an individualistic lens: being 'real' meant being comfortable in my own skin. ‘Faceshopping’, however, is likely more concerned with a societal approach to the 'real', or with the idea of 'passing.' In the transgender community, to pass means to be perceived by others as one’s true gender: really a woman or really a man, generally speaking. This explains the harshness of the track, its force. It explores the rigid gender policing many trans and non-binary people have to withstand in their day to day lives; it’s saying “Either look how society expects you to look, or suffer the consequences.” And with the depressingly high rates of transphobic violence recorded world-wide, one can gather that these consequences are severe.
But perhaps feeling ‘real’ need not depend on adhering to arbitrary social rules about what a man, woman, or enby person should look like. Perhaps my naïve, younger self was really onto something when they decided that to be ‘real’ was just to feel hot and called it a day. And perhaps that is part of what SOPHIE’s ‘Immaterial’ is trying to explore. The song itself is all about questioning what it is to be an embodied and, importantly, gendered being. After all, SOPHIE asks:
Without my legs or my hair Without my genes or my blood With no name and with no type of story Where do I live? Tell me, where do I exist? ['Immaterial']
Before proposing an answer in the chorus:
Anyhow, anywhere, any place, [as] anyone that I want.
‘Immaterial’ encapsulates so much of what Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides is about: joy, beauty, and liberation from the oppressive gender expectations that affect all of us, but especially trans, enby, and otherwise genderqueer folk. As Sophie told Paper Magazine in a 2018 interview, "An embrace of the essential idea of transness [...] means there's no longer an expectation based on the body you were born into, or how your life should play out and how it should end." 'Immaterial' calls for and celebrates the openess of transness in this 'essential' form, without the threat of gender policing to curtail it. This song imagines a world built on love, acceptance, and freedom to be however or whoever you want.
I could sit here all day close-reading the lyrics of ‘Whole New World/Pretend World’ for hints of a gender-free utopia, taking apart the glitchy sounds of ‘Not Okay’, unpacking the subversive sexual politics of ‘Ponyboy’. But I think it’s time I take my English Undergrad cap off for a second, and look at the bigger picture. While Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides is immensely rich and satisfying to tackle academically, it is not a textbook; it is a dance record, and it is here to make you dance.
Upon SOPHIE's passing, I saw hundreds of people on Twitter sharing their memories of gigs, club nights, and concerts. “The artist’s live performance at legendary London venue Fabric in August 2018 remains one of [my] fondest gig memories,” wrote Ben Jolley for NME. “Hundreds of people jumped in unison while screaming the lyrics of fan favourites ‘Just Like We Never Said Goodbye’ and ‘Immaterial’ together in uninhibited, carefree elation.” Friends of mine who were lucky enough to have attended a SOPHIE show before echoed this sentiment, describing a sense of unity, of Sophie almost feeling like one more dancer in the crowd.
It is clear from these stories that Sophie Xeon was a musician for whom community was paramount. Connections must matter, after all, for an artist who once spoke to Rolling Stone about wanting to create the “most intense, engaging” music possible. And it is this urge to make the “loudest, brightest thing” that led SOPHIE to become one of pop’s most influential figures. Gaining much attention after the release of the fun, experimental PRODUCT, the producer began work with fellow artists from all across the musical spectrum. In the more alternative realm, Sophie worked with duo Let’s Eat Grandma to produce the glitchy ‘Hot Pink’, as well as with Arca to make ‘La Chíqui’s transformative beat. Meanwhile, big names like Madonna, Rihanna, and Lady Gaga all benefited from a little bit of Xeon magic on tracks like ‘Bitch I’m Madonna’ and Gaga’s Chromatica.
Some of my personal favourite collaborations include Sophie’s role as producer in Quay Dash’s ‘Queen of This Shit’, as well as ‘Vroom Vroom’ alongside Charli XCX. The first is a ravaging, dynamic, absolutely explosive masterpiece of a hip-hop track. The second is a tough little pop song with a sense of humour, a track that slaps without ever taking itself too seriously. Upon Sophie’s death, the following statement started circulating around social media, something Charli had shared with Vogue back in 2019: “Working with SOPHIE on ‘Vroom Vroom’ was a key moment in realizing myself as a musician, because I felt like I finally found someone who could articulate my ideas sonically. It was like: Wow, you get it, and you get me, and you also make me feel something.”
It was touching to see so many artists sharing similar memories of Sophie upon hearing of the artist’s death. It was affecting, too, to read from those who had lost not only a fantastic collaborator, but a dear friend as well. But it was the expressions of grief coming from mourning queer, trans, and enby people online that, to me, truly showed the significance of this artist's passing. They talked about the ways in which SOPHIE had touched their lives, inspiring them to live as truer versions of themselves, to find joy in queer communities, to try on make-up for the first time. There were those out there who claimed SOPHIE had soundtracked their transitions, or their teens or, in my case, my three years of university. There were those who listened to SOPHIE’s music religiously, others casually, others at a night club, or in their bedroom, or at the end of a YouTube video, or who had come across Sophie on the cover of a magazine. But all of them had been touched by this artist’s presence here on Earth – and many of us will continue to be.
SOPHIE was a visionary, a powerhouse, an “icon of liberation”, as Christine and the Queens aptly put it. An inspiration for many, Xeon exploded pop, made it hard yet bubbly, all the while putting gender, the body, and even society itself under the microscope. For many, SOPHIE meant community and self-discovery. It is now up to us to keep that legacy alive, to join together, to be for others what SOPHIE becomes when ‘It’s Okay to Cry’ starts playing: a loving friend, a source of acceptance, a shoulder to cry on. And once the tears dry up and ‘Immaterial’ blares through the speakers, it is up to us (and particularly us privileged cisgender individuals) to listen and learn, to organize and protest, to make this world a safe place for our trans and non-binary siblings.
SOPHIE is transcendent. Rest in power.
Ainhoa Santos Goicoechea (pronounced "I-know-ah") is a culturally confused Creative Writing postgraduate student from the Basque Country, Spain. She is passionate about film, music and politics, and she should probably know more than she does about all three.
Thanks for reading! Slow Motion Panic Masters is a music, arts and culture blog created and edited by Ben Wheadon, a literature student and musician based at the University of Oxford. He edited this article and he is also a Fleet Foxes shill.
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