Glimmer in the Slick: A Meditation on SOPHIE’s Legacy
A couple of months before SOPHIE’s devastating and untimely death, I’d been texting with my friends about the emerging sub-genre of pop often referred to as “Hyperpop.” While it’s difficult to pinpoint its exact origins, it can be traced back to the early 2010’s right around the time that Grimes released her debut studio album Geidi Primes, and when the PC Music record label and collective, which SOPHIE was affiliated with, was formed. After the release of Vroom Vroom, many listeners considered Charli XCX the face of hyperpop; yet SOPHIE was the genre’s locus. Apart from Charli XCX, SOPHIE has produced for a variety of artists including Madonna, Kim Petras, Vince Staples, and more. In 2019, Spotify released a Hyperpop playlist that went viral, including many tracks produced and influenced by SOPHIE, which helped the genre reach more mainstream audiences than ever before.
Hyperpop is vibrant, fluid, and sardonic yet earnest. It explores and exaggerates many tropes in the mainstream. The expression of hyper-sexualized femininity of pop stars is one of the tropes hyperpop often analyzes, which is reflected in SOPHIE’s vocal experimentation throughout her discography. Perhaps what’s most exciting about the genre is that many of its performers, like Dorian Electra and Rina Sawayama, are queer. More specifically, many artists fall within the trans umbrella, including SOPHIE. As such, there are many queer aesthetics and visuals associated with hyperpop—especially extreme campiness, which subverts and disrupts the pop formula as we’ve understood it.
I still remember how I felt the day that I was introduced to SOPHIE. I could somehow visualize myself reflected in her music. I felt seen and illuminated by the vibrance. By the messiness. Listening to SOPHIE is like staring into the slick, oily abyss of gender dysphoria and for the first time, finding something to celebrate within it: its fluid nature, and its endlessness. Her music made has escape for her queer and trans listeners feel possible—a momentary escape from the cis-hetero structures that make up so many of our worlds and realities. In author Sasha Geffen’s review of Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides in Pitchfork, they wrap up by saying, “When, on ‘Whole New World,’ the distorted, feminized voices that have become her trademark shout out the song’s title one syllable at a time—‘whole’ new! world!’—it sounds almost like a manifesto, a political demand. It sounds like the kind of phrase you’d shout in a crowd while clamoring for the freedom to be whatever it is you already are.”
When I’m scouring the depths of YouTube and SoundCloud for new music, I’m often searching for the maximalist and sybaritic effusiveness in pop that SOPHIE made familiar. With newer acts on the scene like the duo food house, and established artists experimenting with the genre like Rico Nasty on her latest album Nightmare Vacation, largely produced by Dylan Brady of 100 Gecs, the future of hyperpop seems to be in good hands. In their recent track “mos thoser,” food house says, “No more gods / only SOPHIE / Y’all know God is trans so let’s pray to her and stream ‘Trophy!’”
On January 30, 2021, SOPHIE passed away in Athens, Greece, as she climbed to see the full moon and accidentally fell. While I’m hesitant to portray her tragic death as poetic, I hope she got to savor the moon. I hope it was big, beautiful, and glimmering.
If you’re mourning the loss of SOPHIE, be sure to check out SOPHIEfest: a virtual festival and fundraiser featuring 50+ performers honoring SOPHIE’s life taking place on February 27th at 8pm CST. More information will be coming soon, so stay tuned!
Caelan Ernest is a poet, performer, and thingamajig living in Brooklyn, NY. Their work considers seriality as a model to explore how digital topias allow the queer body to undergo multiple puberties. Their work has been published or is forthcoming in Hayden’s Ferry Review, BAEST, We Want It All: An Anthology of Radical Trans Poetics (Nightboat Books, 2020), The Poetry Project’s House Party, The Felt, and more. They hold an MFA in Writing from Pratt Institute. They are Director of Publicity at Nightboat Books. Hit them (and their cat named Salad) up on social media: @transputation.