We all dress up. In clothes, in roles, in make-up. In our choices, we fulfil the expectations of others directed towards us – even if we choose to follow anarchy, the mold is pre-determined. That’s why we need idols, popstars, gods: to break the barriers of what’s accepted and acceptable, what’s common and comfortable. In them, we see fragments of ourselves. It allows us to strive for something higher, better than the status quo. A new us: a new me.
SOPHIE – all caps – knew this. Starting out on the prestigious PC Music label, the British musician pioneered a sound now infamously billed as hyper-pop when critics still struggled with terms like ‘glitch’ and ‘bubblegum bass’. In the small roster, between the aggressively saccharine Hannah Diamond, sarcastic GFOTY and sanguine label head A.G. Cook, SOPHIE’s harsh, acidic singles united and perfected the idea of electronic pop music that had abandoned any sense of comfort and consumer friendliness. The songs functioned like some sort of toxic pink goo refashioned into candy shape, peddled to some unsuspecting asshat teens on Halloween, overflowing all senses and ultimately being as euphoria-inducing as it was traumatizing. This was Throbbing Gristle ghostwriting for Christina Aguilera. Meanwhile, the musician at the core of it remained anonymous, hidden behind masks, with speculation erupting she was all but made up. Until finally, the smoke cleared with a bang.
Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides was released in 2018 to unanimous fanfare. On its cover – somewhere between fashion model, alien and post-human – SOPHIE sits beneath a pink sky, her feet hidden in lilac waves, wrapped in plastic. It’s a striking, iconic pose, uniting painterly tranquility with the uncanny and iconic familiarity. And, for a wider audience, it marked one of the definitive moments of queer visibility: a trans woman publicly, proudly asserting her place, while pieces of her body (her plastic gloved arms, her flitter-tight’d leg) still seem artificial and foreign.
The album itself managed to address questions of identity, gender and normativity in ways most mainstream pop still failed, simply because it lacked the ability to find the language to properly reconfigure the desire at the heart of every pop song. “Ponyboy” is able to assert sexual roleplaying and queer desire through its noisy beats and disfigured synths. “Faceshopping” addresses questions of transhumanism and the beauty industry, attacking semantics of modern social media tools. “Immaterial”, an absolute banger that somehow manages to feel like Björk covering “Video killed the Radio Star”, directly proposes that gender is malleable and ultimately a construct. These aren’t just tracks: they’re anthems and theses alike.
With its utopian politics and dystopian sounds, Oil became an instant classic – one of these records that, even if they’re imperfect, are made more whole by their flaws (a hypothesis in line with SOPHIE’s perspective). Few publications dared not put the record into their top 10 at the end of the year. And to many listeners, it wasn’t just a record: it was a whole new way of experiencing music, a step towards acknowledging their experiences – for some, a sudden shock that reconfigured their inner and outer world, finally formulating inner visions into something palpable. And much of that had to do with SOPHIE herself: her undeniable charm and intoxicating authenticity. SOPHIE, the visionary and role model, larger than life.
That’s why it’s still a shock to listen to this daring, self-contained, beautiful album and realize that now… it is a retrospective. It’s not a snapshot of somebody that is growing and evolving, it now will be taken as a coda. “It’s Okay To Cry” – with its wonderful and intimate lyrics “I never thought I’d see you cry / Just know whatever hurts, it’s all mine” – will now be understood in a different context and seen with a different meaning applied to it. This record, meant as a triumph, will be mentioned in one breath with Jeff Buckley’s Grace, torn into that cold water SOPHIE herself addressed within it. And in that, many future listeners may miss the real value of this music, of this artist called SOPHIE.
Because Oil and SOPHIE are about inspiration and emancipation. When the sad news of her passing hit, there were thousands of young musicians speaking of the influence and empowerment that Oil and SOPHIE’s immeasurable confidence as a public person provided them. In a heartbreaking piece, Faris Badwan of The Horrors recalled how SOPHIE gave him his first Bowie album, assessing her music as a mixture of “Handel and a child’s nightmare”. Producing music for a host of musicians, many of them bridging the gap between mainstream pop and electronic experimentation, SOPHIE’s influence became universal and amorphous.
In their grief, many have taken to petition for a recently discovered planet to be named after her as a tribute. It’s more fitting than many of them seem to realize: names – like clothes, make-up or societal norms – are constructed and often charged with meaning by others. SOPHIE chose her own name, and while we all wear masks, she chose to, instead of fashion an adequate one, remove all masks. It is on us to remember her the way she wanted – the way she will always be: as brilliant, layered, intelligent, sensitive, angular and wonderful as Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides.