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Saturday, May 28, 2022

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Music Mondays: Remembering SOPHIE

<p><em>Graphic by YounHee Oh, The Collegian</em></p>

Graphic by YounHee Oh, The Collegian

SOPHIE seemed to begin as an enigma, and only slowly did she reveal herself to us. Over the past half-decade or so, she rose in popularity to the point where she worked with some of the biggest and most inventive artists working today including Charli XCX, Nicki Minaj, Vince Staples and Madonna. 

SOPHIE died Saturday morning at 34 years old in a freak accident in Athens, Greece. Her labels Transgressive and Future Classic wrote: “True to her spirituality she had climbed up to watch the full moon and accidentally slipped and fell. She will always be here with us.”

When I was first obsessively getting into indie music when I was 14 or 15, SOPHIE was one of the first contemporary artists that reshaped how I understood pop. She released “Bipp” in 2013, and I discovered it through praise it received on Pitchfork’s year end list. I was combing through so many singles and albums at the end of 2013 in effort to just know about everything, have a take, impress people, to feed my newfound obsession. A lot of that digging grows devoid of emotion. It can easily become about checklists, benchmarks, lists and consumption. 

But “Bipp” made me stop in my tracks. I repeated it over and over and over again that winter. It was the club banger without a beat drop, sung with chipmunked vocals that sounded like they might be a sample of something older, repurposed for the current day. I was fascinated and absolutely stuck on “Bipp,” because I couldn’t figure out how someone could make this or even why I was having the kind of reaction I had to it. It wasn’t exactly like my other musical gateways that included indie folk along the lines of Wilco, Belle and Sebastian, and Neutral Milk Hotel. 

And to add to this fascination, it was incredibly hard to tell who SOPHIE was at all. 

Pitchfork’s track review of “Bipp” described SOPHIE simply as a “mysterious” English producer. People didn’t even really know what SOPHIE looked like around this time, and I didn’t even know whether SOPHIE was a man or a woman. It turned out that that question was more relevant than I even thought, because she would soon become one of very few publicly trans artists and one who became accepted by a wide swath of pop artists. 

“Bipp” was a humble beginning, but it also holds some of the blueprint for what SOPHIE would always try to do: deconstruct pop to its bare principles, then explode it into something loud, subversive, dangerous, bright and endlessly replayable. “Bipp” didn’t follow any rules of conventional club music of that time, and SOPHIE would continue on that journey her entire career.

The next time SOPHIE popped up, she had evolved in sound and come out as transgender, and it was the first time a lot of people saw her face. “It’s Okay to Cry” was a huge shift in her public persona, letting her fans see her and talking with the press more often. Her debut studio album, “OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES” followed in 2018, and it saw huge praise from mainstream publications

No two songs on “PEARL’S” sound quite alike, and yet the entire project feels cohesive. It’s surprising at every turn with beautiful ballads like “Is It Cold in the Water?” or “It’s Okay to Cry” that bubble beneath the surface until they finally explode or make you anticipate that drop — just like on “Bipp” — without giving you what you’re expecting. She plays with noise and sound in more sophisticated ways than almost anyone before or since on bangers like “Ponyboy” or the cheerleader anthem from another dimension, “Immaterial.” 

And SOPHIE was one of the most exciting names to find in production credits on an upcoming tracklist. Finding out that SOPHIE produced Vince Staples’ “Yeah Right,” was just as exciting as knowing that Kendrick Lamar was rapping on it. And on that track, SOPHIE’s sound practically takes over while Staples and Lamar just try to hold their own and offer support to the mutating waves of bass around them.

SOPHIE was a true one of one. I don’t know if I can ever truly recreate the feeling of happening upon “Bipp” so many years ago now. I’ve changed too much, heard too much, to reach that exact kind of ecstasy again, and it’s because of SOPHIE. She helped rewire my brain, and I’m thankful that I’m not the only one. 

My friend Nate who's a long time SOPHIE fan also had this to say:

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"We need to celebrate trans artists — trans people — every day. Every. Day. No exceptions. 

"We never know when we could lose our brightest gems. It warms my heart to see my Twitter timeline overflowing with trans people and other queer people sharing how they found strength, comfort and inspiration in SOPHIE’s music. Few artists are able to provide such a beautiful and expansive future for people to explore. 

She’ll be remembered by everyone as the iconic pop star she is. And her impact is everywhere."

Contact opinions and columns editor Conner Evans at conner.evans@richmond.edu.

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