On Jan. 30, 2020, Sophie Xeon, who performed simply as SOPHIE, was officially declared dead from an accidental fall. She died near her residence in Athens, Greece while attempting to take a picture of the full moon. Not long after this announcement, major musicians began publicly paying their respects: everyone from Rihanna to Diplo to Sam Smith to Baauer had only positive things to say about her and her work. This was indicative of something that SOPHIE uniquely excelled at: uniting the worlds of pop and dance music. And in a relatively short amount of time, SOPHIE was able to make a big impact in both of these worlds.
Overnight, SOPHIE had made a name for herself by standing defiantly against the increasingly similar, sterile and “serious” electronic music of the post-dubstep era. Her sound felt brand new: combining a garish, artificial sound palette with a slightly-dancier-than-usual pop song structure. At the time, she was a somewhat divisive figure: just as many people considered her style gimmicky and pretentious as others did energetic and celebratory.
I spoke to Tamara Omer, a senior at UMW and a member of the university’s Society for Electronic Music, about SOPHIE’s music. She had discovered SOPHIE’s single “LEMONADE” as a teenager while searching for new music on the music-sharing site SoundCloud.
“I liked electronic music a lot in the past, but to me it was like stepping into new territory,” she told me. “It was very exciting to hear something so energetic, intense, and bold at that young of an age.”
I was first introduced to SOPHIE’s music in 2013 after an artist I follow on Twitter recommended giving the song “BIPP” a listen. After hearing it, I instantly became a fan. This was music that felt futuristic. Sure, it wasn’t completely unprecedented: the verses took clear inspiration from ‘80s house tracks, and the chipmunked vocals felt like a nod to a lot of the “uncool” forms of music that had accumulated a small but dedicated internet following throughout the 2000s, like nightcore and trance.
SOPHIE’s music was different: it took inspiration from the past but was looking forward rather than backwards. It felt like a uniquely exciting time to be a music enthusiast. I was waiting on the edge of my seat to see just how SOPHIE would confuse and captivate listeners with each new release.
Following the acclaim of PRODUCT, a collection of her early singles, SOPHIE would produce songs for many big name artists, like Madonna, Vince Staples, Kendrick Lamar and Nicki Minaj, to name a few. However, the most notable of these was her series of collaborations with pop star Charlotte Emma Aitchison, better known by her stage name Charli XCX. SOPHIE would co-write and co-produce every song on the latter’s Vroom Vroom EP, as well as contribute to several of her subsequent mixtapes and singles. These collaborations helped significantly boost SOPHIE’s stature and inspired Charli XCX to pursue a more experimental, artsy direction for her music, which she continues to do today.
In 2018, SOPHIE released what was, in many ways, her defining statement: her first studio album, OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES. The first single released for the album, “It’s Okay to Cry,” included her first ever music video accompaniment. After years of working in the background, she was ready to introduce herself to the public. Before this album, SOPHIE was a bit of a recluse: she would perform live pretty sporadically compared to other producers and would often have drag queens or other performers pretend to DJ on stage while she was actually performing backstage.
With this song, however, SOPHIE finally embraced the spotlight. The song was essentially a coming out party, with SOPHIE introducing herself to the world as an unashamed trasngender individual. For a lot of closeted transgender people, myself included, it felt as if SOPHIE was speaking directly to them: “Just know you’ve got nothing to hide / It’s okay to cry.” Compared to a lot of her previous work, this song was pretty structurally straightforward. Still, the colossal crescendo and build in intensity at the end as well as the emotional honesty made the song immediately memorable. Later singles from the album would better showcase the more abrasive and abstract tendencies that people associated with her sound.
Tamara tells me that OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES is her favorite of SOPHIE’s work “because of the range of emotion she has put into it […] I think every detail even down to the track placement is just very clever.”
Connecting every song on the album were lyrics that encapsulated SOPHIE’s ideas of “transness”, which she described in a June 2018 Paper magazine as “taking control to bring your body more in line with your soul and spirit.” To her, there was no distinction between the “artificial” and the “natural.” She embraced transhumanism just as much as she embraced her transgender identity and saw the two as largely indistinguishable. It was an ideology that, not coincidentally, had a lot in common with the sound of her music.
While talking to Tamara on SOPHIE’s musical legacy, said something that really resonated with me: “She really helped pave the future of pop music and music in general. I believe that a lot of what she did gave people the room and confidence to unapologetically express themselves musically.”
She’s absolutely correct, of course. SOPHIE’s twisted form of avant-pop inspired people to create uninhibited pop music without concerning themselves with what was considered “tasteful” by music elitists. But more selfishly, that quote made me think of all the times that I’ve found solace in her music, all the times that I’ve been inspired by her self-expression and all the unfinished digital audio workspace (DAW) project files I have stored in my hard drive. Seldom am I moved by the death of somebody I’ve never met. Yet, SOPHIE’s death has been the elevator music of my mind for weeks. No matter what I’m doing, I’m thinking about how profoundly unfair it is that she’s no longer with us or what she’d have in store for us in the future if she was still here. I think this is because I know that her death isn’t just a massive loss to her family, friends, or fans. It’s a loss for music enthusiasts worldwide, even if they aren’t aware of it.